The Basics: HRA Music Servers

Generally speaking, a music server is an electronic device that plays digital music files. They may or may not have local internal storage for those files but a peripheral hard drive, USB stick or networked audio storage device is required. However, they usually don’t have optical disc drives or amplifiers and speakers. Of course, there are going to be exceptions to this definition but I think it covers the concept of music servers pretty well.

Music servers are basically central storage for your music collection, which can be easily accessed by pressing buttons on turning dials on the server or by remote control. The current trend is to use a tablet or smart phone app as the user interface. There are a lot of options when it comes to music servers…and the technology goes back further than you might think.

We could look back at music boxes or player pianos from the late 19th century for inspiration but a bona fide music server first appears in the early part of the 20th century with the invention of the jukebox. It took many years for the first machines to develop into the coin operated, vinyl disc-based, elaborate machines you may be familiar with at the local drive in eatery, but the concept is the same. You select a piece of music you want to hear by hitting a button or two and the machine cues up your selection or appends it to the end of a “playlist”. The vast majority of commercial jukeboxes were self-contained. The vinyl discs were all located in the device. These days Seeburg and other manufacturers of Jukeboxes have moved to digital files and networked delivery.

Portable Music Players

The arrival of the first handheld MP3-capable digital music player in 1997, was instrumental in launching the concept of music servers to music fans and inspired Steve Jobs to come up with and launch the iPod in the fall of 2001. But whereas previous attempts focused exclusively on the hardware (Diamond Rio, Creative Labs NOMAD and the Archos Jukebox), Apple was able to negotiate deals with the major record labels and setup a content delivery system as well. The world moved from trading and downloading illegal files via Napster to paying $.99 per tune…legally. Steve Jobs did it again.

But the sound quality left a lot to be desired.

An iPod, iPad, iPhone or any “i” device can be a music server. But they are not capable of playing high-resolution music files in any format. And iTunes, despite all of the fuss about “Mastered for iTunes” is not ready to launch a high-resolution digital music download site.

Enter Astell & Kern, Pono, Samsung, FiiO, ColorFly, Sony NWZ-F886 and a few others. These devices represent the next generation of PMP (portable music players)…ones that a ready for high-resolution files of various formats. They range in price from a few hundred dollars to almost $2500 and sport storage capacities from a 25 gigs to over 500 gigs. The huge popularity of the Pono Kickstarter campaigner demonstrates that there is tremendous interest in higher quality portable players.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about dedicated home music servers from specialty manufacturers like Olive and mainstream companies like Sony.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

7 thoughts on “The Basics: HRA Music Servers

  • Mark,

    On a minor note, I have always looked at servers as having built-in storage, streamers relying on external storage.

    With reference to your comment about hardware required to play HRA files, I have three pieces that can play back HRA files:
    Marantz streamer
    Naim streamer

    Yes, the Ipad can playback HRA files. I have two app’s on my Ipad, FLAC Player and AmpliFlac, that allow FLAC playback on an I-device. HRA files are transferred from my computer to the Ipad. At this point I can listen to a down-sampled version through headphones or get the full resolution sound by connecting the Ipad to my Cambrdige Audio Ipad dock and take the digital-out feed to my DAC. There are many DAC’s that accept a direct digital feed from an I-device without using a dock so that cuts out a link in the chain.

    I use an 8TB NAS drive for “high-end” streaming but the sound quality from an I-device digital feed surprises most people (I think the solid state storage helps but that’s another discussion…)

    By the way, I use a Sonos product for internet radio as it has a superior interface. If Sonos ever upgraded their product to play back HRA files, that would have a bigger impact than PONO.




  • Dennis Ashendorf

    The next Dr. W posts may be tricky.

    1. The somewhat crazy USB & Operating System delays issues should merely require a buffer in the DAC (but I use special clocks anyway!). Are special systems necessary?

    2. The high-end emphasis on IIS – as if a network signal is better – is very strange. I use an Intel NUC with an SSD, 1 USB cable to a DAC & JRiver. The cleanest Mac systems I’ve seen are Mac Minis running Audirivana with iTunes, but people add so many tweaks – that simply don’t make sense from athe digital perspective! Still, I use a few anyway!

    3. Most audio network servers are running Linux; so the argument of signal delays from operating systems will still apply, shouldn’t it?

    Dr. W will have fun with these issues!

    • Hey Dennis…I did say this was going to be the basics. I don’t want to scare people off.

  • Mark/Professor,

    As I might have said before, I listen to my HD/ all other files on my HTPC. The soundcard is capable of 6x 192k/24b and the outputs go directly to the Parasound 5 channel amp and the subwoofer. I have by now 24 TB of HD Video/Audio program that I put onto the HDD’s by ripping my DVD-A’s and SACD’s and Blu Ray disks and other ways. The only way nowadays is the HTPC way for me. I use a fast SSD card as C, a 6 core AMD processor, an Asus Soundcard for the sound and a Nvidia GT 640 for the Video. The sound is the best I have experienced including presentations at HiEnd dealer ships and HiFi shows and where-ever. I put my Parasound CD players (2000 and 1600) into boxes, also my TagMcLaren AV32 Preamp and my 2 Playstations, my Toshiba HDDVD player as well as my AKG K 1000 Headphone and as well as my Reference Tube Amp (for the AKG). It was all a journey and a pleasure, but now is the time for digital in its best way and I can only assure everybody that the HTPC (HomeTheaterPC) is the way to go.

    • I just love that you put your HDDVD player in the box…I have one too and it’s still on the top of the rack. I agree that a home theater PC can be wonderful, but they’re not for everyone because of the computer complexity. We’ll get there…I promise.

  • This is a topic I think a lot of people would like to have info shared with them in detail. With the advent of SSD’s and the affordability of storage and NAS devices, it has become incredibly more affordable to maintain large files (especially in the high res realm) more than ever. Compared to traditional hard drives, solid state hard drives (SSD) are finally dropping in price and are far superior to their older brethren. I’ve been a dealer for multiple enterprises who specialize in all-in-one units, starting with Audio Request (we thought it was the bomb with 80G of storage!) up to Kaleidescape and now on the occasion, product from Autonomics. All have or had there place, but there are so many options and for the tech savvy, cost effective alternatives. JRiver and Channel D have incredibly good software and reasonably priced with the addition of a NAS with healthy RAID features (backup).
    What will be interesting to know is what limitations all these options have when it comes to storing and playing back true high res material!
    Carry on doctor…we’re listening!

  • Michel Robichaud

    I use the Oppo BDP 95 as my music server for High resolution music. I have rip all my CD and DVD_A and Blue Ray disc to a NAS from Synology model DS 214 with two 4 TO hard drive 8 To total. I power my music from my oppo server with a McIntosh MX 121 pre-amp and a McIntosh 8207 power amp. The oppo play well all kind of HD file like HD track in wave or Flac 24 bit 192hz or 96hz


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