Category: UPnP AV / DLNA media-playback hardware)

Network-capable speaker units–now coming as a torrent

Revo Domino Internet radio

Revo Domino – an example of an Internet radio with DLNA Media Playback

Regular readers of this site would have noticed the Internet radios that I have reviewed earlier on. These were typically tabletop radios that had a broadcast tuner capable of receiving at least FM and / or DAB digital broadcast radio. But they had Wi-Fi and, in some cases, Ethernet network connectivity which allowed them access to, most commonly, the vTuner Internet-radio directory and the ability to play through audio content from any broadcaster that listed its stream in this directory. They also had the ability to play audio content held on a DLNA media server after it was selected on the set’s control surface.

Of course, all of these sets had a line input so they can amplify other audio equipment like portable CD players but most of them had a dock for one of Apple’s iPod or iPhone mobile devices. A few of the sets even had a USB connection so you can play music held on a USB memory key.

Now the network-audio direction is coming in the form of network-capable speaker units that have Apple Airplay and, increasingly, DLNA Media-Renderer operating mode. This meant that you could use software running to these protocols to play music held on a computer, smartphone or tablet through these systems as explained in this feature article. The network connectivity for all of them is Wi-Fi to 802.11g/n standards with WPS “push-push” setup but some of these units would have an Ethernet socket for connection to an Ethernet or HomePlug network segment and / or Wi-Fi Direct so they can become their own access point for smartphones and tablets.

The manufacturers are running a range of two or three units with similar functionality but having differing speaker configurations and / or power outputs with some having the capability to offer a “punchy” sound where that tight bass does exist. As well, one or two of the models in these ranges is equipped with a rechargeable battery pack and designed for portability so they can be used on the beach or on the streets in a similar manner to those classic “ghetto-blasters” of the 1980s.

Pioneer NAC-3 Internet radio and iPod dock

Pioneer NAC-3 Internet radio and iPod dock – capable of being controlled by a DLNA control point program

The device that predicted this level of functionality in a network speaker system was, in my opinion, the Pioneer XW-NAC3 speaker dock / Internet radio that I reviewed on this site. Here, it had Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity as well as support for Bluetooth A2DP audio streaming. But it used the network connectivity to play broadcast content from Internet-radio stations on the vTuner directory as well as being able to be controlled by a DLNA Media Control Point alongside the basic DLNA MediaPlayer “play-from-own-control-surface” functionality.

Usage Issues

A problem I have discovered with some DLNA server / control point software running on Android devices is that they won’t work properly if you run the device as its own access point. This would be something that you may do if you enable “Wi-Fi tethering” on your phone to share your phone’s Internet access and data allowance with other devices.

Here, you may have to work around this by using another access point to create the temporary Wi-Fi segment. This could be done using an ordinary Wi-Fi router, even one of those “Mi-Fi” devices that work as a router for a wireless-broadband service. This solution may come in to its own with the battery-driven units that don’t have Wi-Fi Direct and you want to play content from your mobile device or laptop.

Another situation that may plague anyone who sets these units up in premises with a public Wi-Fi hotspot is that they may not work properly with these hotspots. Here, most of these public-access networks would be set up for client isolation so that no other client devices can discover each other. As well, most such networks typically use a Web interface for provisioning the Internet service. This will typically make the network unusable for point-to-point use like media playback.

Instead, if you are using that network speaker system in that hotel room or serviced apartment which has a public-access or guest-access wireless hotspot, use a “MiFi” or a similar device to create a Wi-Fi network if the computer, smartphone or speaker system doesn’t support Wi-Fi Direct. Some Wi-Fi Direct setups like the Intel implementations used for laptop computers may allow you to work the temporary network in conjunction with the public-access network and bridge Internet data to this temporary network. This would come in handy with units that offer Internet-radio functionality like the Pioneer NAC-3 or the Denon Cocoon series.

What to look for with these speaker systems

I would make sure that if you are intending to use these network speaker system with a smartphone, tablet or PC, make sure that the unit works with DLNA and Apple AirPlay.

If the speaker unit that you are after doesn’t have Wi-Fi Direct, you may have to make sure you have it working with a wireless access point like your home network’s WiFi router or a “MiFi” when you are using it on a wireless network.

Also pay attention to the sound quality and the functionality of these speakers, especially if you buy units that you intend to use “at home”. As for portable units, look for anything that also works for durability especially if they are intended to be used on the beach or by the pool.

Once you choose the right network-capable speaker system for yourself or to give as a gift, you could then end up enjoying listening to them for a long time.

