Saturday, June 11, 2016

Using The Chromecast Audio To Stream Music From Your Local Network


I am one of the earliest adopters of the Sonos system. If you're not familiar with it, Sonos is a wireless audio system that allows you to stream music from a variety of sources including your computer. Currently they offer the following devices:

  • Connect - Connects your stereo or amplifier to the Sonos network.
  • Connect:Amp - Same as the Connect with a built-in amplifier (add your own speakers).
  • Play 1, 3, & 5 - Speakers with a built in amplifier and Connect.
  • Playbar - A powered soundbar with built-in Connect.
  • Sub - A powered subwoofer with built-in Connect.

There are many advantages to the Sonos system including:

  • Has its own mesh WiFi network where each device acts as its own repeater.
  • Optionally, it can be connected to your WiFi network.
  • You can control the system from your computer or an app on your phone or tablet.
  • You need not run any host on your computer to stream local content from your network.
  • You can specify which devices are playing the same content.
  • Devices can be set up to play only the left or right channels, or both.
  • They offer a broad range of online audio sources.
  • Superior sound quality.

So why even bother using anything else? The cost. The least expensive Sonos component is $200. Heck, just to connect your stereo to the Sonos network will set you back $350!

THE CHROMECAST AUDIO

Enter Google's Chromecast Audio. At $35 (some retailers sell it for $30), you can buy several of them for the cost of just one Sonos component. It may not be as elegant a solution as Sonos but with a little effort you could save yourself thousands of dollars on a complete home setup.

To play your audio you use a phone, tablet, or computer, then cast from that device to one, some, or all of your Chromecast Audios. Note that you must have a wireless device to set up a Chromecast Audio. That's because it will create its own WiFi hotspot that your wireless device will need to connect directly to in order to set it up for your network's WiFi.

The gap in functionality and elegance between the Chromecast Audio and Sonos is narrowing as manufacturers are adding the Chromecast Audio capability to their own powered speakers, soundbars, and stereos. This is prefered because like Sonos, if the Chromecast Audio is incorporated into an amplified device you should be able to turn on the amp simply by streaming to it.

THE LOCAL MEDIA DIFFICULTY

Still, I hesitated to recommend the Chromecast Audio primarily because there seemed to be no good way to play music from your local network. While the Sonos devices have the smarts to catalog the music on a shared network, the Chromecast Audio was designed to stream everything from the internet. Scouring the internet it would seem the only answer is to use Plex - a media server that you run on a host computer to transcode and play content on your portable devices, computers, or TV's. It works but it is not adept at organizing the media. For example, you may have rated your audio files but while Plex can read tags like "genre" it is not able to read your ratings. You can rate the music from within Plex but if you have a large collection it would be extremely time consuming. Additionally, if your Plex database were ever to be lost you would have to start from scratch!

THE SOLUTION

Enter a combination of JRiver Media Center and the BubbleUNpP app. I'm sure there are other options but I'll focus on what I have used successfully.

JRiver Media Center is a power media manager for images, audio, and video. Its capabilities are too numerous to mention here but these are the ones most relevant to this post:

  • Smart Playlists (A.K.A. Dynamic Playlists) that are automatically updated as you update the audio file with ratings, genre, dates, beats per minute, etc.
  • Adept at downloading podcasts with all kinds of parameters regarding how many to keep, how they are tagged, amount of disk space to use, storage location, and much more.
  • A DLNA server that has very low impact on your system resources. This can be used to send media to other devices like your portable devices and TV.

I even use JRiver Media Center to create playlists that I export to my media library for my Sonos system. It routinely looks where my shared media is and adds anything new. If Sonos were able to use a DLNA server it would be extremely convenient as I would not have to keep exporting playlists for Sonos to read. I could just set up a Smart Playlist and whenever I add new content that matches a Smart Playlist it would be there for my Sonos to play. Score another advantage for the Chromecast Audio...

Finally, BubbleUPnP creates a direct connection between the DLNA server (I.E. JRiver Media Center) and the Chromecast Audio (it also works with the video Chromecast). Note that you'll still need to keep your portable device running BubbleUPnP connected to your WiFi network so it can send the next audio file to the Chromecast Audio. With my DLNA server connected to my Chromecast Audios I now have access to all those awesome Smart Playlists, podcasts, and individual songs, albums, and artists at a fraction of the cost of the Sonos system!

RELEVANT LINKS

Chromecast Audio $30 to $35
JRiver Media Center 30 Day Free Trial, $49.98 for multiple installs, annual upgrades are less than $19 (Note that the free version of JRiver Media Center, called Media Jukebox, does not include a DLNA server.)
BubbleUPnP free or $4.69 to unlock
PC Magazine Editor's Choice Review of the Chromecast Audio (Note that while they say it has a "Con" of only a 3.5mm connector "out of the box" you can add your own 3.5mm to stereo RCA jacks or even an optical cable.)



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