Today’s music enthusiasts have more choices when it comes to music distribution than ever before. The explosion of portable media players and on-line music download services has given rise to compressed, near-CD quality audio formats such as MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Windows Media, Real Audio, and others. The popularity of these audio formats, combined with the prevalence of home computer networks, have made it possible for people to play and control music throughout their homes with the help of devices known as media servers.

Audio servers can be broadly divided into two main categories. Many upscale media servers deliver line-level audio signals to home audio distribution systems and don’t require a local area network, unless you want to be able to listen to internet radio. There are also cheaper, yet more complex to setup media servers which stream music from your PC to smart client devices via wired or wireless networks. Choosing a media server that will act as a component in a complete home audio distribution system (with audio controllers, keypads, and in-wall speakers) will also allow you to leverage the technologies of a vendor to do unique things such as display the Artist/Album/Song information on keypads and remote control devices.

The vast array of features that media servers offer can easily become overwhelming, and many consumers are wise to carefully consider the user interface as one of the most important factors when selecting a system. The point of most media server installations is to provide continuous background music for recreation and social entertaining, and the best media servers will perform this task without requiring advanced programming or attention. These systems can even have advanced artificial intelligence that observes your music listening preferences over time and can automatically select music you prefer more often.

Some media servers automate the entire CD ripping and encoding process for you, and have built-in CD drives where you can simply drop in a disc and have it copied to your media server for long-term playback and management. Other systems assume that you have already ripped your CD collection onto a computer and require you to install special server software on your PC, which streams the music out to a client device on the network. Generally, the more elegant and automated media servers are aimed toward a higher end (in both audiophile quality and price) market.

The rise of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has created many challenges for companies who design and manufacture media servers. An increasing number of CDs are now sold with proprietary copy-restrictions enabled, which make it impossible to store the disc’s contents onto a hard drive in digital format. This restricts the consumer’s right to listen to his or her music with digital media servers. On-line music stores, particularly Apple’s popular iTunes music store, sell DRM-enabled music that can only be downloaded and played by very specific software and hardware platforms. Consequently, Apple is primarily interested in making sure their service works with their own software and iPod players, and there are no open industry standards that media server companies can use to offer playback of this music.

The audio server market is ripe with choices for music enthusiasts. Whether your preference is for an elegant, self-contained music management system, or a complex array of ways to customize music playback to your fine-grained needs, there are many media servers out there for your taste and budget.

Scott Garman is a Linux Software Engineer at Russound, a leading multi-room audio distribution company.