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Denon to introduce network-enabled Cocoon audio docks

Article

Denon intros Cocoon Home and Portable AirPlay docks, will transform songs into musical butterflies — Engadget

My Comments

Another example of the trend in supplying network-ready “boomboxes” is Denon with its latest “Cocoon” series of speaker docks. Like the recently-announced Pioneer speaker units that I covered in this site lately, these support Apple AirPlay and the universal DLNA standards for audio playback from a PC or smartphone via a Wi-Fi network.

But these units also support access to the global fun of Internet radio with 3 local presets as well as playback from USB Mass-Storage Devices i.e. memory keys or directly-connected iPhones and iPod Touch devices. They have an integrated display and a dockable remote control so you can manage the tunes from Internet radio, DLNA Media Servers or other sources without having to use the source device’s control surface.

One question I have about these devices is whether they can be set up to become a Wi-Fi Direct “master device” for ad-hoc music-playback wireless networks. If you are not sure about this, you could use a “MiFi” as an access point for these networks if the location doesn’t have a suitable network.

The series is finished in a black or white finish and comes in two distinct variants – a larger “Cocoon Home” unit which can only work of external power and a smaller “Cocoon Portable” unit which can run off a battery pack for 5 hours as well as external power. Of course, I would expect the smaller unit not to put out much in the way of sound output due to its size but the Cocoon works with a classic bi-amped two-way speaker setup with a woofer and tweeter per channel while the Cocoon Portable has a full-range speaker per channel.

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Product Review–Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc player

 

Introduction

I am reviewing the Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc player which is one of many value-priced Blu-Ray players that don’t just play Blu-Ray Discs but effectively add Internet TV functionality to cheaper and older TVs.

There is a more expensive variant known as the BDP-S590 which adds 3D playback with suitable TV equipment and a top-of-the-line model known as the BDP-S790 which adds on 4K high-resolution playback for the largest high-resolution displays as well as support for Skype functionality. But I am focusing on the BDP-S390 as a model that ticks most of the network and Internet video boxes at an affordable price.

Sony BDP-S390 Network Blu-Ray Player

Price

Recommended Retail Price: AUD$179.00

Functions

Internet Radio vTuner, local audio services
Internet TV Locally-available online video services like ABC iView, SBS OnDemand, YouTube, etc
Interactive Services Web browser, Facebook, Twitter, Opera TV Store
The Internet services will change and increase by the time you purchase this unit
Network Media DLNA Media Player / Media Renderer
Optical Disc Blu-Ray / DVD / SACD / CD
Stored Memory USB Mass-Storage Device

 

Connections

Output
Audio Line output Stereo RCA sockets
Digital Audio output PCM or Bitstream via RCA coaxial; HDMI output
Video Line output RCA socket
Video HDMI output Yes
Network
Wi-Fi 802.11g/n
Ethernet Yes

 

The unit itself

The Sony BDP-S390 is much smaller than most common DVD or Blu-Ray players and may be described as not fitting the average AV equipment rack due to this size. But this wouldn’t be of concern if you you are just plugging it in to the secondary TV set and it is sitting on the bench under or beside that set.

Being a video-focused device, there isn’t a display on the unit and you have few controls on that unit. Therefore, you are encouraged to operate this unit from the remote control and using the TV screen. This may make the playback of audio-focused content like audio CDs or vTuner Internet radio become more unwieldy as if you are listening to digital radio via a satellite-TV or digital-TV set-top box; or listening to the radio through the TV in some hotels.

Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc Player connections

Connections – Composite video, stereo line-level audio, digital audio, HDMI A/V, Ethernet LAN

As far as the home network is concerned, the Blu-Ray player comes with Integrated 802.11g/n Wi-Fi as well as Ethernet connectivity rather than being “Wi-Fi ready” where it would need a dongle to connect to the Wi-Fi network. It can connect to video systems that use a CVBS (composite) through an RCA jack or HDMI display and can connect to audio equipment via an RCA line-level stereo feed, a PCM or bitstream (Dolby Digital) feed using an RCA socket or a digital feed via the same HDMI socket. This same HDMI socket also allows the player to work with “one-touch-start” setups that use HDMI-CEC control abilities. The front has a USB socket so you can connect up a memory key to store BD-Live data or play / show media content held on a memory key.

The setup routine was relatively quick although you would need to use SMS-style data entry when you enter the passphrase for a Wi-Fi segment that doesn’t implement WPS quick-setup. This routine can be annoying if you have punctuation in the passphrase due to the confusing reference to an “input method” where you would need to press the yellow key on the remote to gain access to the punctuation.

Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray player remote control

The standard remote control that comes with this player

The Sony BDP-S390 does support “smartphone-as-remote” operation with the Sony Media Remote app for the iOS and Android platforms. This allows you to use the smartphone and your home network as an alternative to the infrared remote control and could allow you to conceal the player in a cabinet yet be able to operate this Blu-Ray player.

As a member of the DLNA Home Media Network, the Sony BDP-S390 ticked all the boxes properly. Here, it worked well with TwonkyMobile on my Android phone to allow me to “throw” a Facebook album image to the TV’s screen and it had come up properly. It could also quickly list every DLNA media pool that existed on the network as part of the top-level XrossBar menu.

The Internet TV experience was very smooth for the visuals and came through without any glitches. As well, it didn’t take long to load up whatever was in an IPTV channel’s lineup.

Even though I had access to an average TV to test this player, the Sony’s picture quality did come up very well with photos and videos. The colours were still true to the video no matter the source.

Limitations and Points Of Improvement

The Sony BDP-S390 could provide support for extended DLNA applications like setting up shows to record using DLNA-compliant PVRs; and RVU which allows it to be a user interface for advanced cable-TV PVRs and to some extent, hospitality applications.

The Skype feature could be made available across all of the Sony Blu-Ray players so as to allow existing TVs to work as Skype videophone terminals.

Similarly, I would like to see this set as well as other Sony consumer-electronics equipment be able to work with IPv6 networks so they can be future-proof. As well, this Blu-Ray player, as well as other Sony network-enabled consumer-electronics equipment could support WPA2-Enterprise setups as a field-installable add-on so small businesses don’t need to create separate WPA2-Personal segments to implement Wi-Fi-enabled DLNA-compliant audio and video equipment in their network environments.

Of course, some of us might think that this player looks a bit ho-hum because it uses a drawer to load discs rather than a direct-load slot.

Conclusion

Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc PlayerI would recommend the Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray player as a valid option when you want to enable an existing TV or HDMI-equipped video projector with Blu-Ray, DVD, DLNA and / or Internet video capabilities. The price makes it even right to purchase this player as an entry-level Blu-Ray player / network-video terminal that can be used with an entry-level flat-screen TV.

For example, you could buy that low-end LCD TV and this player from Harvey Norman in order to get cracking with Blu-Ray Discs and “The Shire” on Channel 10 Catch-Up TV. Or you could use this player and any old LCD TV or HDMI-equipped video projector to set up a DLNA-driven visual-merchandising arrangement for your business or organisation.

The higher-end Sony models could go well with a high-grade TV that excels on picture quality yet you want to get your foot in the door with network and Internet video as well as Blu-Ray playback.

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Another step in the DLNA direction from the Danish king of design

Article

Bang & Olufsen unveils Playmaker wireless audio bridge, makes sure AirPlay and DLNA speak Danish – Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Bang & Olufsen – Product Page

My Comments

Previously I had touched on Bang & Olufsen launching the Beosound 5 Encore which is their first DLNA-enabled music system that put Sonos on notice as far as “cool” hard-disk-based music systems were concerned. Again B&O have launched another music system which, this time, can be driven by a computer or a mobile device, achieving this same goal of effectively putting Sonos on notice.

This device, known as the Playmaker, can connect to any B&O Beolab active speaker system and works to the AirPlay or DLNA Media Renderer standards, thus being able to be under the control of a computer running iTunes, TwonkyMedia or similar software. Even your iOS device running its stock iTunes implementation or your mobile device running a DLNA controller app like TwonkyMobile or PlugPlayer can be the control point. Of course, you could adjust the volume or move between tracks using a Beo4 or Beo6 remote control.

Like an increasing array of network media players made by companies who have their feet planted in good sound, the B&O Playmaker supports FLAC and other codecs considered as part of high-grade sound reproduction. This is in the same manner as what I was often seeing at the Australian Audio & AV Show at the Melbourne Marriott Hotel where all of the network-capable audio systems were working to DLNA setups and using FLAC and other high-grade audio codecs.

Here, this Danish design king has provided two paths for DLNA-based audio – a system with a local control surface and display in the form of the Beosound 5 Encore and a system that is managed entirely from remote control in the form of the Playmaker. These are another example of “audio companies of respect” embracing standards-based high-grade network audio reproduction.

As I have also said before in the article on the Beosound 5 Encore, this is one design masterpiece that would come in to its own playing that piece of European chillout music in that trendy inner-urban café, wine bar or beauty salon.

