imageThose of us who like the idea of streaming music around our homes have a plethora of technologies available to make it a reality. Sadly, all of them – at least all the ones which work well – are proprietary and have some degree of “lock in” to the suppliers. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a user experience perspective, once you’re locked in, then you’re at the whim of a manufacturer deciding to continue supporting the system you’ve invested time and money into building up.

I’ve been playing around with streaming music for years, and have a few experiences to share, with some links to interesting discussion topics elsewhere on the net. Hands up – I work for Microsoft, and my preferences in the past have been to go down the Microsoft-compatible route as much as possible. Not necessarily the easiest route to take, as it turns out…

Apple AirPlaysee more on Wikipedia

Introduced in 2010 as an evolution of a previous proprietary protocol (AirTunes), Apple’s AirPlay is the slickest system around – as long as you have Apple devices everywhere. This alone makes it compelling enough for consumers who have already got an iPhone/iPad/iPod, to invest in other kit that purports to be compatible. There’s something of a dependency on Apple not shifting the goal posts in future, but for the majority of users who are in the Apple device fold, “it just works”.

Chris Hoffman recently published a great overview of all the wireless standards on How-To Geek. Chris highlights the various efforts the non-Apple industry has tried to counter AirPlay with – Intel’s WiDi wireless display, the somewhat disappointing DLNA alliance and the frustratingly non-aligned Miracast standard. In time, there might be a credible and non-proprietary alternative that works as well as AirPlay, but nobody seems to know when.

I have one old iPod bought only because a previous car had a 3rd party device available that swapped out its CD changer for an iPod; that side of things works well enough, but having to suffer iTunes on the PC ever since is the cross I have to bear.

Slim Devices / Logitech Squeezebox

Logitech bought over Slim Devices in 2006, to acquire their network streaming product, Squeezebox. After bringing out a number of well-regarded devices which supported the proprietary Slim Server (later “Logitech Music Server”) software, which offered a web interface as well as a number of 1st and 3rd party mobile control applications (such as SqueezeRemote for Windows Phone or Windows 8). Squeezebox devices have been discontinued now, and Logitech switched the brand to “UE Radio” – which used basically the same hardware as the last Squeezebox Radio, but with new operating software which was not Squeezebox compatible. After some disquiet from existing users, it’s now possible to “downgrade” the UE Radio back to Squeezebox however there appears to be no future development for Squeezebox apart from occasional updates to the server software. The UE Smart Radio has now disappeared from the US web site, and the UK one is showing pretty deep discounting. Looks like that’s the end of that.

I’ve had a Squeezebox Boom for a number of years, and it’s a great piece of kit – they change hands on Ebay now for not much less than they sold for brand new.

Logitech have switched tack to being a wireless speaker provider (eg the UE Mini Boom), which is possibly more user friendly if all you want to do is play music on your mobile device, but doesn’t really help if you’re looking to stream music around the house from a central library. it’s a pity, really – the Squeezebox worked really well when you got it up and running, and attracted a devoted set of users, audiophiles amongst them. Those looking for something else to replace SB with, seem to inevitably draw the conclusion that without relying on DIY or community-driven open source projects, there’s nothing much out there, but…

SONOS

Been around for since 2002, selling one platform for streaming over WiFi or over their own proprietary wireless standard. The range of devices is expanding (and to a degree contracting – the dedicated Sonos controller has been superseded with mobile apps for iOS and Android). A whole bunch of new devices have been released in the last year. SONOS starts to make a lot of sense once you have multiple devices, as you can specify different zones within your house, and play different music in each zone. Some of the devices can even be combined together – so the PLAY:1 speaker could be a standalone player in one room, could combine with a 2nd PLAY:1 to make a stereo pair, or could even be configured as satellite speakers for a home theatre system.

Downsides with SONOS? Well, they still haven’t come off the fence as to whether they’re going to build a Windows 8 or Windows Phone app controller app – ask SONOS directly and you’ll be sent to request it on their online forum, but at the time of writing and despite being the single most asked-for feature, the last comment from SONOS themselves was 6 months ago and doesn’t say whether they are planning on doing either. There are 3rd party apps out there – like Phonos or Sonata – but they don’t offer the same degree of control as the kosher apps do on other platforms, or on Windows 7/8 desktop.

Another bummer about moving from Squeezebox to SONOS is that the latter doesn’t support Lossless WMA playback – years ago, I ripped my whole CD collection in WMA, so it’s a bind to have to convert the whole lot to FLAC just so that SONOS can play it back without reducing the quality to 320kpbs. The free conversion software FOOBAR2000 did the trick of batch converting everything, but that’s just a pain to have to deal with.

SONOS supports Spotify (Premium only) so the next decision is whether to move off Xbox Music and take the plunge to a more expensive Spotify service...