Audiophile lossless audio streaming on a ramen noodle budget

A long time ago, even before my first blog, I posted a web page detailing my experiences running an iTunes server in my house. This page became very popular, so I know there are a lot of people out there who want to do the same thing.

My use case
I have a large library of lossless encoded audio. I want to stream this audio to any device in my house. I know iTunes can do this. I did it this way for years. But with each successive version of iTunes for MacOS and (now Music) on iOS, this use case got more and more marginalized. The primary issue is every time I open my laptop, I have to manually locate and reconnect to my server. The situation is even worse on my iOS devices. In fact, I don’t even know if it is even possible to connect to an iTunes server anymore since the launch of the Apple Music service.

OK, Apple. I got the message. Time to move on to another solution.

Plex Server solves this problem. Plex is designed from the ground up to support my use case. I’d already been using Plex to server video to a Roku box on our TV, but it is also perfectly capable of streaming to any laptop running a web browser. Plex supports both Apple Lossless ALAC and FLAC. No more transcoding headaches!

When I launch the Plex iOS application, it immediately connects to my server. It isn’t a multistep process of launching an application, navigating to a page, waiting, locating an available server, waiting, connecting to my server, and waiting again. It is one step. Same goes for accessing Plex from a web browser. Click, done. I have a pretty large library. iTunes never seemed to like this very much. The larger the library, the longer it takes to get connected.

AirPlay
I do love AirPlay. If you have an audio device with a line level input, you stream audio to that device with AirPlay for $15. How? First generation Airport Express base stations can be found on eBay for $15, and they can still be configured with the latest version of Airport Utility. Just plug the 1/8” audio output from the Airport to your line level input, turn on AirPlay with Airport Utility and you’re all set.

Using Airport Utility to configure AirPlay

Switching between AirPlay destinations can be somewhat of a hassle on MacOS. You have to open System Preferences, locate the Sound Control panel, etc, but here is a secret. If you option-click on the speaker icon in the menu bar, you can switch input and output devices!

Option-click the speaker icon to set your output destination

The sound quality of the Airport Express is a resounding meh. Here is another secret. The 1/8” jack on the Airport Express also functions as a optical digital audio output with the addition of an inexpensive (< $1) little adapter. That means any crazy boutique digital to analog convertor your heart can afford can be an AirPlay device.

First generation Airport Express shown with an optical cable and optical port adapter

My Listening Station
Listening to music should be instantaneous and headache-free. I want the option to stream audio from my laptop, but I also desire independence from the laptop. It sucks to have some music going in the background, then I close my laptop and the music stops. Oops. The iPad is a pretty ideal music browser interface, but they’re too pricey to dedicate to a single task. If you look on ebay, you can find perfectly functional first generation iPads for $60. Sadly, the latest version of Plex does not run on the first generation iPad. However, the app store will allow you to download and install older versions of Plex that will still run on the iPad 1.

The completed listening station

I paired my Airport Express with a SMSL SD-793II .The SMSL is a simple device that does two things. 1) convert an optical digital audio signal into analog and 2) function as a class D headphone amplifier. I need enough power to drive a pair of 300 ohm Sennehieser HD 600. You can’t plug these to an iPhone or laptop, they’re designed to drive little earbuds. The SMSL delivers the juice these monsters need.

SMSL SD-793II

Ingredients

  • Apple First Generation Airport (had on hand — can be found on eBay aprox $15)
  • Optical adapter (ebay $0.70)
  • Optical cable (had on hand)
  • SMSL DAC/Headhpone Amp (eBay $65)
  • Plex Server (free)
  • Plex iOS client ($5)
  • Headphones — whatever your favorites are
  • Apple First Generation iPad (optional — had on hand, can be found on eBay aprox $60)
  • Mic stand — had one on hand (optional)
  • Tablet mic stand adapter (eBay $6)
  • Kurzweil Expressionmate mic stand adapter to hold D/A — had this on hand too (optional)

What iTunes is still good at
Plex isn’t perfect. My main gripe with the client app is the lack of shuffle all functionality. iTunes’ ability to edit metadata across multiple tracks is still unrivaled. ‘Smart Folders’ is sorely missed. But the ability to connect to a server instantly on an iOS device and play FLAC files is worth the tradeoff for me.

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