The Raspberry Pi (half-baked): the $50 Network Player

Pi-Eyed
In my quest to find a suitable replacement for the discontinued Logitech Squeezebox Touch, I came across the Rasberry Pi. Anyone on a similar quest has more than likely been tempted by the Pi and if you're anything like me, you found its $35 price tag coupled with the promise of streaming capabilities from network attached storage and USB audio output too good to pass up. So I ordered myself some Raspberry Pi, loaded up a few instances of music player software and got to playing. I will say up front that so far I have mine working with CD-quality files through an older USB 1.0 DAC.

Let's start at the beginning. The Raspbery Pi is, for all intents and purposes, a single board ARM-based computer that runs on Linux off of an SD card. It was designed by "Eben Upton and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, including Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft" and meant to be used as an educational tool:

There isn’t much any small group of people can do to address problems like an inadequate school curriculum or the end of a financial bubble. But we felt that we could try to do something about the situation where computers had become so expensive and arcane that programming experimentation on them had to be forbidden by parents; and to find a platform that, like those old home computers, could boot into a programming environment. From 2006 to 2008, Eben designed several versions of what has now become the Raspberry Pi.
You can learn much more about the Raspberry Pi by visiting its website www.raspberrypi.org which is also where you can find a list of dealers who sell the Pi. There are two versions of the Pi, A and B, and you want B since it includes an Ethernet input, 2 USB ports, and 512MB of RAM. I bought mine from Allied Electronics for $35 + shipping and it arrived 1 week after I placed my order. Of course I'm very far down on a very long list of people who have wondered if the Pi can act as a music server and there are a number of pre-packaged free downloads available that deliver everything you need, OS and media player wise, to turn the Raspberry Pi into a network player/streamer.

Things You Need
There are some other things you'll need to make a Raspberry Pi into a network music player and here's the list.

  • Raspberry Pi ($35)
  • 5V/1Amp micro USB power supply (I used an old Apple charger but you can find these for a couple of dollars on Amazon. Just make sure you get a 5V/1Amp supply).
  • A Monitor w/HDMI connector* and USB Keyboard. *I had an old monitor monitor without an HDMI input so I bought an HDMI - DVI-D cable for $7.00 from Amazon. Once you've setup your Pi, you can operate it headless with a remote app.
  • A case. You can get sorta spendy here if you want to dress up your Pi in wood (see Raspberry Pi Wooden Cases $38) or go cheap and plastic for around $10 (see ModMyPi).
  • A 2GB SD Card
  • OS and App (see below) to put on the SD Card (free)
  • A powered USB Hub
That's it.

The App
Of course any network player/streamer is only as good as its app. I tried a few prepacked media player solutions including RaspyFi, Pi MusicBox, and Raspbmc. Of these three I would recommend RaspyFi which was developed to turn the Pi into an audiophile player using MPD (Music Player Daemon). Setup is relatively simple and detailed on the RaspyFi website's Quick Start Guide. Essentially you download the zip file, unpack it, and then write a disk image to your SD Card. Then you just stick the formatted SD Card into your Pi, attach all of your devices, and power it up.

Once powered on, I used SSH to attach to my Pi from my iMac which you need to do to tell it where your NAS is as well as your NAS login credentials. This process is also detailed on the RaspyFi website's Quick Start Guide. When finished, you just need to reboot your Pi. For music playback, I opted to use the free MPoD app for my iPhone runing the Pi headless. This app is simple to use and resembles most other remote apps so if you've ever used one, you'll have no trouble with MPoD.

The last step in getting my music to play without any dropouts was to attach my DAC to a powered USB hub and then connect that to the Pi. Once connected thus, I was streaming music from my NAS in no time. The Pi also supports Wi-Fi with the addition of a Wi-Fi dongle (which I did not try), and you can add additional services including AirPlay, Spotify (requires a premium account), LAST.FM, and more.

MPoD screenshots

I really haven't done much digging to see if I can get other DACs to work with the somewhat temperamental Pi. Initial attempts to get the Teac UD-501, Audioquest Dragonfly, HRT Streamer HD, and Acoustic Plan DigiMaster to mate with the Pi all met with less rather than more success. The Dragonfly and Streamer HD came closest but there was constant static during playback that I could not get rid of even with a powered USB hub in the mix. So I'm left using my old, ancient by computer audio standards, Silverstone EB01B DAC and streaming CD-quality files. Sound quality is acceptable and about what you'd expect from a $35 computer with a cheap, old DAC. The Squeezebox Touch at its old retail price of $299 eats the Raspberry Pi for lunch. Although I do want to add that the Pi is a very cool concept and product and I applaud the effort and intent of its makers.

