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