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Playing Digital Music on Your Home Audio System, Part II: Network Media Hubs

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In the first article in this series, Michael Miller discussed digital media servers that let you play digital music on your home audio system. In this article, he explains another type of device that lets you play music stored on your PC through your home stereo system: the network media hub.
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If you want to store your CD collection digitally, you want a digital media server, which I discussed in the first article in this series. But a media server doesn't help you if you have a lot of digital music files stored on your PC—you know, all those songs you've downloaded from the Internet over the past few years. A total home music solution should let you play music stored anywhere in your house, over your main home audio or home theater system. So how do you get that music from your PC to your receiver or amplifier?

The solution is a new type of device that makes your main audio system part of your home's computer network. This device is called a network media hub, and it's surprisingly easy to connect, configure, and use.

How Network Media Hubs Work

The concept is simple. You download music files from the Internet and store them on your PC's hard disk. You connect the network media hub to your computer network, so that your PC sees it as just another device on the network. You use the network media hub to play music on your PC, except that the output is routed to your home audio or home theater system. Thus you hear the music your PC is playing through the big speakers in your living room.

Cool, eh?

In essence, a network media hub is nothing more than a fancy network adapter, with a variety of audio outputs designed to connect to your home audio system. The software to run the whole shebang actually resides on your PC, so the network hub is essentially a passive device, no larger than a typical network router.

Some network media hubs connect to the network via wired Ethernet. Other hubs connect via wireless WiFi, using either the slower 802.11b specification or the faster 802.11g. For most of us, WiFi hubs are easier to deal with—unless you really want to run a couple of hundred feet of Ethernet cabling from your PC to your living room.

You control your network media hub with the included wireless remote control. Song and artist information is typically displayed on the front of the hub unit, or (sometimes) on the unit's remote control. You don't have to (and, in most cases, can't) connect the hub to your television.

Playback quality is typically very good; even a 10 Mbps WiFi stream is fast enough for playback of compressed audio files. If you want to use your hub to play uncompressed audio (WAV) or video files, however, you may need a faster 802.11g or Ethernet connection.

Because you're using your PC for both storage and actual playback, you need to have your PC turned on all the time, which typically isn't a big deal. Know, however, that running other PC applications while you're playing audio can sometimes overload your system and cause playback problems. For that reason, it helps if you have a relatively fast host PC. (And it's not a bad idea to store all your media files on a dedicated hard disk, although that's not a requirement.)

Some network media hubs can also play streaming Internet radio broadcasts. This possibility assumes that your host computer is connected to the Internet, ideally via a broadband connection. And some manufacturers let you daisy-chain multiple units to play music throughout your house; this is actually a cheap way to get whole-house audio, fed from a single PC.

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