Streaming Sessions

    Better Sound From My Computer Audio, Part Four: The Headless Audio Warrior

    Issue 152

    Who would have thought ten years ago that it would someday be possible to select songs to play back from your online music library simply by voice command? So much advancement has been made in voice recognition software that previous then-cutting-edge voice recognition programs such as Dragon’s NaturallySpeaking have long since been left out in the cold, because you can now dictate your e-mails straight into Google or other programs on your phone, tablet or other devices. (Our editor recently bought a Roku Streaming Stick+ 4K with voice control for the grand sum of $29.99.) What advancement we have seen and heard!

    It really is quite incredible when you consider the breadth of tonal inflections and varying cadences in how we each individually speak, and yet, thanks to advanced algorithms and millions of voices and accents having been sampled by the companies involved, we once again have a massive leap in consumer electronics tech that we can almost take for granted on a day-to-day basis.

    Things may not be quite as simple, however, when we want to use voice recognition to ask for our music – but without using some type of visual display interface to show us what we are actually controlling. Typically, if you want to control your music playback, you also need to see a menu on a monitor, TV screen, phone or other device. And, yes this is very helpful for navigating around your libraries of albums and tracks.

    But, isn’t it interesting that some devices allow us a “Display Off” feature? Why? This allows us to set up our playlist or whatever we want to hear, press Play, and then choose to turn off the display so that we can truly enjoy the music, and let our imaginations go to work without any visual distractions.

    I guess you could just close your eyes, but that’s not the point. Let’s use home theater as a parallel example. If you enjoy home cinema, you may enjoy dimming the lights so that you can focus on the movie, and similarly, in order to focus while listening to music, it can be wonderful to turn off any other visual overload when enjoying your stereo music at its transportive best. (This can be especially true for those of us who have a single main home entertainment system for both movies and music listening.)

    For me, music is more like swimming, as opposed to a paddle up to the ankles. It’s more immersive and the potential to enjoy this envelopment more holistically is greater when the music isn’t being accompanied by a video, interruptions from endless sources of video adverts, or other visual distractions.

    With the goal of voice control and “headless” operation (eliminating any kind of visual control interface) in mind, I purchased an Amazon Fire TV Cube (second generation), because it supports Dolby Atmos, 7.1 surround sound, (I run a quadrophonic system with a single subwoofer for my music), and it has the ability to turn my A/V receiver on and off by voice command. It can also be set up to turn your TV on and off, and even dim your compatible room lighting – all of which is super-conducive to a great home theater experience. But what about the tasks of being able to control the music via voice command and then manually turning off the TV?

     

     

    No can do. No matter how you set up the Fire TV Cube, any time you turn off the TV, either by voice command or manually or by remote, it will also turn off the A/V receiver. (This is also a little annoying because I like to leave my A/V receiver on, so that it always operates at optimum temperature and saves charging and discharging the capacitors each time it’s turned on and off. [1]

    My conclusion was that the Fire TV Cube takes control of your CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), which is a feature of HDMI-connected devices that allows you to use just one remote control, such as the Fire TV Cube remote, to control all the connected devices in a home entertainment system. You would intentionally turn this CEC function on so that the Fire Cube remote also operates your AV unit. But, even if you disable the CEC function on the Fire Cube, the HDMI control from the Fire Cube still switches off the AV unit, when you either verbally or manually turn off the TV unit alone, so again you lose your video and audio. (Although you may toggle off the CEC function on the Fire TV Cube, when you turn your TV off, it also turns off the connected A/V unit. Perhaps it’s just a glitch, but it would appear that Amazon likes to take a degree of control over your system so that you benefit from the design of their intended user experience. After all, it is prioritizing visual media with the Cube.)

    But, putting aside the idea of eliminating a visual control interface for a moment, there are positive aspects of using the Fire TV Cube. It supports the Emby software, a beautiful-looking interactive app which is free to download and try. (See my article in Issue 148.) However, under the Amazon Cube umbrella you can use Emby for a two-week trial period, after which you will need to unlock it with an in-app purchase. But there are no fees for using Emby to play your music from your music library if accessed from your tablet or phone and streamed to your A/V receiver! In other words, using Emby via the Fire TV Cube incurs a cost. And for me, the Fire TV Cube’s visual experience with Emby is no better than through my tablet…although the Fire TV Cube does provide voice control, if imperfect, as it sometimes will struggle to identify specific tracks, say of a particular mix or mastering you may prefer to hear.

