By Oliver Amnuayphol
Home Theater Guru
It’s hard to believe there was a time when using physical storage media, like CDs and Blu-rays, were the only way we could enjoy our music and movies whenever—and almost wherever—we wanted. Nowadays, using disc media is becoming the exception rather than the norm: The popularity of digital entertainment downloads, and streaming media in particular, is growing so fast it will soon outpace disc playback. But with the myriad of online content providers offering downloadable media—and the multitude of options for playing it back—it’s easy to get confused as to how to enjoy what you want when and where you want it. That’s why we here at Aperion Audio have put together this two part primer to help you navigate the new frontier that is the digital streaming media world, so that you can get back to what’s important: Enjoying your favorite music and movies!
In part 1 of How to Enjoy Streaming Media, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about what it is, where to get it, and what equipment you’ll need to get started.
First of all, what is Streaming Media?
Nearly all of the music and movies we enjoy today were at some point converted into digital packets of information via compression algorithms, or “CODECs” (Compression/DECompression). These digital packets can then can be stored, transmitted, and played back in various ways, including via traditional physical media like CDs, DVDs or Blu-ray discs: It’s up to the components receiving the signals, or playing back the discs, to take these digital files and convert them back into the sights and sounds we know as movies, TV shows, and music. No doubt you’ve heard of some of these file types before, such MP3, WAV, or Apple Lossless for music, or MP4, AVCHD for video. And since what we’re talking about are in fact digitized and formatted files, these music and movie files can be stored on or downloaded to any device compatible with said file types for repeated playback. Most importantly, they can also be transmitted, or “streamed,” the same way other computerized files can: Via the internet, from one computer (or server) to another computer—hence the phrase streaming media.
Where can I Download or Stream Media?
So by now it should be obvious: Since the internet is what made downloadable and streaming media possible, the internet is where ye shall find all kinds of movies and music to enjoy. As such, there are also a variety of ways to purchase media: Certain content providers, like Amazon.com and Apple’s iTunes, offer both downloadable music and movies; others choose to focus on one or the other, like HD Tracks (music) or Vudu (movies). For streaming only services, Netflix is one of the oldest, offering their entire streaming catalog of movies for a monthly fee, while others like Pandora and Spotify offer tiered streaming or cloud-based services: You can use the free, ad-supported service, or pay a monthly fee for premium benefits, such as unlimited music, mobile phone access, and no advertising. (Note: Since there are a wide variety of streaming services and options available, we’ll cover these in a later Aperion U article).
What Equipment Do I Need?
1) A Fast Internet Connection
Of course, the very first thing you’ll need is a high-speed internet connection to enjoy streaming media in any form: You simply won’t get smooth streaming quality from high resolution files unless you have a quality connection (consider 3 Mbps the bare minimum you should have in terms of bandwidth). Next, you’ll need to setup some sort of home network to transmit your audio and video signals, which means getting a router so that you can have more than one internet-connected device in your home. Better still, make sure you have a Wi-Fi capable router; this will enable setting up a private and secure wireless transmission network in your home to take advantage of equipment featuring Wi-Fi capability (more on this later). Oh, one more thing: If you have a newer construction home, check to see if you have Ethernet/Cat 5 cable already running through your walls, which will make streaming to multiple rooms throughout the house much easier.
2) Computer, Media Server, or Distribution Platform
After that, decide what kind of access you’d like to have to your music and movies and where you’d like to enjoy it; figuring this out will determine what kind of hardware you’ll require and in which rooms (for example, streaming Netflix in the living room and the kids’ room? etc.). In most cases, having at least one computer or media server (such as a Sooloos or an Olive Media server) where your media files are stored and/or played back will be enough to get started: You can use this to stream and watch Netflix movies, for example, or stream music to other devices connected to your home network, such as a networked A/V receiver or whole-house audio distribution platform, like Sonos or Logitech Squeezebox (We’ll get into the ins and outs of how you can enjoy streaming throughout the house in part two).
4) Media Players, TVs, and A/V Receivers
If you want to experience streaming media in all its home theater glory, get an internet capable media player or gaming console such as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Current owners of these gaming consoles already know that there are a multitude of streaming applications right at their fingertips—including Netflix, Pandora, Hulu Plus, ESPN, Last.fm, and a host of others. If gaming isn’t your thing, then a current generation Blu-ray/media player or newer TV should do the trick; more and more Blu-ray players and flat-panel TVs feature built-in Netflix, and Vudu apps with simple and streamlined interfaces at lower prices than ever before. This way, you don’t have to be anywhere near a computer to instantly stream HD-quality movies to your TV, and routing the audio directly to your A/V receiver (and Aperion Audio speakers!) will yield the best possible sound quality (many Vudu movies, for example, feature 1080p picture and 5.1, Dolby Digital Plus sound). Speaking of A/V receivers, many of today’s receivers include built-in networking capabilities and streaming applications such as HD/internet radio and Pandora. And remember that Wi-Fi router I mentioned earlier? More and more components with streaming apps are Wi-Fi ready, meaning you won’t have to worry about running additional Ethernet cables—especially useful if your HT rig is most definitely not located next to your internet router.
But Wait—There Will Be More!
So now that we’ve covered the basics of how to stream media in your home, hopefully you have a good idea of where to start; you should now know:
- What streaming media is, and what kind you’d like to start enjoying.
- Where to start looking for streaming media content and service providers.
- Where in your home you’d like to stream media and what equipment you’ll need.
So now that you have all the info to start setting up your own streaming media network, get your gear ready, pop some popcorn, then sit back, relax, and take a breather: In part 2, we’ll cover the different types of streaming media services available, how to stream music you already own, and how to distribute it throughout your home—wirelessly, even!