Plex is magical – Part 1: Music Nirvana
February 27, 2014 by Christopher Silvertooth
I am not sure how many people know about Plex and understand how completely awesome it can be so I thought I would share my experiences especially since I couldn’t find definitive information for some of the things I now use it for. So without further ado I am going to describe my setup, file formats, encoders/decoders, etc I use. Sorry if it is a bit long but I figure this maybe useful to someone.
First off, if you aren’t sure what Plex is you should go here and check it. http://plex.tv
What you need to know is that Plex has two primary components.
1. The server backend called “Plex Media Server”. This is what manages all your content, does any transcoding of video/audio so that it will work on the device you are trying to access said content from, and stores all the metadata about each file. You can run Plex Media Server (PMS) on just about anything though something with a decent processor and lots of space will get you the best results.
2. Plex Media Client – This can be a Roku, Google Chromecast, a computer, Apple TV, etc. Some of these have an actual Plex application that runs on the device and others either use a web interface or Airplay to deliver the content.
It is important to understand that the Plex Media Server can run anywhere and doesn’t need to be located next to your TV in order to watch or listen to your content. The only real requirement for the PMS is that it needs to accessible via a network connection. This is really fantastic since no one wants a noisy device sitting in their living room.
I am not going to get into the details of installing PMS, as I think there are enough resources out there already, I would rather talk about how Plex fits into my OCD overly critical audio/video center.
I landed on Plex after trying to figure out how to playback some of my high end audio content I have acquired over the years. I had previously owned an Integra DVD-Audio player which was a thing of beauty and sounded amazing. It also set me back $800+ and didn’t last as long as I thought it should for that much money… but I digress. I then started collecting DVD-Audio music, not to be confused with audio that is part of a dvd film, which is a proprietary codec and is lossless. Why this distinction? Because basically all music up to that point was in a format that lost some quality as part of the process when converting to CD, DVD-Video, or AAC/MP3. DVD-Audio was a dream for audio enthusiasts who wanted the highest possible quality and could use all of your speakers in your home theatre. At any rate, I now had a bunch of music I can’t playback because DVD-Audio lost to cheap compressed music and was too proprietary. Sure I could buy an OPPO Blu-Ray player as it supports DVD-Audio but what I really wanted was a way to get my music off of the proprietary disc and onto something that is well supported and still maintains quality.
My first task was to find software that could read the DVD-Audio discs (MLP Audio). After a bit of searching I stumbled upon the aptly named DVD Audio Extractor. I downloaded the trial and gave it a shot. VOILA! It saw the disc and all of the different channels (many DVD-A discs are in surround sound – 5.1).
Next up was determining the format to save the music in. I tend to use Apple products most often so I thought about using the Apple Lossless Audio Codec, ALAC for short, but Apple doesn’t support all of the ALAC spec in iTunes or the Apple TV. That was a bit of a let down so I kept searching. Enter FLAC. FLAC supports lossless, multichannel audio, is an open format, and most importantly works with Plex. I tried ALAC in Plex but the 5.1 channel ALAC files did not work.
So now I had a way to get my music off of the discs and had a format to store it in. Now how do I play it back in all of its glory?
This was a bit more frustrating. I don’t have access to all of the possible clients (Roku, Chromecast, etc) as I only own an Apple TV and Mac Mini. I tried playing the audio back on the Apple TV via PlexConnect as well as their App on the iPhone but all it would do was downsample the music to 2 channel 44khz which made it sound like crap compared to the DVD-A. So I decided to try my Mac Mini with HDMI connected to my receiver. I fired up the Plex Home Theatre application on my Mac Mini and selected the converted DVD-A files and… BINGO! The music played back in all 5.1 channels and as best as I can tell sounds identical to the actual disc. Music nirvana was at hand 🙂
In Part 2 I will get in to some of the gotchas, tools, and other lessons learned I have come to understand.