    I also tried using the Fire TV Cube through my receiver’s ARC (Audio Return Channel) input and then back to the TV via HDMI to try and achieve “headless” playback of my music without necessitating the need for a video menu display. [The Audio Return Channel is a feature of HDMI that allows audio from a TV to be sent back to a receiver or other device such as a soundbar, via an HDMI cable – Ed.] But in this configuration, you still need the TV to complete the audio output pathway from the receiver!

    Then, I tried outputting the audio from the TV to my DAC via the TV’s optical digital audio output, which highlighted another limitation: Using ARC this way limited me to getting stereo audio via HDMI only, and I could no longer use any of the DSP processing that’s built in to the A/V receiver. I can’t be categorical, but even with an eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel, a feature of HDMI 2.1) input on the A/V unit, it still seems that there is no simple way for me to just obtain voice-controlled “headless” music using the Amazon Fire TV Cube [2].

    One possibility could be to use an HDMI audio splitter/extractor going from the Fire TV Cube, to de-embed the audio, and then send the HDMI video signal to your TV and the audio to your DAC via an optical digital TOSLINK connection, but again, this won’t allow “headless” operation. What to do? Perhaps the solution is to send the HDMI out to an HDMI ghost plug.

    HDMI ghost plug.

    HDMI ghost plug.

     

    If you haven’t seen one of these little beauties before, it basically acts as a dummy HDMI plug to slough off the physical video display requirement, which, critically, also switches on the pass-through of the audio signal at the same time! By tricking the connection into admitting a HDMI video display signal, the audio channel may now still be played without the need for using the display.

     

    EXCOO HDMI audio extractor with scaler and EDID setting.

    EXCOO HDMI audio extractor with scaler and EDID setting.

     

    With all this said, if you are willing to contemplate an alternative media streaming device to permit “headless” voice-controlled streaming audio navigation, it is in fact possible! How? By activating the voice command function on a Google Assistant remote-control microphone button of a Xiaomi Mi Box S, via Chromecast Ultra, which is built in to the Mi Box S, when used in conjunction with an HDMI ghost plug!

    Typically, the Mi Box S unit requires an HDMI connection to a monitor/display for music to be output, because when connected, the HDMI connection activates the optical digital audio output from the Mi Box S at the same time. But, when plugging a ghost plug into the Mi Box S’s HDMI output, it means you don’t need to connect a TV or monitor. The ghost plug tricks the Xiaomi into believing that the video stream is still being sent via HDMI, while digital audio signal is still sent through the optical digital output (at 48 kHz) or the USB output (at 96 kHz) to your DAC (or receiver). Just choose the output that you want. Neat!

    The downside to using this method is that you can no longer stream from the native streaming apps built in to the Mi Box S, namely Spotify, Tidal and Plex. Instead, you will have to cast to the Mi Box S from your phone or tablet. Conspicuous by its absence, Amazon Music is also not supported as a native app.

    As mentioned, however, the Mi Box S also comes with a built-in USB output, which you may choose to connect your DAC to, making this a very inexpensive streaming-to-USB DAC option Perhaps this functionality alone is worthy of the Mi Box S’s modest price tag, which ranges from $60 to $75. Even if it isn’t a completely headless solution.

    In conclusion, for me, the Fire TV Cube is a super-glorified TV and A/V receiver on and off switch which is heavily geared to promoting Amazon Prime films. So why even consider it? Yes, it is counterintuitive to purchase a TV-dedicated, HDMI-connected device when the goal behind it is not to enjoy the video but simply to extract the audio. The real beauty, though, when purely looking through the lens of prioritizing control of our music is threefold: One: the high-quality voice-control of being able to stream millions of tracks of music available from Amazon Unlimited HD is exceptional. Two: When using an HDMI extractor, it gives the ability to extract music from an Amazon device without having to also purchase the much more expensive Amazon Echo Link. Three: the software platform that the music steaming service operates via is highly refined. (As perhaps an obvious side point, the Amazon Echo Link doesn’t give you the option to stream video via Netflix as with the Fire TV Cube. So, given that that audio is available to us via the Cube, albeit not headlessly, it seems like the most flexible, and in particular the most cost-effective option, is to use it with an HDMI extractor. Now you can take back control of your audio and video signal paths, separately from each other.)

