What is streaming?
To stream is to use a device known as a streamer to access music from online subscription services such as Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music, as well as audio files on any PC/Mac/NAS or other such devices on your home network, and play it back through your hi-fi. It sounds simple enough, but I’m seeing a lot of confusion and bewilderment surrounding streaming and so called streamers; what they are and what they can do.
Confusion sets in because very few streamers are exclusively streamers; most can also tap into multiple sources which—counterintuitive as this may sound—may not all be “streams” in the technical sense. To put it another way, most streamers include features beyond streaming; they might also be able to play back music from a Bluetooth device, or a USB drive, or internal HDD. Apple users might be able to connect via Airplay. And more fully featured streamers might serve as a DAC with digital inputs (and/or outputs); perhaps a USB output for direct connection to a computer; maybe even a volume control for direct connection to a power-amp. They might have fully featured apps for your tablet or minimal physical controls (or both); and many support multi-room playback.
We struggle to know what to call such versatile little devices, so oftentimes we end up lumping them all under the same category: Streamers.
Let’s simplify things. Take Bluetooth, Airplay, multi-room and all those bells and whistles out of the equation for a moment. In 2017, when we talk about streaming, we mean using a device at location A to obtain and play (“stream”) audio data that is stored on a device at location B. We call our device at location A a “streamer” and our device at location B a “server”. The audio data in question is stored in the form of “audio files”. Location A might be your living room, location B might be anything from a spare room in your house to a server farm in San Francisco.
With that concept in mind, let’s look in a little more detail at those three elements: “audio files”, “server”, and “streamer”.
An “audio file” is a format-agnostic catch-all moniker we give to a digital audio recording.
Sound can be recorded and stored at different resolutions and on different media. In the analogue realm, most of us are aware that different formats have different levels of quality and potential resolution: the gulf of difference between a 45 RPM vinyl and a compact cassette tape, for instance. Digital is no different in that potential output resolution and sound quality varies enormously; it greatly depends on how the digital file has been recorded and encoded (see Digital audio file formats demystified.) and, to a much lesser extent, how it is stored.
The options for digital storage are plentiful: hard-drive (HDD); solid state memory (e.g. SSD or SD card); optical storage (CD, DVD, SACD); even magnetic tape. In the case of streaming, our storage device is typically a HDD or SSD attached to a server.
A server is a type of computer which does exactly that—it “serves”. When configured for streaming, it serves audio files from an attached storage device (e.g. HDD or SSD). You may find such a server described as a “media server” or “streaming server”—they both amount to the same thing.
An important aside: terminology has become a little muddled, so be careful not to confuse a “streaming server” with what the hi-fi industry label a “streamer”. In hi-fi, when we talk about a “streamer”, we are generally not talking about a “streaming server”, but rather the hi-fi component which receives the stream from the streaming server. To avoid confusion in this article, when we’re talking about the server, I’ll stick to the term “server” or “media server”.
As Wikipedia puts it so concisely, a media server is a server which has the “ability of transmitting content in a way that portions received can be [...] listened as they arrive, as opposed downloading a whole huge file and then using it”.
(To reiterate, this is the server we are talking about, not the streamer. A streamer is useless without a server, but you don’t necessarily need to own that server; it entirely depends on how/what you want to stream.)
We can divide streaming into two distinct scenarios:
- scenario 1) Subscription Services: streaming audio files from internet subscription services such as Spotify, Tidal, et al.
- scenario 2) Personal Streaming: streaming audio files which are stored on a personal media server.
Both scenarios are similar with one key difference: ownership. With the former, you are paying a monthly subscription to be able to access audio files on a server, both of which (i.e. files and server) are owned by someone else. With the latter, you are streaming music which you own (either downloaded files or ripped CDs, see Ripping & downloading sidebar) from a media server which you also own.
For most of us, the personal media server we’re talking about in scenario 2 will be a Network Attached Storage device (NAS). Most of them are pre-configured to act also as a media server.
But even if you don’t own a NAS, there is a good chance you own a personal media server and don’t even know it. If you have a Windows PC you may have noticed that you can enable “media streaming” on folder contents or individual media files. That is your computer acting as a media server, harnessing its ability to stream media files to other devices on the network. With a Mac it’s a little more complicated, but doable.
The question is, how does the end user (i.e. you or me) access those servers, get those files and play them back through a hi-fi system? The answer: through the use of a “streamer”.
To whom or what does the server serve (“transmit”) those audio files we’ve been talking about? If the server “serves”, something must also act as a receiver (known in IT as the “client”) and that’s where the streamer comes in...
