Open Source, Whole House Media Server project
Posted by rbTech Staff, Last modified by rbTech Staff on 10 February 2015 02:19 PM

October 19th, 2014

I've been looking at home media/ audio systems for a little while now.  The Sonos systems look ok, but are expensive at $199-299 per room.  They also come with mixed reviews and you don't get any choice about speakers.  So if you have a nice set of speakers, or you'd like to use your own stereo with a line-in (or you want to use a real subwoofer, not a little built-in unit like they come with), they probably aren't the best choice;   I was underwhelmed when I looked at a couple of them in person.

The new Beep project looks really, really cool:  At $149 apiece they're less expensive.  They also allow you (ok, require you) to use your own speakers.  But they're very new, and not really available as of this writing - the first batch has sold out and the next batch isn't shipping yet.  I'm intrigued by the Beep project and will be watching them closely.  Their downside is that by the time you add some decent speakers, you're up close to the Sonos pricepoint.

In the meantime, my research led to a more defined list of wants/ needs, so here they are:

  • Stream from multiple sources: Local files, Internet radio, Pandora, Spotify
  • Stream to multiple endpoints, e.g. Kitchen, Dining Room, Living Room etc.
  • Endpoints can stream in sync (e.g. same music playing throughout the house) or individually select sources
  • I'd like to be able to use my own speakers and amplifier
  • For some locations I'd like to use a high-end computer speaker set (e.g. the Altec Lansing MX6021 which absolutely ROCK)
  • It needs to easily manageable - simple and intuitive to change sources and where they play
  • Ideally it would have a mobile app or something similar for managing the streams from a smartphone or tablet

I started thinking that a Rasperry Pi may be the ticket to tunes I was looking for.  I started Googling around and stumbled on the Volumio project which looked promising.

My son started Googling as well, and he found the Vortexbox media server  It's a Fedora Linux based project, with an embedded Logitech Media Server (formerly Squeezebox).  We installed it on an old laptop we had kicking around, and it seemed to fit the bill pretty well.  We spun the install CD and after a few minutes were able to log in to the web interface.

We then took a Raspberry Pi "B" we had around, and following the steps here: we were able to install the Squeezebox 'client' and connect it up to the media server.  Suddenly we had 2 output devices:  The speakers on the laptop and the audio out on the Raspberry Pi!  We did a little testing, and indeed we were able to play to the two devices either synchronously or independently.

In addition we found the Squeezebox controller app for Android and iPhone.  This is where I started getting excited - here was an interface that everyone in the family (ages 4, 12, 14, plus the 40ish parental units) could use!

Lastly, we found a couple of good endpoint applications for our devices: Softsqueeze, a software (java) Squeezebox player for Windows, Mac and Linux machines.  And the last bit of glue for it all is the Squeezeplayer, an app in the Google Play Store, which let us play to our android phones and tablets.  Suddenly we had nearly a dozen endpoints in the house - smartphones, tablets, laptops, plus the stereo (behind the Raspberry Pi) and the 'server' unit (the laptop running Vortexbox) with a shiny new set of Logitech 2.1 speakers for the living room.

I stashed the laptop in the living room entertainment center because it has an optical drive, and I have a crap pile of CDs (yup, I still buy new albums on disc!).  The vortexbox detects when a disc is inserted, and automatically rips it to your library.  Cool.

So, in an afternoon, we went from a single stereo hooked up to our Xoom tablet, to a fully integrated, multi-sourced, multi-output whole house audio system.  And the total buy (not including the gear we already had) was a $20 wifi adapter for the Raspberry Pi and a $50 set of speakers for the living room.  Not bad!


January, 2015 edit:

We've ripped our entire audio library to FLAC, and we have nearly 1,000 albums stored away on the laptop hard drive.  We added an external USB drive for backups, and the laptop now runs to a soundbar and subwoofer system in the living room.

We've also augmented the system with a couple old Android devices we had kicking around which run the Softsqueeze app from the playstore (not free, but under $10), and a couple extra sets of computer speakers that we also had kicking around.  I haven't done the math, but there are probably well north of 1,000 watts of audio stashed in the 5 locations around the house.

We now have listening points in 2 bedrooms and the kitchen (old android devices and computer speakers), the dining room (the raspberry pi and component stereo system) and living room (laptop and sound bar).  When it's all cranked up, and all points are synchronized and playing the same thing, my nerdy little heart sings almost as loudly as I do with the music :)

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Comments (2)
Andrew Sullivan
20 January 2016 01:06 AM
Hi Rubin
This sounds fantastic thanks. One question, do you have external inputs to the system - like the TV - and if so, how are they connected and managed??
Thanks and regards
Rubin Bennett
22 January 2016 12:16 PM
Hi Andrew
The speakers we originally set up didn't have multiple input capabilities, and I've not tried to run audio in to the Vortexbox to be rebroadcast (maybe through the Mic port? I may have to tinker with that).
As I mentioned above, last winter we added a soundbar with a subwoofer for our television, and connected the optical input to the TV, and the regular audio jack to the Vortexbox server. The soundbar came with a remote that allows input selection, and that was an ideal solution for that. The Soundbar is a Vizio unit which matches our TV, so the TV remote also controls the soundbar volume (a nice side benefit that I hadn't considered until I went to watch TV for the first time and the soundbar was cranked, and nearly blew me off the couch!). For under $200, it was an awesome value for the sound quality and volume.

This winter we got a Samsung R3 omnidirectional speaker for the kitchen/ dining room, and so far I haven't been able to properly integrate that into the Vortexbox (but I also haven't tried very hard). It has native Pandora and Spotify apps, so that's what we've been using so far. That was fairly expensive in comparison to the rest of the system ($250), but the sound is good and the app is slick. It has the added benefit of a touch interface on the top of unit that allows pausing, skipping, etc.. I'll play around with getting it linked to the Vortexbox - I believe it runs Android under the hood, so there may be a way to add the Squeezeplayer app to it and then we're set.
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