Pi-ump Up The Volumio!

Posted on April 19, 2014

Firstly, may I apologise for the rather tabloid-esque headline to this entry. Secondly, I have a confession to make. I’ve owned a Fiio E09K and a Fiio E17 sat gathering dust on my desk for nearly 18 months and I’ve not even powered them on once. Until today.

This morning, while supping on some cold coffee I forgot I made at the crack of dawn, I was somehow drawn to watching endless YouTube videos about the failed Sinclair C5 electric bicycle car. From endless test drive footage, to heartfelt restoration projects, heck I even revisted the excellent BBC4 documentary Micro Men to round off my mornings entertainment on a high! What followed about 5 minutes later was utterly absurd. Watching this endless stream of media about a failed project suddenly sparked an overwhelming sense of guilt of failed projects that I may have left lurking in the furthest outposts of my homestead. I switched off the television and disconnected my phone from Chromecast and scurried about the house, looking at several of my failed projects, each one tugging at my overwhelming sense of guilt, begging to be picked up and finished.

Well, yesterday evening I did finish restoring my PC Engine GT console, which was nice. One project down, thousands to go. But what next?

Volumio Mobile UI 1

A look at the Volumio mobile UI (Android, Chrome Browser)

 

Recently I’ve gotten a bit more involved with the world of home servers, media streaming and general digital-consumption-made-easy-in-the-home tomfoolery. In recent months I’ve purchased an HP Proliant N54L Microserver, shoehorned in 16gb of RAM and slathered on a generous dollop of Ubuntu LTS 12.04 Server for good measure. I’ve installed several IP cameras across our home, for seeing if our dog really does know we’re coming homing from work 5 miles before we arrive home an added sense of security and remote surveillance. I’ve built a home media server with Plex and catapulted media down a generous portion of ethernet cable to a waiting Raspberry Pi running Rasplex and controlled it expertly, to the amazement of friends and family, with my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 smartphone. The list goes on, fiddling with this, tinkering with that, pottering with the other. All to make life around the home just that little bit more comfortable and a bit more…well…’switched on’ I guess. Until recently I was content enough to transfer media to a USB stick, taking a mere light year or two to complete, chuck it in to a waiting USB port on the television and be done with it. For a chap that bathes in the bleeding waters of cutting edge IT every day I certainly wasn’t taking and puddles, nay even pipettes worth of it in to my home!

So as I shuffled around the house, picking up the odd failed project (in between opening kitchen cupboard doors to see if there was anything to eat for something to do, and then promptly closing them again), it was with a heavy heart I sighed and looked down at a Fiio E09K desktop amplifier/DAC and a Fiio E17 DAC. Both of which had been purchased over the last 18 months. Neither of which had ever been powered on even once. They’d just sat there, impulse purchases bought with the promise that one day I’d swear I would have a use for them.

I hadn’t, and there they had lain. For 18 months, doing absolutely nothing.

Volumio Mobile UI 2

Another look at the Volumio mobile UI (Android, Chrome Browser)

Recently, Google launched their Chromecast product in Europe. At the same time my relationship with the Raspberry Pi I’d invested in not so long ago was becoming strained. For all the genius that had been poured in to it by those clever souls behind the project, and with the greatest of intentions I had envisioned for it as a media streaming client in our home, it was starting to become another ‘failed project’. After loading it up with the excellent Rasplex and streaming a few bits and pieces from time to time, it was now switched off and beginning to gather dust behind the television in the front room. Surely this clever little device could be put to good use somewhere else in our home? Chromecast had muscled its way in to our home and, with a little configuration on my Note 3 and an activity set up on my Logitech Harmony One remote, Chromecast was is now the first choice for streaming media in our home. Netflix, YouTube, Plex, you name it I’ve chucked it at it and it performs like a real champion. None of the lag nonsense or awkward HDCP handshake issues were present with Chromecast that I’d faced with the Raspberry Pi. Rasplex was rapidly morphing from a wonderful, piping hot crumble left on a window ledge for everyone to envy, to a stale, cold, flaky piece of leftovers that nobody really fancied a piece of any more.

Today, while watching videos about the Sinclair C5, I suddenly felt inspired to do something with both the cold, stale piece of Pi behind our television, and the two untouched amps gathering dust in my office.

I decided…to make a networked music player!

After extracting and formatting the Rasplex SD card wedged in to my Raspberry Pi, I initially wrote a Rune Audio image to the SD card and hooked up the Pi via USB to the E09K (with E17 docked inside it). Taking the pre-out from the E09K I ran a very long stereo RCA cable round to the other side of my office and hooked it in to my Denon analogue amplifier and a pair of Mission M71i floorstanding speakers.

Nothing. Not even a whisper.

