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Old 28th January 2009, 05:02 AM   #1
Pano is offline Pano  United States
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Default My "homemade" wifi music system. Cheap!

Yeah, you could go out and spend $300 on a nice Logitech Duet and have a great wireless music streaming system - but where's the sport in that?

So let me tell you a bit about my present wireless music system done on the cheap and certainly D-I-Y.

But a little background info first.
I set up my first music server in about '98/99. It was for my office where the radio on the ceiling speakers was driving us all nuts. I used Music Match Jukebox for ripping and playing. And old NEC laptop was pressed into service as the player. It was hardly up to the task with its blazing Pentium 75MHz processor. Clunky, but it worked. All files were moderate bitrate MP3s suitable for background music.
I always wanted to set up a similar system for home, but with lossless files. Never did, until now.

Fast forward 10 years. Instead of my plan to use a dedicated music server in the listening room, it now seemed easy enough to stream instead. And that's where the ZyXEL NMP-1100W comes in. I recently came across this thing on the vast interweb and saw they can be had for $25~$35 US. Cheap! It's basically an Ethernet sound card - wired or wireless.
You stream to it from your computer; it just takes the place of your local soundcard. It does not control or ask for anything on your server; it just plays what you sent to it. Basta.

Now at this point you may be saying "Ah, it's just an Apple Airport knock off." And you would pretty much be right. But it does some things the Airport does not. What I liked about it is that it does not lock me into iTunes as a player. I can play anything I want, WMP, Winamp, Foobar, Flash, whatever. Remember, it just looks like a sound card to Windoze. And it is capable of streaming 5.1 in Dolby or DTS, if you so desire. I don't know of another wireless card that does that. Linksys make a similar device, but it's 2 channel only, AKAIK. The Linksys seems to work in a very similar way, at a similar price, so may be a good choice as well. (plus it has coax as well as optical out)

So my system is basically this:
  • Dell desktop running Windoze XP. Music files on 400 gig SATA drive.
  • Wireless Ethernet (via Belkin USB) to the ZyXEL wireless music box
  • Homemade DAC from ZyXEL via toslink.
  • Analog out to amp.
  • Remote control thru WIFI with Net Remote on iPaq pocket PC.

In the next post I'll talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each of these parts and pieces and why I chose each. Also some thoughts about how to maybe do it better.

This is a system that cost me about $120US for the hardware and software - not including the HDD. And it's a ton of fun.
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Old 28th January 2009, 05:04 AM   #2
Pano is offline Pano  United States
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Default wifi music system part 2 The hub

The hub of the system - the ZyXEL wireless music box.

Basically I got it because it's cheap, and it lets me stream whatever I want. With ZyXEL I'm not tied to any player software. The device does, however, tie me to its driver. After all, it has to have something to take the audio stream and pass it on to the box.

Setup was easy. You just plug the box into your computer via a supplied Ethernet cable (a cross cable, I guess). Then you just set up the box, tell it to join a wireless network and supply the WEP key if needed,. Set the IP address or let the router do it. That's it.
The box has a web server in it like most routers, so you can go into that if you want.
It will also act as a router, kind of like the Apple Airport - but I didn't set it up that way.

Once it's all set up, you unplug the Ethernet cable, and off you go! The software on the computer will find the box. You push a button that says "Music On" in the software control panel and it starts steaming. At this point, Windoze will switch over to the ZyXEL as the default soundcard. So anything and everything on your computer gets played remotely.
But - you can change that, and I do. I just switch Windoze back to the regular soundcard and tell my player to stream to the ZyXEL, just as you would do with any second soundcard. That way only my music hits the wireless box. There is an option in the control panel that will switch sound back to the main soundcard if the wireless box goes offline. It does this even if you don't have the ZyXEL box selected as your default soundcard.

So, for example, I can be steaming out of Winamp or Foobar with normal computer sounds going thru the computer's built in soundcard. Power off the wireless box and the music pops back to the computer's default card. (This option can be turned off.)

So how does it work? And how does it sound?

Not bad! The streaming is pretty good, very few drop-outs. The buffer can be set to 1 sec, 200mS or 100mS. I've found that 200mS works best for me - better than 1 second, in fact. Yes, there is the occasional pop and click; I just imagine that I'm listening to vinyl.
And there is the odd long drop out. I don't know why yet, may be my network, or maybe the wireless box itself. Not much fun, but I hope to fix it.

Sound quality is pretty good. Of course I'm running digital out into a good DAC, so that helps. As soon as possible I'll do some A/B testing between the wireless system and a CD player with the same tracks - using the same DAC. So far, I'm not unhappy.

More techinal details in a further post. Suffice it to say here, you have to run thru the ZyXEL driver, no choice. =(
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Old 28th January 2009, 05:05 AM   #3
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Default wifi music system part 3 The remote

Remote control.

OK, cool enough to be able to stream music from my computer to my listening room - but how to control all that?

