Do-it-yourself broadband stereo

My music system includes the future of Internet audio -- a home-brewed component that lets me listen to any Net-connected radio station, anywhere.

By Bill Rosenblatt

Published October 30, 2000 4:30PM (EST)

I got a DSL connection a few months ago while in the process of setting up a home office. I like to listen to music while I work, and I'm what you might call a music-head -- that is, I'm quite particular about what I listen to, and my tastes are not mainstream. So I bought a piece of the future for $6.95 at Radio Shack: a cable that takes the output of my computer's sound card and plugs it into the AUX input of my stereo, an OK-quality mini-system in the office. The result, with certain music Web sites, is music through my stereo that approaches FM quality. Extrapolate this not far into the future, and you'll see why this is going to make radio as we know it today irrelevant.

Music-heads like me like to listen to alternative radio stations. We don't want to know exactly what we're going to hear next, but we do want it to be within a specific genre or mood that we're willing to specify. We can't get that on radio. And some of us, like me, are lazy. My large collection of CDs and LPs usually sits there untouched, and I am way too lazy to deal with MP3s or other downloads (besides, my wife is in the music business and would probably divorce me if I even loaded Napster onto my machine).

After a few weeks of having good-quality music available through the Internet in my home office, I found myself listening less and less to broadcast radio stations. The music selection just wasn't good enough, even in a big city like New York, and there's just too much yapping. Now I listen almost exclusively to music on the Internet.

Taken as a whole, Internet music services let you choose where you want to be on the continuum between explicit choice (your own recordings) and the elements of convenience, surprise and discovery (radio). No other type of music service, except possibly your own personal human DJ with an infinite record collection, can do this for you.

Inspired by this, I decided to take the next logical step. In the living room is our good stereo system; I built an Internet music component for it. I took an old clunker laptop computer that was gathering dust on a shelf, put it over by the good stereo and hooked it up. I call it my Broadband Audio Component (BAC). Now, if I want to listen to Internet music, I simply go over to the stereo, use the Web browser on the laptop to pick an Internet music station -- there are thousands of them -- and select AUX on the stereo. That's it.

Internet music is a tinkerer's game now. Web users have to be too aware of the underlying details of their Internet connections. But the ease with I created my own BAC tells me that soon the day will come when all of those details will fade into the background, and people will be able to just enjoy the music. Just as the Macintosh user interface made it no longer necessary for computer users to wallow in the details of file systems and interrupts, and just as cassette tapes let audio fans ignore the capstans, pinch rollers and NAB hubs of reel-to-reel, Broadband Audio Components will open up a whole new world of music without fuss and bother: A new world with virtually infinite possibilities for music and entertainment from around the world.

Right now, it is possible to make Internet music an integral part of your audio system, but it's not as easy as it ought to be. Messing with cable modem and DSL connections is not for the faint of heart; a PC or Macintosh is a rather silly user interface for playing music when compared to a tuner or CD player; and the sound quality does not exactly bring out the best in a real audiophile system. (Put another way, the Macintosh computer is not a good match for the McIntosh amplifier.)

But that is changing. For one thing, there will be cheap, self-contained devices that do nothing but play Internet music. Already, two vendors, Acer and SonicBox, offer hardware devices that do the easy part: allow you to select stations as if you were twirling a radio dial. These devices don't do the hard part: act like a computer with an Ethernet input and a sound card. They rely on your existing computer for that. These devices are not very useful, but at least they're cheap, in the $100 ballpark.

By a year from now, however, there should be devices for $300 or less that have a station selector, an Ethernet jack and an audio output for connecting to your stereo. Such devices will contain a network interface card, a good-quality sound card, a small LCD display and a special-purpose computer processor that does nothing but connect to the Internet, allow the user to select stations and feed audio streams to the sound card. The current street price of a CD player with a decent-sized changer magazine is $300. It should be possible to build a commercial version of my BAC for about that much.

Kerbango is already developing this type of device and has demonstrated it in prototype; it looks like a retro-chic table radio rather than a stereo component. The company plans to sell it for around $300, but it hasn't announced an availability date yet. The company was acquired by 3Com, which brought you the ubiquitous Palm Pilot, in July.

