10 May 2017

In which I show my solution for listening to audio and watching videos at home in the digital way, with an acceptable quality (for most people), but for a very little costs and almost no hassle getting it to work.

Here's the short rundown on requirements I had and maybe you also agree on (which in turn means you might want to read on):

  • All digital (sound and video files & streaming services)
  • hassle-free setup - this is for the bulk of people who like me, are not in for weeks of research or tooling
  • very low costs
  • no vendor lock-in & use of standards where possible
  • acceptable (not necessarily the world's greatest) audio quality
  • remote control for everything (by mobile phone or actual remote controls)

And here is what what I actually use:

PlayOn Harddisk Media player                     40 EUR
Google Chromecast                                        39 EUR
Raspberry PI as music box                          ~70 EUR
Envaya Bluetooth Audio Player                   140 EUR
                                                                        289 EUR


Why? - So here's the problem

Listening to music and watching videos at home. Everyone (in a modern household) wants to do this, of course. These days, however, the number of choices how to do it is vast, to the extent that researching what to buy can take forever. You can also built and configure a lot of things yourself, for instance using a raspberry pi and a custom-made luxurious soundcard. I understand that there were tough choices to make 30 years ago, as well, like how large the TV should be and if gold cables are really needed to get everything out of your audio signal.

I believe that today the number of sources for media has increased (and I'm only counting the digital cases for me anymore, really), because next to playing sound and video files from your hard drive there are now a number of relevant streaming services you might want to use.

On the hardware side, a lot of devices are on the market now, which all do something to play audio to you, in varying locations and quality. In fact, it's a young market with a lot of companies trying to develop exactly what we need. It's exhausting to do research there!

A lot of these new solutions are designed to lock you in and to upsell, something Apple is really good at. They want you to buy something wireless for every room in your house and also for on-the-go and what started at 200 EUR ends up at 1300 EUR and you need to keep using this system from now on.

The (my) solution

So I decided to lower my expectations with respect to audio experience, otherwise I would never install something modern. Otherwise, I believe I got pretty close to my requirements. Let's list what I bought:

Harddisk Media player

This little device plays almost any movie file you give it and it comes with a remote control (not pictured). I like USB sticks, which I can place there, but you could also connect a computer network cable and read files from some place in your LAN. I bought this a few years ago for around 90 EUR I believe (it's out of stock now), but nowadays the devices all seem to cost around 40 EUR. Connect to your TV via HDMI and it works.


Google makes this nifty little device which connects to your Wifi and then lets you show most of the content your phone screen would show, but streamed fromt he Wifi via the Chromecast to a connected screen, i.e. your TV. Your phone becomes a remote control. For streaming a few things which are well-supported (Youtube almost all of the time to be honest), this works really well. You have to help ot find your Wifi but that is very nicely done. Its usability breaks down though if you are streaming content via an app that is not supporting it or if you do not want the whole Google app stack on your phone (like I'm trying to these days), so I'm eagerly awaiting more innovation in this gadget area.

Envaya Bluetooth Audio Player 

The audio speaker is the area where one can lose the most time and money. I settled for a bluetooth speaker I can put anywhere I want, has decent reviews about its sound (not great, but reviews from people with better ears than me -audiophiles- are tiring), good bass, an AUX in and can even charge your phone. You could pay less money here, but it is something you'll use a lot. Using the AUX in, it can even give your TV watching experience a boost. This works out of the box.

Raspberry PI as music box

Streaming music to the speaker from the phone or laptop has its limits. It really occupies your phone for example, and if you want to play files from a hard drive you cannot reach that from your phone. So one might want to use a music server, which can be controlled from laptop and phone. Enter Pi Musicbox, a ready-to-use open source software package which can run a RaspberryPi for this purpose. Basically, it runs Mopidy, an open source music server oftwear, but neatly wraps it for perfect fit on RaspberryPi. The nice thing about Mopidy is that there a many mobile apps written for it, so you can control the Pi Musicbox nicely from a mobile device. Pi Musicbox plays files but also streams web radio stations and gives access to streaming services (though I cannot vouch for the Spotify support yet, still trying to get the most out of it - however, I still can use my phone here). By the way, the 70 EUR I listed above roughly cover the Raspberry PI (about 40 EUR) plus necessary extra things like an SD card, a case, power supply and a 32GB USB stick.
    This gadget is the only one requiring a little work, but not much, as you can see:
    1. put the Pi Musicbox image on a SD card
    2. edit the config file so it finds your Wifi when it boots
    3. put in the USB with your music
    4. boot

# lastedited 10 May 2017
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