No matter what settings I tried within Rune Audio, nothing would work. Anaolgue out from the Pi was working fine (albeit not at a tremendous level of fidelity). If I flicked the switch to USB input, no change. Then the software began to fall over itself. It would drop connection frequently. Or not reboot properly when instructed to restart after changing a few settings. I was frustrated and nearly gave up on the whole idea. Then I happened upon another, similar project named Volumio. Volumio is very similar however it is built on Debian Linux, where Rune Audio is built on Arch Linux. Not that this should make any huge claims for one being more superior than the other of course. Although if you ask me in private, I’d secretly whisper to you that I prefer Debian!

So off I went and built a new image, this time using Volumio. I immediately ran in to the same problems trying to get the damn thing to output some audio, even just some buzzing noises from interchanging the RCA cables on the DAC. But no, nothing. At this point I really was on the verge of giving up, but I figured a few minutes more may render some sort of positive result. It did. A few minutes of research led me to discover I had been an utter buttockhead and really should know better! I’ll make the following text a bit fancy, so in future I can always find it quickly within this entry and read it back to myself to realise what an utter clot I had been.

“The E09K is an analogue amplifier. To function as a true DAC, you need the E17 inserted in the E09K, switched on and set to ‘dock in’. Without the E17, it just won’t work.”

It’s all become a bit obvious now hasn’t it? What an utter tithead I was. The web interface settings clearly displayed the E17 as a detected USB output source. However I had the E17 docked in to the E09K for fancy glitz and was routing audio through the E09K pre-out the whole time! In this style setup, the E17 is the DAC. The E09K is simply the input and output to the Denon amplifier in my Hi Fi setup. That’s not to say you need both devices in your setup. Volumio and the Raspberry Pi worked very happily with just the E17, undocked, when I was troubleshooting the connectivity issue. However the combination of the E09K and E17 is a) more aesthetically pleasing, and b) probably offers some sort of extra niceness that I have no technical idea about but I hope someone will explain to me after reading this! Additionally, the E17 is merely docked in to the E09K, that’s it. So when I am on the move, I can just undock the E17 and take it away with me leaving the E09K and exisiting setup undisturbed.

Hardware aside, once I had eventually gotten Volumio up and running and my Mission floorstanders were beginning to actually emit some sound, I quickly began to explore the UI. As similar as Rune Audio and Volumio are in terms of their UI features and layout (they are, after all, essentially the same product), I found I preferred the darker tones of the Rune Audio UI. The pastel shades and mint green theme splashed around so liberally across the Volumio interface really did nothing for me. Personally I think it looks a bit drab. Both are functional though and serve their purpose. Hopefully there is a way to alter the Volumio colour scheme to suit taste. The mobile UI presented to you when you browse using a smartphone or tablet device is equally as functional. Though some features do need a bit of a rethink. Whenever you perform an action, be it adding/deleting items from a playlist or just scanning the music database, a helpful information bubble pops up to tell you what action has just been performed. This is all well and good, but the info bubble takes up far too much precious real estate on screen and takes an age to disappear. Shorter display times or just the option to not have these info bubbles displayed at all would be a far better idea I think.

Finished Volumio Setup

The final product. Two Fiio’s, a Raspberry Pi and a clot.

Functionality and ease of use (once up and running) is near flawless. Swiping the dials to alter volume or track time on a smartphone (or the desktop version for that matter) is very responsive with little to no lag. Same goes for changing tracks, managing playlists and performing these functions across several devices in an attempt to try and confuse it. It worked pretty much flawlessly every time. Unlike Rune Audio which would often get in a bit of a muddle…or, as it had done so many times previously, just reboot and not come back online forcing a hard power cycle to bring the UI back online. There is an app on the Google Play store name Sound @ Home which does an excellent job of integrating itself with Volumio. It is impossibly easy to set up but is just ugly as sin, and for that reason alone, no matter how shallow that sounds, I just won’t use it. An official app of some fashion would be fantastic as using the Web UI is great and all, but just doesn’t deliver ‘that experience’ you get with an app. It’s difficult to convey the felling but I hope you understand the point I am trying to make here.

On the flip side I have Plex…

Volumio has turned out to be a superb bit of software, and my Raspberry Pi is profusely fond of it. As am I, as I finally finished a project and have come out with something of great use! I’m looking forward now to converting my compact discs to lossless digital files and flicking them over to my NAS. Thanks to Volumio I now have the best of both worlds. A nice media streaming device in my office that takes advantage of my exisiting HiFi equipment, is easy to install and manage. On the flip side I have Plex which I can use for the rest of the home and access while away from it. I did try to use Volumio with Chromecast via Chrome Beta for Android with the cast flag enabled, but alas, no dice. That would have been a nice feather in Volumio’s cap, but ho-hum, I still have Plex.

My only problem now is I’ll be needing to buy another Raspberry Pi in order to build a Hackintosh-style X68000/MAME device. I won’t leave it 18 months though this time.