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Sony STR-DN1030–A home-theatre receiver that could just be connected to a screen, speakers and the home network

Article

Sony STR-DN1030 AV receiver with AirPlay, WiFi and Bluetooth starts shipping – Engadget

My Comments

Since the 1960s, the stereo receiver had, like some other pieces of hi-fi equipment, become a “starting piece” for many hi-fi systems. Here, it would mean that the unit, once connected to some speakers, could simply do something like give you access to broadcast radio content. Then, they could take a “building-block” approach to establishing a hi-fi system by purchasing a turntable, CD player or cassette deck as they can afford the equipment.

Sony have worked on this concept with this latest home-theatre receiver by having it able to pull in broadcast radio or be hooked up to a home network for Internet radio, IPTV, content held on a DLNA Media Server or content held on your smartphone or portable media player. But, like with other video peripherals, Sony have pressed the STR-DN1030 in to service as a “smart-TV” terminal.

A design issue that needs to be looked at with these home-theatre receivers is whether they have to be dependent on a TV being on all the time they are in use. I see this being of importance if you are using the receiver to listen to audio content from the Internet or from a home-network source, and you shouldn’t have to “light up” the TV just to select this content.

This reminded me of visiting a friend’s hotel room and “flicking around” the radio content on the TV; or another friend who sent me a picture of their hotel TV tuned to a favoured London radio station when they were in London. Similarly it reminded me of an ultra-cheap DVD player hooked up to a friend’s home theatre system and pressed in to service to play music from CDs for a housewarming. These situations had a television set “lit up” just so that audio content can be navigated.

What I would like to see more with the video peripherals serving as smart-TV terminals is that they capitalise on their strengths yet are like the video cassette recorder. This is where they can augment any old TV with this kind of online TV functionality.

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Pioneer SMA wireless speakers put AirPlay, HTC Connect in one happy family — Engadget

Article

Pioneer SMA wireless speakers put AirPlay, HTC Connect in one happy family — Engadget

My Comments

Pioneer have released a range of single-enclosure wireless speakers for use with smartphones, tablets and laptops. But they are not the typical Bluetooth wireless speakers that one would ordinarily think of.

Here, they can either work with a small network whether by Wi-Fi wireless or an Ethernet connection; or they can become their own Wi-Fi access points. They implement Apple AirPlay or the common DLNA 1.5 Digital Media Renderer protocols which makes them work with Apple or industry-standard portable-media playback setups. 

They also have a USB connection for directly connecting one of those high-capacity iPod Classics that is full to the brim with music or other iPod / iPhone devices; as well as having a line-in jack for other media players or tuners; or simply serving as extension speakers to an existing sound system.

The difference among the models is the ability to work on battery power or the speaker setup used in the units. The cheapest model, the XW-SMA1 uses a 3” speaker for each channel and a 3/4”  tweeter for both the channels and doesn’t have battery power. The step-up model, the XW-SMA3 uses the same speaker configuration but can run on its own lithium-ion battery for 4 hours at maximum volume. The top-of-the-line model, the XW-SMA4 has the battery power but can yield better bass through the use of a 3” speaker and 3/4” tweeter per channel and a 4” bass speaker (subwoofer) shared by both channels.

What Pioneer has done is to achieve a highly-compatible wireless speaker set that can work with the standard DLNA-compliant home network which could be based around Windows computers and Android smartphones as well as being able to please the Apple fanbois. This is able to be done without having to resort to Bluetooth technology.

If I was choosing one of these for summer outdoor fun, I would go for the XW-SMA3 or the XW-SMA4 if you value that bassline in the music. The battery-power ability can come in to its own when you are near the pool or on the deck without needing to run extension cords everywhere.

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The Aperion Aris, a Windows-only wireless speaker which is really a DLNA wireless speaker

Article

Meet the Aperion Aris, a Windows-only wireless speaker | Crave – CNET

My Comments

Not everyone has to have an Apple device like an iPhone or iPad but a lot of audio devices, especially network-enabled speaker systems, seem to be designed so that they work best with Apple devices.

Now there has been exhibited a network-enabled single-piece speaker that is pitched at platforms other than Apple. This unit, the Aperion Aris, has been billed as working only with Windows 7 and 8 by supporting the “Play To” functionality in these regular-computer operating systems.

But the “Play To” functionality is actually about UPnP AV / DLNA MediaRenderer functionality and should work with other UPnP AV / DLNA audio control point software. This could really mean that your iOS, Android or Windows Phone 7 mobile device could drive this speaker if it runs TwonkyMedia, AllShare or other DLNA control point program.