Another company, Audioramp, has already introduced two Internet audio devices: the iRAD-S, which resembles a standalone mini-stereo, and the iRAD-C, which is configured like a stereo component. Both sell for $399. The iRAD-C is the closest thing there is now to a BAC, but its design is over-engineered for such an early product: it contains a standard CD player, a hard drive, an output for loading music onto portable MP3 players and all sorts of other features. It's more like a master control center for all digital music. They would do better to produce a product at the lower price point that has the basic feature set I described above.

Internet music services are going to make radio irrelevant for active music listeners. If such people are willing to pay $300 for CD players with 400-disc changer banks (not to mention $3,000 for serious audiophile single-disc CD players), then they will gladly pay $300 for a Broadband Audio Component that plugs right into their stereos. Such devices are becoming available; it remains to be seen how popular they get. The answer to that question is, more than anything else, in the hands of broadband service providers, equipment makers and software vendors. Broadband has to get easier before anything else can happen.

Here's how I did it. First, I had to build a small home network so that the computer in my office and my new music appliance could use the Net simultaneously. If you have a DSL or cable modem connection, this isn't too hard to do. You need to buy a cable/DSL router, which is a device that lets you share your Internet connection among multiple devices and fools your broadband service provider into thinking that you are only using a single connection. Such devices are about as big as a phone answering machine and cost less than $200.

I bought the router, a LinkSys EtherFast Cable/DSL Router, as well as a PCMCIA Ethernet card for the old laptop and a couple of network cables (CAT5 with RJ45 connectors). I connected the router to my DSL modem and my office PC. Installing the router wasn't too hard, but you need to know a few technical details about your broadband service that might not be obvious. My service provider is Earthlink; unfortunately, their Web site's support section is woefully bereft of the kind of technical details you need to do this. However, I had spent enough hours on the phone with Earthlink's broadband tech support people when I was trying to get the DSL connection to work in the first place -- I can see your smiles of recognition now -- that I already had the information I needed.

Essentially, the cable/DSL router logs on to your service provider for you, so that you don't need to do it from any of the PCs or other devices attached to it. When you boot a PC that's connected to the router, your Internet connection is just there, just like on your company's LAN. That's the good news. The bad news is that you have an extra layer of complexity if something goes wrong. And LinkSys' technical support also leaves much to be desired: it was an 800 number, but when I called it once I wasn't even put on hold: I had to wait an entire day for a tech support person to call me back. But after playing with it for a little while, you'll get the hang of how the router works.

After I got the router working, I installed the PCMCIA network card into the old laptop and hooked that up to the router. I installed some up-to-date software on it from the Internet: the latest versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, Real Networks' RealPlayer, and Microsoft Windows Media Player. Then I removed all unnecessary startup software, which would only slow it down. I was concerned that this old machine, with its 133 MHz processor and 32 MB of RAM, would not be able to keep up with a broadband audio stream, so I wanted it to be as unencumbered as possible.

Finally, I ran a cable from my office, where the DSL connection comes in, to the living room. This was like installing a new phone line: it involved drills, cable ties and staple guns. I also had to get raw cable and put an RJ45 connector on after I ran the cable through to the living room. You can buy RJ45 connectors and the required crimping tool at your local computer superstore, but I must warn you: attaching RJ45s isn't easy. It is not like hooking up stereo speakers. It's a fussy operation that requires dexterous fingers and patience; it's also far from foolproof. If you must do this, be prepared to do it several times until you get it working.

The moment of truth came when I connected the old laptop's audio output to the AUX input on my good stereo, selected a good-quality audio channel on the Web browser, and let it start. The meeting of two worlds -- of computers and audio equipment -- was complete.

For the first few days after I got my homebrewed Internet music appliance up and running, things didn't quite work. I had to keep messing with the computer to see what Web sites had the best combination of music selection and sound quality; if the router was logging on to Earthlink properly; if the old computer could really keep up with high-bit-rate audio streams; or if it was just Internet congestion interrupting the signal. Now it just works (most of the time, anyway). The details have faded into the background, as can the music, when I want it to. Same as it ever was.

Bill Rosenblatt

Bill Rosenblatt is president of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies, a consulting firm in New York City. He is also on the trustee board of Princeton Broadcasting Service, Inc.

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