Those of you who use the Logitech Duet or control iTunes from your iPhone know what a blast it is. You can seek, search, choose, see cover art, etc. But I don't want an iPhone and the Logitech is a dedicated remote so

Enter the Pocket PC. In this case, an HP iPaq 4355. This is a PDA or pocket PC that runs Windows Mobile 4 (AKA, windows 2003). Not the newest PDA, but got it cheap on Craigslist with original box, cables, manual. $50.
There is plenty of remote software that will run on a pocket PC, many of them freeware. I wanted to control Foobar, so went looking. Tried a few, but without much luck. Some were buggy or didn't do much. One would not even run - PocketBar - which is a shame as it looks like it might be a great program. And it's free. Maybe it needs a more recent Windows Mobile. Also tried a few remote controllers for Winamp. The best seems to be RemoteAmp, though it looks like the software has been dropped in favor of an iPhone app.

So at the moment Im running Net Remote by Proximis. Very nice, but not freeware. Costs about $30 US. But it works great. Very good software and well supported and documented. And - -- - the newest version comes with IR remote. So - now I can control any CIR device with the iPaq! Ha ha! Can you do that with your Logitech Duet remote? Not only that, I can surf the web, read email, play games, or even log into my remote PC. All from my remote control.

Net Remote is a great bit of software and will control several players. Winamp, iTunes, WMP, J River and even Foobar with a plug in. Sweet! Can be customized pretty easily, too. Well worth checking out.

So the system does what I want it to and I love it. The hardest part was finding good remote control software. Net Remote isn't free, but it's darn nice. Very much worth paying for and the price is low.

So for less than 1/2 the price of a Logitech duet I have a system that does what I want and more. And it's not locked into any particular hardware or software if I want to expand or change. Yes, it has its limitations, but I'm trying to get around those.
But most of all it was DIY.

More on some technical details later, if anyone is interested.
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Old 28th January 2009, 05:21 AM   #4
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Default Links

Sorry, I should have embedded links in the posts above.
Here they are:

Net Remote: http://www.promixis.com/

ZyXEL NMP-1100W: http://www.geeks.com/details.asp?inv...-1100W&cat=NET

Hp iPaq 4355: http://www.pocketpccentral.net/ipaq4350.htm
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Old 28th January 2009, 03:40 PM   #5
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Great post Michael!

I've been researching this for a while now and you just went and did it. My forays into the idea have been with video and I've also come across quality-of-service issues with video.

802.11g is supposed to handle 54MB/s continuously, so why are there problems with a 12MB/s DVD stream? I dunno, but I was thinking I'd just run cat5 to my big screen using something like this
http://cgi.ebay.com/Lan-2-5-HDD-AV-m...rkparms=66%3A2|65%3A15|39%3A1|240%3A1318

Anyway, the iPaq 4355 is a great idea. I might have to buy me one of them.

BTW, have you opened up the ZyXEL box yet? Who's DAC they using? I'm sure you could do some sweet tweaks on that puppy
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Old 28th January 2009, 05:34 PM   #6
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Very interesting. Do you know if it can pass hi-res audio? like 24/96?
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Old 28th January 2009, 07:29 PM   #7
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I doubt the software can - without tricks. But the hardware should be capable, as it will do 6 channel stuff via the analog outs and 7.1 DTS via spdif.
This is something I'm testing now. Will post what I find, for sure.

Hi Iain - good to hear from you - thanks for the kind words. =)

I did open the ZyXEL to have a look see - and because it makes a strange noise. Sort of a whir or sizzle. Sounds like a tiny HDD in there. The only thing inside that could be a HDD is a small silver box. But I suspect that it is something to do with RF.

Lots of big VLSI chips in there. Will track them down to see what they do. I doubt that I'll be modding the DAC inside, an external DAC seems so much simpler.

Those HDD media players on eBay are fun. I've had a close eye on those types of gadgets for a couple of years. And that was how I planned to go, until the ZyXEL came along. The trouble with the HDD media players is that they probably don't do lossless audio formats. Some hint that they do, but I'm not sure I believe it.

Just do an eBay search for HDD media player.

They all seem to do video, so you're set there. If you can go wired, by all means do! The wireless thing is so funky. Right now mine is streaming pretty as you please, but this morning it was a mess - skipping, cutting out. All from buffer under runs. Don't know why, but suspect my wifi network.

If I could find an inexpensive HDD media player that will do FLAC and 24/96, that would be my choice. (not sure how to handle net radio, tho). Might have to build it myself based on a mini-ITX motherboard. But that's for later!
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Old 28th January 2009, 09:02 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally posted by Iain McNeill
Great post Michael!

802.11g is supposed to handle 54MB/s continuously, so why are there problems with a 12MB/s DVD stream?
54 MB/s is a fantasy, I don't know who decided it would be alright to put that as the spec.

Most implementations of 802.11g that I have seen are more like 11MB/s.
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Old 29th January 2009, 12:07 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally posted by preiter
.... a fantasy.....
You're right about that! And when was the last time you really saw 100MB on ethernet?

Still, I have no trouble streaming movies from Netflix on my wifi. The only bottleneck seems to be the slow DSL connection here.

If only I could get the audio to work as well......
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Old 29th January 2009, 07:15 AM   #10
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Hi Panomeniac,

Can you post a picture of the inside? Sounds like a CMEDIA chip.
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