But an Apple Macintosh computer can still work with this speaker if it is running a DLNA media-controller apps. Examples of this include Songbook Mac, TwonkyMedia or PlugPlayer, the latter of which is available through the Mac App Store.

The speaker system is based around a six-speaker design that has two drivers per channel and two passive-radiators with a claimed power rating of 50 watts per channel. But it would be really interesting to hear how it sounds as in whether it can fill an average room with sound and whether there is some “punch” in the sound.

Personally, I would like to see network speakers support AirPlay and DLNA or at least use DLNA as a common denominator due to the level playing field that this standard offers for network audio delivery.

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Product Review–Western Digital WDTV Live (2011 version)

Introduction

Previously, I reviewed the 2008 version of the Western Digital WDTV Live network media player and found that there are some areas where it could be improved on. Now I have been offered the latest iteration of this network media player for review and this review will be an interesting exercise to compare it to the previous model.

Western Digital WDTV Live network media player - 2011 version

Price

Recommended Retail Price: AUD$149

Functions

Online functions will change as the device’s platform evolves and will vary by country.

Internet Radio TuneIn Radio (RadioTime), Spotify
Internet Photo Picasa
Internet TV YouTube, Vimeo
Interactive Services Facebook
Network Media UPnP AV / DLNA, SMB
Stored Memory USB Mass-Storage

 

Western Digital WDTV Live network media player connections - 2011 model

Connections

Output
Audio Line output 3.5mm AV jack
Digital Audio output PCM / Bitstream via Toslink optical or HDMI
Video Line output 3.5mm AV jack
Video HDMI output Yes
Network
Wi-Fi 802.11g/n
Ethernet Yes

 

The media player itself

Western Digital WDTV Live network media players - comparison between generations

WDTV Live network media players - earlier version below 2011 version

The current edition of the Western Digital WDTV network media player is the similar size to the previous-generations of this network media device but is finished in a newer style with an obvious infrared-remote receiver and an upfront USB socket for memory keys and hard disks. It doesn’t have the “book-style” shape as the previous model and is pitched as a unit to go with a cluster of consumer-electronics equipment.

Connectivity

The WDTV Live’s audio-video connections are similar to the previous model except that there isn’t the component video output jack. This is meant to assume that this device will work with the flat-screen TVs that have the HDMI connection or the legacy CRT TVs and video projectors that use the composite video connection for their external video devices. You still get a breakout cable with 3 RCA plugs on the end so you can connect this device to most of these TVs, in a similar way as you would with most smartphones and some digital cameras.The previous version of this device was a “Wi-Fi ready” device in that it required the user to purchase an additional USB Wi-Fi network adaptor dongle and plug it in to the unit. This time, the WDTV Live comes with the Wi-Fi network adaptor integrated in to the unit and is how I tested the unit.Front view of current model and earlier model

The Wi-Fi connectivity is set up for 802.11g/n wireless networks and supports wireless routers that implement consumer and small-business security methods i.e. WEP and WPA(2)-PSK, including WPS quick-setup routines. The latter can be started from the TV screen through the WDTV Live’s setup menu.It is still sensitive enough for most interactive-TV applications and standard-definition viewing but I would recommend using the Ethernet connection with a HomePlug AV adaptor (if necessary) for better and more reliable throughput.

User Interface

Western Digital WDTV Live remote control - 2011 model

Remote control

The menu structure and user interface was more like an XBox 360 with recent firmware than the previous model’s interface which reminded me of the XrossBar interface used in Sony’s connected consumer electronics. Here, this interface was able to still work well even with legacy CRT TVs because of having the selected option in the centre and brought up.

It also used the “coloured function buttons” on the remote control which is the trend for consumer video equipment. Here this was used for applying filters or changing list orders for content and other lists. This is compared to the user using a D-pad to do all the control on this device which was the case with the previous model.

Applications

I have tried some of the services that come with the system and have noticed that YouTube comes with two user interfaces. One feature that I liked with this YouTube application was that it was able to cater for multiple users. This meant that it held the Google usernames of previous users in memory so different users can log in to their personal user profile and is a step in the right direction.

As far as the Facebook app is concerned, it is totally broken in that it can’t show the photos that are part of the social-media service. You don’t even see the profile pictures for your Facebook Friends, which makes for a disappointing experience with this device. You could see the text on the various Walls or Feeds that you subscribe to and post text-based comments but that’s all.

