Roku as a Squeezebox Player

Posted by trig on July 23, 2014

A year or so ago, I put the Roku to the back of my mind for music and relegated it to the more mundane task of accessing Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. It just seemed that Roku had missed a chance to be a cool music player. MainSqueeze, a third party Roku app, was a welcome effort, but only supported MP3 and WMA files, and the user interface was slow and rather confusing. And when I first tried to use Roku Media Player, probably over a year ago, that app didn't light my fire either. It couldn't access the Squeezebox Server so I tried using a DLNA server: the Roku took a long time to see the server, navigation was tedious and slow, the music occasionally dropped out, no FLAC playback.

Something made me revisit the idea of using a Roku for music playback. Maybe it was the experience of using the latest version of Roku's TWC app, which gives Time Warner Cable customers the ability to access their cable service without an actual cable box. We now get all our TWC channels via the Roku. The Roku actually delivered better video than our cable box did: that old box took several minutes after switch-on to provide a usable navigation screen or deliver an unpixellated picture. Also I much prefer the Roku navigation screens. It doesn't work like the old-fashioned cable box guide, and there are no channel numbers. For some users that's a deal-breaker, for me just another reason to move to the Roku.

Anyway, kudos to both TWC and to Roku for making this work. The cable box is going back, we save a few dollars a month, and I no longer feel tempted to throw the remote at the TV screen. The only downside is that I may end up watching more TV, but that's a risk I have to take.

Back to music. Well, I thought, if the TWC App has been souped up, maybe Roku Media Player has had a make-over too. And it has, at least a bit. The most important change is that, as from Roku Rev 5.3 a Roku will handle FLAC and WAV files. I tried feeding the Roku with some FLAC files direct from a USB port, and it played them all, even high definition files, without a problem. Good sign. 

The next plus is that if you're running Squeezebox server 7.7.3 or later, the Roku will see your server on the network and list it as an option in Roku Media Player as "Logitech Media Server". If you select it, all your music will be quickly laid out by Artist, Album, Genre etc. in a browsable hierarchy. I emphasize "quickly", because previously, waiting for all the music to be assembled from the DLNA server took long enough to be irritating. It's now very quick on a Roku 3, and even OK on the much slower Roku 2. At first I assumed the Roku was accessing the network shares associated with the LMS, not LMS itself, but I discovered that the app was really using LMS and not simply accessing a network share. (I did that by switching off the server and leaving the share switched on: the music stopped, showing that LMS was in fact streaming the music to the Roku.) This might explain why it's so much faster at loading the folder structure than with DLNA.

Unfortunately, LMS is (apparently) not streaming FLAC to the Roku, just highest-quality MP3. Switching off the FLAC/lame options in "file types" stops the flow of music. Although the AIFF option is enabled and would probably work, LMS doesn't use it. I put this down to the apparently incomplete handshaking between the Roku and LMS, evidenced by the fact that the Roku Media Player does not appear in the player drop down list in the Squeezebox, even though it's communicating with the server and being served a stream. Not only does that mean it can't communicate which file types it accepts (hence the default to MP3), it also means the Roku Media Player can't be controlled from the LMS web interface or from a controller app such as iPeng or Squeezer. 

Clearly that's a big bug that needs to be fixed. It's a real shame that the Roku is FLAC capable, but isn't able to ask the LMS to stream the FLAC files and gets boring old MP3s instead.

Also the Roku Media Player really needs a search capability in addition to a basic browsing capability. Many people have music collections containing more than 1000 albums, and navigating a hierarchy to find a specific Album or Track or Artist is going to get tedious, especially if you can't quite remember the name of the track or album or artist.

So still a long way from perfect, but there are signs of life. This is still a step forward for Roku and for Squeezebox. Roku is now a plug-and-play device that will access and play all your files stored on a Squeezebox server. The app is easy to install through the usual Roku "Channel Store" option, if it's not already in your "My Channels" list. The Roku itself is not expensive (by audio standards), it consumes very little energy, it's small and reliable. All very likeable.

If Roku treats this seriously, they could sell a lot of extra Rokus just for use as music players. Fixing it so the FLAC capability can be fully used, and providing a search function doesn't sound too challenging. These two improvements are "just software". No reason why these issues can't be fixed rather quickly, if someone is given the job of doing it

These two apparently simple fixes would make Roku a great choice as a music player that can access both Squeezebox and DLNA media servers.

How about the music quality? Surprisingly good, even with the MP3 compromise, and perfectly fine for casual listening for most people. But if you want to play high definition music, the Roku is not an option today. You need a Logitech Touch, a Classic Squeezebox, a Transporter or a software driven player running on Pi, Mac or Windows.

But even audiophiles don't need audiophile quality all the time. How about background music for a dinner with conversation? Or stirring music for exercising? Some people like to have music on while they're working, whether they're at a desk or in a workshop. And not everyone can afford audiophile quality everywhere anyway.

For anything less than super-critical listening, the Roku Media Player running on Roku 2 or 3 can play back lossless files from your Squeezebox server in an entirely satisfactory way for most of us. Meantime, super-critical audiophiles should immediately start a rumor that Roku 4 will include the ability to stream and play 24/96 FLAC and WAV files. Strong rumors are known to be a good way of getting wishes onto requirements statements, so let the rumors begin. 

UPDATES: Blog has been revised from the initial version, which assumed that FLAC conversion was taking place in the Roku, albeit at 16/48, since that is what the Roku is capable of doing. The first version was published in an initial flush of enthusiasm but further listening on different equipment indicated that high-quality MP3 rather than cut-down FLAC was being played and some further experiments confirmed that. Hence this revision.

Also, we fixed a typo: LMS 7.2.3 should of course read LMS 7.7.3. 

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