Wireless Music Streaming from Windows Media Center written 5 years ago

Windows Media Center Audio Streaming

Since the beginning of owning my first Bush CD midi system, I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a multiroom audio setup. I envisioned little control panels mounted like light switches in every room to control the music (I even designed a few in Sketchup) and lots of hidden ceiling speakers piping in tunes, purely to ensure that avoiding whatever musical tastes I had developed a the time would be impossible.

Fast forward to today, and this stuff isn’t confined to the world of dreams and millionaires: any bozo can pick up a Sonos system, or a few Airplay-enabled speakers and create an in home musical noise fest. And in the world of iGadgets, you even get to have a magical remote to curate the whole system with (meaning my lightswitch-cum-music controller may never exist).

Streaming throughout my house
This is the ultimate plan. I don’t really expect the utensil pot to produce much music, however..

But yet I remain unsated, my desires for many room audio not solved by these off the shelf systems, for I have created myself an ecosystem, which revolves mainly around Windows Media Center. A decision I seem rather stubborn to change, due to WMC’s ability to perform all my living room entertainment needs in one box. The below documents a lost weekend trying to cobble together a wireless streaming solution.

Windows Media Center
Windows Media Center - a non-negotiable part of the system

So, given WMC has to stay, what are my list of requirements?

Ways that don’t work

Attempt 1: Airfoil - 1

Airfoil is a rather cool application that runs on Windows and Mac PCs, allowing audio to be streamed to Airplay compatible speakers wirelessly. It works rather well, and supports synchronising audio output over several speakers with an almost imperceptible delay.

However, it flat out doesn’t work with Windows Media Center, with the developers citing issues with crashing causing them to disable any WMC integration - this is a bit peculiar given it works well with Windows Media Player - which WMC mostly uses in the background to play music.

The other issue with this setup is that in order for the sound synchronisation to work, Airfoil introduces a 2 second delay on the selected audio stream. This is OK when listening to music but obviously ruins video playback - an issue which Airfoil works around by developing a special video playback app.

Attempt 2: Simultaneous Analog and Digital output from Windows 7

The idea here is that we persuade Windows to output to both the digital SPDIF out, and the analogue 3.5mm jack output on the PC. This would then allow an FM transmitter (or other wireless streamermagig) to broadcast the sound to other receivers, in a near real-time fashion.

The issue here is that from Windows Vista onwards, Microsoft revamped the audio stack to support more advanced features (and also introduce some DRM restrictions). This also had the effect of allowing only one sound output at any time - something which angered lots of Windows users.

There is a workaround available however, in the form of Virtual Audio Cable (VAC) This allows you to add a virtual ‘Y’ splitter as a sound output, and then feed this into multiple physical outputs (say SPDIF and analog).

Virtual Audio Cable Setup
Virtual Audio Cable - A pig to setup, and not that great when you’ve done it.

Fundamentally, this works OK. The issues come when trying to rely on the software for anything more than simple testing:

VAC took a lot of fiddling with to get set up, but even when I got there it wasn’t very rewarding.

A method that almost works

Attempt 3: Airfoil and Simultaneous SPDIF output

header to coax SPDIF cabler Interal SPDIF-IN header
Dodgy cable to connect SPDIF-OUT to SPDIF-IN.

This method approximates the above two techniques, in that we use Airfoil to do the streaming, but use an actual piece of wire to split the SPDIF output into two. We can then feed the SPDIF output back into the computer, where Airfoil can listen to it and broadcast it on.

I didn’t realise it, but my PC has two digital sound outputs - optical and co-axial. The sound signal is transmitted from both outputs without needing any coercion or configuring to do so. Rummaging deeper, the coax input on my PC is to some headers on the motherboard, so I hastily chopped up a wire and constructed a SPDIF-coax-to-header wire. This is then plugged into the SPDIF-analog-ouput and the SPDIF-analog-input. The normal A/V amplifier is then plugged into the optical SPDIF output.

Airfoil is then instructed to listen to the SPDIF input, and it gamely broadcasts sound to various Airplay speakers. It actually works rather well - one hiccup is that Airfoil forgets what input you’ve chosen and so needs setting each time.