    I’m interested in hearing about readers’ favorite methods for voice-controlled, “headless” music streaming. Please share your thoughts in our Comments section.

    ******

    [1] Nor does the Fire Cube come with a digital output for audio, despite what some sales representatives may tell you. Yes, it has a mini-USB output, but that is only compatible with external input devices such as a keyboard. There is no digital audio out.

    [2] The Cube supports the stated 7.1 surround format via eARC when used with a compatible eARC A/V receiver or processor, but not alas, not “headlessly.” If either the TV or A/V unit still use the standard ARC format, although it is backwards compatible, it is in that your audio will still work, but only as far as supporting compressed 5.1 and stereo. You need eARC to support uncompressed 5.1 and 7.1 surround. Worthy of note is the joy that eARC also does away with the CEC requirement to synchronize controls over your hardware, as this function is now built into the device discovery by means of its own data channel. (Please see the chart below for reference.)

     

     

    Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/Ekaterina Bolovtsova.

    10 comments on “Better Sound From My Computer Audio, Part Four: The Headless Audio Warrior”

    1. I do enjoy Amazon HD music using voice command without having to turn the TV (or anything else) on or off:
      Fire Cube HDMI into a AV Access audio extractor, and then a iFi SPDIF iPurifier (both with quiet power supplies) to a digital input on my preamp. Sample rate from the Cube is only 48kHz.

    2. I do hope going forward manufacturers will make streaming music via voice control far easier and more integrated. I know some don’t consider the Bluesound Node to be “super audiophile” – maybe unless you send its digital output to a higher priced DAC like a Denafrips Aries II or better), but for me it works well and I can control it via voice using a $20 Echo Dot to play Spotify streams, which hopefully (if they haven’t lied to us) will be lossless by the end of the year.

      I thought the general trend might be that the TV eventually will one day have everything integrated into it, with voice control, acting pretty much like a preamp, feeding the amps which could be external). At that point, hopefully they’ll have a “screen off” function, while the rest still works.

      Heck, right now, Apple Music users are hard pressed to even get their lossless files into their stereos in an elegant way since Apple has been slack about creating an “Apple Music Connect” app.

      1. Good morning Mr. Welton!
        Dragon Naturally Speaking isn’t the only voice controlled software that got left out in the cold.
        This is the reason why, in the up coming new year, I hope and pray that I’ll have enough money saved up to leave Windows behind.
        The voice controlled software that Microsoft built in to their operating system, is Cortana.
        But if you ask me, it’s a big fat joke.
        I say this because, the stupid thing doesn’t work.
        On a Mac system, I can use Siri to control the hole entire system.
        Meaning, I can listen to music inside of Apple music all day long until the cows come home.
        Frank, if you’re reading this comment, I have some good news for everyone on here!
        For those of us that loves the sound of high rez audio, THX has made it easier for you to obtain that!
        They’ve come out with a little headphone amp DAC that you can take with you on the go!
        It’s referred to, as the Onyx headphone amp DAC.
        And the best part is, you don’t have to be rich to own one.
        It only cost 199USD!
        You can check it out at:
        https://www.thx.com/
        It will not only work on your cellphone, it’ll also work with any PC or Mack system.
        And it also decodes DSD too as well.
        However, it’s DSD over PCM.
        Up to 128 bits.
        I’m thinking about picking myself up a cupple of those little Onyx headphone DAC’s!

    3. Russ,

      Does your AVR have a way to disable most of the processing? My Yamaha AVR has a “Pure Direct” mode that turns off output to the monitor and a lot of other features in order to provide cleaner audio while continuing to play audio coming in over HDMI. When using PD I can turn my monitor off and it has no effect on the audio and video source, it’s the way I listen when I want more complete immersion. I’m not using voice control, this is just something I think may help ​in your quest for headless voice controlled audio.

      Happy Holidays!
      OHT

    4. Dear OHT

      You are indeed correct!

      The AVR has both a Pure Direct mode, and also a screen display off function in the on screen options when choosing to play tracks from a server. This has been my option of choice prior to further experimentation.

      I really appreciate your thoughtful consideration and reading of the article. Thank you!

      Have a great holiday!

      Russ

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