The streamer is our way of interfacing with the media server; it is our way of actually accessing those stored audio files and playing them back. By connecting our streamer to the media server, we are able to browse files thereon, choose a file and hit play, which requests that file from the server. The server dutifully responds by providing our streamer with a stream of audio data corresponding to the requested audio file (i.e. “song”).
Quite how we browse the audio files depends on the streamer. In most cases we interface with the streamer via the manufacturer’s app which we install on our iPad, iPhone, tablet or other such android device. This app acts like a remote for the streamer and provides a visual interface allowing us to search, sort and filter through music stored on our home server, as well as access the various internet subscription services (and in some cases use the service’s native app).
Connecting the dots.
So far so simple. But how do all these devices communicate with each other? How do we actually connect the streamer to the server(s)?
Short answer: for 99% of home-users, it’s a case of ensuring all the devices we have been talking about above—not least your streamer—are connected to your router (as provided by your Internet Service Provider) with either an ethernet cable (preferred) or wirelessly via Wi-Fi. This works because most ISP provided routers are more than plain routers; they not only have an integrated modem (to connect to the internet) but also act as a network hub/switch which allows all your commonly connected devices to communicate with each other.
In theory, an internet connection is not needed to stream if we are simply interested in streaming music stored on our own private media server; in such a scenario we can forgo the router and connect the streamer and server to a common network hub/switch.
But in practice, to take full advantage of all that streaming has to offer, an internet connection is highly recommended if not necessary. Certainly a necessity if we want to stream audio files from subscription services as we must access said subscription service’s servers. (Spotify’s servers are connected to the internet, ergo we must do the same: connect our streamer to the internet.) However, even if you have no plans to use a subscription service, the vast majority of streamers require an internet connection to access metadata (see Metadata & browsability sidebar). Ergo, the short answer stands… one connects one’s streamer to one’s ISP provided network router.
If you want to stream from a local server (e.g. a PC or NAS), then make sure that device is also connected to your router. Your streamer will then be able to “see” those files. Key to all this is ensuring everything is connected to a common hub. Counterintuitive as it may seem on the surface, we don’t take a cable from our streamer to our server, but rather we connect our streamer and server independently to a common network hub/switch.
The missing link.
And now ladies and gentlemen, the elephant in the room… connecting the streamer to our hi-fi.
This is the easy bit. Different streamers come in various forms offering different audio outputs. Some have good old fashioned RCA and XLR outputs. Some have only digital outputs such as S/PDIF or AES. Most streamers have both analogue and digital outputs, so how you connect to your hi-fi is up to you.
But why though? What’s the benefit of streaming over good ol’ silver disks or vinyl? In no particular order: convenience, metadata, instant access to a vast library of music, sound equal or surpassing CD quality, remote storage.
For some, the main reason to go to all this effort is the sound quality. A lossless data stream can sound just as good, if not better than CD. Furthermore, if the original file is recorded and encoded at a higher sample rate and bit rate than CD, there is no reason why the sound quality shouldn’t even exceed CD. And for the SACD/DSD lovers out there, it is possible to download very high sample rate DSD files, so again: an audio file can be higher resolution and potentially offer higher sound quality than a conventional silver disc.
But for me, the undeniable advantage of streaming is browsability (see Metadata & browsability side bar). I like that I can quickly and conveniently sort and filter my music collection. I can browse in any number of ways: by artist, by genre, by recording date, etc. The better apps allow even deeper tools for discovery: search for all recordings by a certain engineer, or a certain record label; find all songs by a certain composer or arranger. The best apps can even recommend other music.
For most, though, the main advantage is being able to access a vast library of music through streaming subscription services. Whether you use Spotify or Tidal, Qobuz or Apple Music, all these services offer millions upon millions of tracks, all available at the push of a button (or the tap of a screen, as the case may be!).
However, all this speed and convenience can be at the expense of getting to know music intimately; a whole different topic which I plan to explore in a future article. Streaming is no better or worse than “conventional playback” (for want of a better phrase), but rather an additional way of listening to and discovering music. I still purchase CDs and vinyl as for me nothing can beat the tangibility of real-life objects.
To take advantages of all the benefits streaming can bring, you need the following:
- A router which is connected to the internet.
- A home media server on which you have audio files (generally a NAS) connected to your router and/or to be a member of a subscription service like Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz et al.
- A streamer. You connect your streamer to your router, and the audio output of your streamer to the rest of your hi-fi.
For further advice on any of those components, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at The Music Room. And watch out for a follow up article where we help you choose the streamer that’s right for you.