How to play digital music files through a hi-fi

I have embarked on a project to get all my CDs, vinyl and cassettes onto digital storage such that I can play them through my existing hi-fi.

How to play digital music files through a hi-fi The transfer of vinyl and cassettes to digital can be handled by a turntable/cassette player connected to my PC using Audacity software. After that, there appear to be two options: either an all-in-one box like the Brennan JB7 or separate units for storage and playback control. The former is easy to understand, but the latter is confusing me.Robert HardingThere seem to be more ways to set up a digital music system than there are customers, so it's not surprising that a lot of people are confused. I certainly can't say which is the "best" system, because it depends on how much music you have, how good it has to sound, how much money you want to spend, and your technical skills.

Since most music lovers already have an MP3 player of some sort, the simplest solution is to plug that into your hi-fi via a Y cable that has a headphone-style 3.5mm jack plug at one end and two RCA plugs at the other end. You can use the same cable to connect a PC to a hi-fi. Of course, more modern hi-fi systems may well include an "iPod dock" or connector that basically does the same thing in a way that looks nicer. The drawbacks are that you have to load the MP3 player from your computer, and it's unlikely to hold most of your music.

The Brennan JB7 is a standalone music system that includes an amplifier, a CD player and a hard drive, so all you need to do is plug in a pair of stereo speakers. The CD player is included so that ripping CDs is automated (you just have to load them), and it has Aux In sockets so you can plug in a turntable to rip your vinyl. You can also use the headphone or line out jacks to connect it to your hi-fi using the Y cable mentioned earlier. Finally, there is a USB port so that you can plug in a FAT32-formatted external hard drive (not NTFS) to back up your music. You can use the EHD or a USB stick to copy files between your PC and the Brennan.

There are a couple of drawbacks with the Brennan JP7. The biggest one for me is that it only supports uncompressed WAV files or compressed MP3 files but not FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files. It's obviously not aimed at audiophiles. Another is the size of the hard drive, which ranges from 160GB (£359) to 500GB (£469). If you rip your CDs at 320kbps (where most people can't distinguish between the compressed version and the original), then each one will take up about 100MB. A 160GB drive will therefore hold about 1,600 CDs. This should be more than enough space to hold the CDs that most people have actually bought, though perhaps not the ones they've downloaded.

Now, if we roll back the years, many people started collecting MP3 music files on their PCs towards the end of the 1990s, and Napster made file-sharing popular when it operated, according to Wikipedia, between June 1999 and July 2001. Many people wondered how to get the files on their PCs to play on their hi-fi's, and in 2000, Sean Adams founded Slim Devices to provide a solution. This was the Squeezebox network music player, and it had a major impact on the geek world.

The Squeezebox system has two parts: the open source Squeezebox Server software, which runs on a PC, and the hardware receiver, which plugs into your hi-fi. Originally, the PC and the Squeezebox were connected by an Ethernet cable, but the second and later generations could also connect via Wi-Fi. The Squeezebox could also stream internet radio from your PC and, later, services such as Pandora, Rhapsody and There's a Beginners Guide Overview that explains how the system works.

One drawback with Squeezebox was that you had to have your PC running all the time, which, strangely, not everybody does. The next step was therefore to run the Squeezebox Server software on NAS (network attached storage) devices. With the NAS attached directly to an internet router, it could feed the Squeezebox and therefore the hi-fi without the PC being involved.

NAS-based media servers typically have 1TB to 4TB of hard drive space and are also used for streaming videos and sharing photos, not just for music. In some cases, such as the Windows Home Server versions, they will also automatically back-up multiple PCs and Macs.

A relatively simple and fairly affordable way to set up your music network is therefore to buy a Squeezebox Touch (there are alternatives) and run the server software on your PC. If you buy a NAS, make sure the Squeezebox Server software (formerly called SqueezeCenter) is pre-installed.

Alternatively, you could get something more like a Brennan by buying a VortexBox music appliance, which will automatically rip your CDs to MP3 and FLAC and also works as a NAS music server. VortexBox works with Squeezebox, Sonos, Roku and other receivers, and also supports DLNA (see below), so it's a very flexible solution. UK prices range from £405 (1TB) to £565 (4TB) but, if you like, you can download the open source VortexBox software and create your own server from an old PC.

One of the Squeezebox's rivals is the Sonos Multi-Room Music System, which includes amplifiers, speakers and controllers. Sonos has its own closed architecture, and uses a proprietary SonosNet mesh network instead of Wi-Fi. It costs more than a Squeezebox system, and doesn't have the same sort of community developing add-ons, but it's simpler to set up. It depends how much extra you're willing to pay for the "user experience".

Sonos has a useful Digital Music Tutorial (PDF) for absolute beginners.

In theory, all of the problems with streaming stuff around the home should be cleared up by a relatively new standard, DLNA, for Digital Living Network Alliance. This is the attempt by more than 245 companies (AT&T, BT, Canon, Cisco, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Nikon, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba etc – almost everybody except Apple) to make all their stuff work together easily. This includes not just PCs (which are the focus of the UPnP Forum) but cameras and mobile phones, Blu-ray players, TV sets, games consoles, hi-fis, home theatre systems, NAS servers and everything else. Windows Media Player 12 now includes a DLNA server, and you can stream from a DLNA NAS to a Sony PlayStation 3, for example. However, these large organisations are somewhat limited in the file formats and/or video resolutions that they support, and DLNA doesn't include FLAC.

I'm sure some people have already found that DLNA does what they need, but I think it has a way to go.

I'm aware that I've omitted a great many products and systems, including Apple's Airport Express, but the FLAC hardware and software sections will give you some idea of the more serious alternatives. When you have a better idea which route you want to take, the AVForums forum on Streamers and Network Music is a great place to ask about specific products and how they work together.

Powered by article was written by Jack Schofield, for on Thursday 23rd December 2010 13.54 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010