Half-Baked Pi
As it stands, the Raspberry Pi is a promising Squeezebox Touch alternative but one that is limited to CD-quality playback and only works with a limited number of DACs. There is a list of Supported DACs on the RaspyFi website which you'll see is relatively short. I'm hoping we'll see more development on the Pi to get it to work with more DACs as well as higher resolution music files. But if you're looking for a cheap way to stream CD-quality music from your NAS or external USB hard disk, and you like to tinker, the Raspberry Pi coupled with a compatible and inexpensive DAC may be just the solution you're looking for.

If you have a Raspberry Pi and have had success with it as a music player, I'd love to hear all about it.

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COMMENTS
Richard Dale's picture

I use a Raspberry Pi to drive my B&W MM-1 speakers using an MPD server as built from the sources following the instructions on the RaspyFi website. It works great although it took my a while to work out how to get the volume control for the MM-1s configured in MPD.

I use my iPod touch with the same MPoD app that you used. I tried four different Android MPD clients and none of them were as good as the iPod one. MPDroid was the most usable although it only shows cover art for the current track and not when browsing for music via album or artist. It also doesn't have a 'play album' button and you need to add each track on an album to the playlist individually.

The Raspberry Pi guys are working fixing the bugs in the USB driver, but I am disappointed it still doesn't work with asynchronous USB devices like my HRT Music Streamer II+ or Musical Fidelity V-Link.

I'm interested in trying out the newly announced BeagleBone Black as an MPD server as it sounds like it might have a better USB implementation. it costs slightly more than the Raspberry Pi, but is still really cheap. Compared with the cost of a lot of HiFi things 50 dollars or so it peanuts.

I have four other Pis around my flat doing other things, including one that is a NAS for serving music tracks as a Samba server.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I have high hopes for the little Pi. A very cool product for its intended purpose and what could be a very cool music server.

vasu's picture

Have you cheked out Cubox pro (160$). its similar to the rasberry pi concept of a micro pc. its got ARM processor with 4gb ram, USB 2.0 (24/192 PCM and DSD ready)  and HDMI ouputs, running ubuntu out of the box. It would be great if you could do a full review. I think this a worthy Squeebox successor.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I have not checked out the Cubox Pro but I will.

Azteca X's picture

Michael,

 

This should be extremely helpful.

http://www.solid-run.com/projects/52-how-to-turn-your-cubox-into-a-diy-s...

 

Great minds think alike.

labjr's picture

A little more horsepower and those little computers are gonna start competing with regular computers.

monetschemist's picture

Interesting to read this.

I have been using mpd on various computers running Linux for awhile now to serve up my music.  Rather than buy something new, my approach has been to repurpose something old.

One good solution is an old Toshiba laptop running Ubuntu server and using an AQ DragonFly with MPD.  No problems achieving bit-perfect playback.  I've since moved the DragonFly into travel duties; I use it with my System76 Ubuntu laptop and the Guayadeque music player when I'm on the road.

Another is a Dell desktop with an ASUS Xonar DX giving 24/192 out on TOSLINK into a Schiit Bifrost.  This is my current and preferred approach.

The Schiit USB (or rather, the CMedia chipset) did not work correctly when I first started using it.  As more CMedia-based boxes have appeared, the support has improved but it's still not perfect according to my most recent attempt to use it (April 2013).

I'm very happy with my current results.  If anyone wants some more detailed info, I'm happy to share.

Ggroch's picture

I was considering the Raspberry route when I came across a PogoPlug E02 hack that handles 96kHz/24 bit and comes with power supply and case.

Directions and description are here:

http://hackaday.com/2013/01/11/building-an-inexpensive-squeezebox-client-replacement/

(click on the 1st links in the article for the 3 section "how to")

You have to get the right model Pogoplugs for it to work, but the good news is that since its an older model, you can find them for $20ish and it includes an odd but nice chassis, ethernet cable,  and the power supply (Go for the pink version;).  

You add a flash drive and a USB Dac (quite a few work with it).   It took me about 20 minutes and it works great. 

You can alternately configure Pogoplugs as Squeezebox Servers (Logitech Media Servers) and attach a USB hard disk.   Perhaps this easy hackability using cheap hardware helps to convince Logitech to get out of the business. 

michelangelo's picture

Hi Micheal,

I'm Michelangelo, the guy behind RaspyFi. I'm really happy you're enjoying RaspyFi so much, and really glad you're suggesting it. This motivates me even more to further improve it. As you pointed out, Raspberry Pi has really good potentials, being so inexpensive and widespread made it an excellent candidate to develop a bargain digital source. Of course, by now there are better candidates. But what makes the Pi strong is the wide audience and community around it, so I'm expecting that the softwares being written for it to become better day by day, and become more user friendly than what they are today.

