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Playing Digital Music on Your Home Audio System, Part I: Digital Media Servers

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The world of high-fidelity home audio meets the world of personal computing when you want to play digital audio files on your home audio system. In the first of two articles, Michael Miller examines one aspect of that convergence: a new device called a digital media server.
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If you're like me, you've gotten used to playing digital music on your personal computer. Whether you download music from the Internet or rip songs from your favorite CDs, you've learned how cool and convenient it is to have your music collection at your fingertips on your PC's hard disk.

Let's take that concept one step further and imagine a world where you don't have to bother with stacks of CDs and other physical media. Imagine your entire music collection completely digital, stored on a big hard disk for playback whenever you want, through a high-fidelity home audio system. Wouldn't that be great?

Well, it is great, and you can do it today. Computer technology has converged with home audio technology, and the result is a new family of devices that let you play digital music through your home audio or home theater system.

Servers vs. Hubs: Where's the Hard Disk?

Playing digital music through your home audio system is a logical extension of playing the same digital audio files on your computer. You have to rip the songs from your CDs and store them (in digital format) on a hard drive, just as you do with music on your computer. The difference is that instead of listening to the music through the tinny speakers attached to your PC, you listen through the big speakers and high-powered amplifier in your home audio system.

Two types of devices let you do this. They differ primarily in where the music files are stored—on their own built-in hard disk drive, or on your computer.

The first type of unit is a digital media server. It's a self-contained unit with a built-in hard disk and CD drive. You insert a CD into the drive, burn it to the hard disk, and then play songs from the hard disk. This type of unit typically looks like a regular consumer audio component and connects to your home audio system via digital or analog connections.

The second type of unit, a network media hub, doesn't have a built-in hard disk or CD drive. Instead, it connects to your home computer network, accesses the digital audio files stored on your PC's hard disk, and then streams the music through your home audio system. This type of hub is typically a small and relatively low-cost device that connects directly to your home audio system; it plugs into your home network via either wired or wireless connection.

Aside from the built-in hard disk (or lack thereof), there's another practical difference between the two types of devices. Digital media servers are typically used to store entire libraries of CDs—that is, they replace your existing CD collection. (That's a great space-saver, if nothing else!) In contrast, network media hubs aren't typically used to replace your CD library; instead, they're normally used to play your downloaded MP3 files on your home audio system.

That's a slight difference, but an important one. A digital media server becomes an integral part of your home audio system, just like a CD player or receiver. A network media hub, on the other hand, is essentially an extension of your personal computer (and computer network). The digital media server is a freestanding component; the network media hub relies on your computer to actually play the music.

Granted, either type of device handles either type of use. But if you want to store your CD collection digitally, the digital media server is the way to go. If all you want to do is play your MP3 files on your big stereo system, then the network media hub is the best choice.

There's also a slight difference in price. Because a digital media server is essentially a function-specific personal computer (with a big hard disk), it's priced like a computer—typically $2,000 or more. The network media hub, on the other hand, isn't a computer at all (and doesn't have a hard disk), so it's priced much lower—under $200, in some cases.

I'll discuss network media hubs in the second article in this series. For now, let's focus on digital media servers—how they work and what kind to buy.

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