Easy is hard

At 3beez, we believe that the best solution for most people who want to store their music collection in digital form is a single box containing all the hardware and software required to rip, import, catalog, back up, update, and play.

  • With a one-box system, music lovers make one purchase decision; that decision is unburdened by worries about whether individual components will work well together.
  • Setting up a one-box system is almost as simple as setting up a CD player: one power cord, one audio cable, and a network connection.
  • A one-box system fits easily in an audio system (especially when compared to a stack of components from multiple vendors), looks good (especially when compared to a desktop computer), and is quiet and cool.
  • Properly designed custom software provides a unified interface for performing all the tasks involved in building and enjoying a digital collection. Music lovers do not have to master one tool for playing and another for ripping, nor do they have to configure multiple components to work together.
  • Properly designed custom software presents an intuitive interface that makes simple operations simple. It allows users to catalog their collections in the way that makes the most sense to them and with as much information about each recording as they want.

Only a one-box system can have all these characteristics; when it does – as in the case of the Wax Music Management System from 3beez – it makes collecting digital music easy.

Instead of a one-box system, most manufacturers make components that must interact with other components – often ones from other manufacturers – to provide a complete solution. One component in the multi-box solution is known as a “media server”. It stores the sound files and makes their content available over the local network. Listening to the sound files requires at least one other component, a “media renderer”. The media renderer receives a stream of audio data from the media server over the network and converts it to analog form. In some cases, the media renderer only converts the data it receives to a different digital form (S/PDIF, for example), in which case listeners need a third component to convert that signal to analog form. Controlling this chain of components requires another component, which is known as a “control point”. A control point is often a tablet running special software. It allows listeners to browse the content of the media server to find music to play and then to instruct the media server and the media renderer to collaborate in playing the selected music.

To make it possible for components from different manufacturers to interact, all components designed for multi-box systems adhere to standards (UPnP AV, at least, and perhaps DLNA as well). Standards make it possible for a media renderer from one manufacturer to access sound files stored on a media server from another manufacturer. They also make it possible for a control point to obtain metadata from a media server describing the sound files it contains.

A single-box system contains hardware and software that perform the functions performed by separate components in the multi-box solution. There are disk drives for storing sound files as in media servers. There is hardware for converting the audio data stored on the disk drives to analog form as in media renderers. There is software for browsing the content of the disk drives and for initiating the transfer of audio data to the rendering hardware, as in control points. As we have seen, there are significant practical advantages when all this hardware and software resides in one box. There are also significant technical advantages:

  • A single-box system obviates restrictive standards necessary for interoperability in the multi-box solution. For example, media servers typically provide only album title, artist, track title, and genre when a control point queries for information about available music. What happens if the control point software wants to display the name of the conductor but the media server does not provide this information? A single-box system can avoid this restriction by defining its own catalog scheme.
  • A single-box system obviates incompatibilities that can arise in multi-box solutions. For example, media servers are able to store sound files with any sample rate and encoding, but what happens when the user populates the media server with sound files encoded using AAC if the media renderer cannot decode AAC? What happens if the sample rate is 192 kHz, but the media server can handle sample rates up to only 96 kHz?

There is one counterbalancing advantage of multi-box solutions that advocates often bruit: They make it possible for users to upgrade individual components rather than being forced to replace the entire system. This argument is specious. If superior technology appears for converting digital audio to analog form, the owner of a multi-box solution would have the option of replacing only the media renderer. However, the owner of a single-box system could connect an external component embodying the same technology using the USB interface. If the owner of a multi-box solution finds that he needs more disk capacity, he could replace (or perhaps just augment) the media server (assuming that it is a NAS). However, owners of a single-box system can connect an external USB drive. Is there anything else that might need to be upgraded? A single-box system is self-contained, but not necessarily closed.

If a one-box system is such a great idea for users, why do most manufacturers make components for multi-box solutions? The answer is simple: Designing, marketing, and supporting a piece of a complete solution is easier than designing, marketing, and supporting all of a complete solution. The solution that is easy for music lovers to set up and operate is hard for manufacturers to design and support. If more companies had the expertise and resources to do so, more would offer one-box solutions because they are almost always better for consumers.

For most music lovers, one-box solutions are preferable. They are easy to purchase, set up, configure, and use. Delivering easy is hard – too hard for many manufacturers – but the Wax Music Management System from 3beez proves that it can be done.