Everything You Need to Build Your Own Digital Music Library

If you’re already invested in Apple or Google’s ecosystems, one way to expand your home’s ability to play music back is with modular devices that have been discontinued but still work great. Apple’s AirPort Express was launched as a mobile router, but it shines as an AirPlay device. Google’s Chromecast Audio offers a popular and affordable way to build a whole-home audio system integrated with Google’s Chrome and Android devices. Both of these devices are still functional, and can add wireless connectivity to any stereo with an open audio input.

Digital-to-analog converters

Even if you have the most hi-res files available, they won’t sound their best without the proper equipment for playback. At the heart of any digital system will be a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which converts the digital ones and zeros into analog sound waves that are amplified through a speaker.

The best DAC tends to be the one you have access to. All A/V receivers have built-in DACs, though some are better than others. Any wireless or smart speaker will also have a built-in DAC, but you’ll achieve higher fidelity by using speakers that will link to form stereo pairs. If fidelity is important to you, it’s worth buying a dedicated DAC; plus, individual components like dedicated DACs, amps, and preamps allow you to update or upgrade components in a modular fashion, giving you more freedom—and potentially savings.

Some well-regarded entry level DACs we like include Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic 100 and the Audioengine D1. They sit between your music source and your amp or powered speakers (read our guide to the best bookshelf speakers).

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Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 Digital-to-Analogue Converter

Connecting to your home network

While you can easily have a wonderful digital setup without ever connecting to the internet, a robust network is a necessity for replicating the access and convenience of most streaming services.

For many, their home network starts and ends with the hardware provided to them by their internet service provider, which can be quite sufficient. In order to make the most out of your new digital music setup, you’ll want to avoid Wi-Fi connections whenever possible, as wireless interference can plague even the most robust networks if you live in a densely populated area. Using ethernet cables instead will give you a steadier connection for the wired device and free up wireless bandwidth for the devices that must connect wirelessly.

If you don’t want to lease, buy, or borrow equipment from your ISP, you can save money and get more control over your network by using your own equipment. The TP-Link AX6000 has all the next-gen features you could want, but most people will be fine with the budget TP-Link Archer A8.

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TP-Link AC1900 Smart WiFi Router

You can do this!

Once the server is powered on and connected to your network, install your software of choice, import your library, and you’re up and running. Connecting to your speakers depends on what gear you have: external DACs will use USB or digital audio connections, networked speakers will connect to your router via wi-fi or ethernet, and most everything else will connect with a simple aux cable.

If the prospect of buying and learning how to use all this gear and software seems daunting, try to remember that you can make your money go longer by supplementing with gear you already have. Got an old laptop lying around with a dead hard drive? A quick drive and battery swap can revive it, and boom, you’ve got a dedicated server. Old receiver and speakers collecting dust in the garage? Plug in an aux cable from your computer or an Airport Express and it’s now a wireless audio device. A home server setup can be extremely complex, but it can also just be a computer, a hard drive, and a stereo. And once you get things going, it’s mostly self-sustaining. Setting up your own streaming service can be rewarding—even liberating—as it adds more permanence and intention to your personal listening habits.

This week, we’re exploring how music and technology intersect, and what today’s trends and innovations might mean for the future. Read more here.

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