Most other photo and video applications work as required and the streamed videos and audio content come through smoothly. This is even though I was using it on an older “classic” TV set.

UPnP AV / DLNA

The UPnP AV / DLNA experience that the WDTV Live provides  is still the same as the previous models in that when it comes to photo and video content, it’s slow to load off the network. You can still “pull” content down from your MediaServer device like your NAS using the remote control and the on-screen user interface but the WDTV Live doesn’t work well when pictures or video content is “pushed” to it under the control of a control point.

This could be improved with read-ahead caching and proper handling of queue lists which would be important for this class of device. Once this is ironed out, it could make the WDTV Live media player become a cost-effective tool for network-based content playback including digital signage for the small business.

Limitations and Points of improvement

One main limitation with the WDTV Live family is that it doesn’t support any of the catch-up TV / video-on-demand services that are currently available for the Australian and New Zealand markets like ABC’s iView or the Plus7 service. I have seen other devices including Sony’s BDP-S380 offer this kind of functionality which would bring these services to how they should be enjoyed – relaxing on the couch and watching on the big screen TV.

But personally I would like to see the device’s software and hardware re-engineered for better network and Internet performance. This was also confirmed to me by a close friend who bought the same device and found it didn’t perform as well as it should.

As well, Western Digital could make the next or subsequent generation of this device part of a DLNA-driven multi-room PVR setup for broadcast TV. Here, they could use a box with a hard disk for recording TV shows from a cluster of ATSC / DVB-T front-end tuners using an electronic programme guide. As well, this box is managed by any device compliant with UPnP AV version 4 such as next-generation WDTV Live boxes, allowing for scheduling of TV programmes and bookmarking (shift between viewing locations) amongst other functions.

Conclusion

At the moment, I wouldn’t really recommend the WDTV Live in its present incarnation and would like to see the arrival of cost-effective video-based network media players that have access to the full plethora of network media services and work responsively and properly for the DLNA Home Media Network whether under “pushed” or “pulled” conditions.

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Buyer’s Guide–Component Network Media Adaptors

Introduction

Western Digital WDTV Live network media adaptor

Western Digital WDTV Live network media adaptor

There was a trickle of component network media adaptors which provide media playback from the Internet or home network to an existing audio-video system but this trickle has now become a flood over the past few years with equipment being offered at varying functionality and cost points.

For video content, most of these devices including some of the current-model Blu-Ray players may offer “over-the-top” TV services to existing TV equipment and this may avoid the need to buy a “smart TV” for this kind of content. This would appeal to those of us who would rather spend money on equipping our home theatres with a video projector or top-notch high-performing LCD TV rather than buying a “smart TV” to keep up with the Joneses. Similarly, these devices can expose a secondary TV like the one located in the secondary lounge area or master bedroom to the plethora of online content.

Similarly, you may want to invest in an audio-based network media player so you can enjoy Internet radio or music held on the network-attached storage through the hi-fi system. This is becoming more so as high-grade audio files of classic and contemporary albums are being made available for sale and file-based audio content has now achieved hi-fi credentials.

What are these devices

A component network media adaptor like the Western Digital WDTV Live is designed to connect to existing audio and video equipment and show network-derived content on such equipment. Of course, they will work as a gateway to some Internet-hosted media services like IPTV / video-on-demand or Internet-radio services; and a few may work as a terminal for popular interactive Internet services like the Social Web.

If the manufacturer keeps investing in the device’s platform, there may be the ability for newer content services to be added to an existing device. This typically is being achieved through a continual firmware update or an app store that works in a similar vein to a mobile platform’s app store.

 

Sony BDP-S380 Network-enabled Blu-Ray player

Sony BDP-S380 Network-enabled Blu-Ray player

Some of these adaptor devices also have functionality for access to legacy media like a radio or TV broadcast tuner and/or an optical disk player. An example of this is the Sony BDP-S380 Blu-Ray player which I had reviewed. But these devices also have a USB port, iPod dock and / or memory card slot so that content held on any of these locations can be played through the device. Similarly, the Microsoft XBox 360 and the Sony PS3 games consoles are able to serve as component network media adaptors as well as satisfying marathon TV games sessions.

A selection of these devices have an integrated hard disk and are able to work also as a media server. Some of them may allow you to add the media files by “ripping” from supported optical discs or recording broadcast material from an integrated tuner as well as accepting the content from the network or USB memory keys in a similar vein to the typical network-attached storage device.

Two main classes

NAD C446 Media Tuner

NAD c446 Network Media Tuner

There are two main classes of these component devices and the class they fall in to is based on the content they are designed to reproduce.

