Like any self-respecting computer jock, I have a vast collection of MP3s and Windows Media audio files on my computer’s hard drive. I gleefully categorize and pore over this collection like a keyboard-and-mouse version of John Cusack’s record-indexing character in High Fidelity. I have party playlists, slow groove favorites, and late-night mixes. My hard drive is a flexible jukebox of kicking beats. There’s just one problem: It’s locked up in my study, far away from my living-room stereo.
What I need is the perfect connection from my computer to my stereo. I want the flexibility of being able to organize and create cool mixes on my PC, but I want the music to play throughout the house, so I can lounge on the couch and with a touch of button move from Joy Division to Shuggie Otis to any of the other 700 CDs I have available. But I don’t want wires dragging through my house, and the stereo must play just the music from my computer, not the other sounds, too. The last thing I need is a “You’ve Got Mail” sound booming through my stereo while I’m chilling to J. Lo.
Enter two modern marvels that are now available for home consumers: wireless networks and digital audio receivers. Wireless systems, also known as Wi-Fi, have been a big seller this year. I took some time to set up my network, and I won’t bore you with the details, but if you want a primer on it, click here. Once you’ve set up your network, a perusal of sites such as buy.com or news.com’s product reviews gives you dozens of options to choose from for your digital audio receiver. These devices are basically scaled-down computers that play music files and connect to your stereo.
When choosing a digital audio receiver, the important things to consider are the file formats you want to play over the system, how the system stores its music files, and the method for connecting your receiver to your home computer. I went with a system from Turtle Beach called an AudioTron because it can connect to my existing home network and because it doesn’t store the files on its own. Instead, it uses my computer as a central storage device. For more on why this was important to me, click here. I bought the AudioTron from buy.com for $292. I then needed a way to connect my receiver to my existing wireless network. Buy.com had just the trick, a wireless bridge from Linksys for $105. Think of a bridge as a wireless extension cord that connects computers to the network. All this shopping took me a couple weeks and $397, but I had the gear and I was ready to go. What follows is a chronicle of the frustrations and the triumph of setting up an AudioTron. Do try this at home.
Saturday 8:27 p.m.
The first thing to do is set up the home computer for file sharing. The AudioTron will connect automatically to my computer, but by default Windows does not permit such connections. So, I tinker with Windows to allow another computer to connect to it and access files. I right-click on my music folder and pick “sharing.” Windows warns me that sharing can be very dangerous. In fact, it warns me twice. I bravely go forward, and Windows launches the setup routine for allowing me to share files. A reboot later, and I’ve created a workgroup, which allows my multiple home computers to connect securely to one another and share information. To make sure this works, I use my laptop’s media player to successfully play Outkast’s Stankonia album from the home computer’s hard drive.
Saturday 8:35-11:30 p.m.
These three torturous hours involve no music whatsoever. They basically involve me trying desperately to understand how my wireless network functions and how to connect a computer—or in this case the AudioTron—through my wireless bridge. If you are interested in learning how this went, click here.
Sunday m idnight
I take the AudioTron out of its box, power it up, and connect it to my Linksys bridge. I pop in the AudioTron configuration CD and run setup. The program automatically starts searching the network for my AudioTron, but after about five minutes it gives up. I’m faced with a dialogue box that lets me do nothing. I start fiddling around. When debugging a network, it is very convenient to confirm that each device is really connected to the network. To do this, you run a program called “ping” (a reference to Ping-Pong). This will talk to a machine and make sure it is alive and well. By fiddling with the options on the front of the AudioTron machine, I discover its IP address and successfully ping it. If you want to know how to do this, click here.
The instruction manual is still insisting that I use the non-functioning setup program, so I ignore it. I launch my browser and type the AudioTron’s IP address directly into the “address” field. For the first time tonight, something works the first time out. My browser shows me a set of configuration pages that allow me to circumvent the bad setup program by connecting directly to the AudioTron. The Web page is cool, albeit a little poorly designed. It shows me all the options of the AudioTron, all the files it can see (which is presently none) and how to make playlists, set the alarm clock, configure my favorite songs, and more.
One of the features from the AudioTron sales pitch that I was most looking forward to was how it would “automatically detect all folders full of music on a network.” When I turn on my device it looks valiantly for music to play, but it fails to find anything. Instead I get the message: “NO BROWSE MASTER WAS FOUND.” Who knows what a browse master is—certainly not the documentation. I go back to the Web and start surfing. Finally, I find my fellow pilgrims on the road to the AudioTron. There is a support group for us, with a complete archive. Lots of people have questions. Very hard questions. But no one seems to have the answer to my question: How do I make this thing work?
My lifetime companion has now turned out the lights in our study/bedroom, leaving me in the dark both physically and emotionally. I have searched the documentation, the Web, my horoscope, but the truth eludes me. Perhaps a good night’s sleep will help.
Sunday 8:45 a.m.
Aha! A breakthrough moment. I look more closely at the configuration Web pages, which let me connect directly to the AudioTron and change its settings. I can tell AudioTron exactly where to look for my music. Last night I had assumed that I had to get AudioTron to magically find the music on my network. Instead, I can just say, “Look here, stupid.” I type in my computer’s name and the name of my folder of shared music files and restart the AudioTron. It works! The AudioTron discovers the cache of music and begins cataloguing the files for playback. I plug it into my stereo and Stankonia blasts from my computer through my stereo.
After that first hellish day of setup, I have now been living with the AudioTron for a couple months. It is super cool, though it definitely has its rough edges. For example, the user interface for both the AudioTron and its Web pages are unintuitive and hard to figure out. I still haven’t made it understand the same playlists that I’ve set up in Windows Media Player.
But I have created new favorite lists, I’ve set up DJ-style mixes for parties, and most important, I play whole genres of music without moving from the couch. MP3 and WMA music files contain extra information that describes each song’s artist, album, and genre. This enables the AudioTron to perform some pretty neat tricks: If I come home from work and want to relax, I just select “jazz,” and my stereo starts playing the hundreds of jazz tracks I have on my computer. If I feel like rocking out, then I can just go to the rock genre. This feature alone makes my 14 hours of setup (including sleep) worthwhile. Another cool feature: The AudioTron can play Internet radio stations, so I can compare the college rock stations of West Virginia with those in Wisconsin. Judgment: No big difference.
The AudioTron motivated me to rip all of my compact discs onto my computer’s hard drive. For less than $500, I have the same central jukebox features that a custom audio retailer would install for 10 times that amount. Now that I set up one AudioTron, I can easily install another one in a different room, with access to my same collection of music.
To keep thousands of songs available at the push of a button, my computer now purrs along at all hours of the day. Unfortunately, that leads to a new problem: noise. Even from 30 feet away, my ears can pick up the whine of the computer’s fan, the whir of its hard drive, and the grinding of the power supply. I have found my next project: to make my computer super-silent. When Aimee Mann is breaking my heart, she shouldn’t be overshadowed by the whirring of a computer’s disks.