Apart from a general principle of wanting to do things in our own way, or, if you prefer, a principle of distrusting what globalised mega-corps want to use to exert power over us, we need to be reasonably creative about how we do things here at home because our off-grid power capacity has its limits. We choose devices which use electrical power, no matter what those device are, based on how much power they need in addition to other criteria. Occasionally this means a compromised choice, but often, it means you choose good options which also happen to use lesser amounts of power.
One of those compromises is home music. Our old boom-box with separate speakers is old, and was cheap, if not completely nasty at the time we bought it. It was used to drive a pair of Mission hifi speakers with which we replaced the little shelf speakers, which improved the sound, but eventually the little system failed, losing one of the stereo channels. Now the market for small hifi products has changed, and most assume you will use an iPhone or iPod to "consume" music. Now whichever marketeer first used the term "consume" to imply some potential shortage of a service in a context that cannot possibly in any life have such a shortage, and applied it to the act of listening to music, had better be passenger number 1 on the Golgafrincham B Ark. (If you don't know what that means, do read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams.) But we rail at the possibility of a corporate controlling, choosing to delete, choosing to force something on us, or generally knowing anything about, our listening habits, so devices like iPods, tightly linked to corporations who mine your personal details like virtual parasites, are no-nos here. This meant that many modern small hifi systems were not appropriate for us, or for our ethics.
But with the demise of the old plastic hifi, we were at a loss for music, which we enjoy. Now I knew that up in the loft was my lovely old set of hi-fi separates, a Kenwood amp, free-standing Tangent speakers, Denon CD player and Kenwood tuner. These were in the loft because they can be heavy on electrical power. But over this last year we have improved our power supply. Could these now be used on our limited power supply? A crawl through the loft space and some delicate ladder-work was in order.
At first glance, the answer was no. The rated wattage of the amplifier is 150w. That's not too much by itself, but we tend to listen to music for hours on end, and it is the watt-hours that is the problem, potentially depleting our battery bank. But a test with a power plug, that shows you the wattage actually used by a piece of electrical equipment, showed that, at normal, non-blast-your-ears-out volumes, the power used was well under 40w. The CD player used about 12w and the tuner, even when switched off, used 10, up to 25 when in use. Bass-y music uses much more power, no doubt to drive the speakers, we found.
Some time back, I realised that some CDs in our collection were starting to collect scratches. Remember how CDs were promoted as never suffering from scratches the way LPs did? Well, when CDs get scratched, the whole track, or sometime the whole CD, becomes unplayable. So I had already started turning the CDs into lossless FLAC files. But how to play the files conveniently, and not just through a laptop?
I had a spare Raspberry Pi lying around, as one does. The Pi is really the most wonderfully useful general purpose computer there is. It has put a lot of fun back into computing for so many. But it is also a very useful bit of kit. We use one, the little £4 Pi-Zero, for our video collection, running the OSMC media system. But for the music tests, I installed a minimal Raspbian operating system on a Model A, and loaded the excellent Music Player Daemon (mpd) software on it, just to see what it sounded like through the Kenwood and Tangents. When you install the operating system, you have to name the device, and so "alpinoni" was born. I plugged in the audio output to the amp, and listened...
It sounded awful.
The sound had mean, puny little lower registers and unclear higher registers. This wasn't entirely surprising as I was just using the headphone socket on the Pi, which is really not designed to produce good quality audio across the frequency spectrum. I then found out about a company called HifiBerry. They make a proper, hardware-based digital to analogue converter for the Pi, with proper hifi connections, and the write-ups were great. The unit is slightly smaller than the tiny Raspberry Pi itself, and connects via the general purpose connector pins on the Pi. The unit was quite cheap - about the same as the cost of the Pi, known for its cost effectiveness, so it was worth the risk.
And what a difference.
The bass is deep and ever so convincing, never boom-y or overwhelming. The higher registers are crisp and the mid range definitely present. In the never-ending hifi game of "where's the weak point", it passed the weak-point parcel to other parts of the system, mostly the quality of the original CDs. It was a revelation. And it uses less than 5w of power.
Now we could do without the CD player if we wished, or the tuner, and listen to our music from our own "streams" with mpd, and use less power than watching television.
The mpd software is very usable too. A number of clients are available to control it, so we can grab any tablet or smartphone we have and select and play music. There are also web clients and desktop clients, so choosing music now no longer means going to the CD rack to choose, but simply calling up the list of albums. The clients download album art, so selecting an album is by familar sight. And Internet music streams can be played too. Some of these are "broadcast" at very high qualities, and the sound of them is utterly wonderful. The web based front-end, rompr, even lists all UK radio stations for easy listening, as well as others, such as the wide range of genres of Soma FM
We've found having good music to listen to is an incentive to keep the telly switched off, no doubt a good thing. We'd almost forgotten the joys of listening to music well delivered in the home. And we don't have to "sign in", have our tastes analysed or sell our souls to any devil while we do it.