Why does this only ‘almost’ work then? It’s the 2 second delay thing - the speakers in the kitchen are within earshot of the main living room speakers, meaning that standing anywhere inbetween the two is a nauseating experience.

I was really chuffed when I got this up and running - but it really doesn’t cut it if your speakers are located even remotely near each other.

A way that might work

My last (as yet untested attempt) focusses on using various lumps of hardware to solve the problem. The idea here is to use a hardware device to convert the digital output into an analog signal, then using the aforementioned streamermagig to actually do the wireless bit of the streaming.

There are various (£50 ish) boxes available on ebay that can to do the digital -> analog conversion (and hopefully in a pretty real time manner - some of them even supporting dolby/DTS bitstreaming). I’m not expecting audiophile hifi here, but I can’t see it being too bad for streaming. The output from this I’d then pass into something like the Audioengine W1 - which uses a high quality streaming protocol to send music to a corresponding receiver.

Digital to Analog Converter Audioengine W1
ebay Digital to analog converter - supports Dolby digital and DTS, and the Audioengine W1.

Audioengine will soon (March 2012) be launching the Audioengine W3 - which permits streaming to multiple receivers, and will be better at handling interference

This method doesn’t involve any sexy Airplay enabled speakers, which is a bit of a shame (as they tend to look rather swanky). I’ve got Aerodrom running on the Media Center box though, so streaming audio from iOS devices / iTunes is still possible.

So what’s the general conclusion then?

I think I’ve got a solution above that might work - it’s not quite as straightforward as the Airplay speaker route (requiring dongles to be dangling here and there), but from the reviews I’ve read the Audioengine W1’s are very robust, which is reassuing since my adventures with Airplay have been a little flakey at some times.

I’m gonna wait until the W3’s are released, (for multiple receiver support), and then have a bash at the last technique. Expect an update here with the hilarious failure story.

← previous entry | next entry → Sat 28th Jan 2012 - 20:52 | 3 comments | tagged with Music, Computery Stuff

 Comments 3 comments made

Greg’s GravatarGreg 11 months later

I’m just embarking on the same journey and wondered if you came across a satisfactory solution?

Thanks,

Greg

Hi Greg,

Basically I’ve gone with the final solution as above, but with a few tweaks, so the basic flows are:

Media Center PC -> Optical Digital -> Powered Optical Digital Splitter -> [1] [2]

Each of the optical outputs of the splitter [1,2] are then fed into..

[1] -> AV Amp

[2] ->5.1 Audio converter -> 3.5mm cable into Audio -> Audioengine W3 Tx -> **Wireless ** -> Audioengine W3 Rx -> Class T Amplifier -> Speakers

I don’t particularly want to consider how much this little adventure cost, but as I bought the bits piecemeal, as I tried different things along the way:

  • Originally I had a bluetooth transmitter in place of the Audioengine W3, but this was terrible, mostly down to about a half second lag, and poor range.
  • The optical splitter was originally a simple passive splitter (for about £2). This kinda almost worked, but didn’t reliably work, so I ended up getting the powered version.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the setup: + I don’t need to think about making the music happen in the kitchen - everything that’s coming out of the TV will sound in the kitchen, I just need to flick a switch and it will happen;

  • There’s no appreciable lag. Okay, maybe a tiny bit when there’s isolated tings and snaps, but mostly it’s very pleasant;
  • The Audioengine W3 is awesome. Expensive, but you just plug it in and it works. Mine is currently 12 inches away from a microwave and soldiers on happily.

I’m not proclaiming this as the cheapest way, or even the most sensible way, but it’s what I’ve managed to come up with, and I’m kinda chuffed with how it works.

Greg’s GravatarGreg 11 months later

Hi Rob,

Thanks for the reply. I guess using the optical digital allows you to output in parallel? I’ve been experimenting with a set of AQ Audio smartspeakers combined with Airfoil, which didn’t work last night. Airfoil have just sent me a beta new version to try.

I did find with itunes on the Windows PC I can play music/radio either in parallel or choose an output device, but then I need to use a mouse and not my MCE remote!!

Thanks,

Greg

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