We try to follow the “everything we bring aboard has to have at least two purposes” rule and although we don’t always follow this sage advice it’s a good place to start. So when we faced the issue of how to get music aboard we took a step backward and thought about what we really wanted. Just a stereo or something more? Let’s look at that together!
History of Our Music on Boats
First a step back to see where we’ve been. Ten years ago in our last, much smaller boat, we had a traditional stereo with USB drive as well as a CD player. However we had no place to store CDs so I ripped a bunch of our music and put it on various thumb drives so he could play his music (country and rock) or I could play mine (Jazz or Classical). However the music pretty much always got played in the same order because there was not much interface on the stereo. It worked, but it wasn’t a solution I was dying to repeat. Especially now that, ten years later, we have all our music on the hard drive on my computer and rather than being a few thumb drives it’s 30GB or so. And I didn’t really want to copy all that music to our iPads and other devices and I really didn’t want Jon to have to start up my laptop to play music. Plus in the iTunes model, although it’s easier to search and find music, the laptop has to stay on and open to continue playing the music – not ideal with my precious laptop.
Other Needed Features beyond Music
But my laptop had other data on it that we needed access to. All the charts for our backup navigation system were on there. Most of our manuals, how-tos, journals, kindle library backup, photos, password locker, and lots of spreadsheets that we use to track provisioning, repairs, tanks, and on and on. The iPads work pretty well with iCloud so that the spreadsheets and manuals were easy to share between the Mac and the two iPads. Even when we don’t have internet they update between themselves, just not to the cloud until we’re back ashore. The backup navigation computer however is a PC so that didn’t work so well.
Then there was backup. I try to backup my mac with the master storage for everything regularly. But that means get out the hard drive and find the dongle to plug the drive into the macbook. Sometimes a couple of weeks would go by before I remembered that little chore. And then I try to backup to two different hard drives alternately, so that we could put one of them into the oven in the case of lightning. You can guess how well that dual backup procedure worked! Not.
So I wanted a lot:
- file sharing among two iPads, a macbook, a PC and even two Android phones if we could swing it
- ability to browse and play music from any device without keeping the device “open”
- automatic system backup without finding devices and dongles
- a “nicer” interface than iTunes for playing music
- an intranet on board that works when there is no internet
- a system wired into power – no more devices to charge, please!
The Music & Data System
Guess what? All that is achievable on 110 volt. I of course wanted 12 volt, but I don’t believe the components exist in that format. However the whole system draws less than the fridge, but more than the lights. So we will have to have our inverter running all the time, but the use should be within our system tolerance. And of course if we have power issues we can live without music and file sharing until we can fix it – the data can be accessed the old fashioned way with an ethernet cord to the server. With two speakers at medium level and the system on all the time the draw is 36 amp-hours. For 3 hours a day it’s just shy of 40 amp-hours.
So what are the parts of this system? Some software, some hardware and I’ll describe it all below.
The system needs an intranet on your boat. Some wireless boosters like the Wirie provides this even when you’re not near internet, or you can buy an inexpensive router such as a DLink.
Disc Storage (NAS)
The heart of the system is the Network Attached Storage (NAS) which is basically one or more hard drives attached to a controller. You can buy a system and just put one drive in it, but for redundancy I recommend at least space for 2 drives. The system will automatically write to both drives so that if one dies the other seamlessly supplies the data. You will need to buy 1 or 2 disc drives as well. I chose to go with a QNAP system with (2) drive bays. I chose Western Digital 3TB Drive. This only provides 3TB storage, which is plenty for us. The other 3TB drive is just a backup. The disc drives are sold separately. The NAS is linked to the router (or wireless booster) with an ethernet cord.
An alternative to a “smart” NAS system is to replace this part of the function with a computer and hard drive. Almost any computer is going to be more powerful than the brain in any NAS, and in the case of a Raspberry Pi or other credit-card-sized computer, it could be less expensive as well. However I bought a low-end NAS since for music and data I don’t think I’ll need much power – video could be a different story. I would have had trouble putting together a Pi system for less than the $150 that the NAS cost, and the NAS is set up nearly out of the box. But for those with Pi experience or the need for real processing power, this route would be worth considering.
The experts recommend networked wireless speakers, which are different than bluetooth speakers. Sadly more expensive as well, but more robust for streaming music since they stream over the wifi rather than the less dependable bluetooth between devices. Bluetooth speakers like to connect to one device, I’m not sure you can use them directly from the router, but more experienced minds than mine can answer that. However wifi speakers are designed for this task. We selected two Sonos Play-1 speakers which are plenty for your average boat. They are heavy devices so we also got some custom mounts for them. There are no speakers wires to be run with these speakers – they work over wifi. However they do need to be plugged into a 110 outlet as does the NAS.
Software: Plex Media Server and Plex apps
This is the software that replaces iTunes for your networked system. You can browse or search by album, by artist, or by type of music. It’s a nice interface. Each iPad, PC, Mac will need to download the servant app. The NAS will run the master copy of Plex – the Plex Media Server. It will serve videos, podcasts, news, and music. It is free although there is a premium app which I haven’t seen the need for. To get your music to Plex on the NAS you just copy the files as if doing a backup. The NAS can run other apps besides Plex Media Server, you just load them on the controller as required.
Software: Speakers (Sonos App)
You will actually access Plex on the NAS using the Sonos app on any of your devices. When you’re on the internet Sonos can connect to Radio by Tunein or to your Plex Media Server. Off the internet just your Plex will be available. I’m sure there are other services available as well. The speakers have fabulous sound and great dynamic range.
This is not an inexpensive system – but it does many things seamlessly so you have to decide what it’s worth to you. Here is the breakdown:
Wireless Data System Costs
|Item and Model||Cost on Amazon||Notes|
with 2 bays
|$170||If you want video you will probably want |
to spend a little more to get encoding
for different video types.
|Disc Drive: |
WD Red 3TB
|Pick the size drive you want and whether |
you want 1 or 2 discs.
|One is fine to fill the salon. Two create stereo.|
DLink DIR 850-L
|$40||Your wireless booster may already provide |
|Totals:||$460||Add another $250 for |
2 drives and 2 speakers.
As full-time live-aboards with lots of digital assets we decided having a centralized music and data center with automated backups was worth it both for the energy use and the upfront cost. We would have had to buy a stereo and speakers anyway since our boat didn’t have them, but we could have done a conventional stereo less expensively.