As for the usb dac support, the compatibility list on the website contains only the dac reported to be working, but there are lot of working dac in the wild. Just for a mere example, usb dacs using the ubiquitous TE7022 transport will work out of the box, and there are many other examples.The problems you experienced were due to some usb driver issues that are affecting the Raspberry platform. This is especially true for asynchronous usb transports (as the dragonfly, or xmos based solutions), but I'm working hard to get this types of transport working, and I'm pretty confident that things will get better. If I may suggest a dac to pair with RaspyFi, my choice would be the ODAC. Feed the Pi with a decent power supply, attach it to the ODAC and play some Flac. I bet that this combo will sound very very good compared to fancyer gear (I would say it will beat the squeezebox as well...).

I do really like to understand how things works under the hood of a digital audio workstation, and I want to share all my findings with the people. Hope you and your readers will find some interesting lecture on RaspyFi.com. Optimizing digital audio playback is somewhat challenging and sometimes counterintuitive, but lot of little tweaks makes a big improvement in the end of the day. What is really fascinating is that you don't have to rely on fancy capacitors or unreasonable magic to achieve good results, what you need is some research and a bit of common sense.

To end, currently I'm developing the next release of RaspyFi. I aim to solve the various issues that are affecting the distro, and making it more user friendly. Then I want to further expand the possibilities of the distro, serving all the purposes a digital audio workstation should do. My goal is to finally achieve pure music listening, without hassles. Just plug, and... well ... play. 

I hope I wasn't too boring with this, but wanted to contribute with the dev point of view. Hope you'll spend some good time listening your music with RaspyFi.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Thank you for all of your work on RaspyFi - I'm certainly enjoying it and look forward to the next release! Getting the USB driver issues worked out so that the Pi can work with more DACs would be great.

Cheers.

labjr's picture

The Raspberry pi says "Made in the UK" and it costs $35?

I wonder if they can make them in China for like $5?

Richard Dale's picture

The Raspberry Pi was made in China before they moved most of the production to Wales in the UK, and it is sold for the same price. So I  think the answer to you question is 'No', it isn't any cheaper to build the Pi in China. Some Raspberry Pis are still being built in China I believe, but they are for local Chinese consumption only.

firedog55's picture

Read around the net forums, there are several projects like this under development. Hardware between $100-$200; several that will play up to 24/192; one even has ambitions to playback DSD files. Another may be able to replace the software on your SBT and run from the SBT HW.

Within a few months I think there will be several solutions with "off the shelf" parts and downloadable software.

alts's picture

Hi,

In my opinion the best Network Player is based on the Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing).

It is a Miniature box (4"x4"), based on the powerful i3 processor. It is virtualy silent.

There are Ethernet,  HDMI and USB conections. I bough one at Amazon for $280, added a 32gb mSata drive, 8gb ram , Win 7 and JRiver Media Player V.18. The total cost was arround $500. The files are on my Synology NAS.

It is lighting fast, i use it with 80k files and it is very fast (very very fast). The JRiver is a wonderful Player, and I use JRemote  Remote App for iOS to control it (also very, very fast).

I am very satisfied.

Antonio

 

labjr's picture

How does the Intel NUC compare to a MAC mini?

alts's picture

I had a 2010 mac mini, and the Nuke blows away it. Much faster and the same Sq.

Antonio

labjr's picture

For $500 there's a lot you can do.  You can use a regular PC or a notebook for a music server. Doesn't really have to be miniature.

I got this in my email the other day

http://www.techbargains.com/news_displayItem.cfm/346796

sbp's picture

Hi

If you still are interested in using your raspberry as a Squeezebox player, then please try the piCorePlayer.

It is a very small linux distro (microcore linux) which uses the Squeezelite player, so all in all it is only about 30 MB in total. Therefore it is running entirely in RAM, and there is no disk activity, so you don't need to shut it down in any way, you can simply pull the power cord.

It boots in about 15 sec and several USB-DACs and WiFi dongles are supported.

Get it from here: https://sites.google.com/site/picoreplayer/home

WhitePJ's picture

Hi. I'm sorry to sound as if I know absolutely nothing at all (which is not, in fact very far from the truth), but can someone explain to me why I would want to sent hifi audio data over the USB bus in the first place? Bearing in mind that the Pi has other conection options available, Is this just because of the current availability of usb devices and affordability, or are there other factors that make USB the only sensible choice?

Thanks

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