Video-optimised

A video-optimised network media adaptor is designed primarily to reproduce video or still-image content on an attached TV or projector.

Key identifiers for this class of device include the presence of video connectors for a display device. These are typically HDMI, component or composite sockets alongside the audio sockets.

Another identifier is that there is a very small display on the unit itself which only shows content running time, or no display at all. The user is expected to operate the device using the remote control and looking at the attached video display device for visual feedback. This is common with very-low-end DVD players that don’t have a track/time display and I once saw one of these players in operation at a party and the hosts had the TV on so they know which tracks to play on a CD.

Of course, if they have a legacy media source, it will typically be something like a DVD/ Blu-Ray player or a digital-TV tuner. The online services available to this device would typically be the IPTV / video-on-demand / advanced-TV services and it may also work as a terminal for video-conferencing (with an add-on camera), interactive TV or the Social Web.

Audio-optimised

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

An audio-optimised network media device is designed primarily to reproduce audio content, especially music.

These devices have no video connections at all or they may use any such connections for a secondary purpose. It is augmented by the device having a display and controls on its front panel for selecting and playing content or a remote control with an LCD or OLED screen as its primary control surface. This means that the device won’t be dependent on the use of an external video display for its operation.

If the device supports legacy content, the will use either a radio broadcast tuner and / or a CD / SACD player. They will also have access to audio-based Internet content sources like one of the Internet-radio directories like vTuner, Pandora or Last.FM.

What to look for

Ethernet connectivity

A component network media adaptor should have an Ethernet connection in order to provide for reliable playback of high-quality network and online content via Ethernet or HomePlug AV. You may get away with Wi-Fi wireless for Internet radio, CD-quality audio content, still images or standard-definition video content.

UPnP AV / DLNA

As well, the device should support UPnP AV / DLNA functionality. The basic level of support for this functionality is to find and play media held on DLNA media servers using the device’s control surface. On the other hand, a better-equipped device is able to play content that you push to it from another UPnP AV / DLNA control point like a lot of smartphone media-control software such as TwonkyMobile.

It also allows your device to be future-proof and is of importance whenever you look towards running specialist media-server equipment such as network PVRs on your home network.

Internet-media services

Most low-end video-optimised equipment will support fewer Internet-video services but the mainstream-priced equipment from the big brands will offer access to the popular TV services in your territory like the catch-up-TV services and the big-time video-on-demand services like Netflix.

If a device has access to online interactive services like Facebook or Picasa, only one person will be able to operate their online service on the device at a time. This functionality may just be useful for showing pictures held on the user’s online-service account but activities like updating the status comment on the service or simply logging in may be very difficult. This is due to the limited user interface that these devices offer as I have previously talked about.

Devices complementing each other

Some of these network-media adaptor devices can complement each other. For example, you may use a newer adaptor that provides access to newer content services while you have an older adaptor that the manufacturers have given up on still able to provide some of the online and network-sourced media that you are after.

Similarly, you could use an audio-optimised network media adaptor for playing radio and music sources while you have an Internet-enabled TV or video-optimised network media player coming in handy for image and video content.

Conclusion

The component network-media adaptor, whether in the form of a Blu-Ray player, set-top box or network-enabled tuner, can expose existing audio-video equipment to the world of online or network-hosted entertainment content.

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Australian Audio & AV Show 2011

I had visited the Australian Audio & AV Show 2011 which was held at the Marriott Hotel in Melbourne over two days. Here I had noticed certain trends being marked out as far as hi-fi and home-theatre technology went.

Valve (tube) amplifiers - the old school of hi-fi continues

The old-school of hi-fi lives on with these valve (tube) amps

There was interest in orthodox hi-fi setups where vinyl records or CDs were the main medium of choice. These still appeal to the music listeners who prefer to make a point out of listening to their favourite recordings. Here, there was a large number of amplifiers that were driven by valve (tube) technology which appealed to audiophiles who placed value on the “valve and vinyl” style of hi-fi enjoyment. It even showed that there was still life in the “old girl” that was the classic vinyl record, This was more so with the arrival of newly-issued recordings on what I call “boutique vinyl” i.e. records that were cut for best dynamic range and pressed on heavier discs that were made of new material; with the ability for the purchaser to download MP3s of the same recordings for free.

Marantz CR603 CD receiver

Marantz CR603 CD receiver

Of course, I had seen the return of Luxman to the hi-fi scene, with their efforts on high-grade CD players and stereo amplifiers, with one of their amplifiers being modelled on a 1970s-era classic of theirs.

Network audio

But the main focus of the show was the use of computer equipment and home networks to play out music through hi-fi systems.

Network setups

Netgear ReadyNAS - the music server of the connected home

A router and DLNA-enabled ReadyNAS is what this show is about

Most manufacturers which were demonstrating network-based hi-fi setups had a small network in their hotel rooms. This typically had a wireless router that was fit for home or small-business use at the “edge” of each of these network and working as the DHCP server; the same as what would be expected for a home network. As well, a lot of the manufacturers hooked a network-attached storage unit like the ReadyNAS to these networks to demonstrate their network-audio equipment.

In some cases, some of the suppliers used computers running DLNA-compliant media server software on the network rather than a NAS. An example of this was NAD who linked a MacBook Pro running Elgato EyeConnect as a media server for their C446 Digital Media Tuner.

Network-audio equipment

NAD C446 Media Tuner

NAD c446 Network Media Tuner

Most of the equipment shown was network-audio adaptors which were known by names as “media tuners”, “Internet tuners”, “network media receivers” and similar names. These were components that were connected to existing amplifiers through a line-level connection and could play content on a DLNA media server, USB memory key or Internet-radio services. Some of the units could connect to and control an iPod attached to their USB port.

Some of these are devices that I have cited in a previous article on this site about top-shelf hi-fi names using DLNA as their preferred network-audio infrastructure. Here, I had mentioned about them using this established technology and the high-grade codecs like FLAC so they can concentrate on high-quality clear sound.

 

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

Linn had a handful of these devices which worked as control amplifiers for use with power amplifiers or active speakers. These Akurate, Majik and Klimax units could also stream line-level signals or, as I have seen, the output of a turntable (Linn Sondek LP12) playing a record to other Linn network media adaptors.

As well, some of the manufacturers were offering receivers and CD-receiver systems that had DLNA media playback and Internet media access as part of their function set. This included the Rotel RCX-1500 CD receiver that I have previously reviewed on this site. Speaking of which, Rotel’s Australian distributors, International Dynamics are introducing more network-enabled kit from Pro-ject, in the form of another network media adaptor.

Denon even promoted their network-enabled home-theatre receivers a “everyhing”-ceivers because of the multiple functions that they could offer through the home network.

Denon networked home-theatre receiver and Blu-ray player

Denon's "everything"-ceiver

All of these setups were based around UPnP AV / DLNA Home Media Networks with Denon, Marantz and B&W demonstrating Apple AirPlay-compliant setups. The sales representatives for most of the various manufacturers had described the UPnP AV / DLNA network setup as an open setup where everyone can “come to the party”. A lot of the setups were controlled using various UPnP AV control points that were running on iPads owned by the various demonstration staff. Some of the control-point apps were branded and optimised for particular manufacturers’ equipment, usually offering control functionality that worked peculiarly with that equipment.

Naim Uniti network CD receiver

Naim Uniti network CD receiver with Naim's distinct CD-loading tray

Naim and used this show to exhibit their Uniti CD receiver; as well as the UnitiQute network media / FM receiver and the UnitiServer which is their “ripping NAS”. This is a class of NAS which uses an integrated optical drive and software for ripping CDs to the hard disk.

One interesting point that I had noticed was that Loewe had used this event to launch their MediaCenter network-enabled music system. This was equipped with a hard disk and software that allowed you to “rip” the currently-inserted CD to that hard disk, a practice that I had observed with some Philips and other hard-disk-equipped music systems. But this unit was able to share the contents of its hard disk to other UPnP AV client devices as well as become a UPnP AV client device for devices like those NAS units.

How is this becoming relevant to “real” hi-fi?

Loewe MediaCenter

Loewe Mediacenter media server and player

One reason this is happening is that other Websites, fronted by audiophile recording labels, are offering their recordings for purchase and download as high-bitrate FLAC or, in some cases, WMA files. In some cases, these are copies of the studio-master recordings rather than producer-tuned masters for CD and iTunes distribution.

Here, you could load these files on to a NAS and share them through your network with network media clients of this calibre. Or you could use media-management software to transcode to MP3 for use on most portable players and smartphones or prepare CDs of these files for playback on regular CD players.

Conclusion

What I see of this Australian Audio & AV Show this past weekend is that the home network as a system for storing and playing audio content has earned its stripes as far as high-quality sound reproduction is concerned. This is definitely underpinned through the use of the UPnP AV / DLNA standard for discovering and presenting available media content in these networks.

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