A music server serves music, in this case hopefully an entire casa full, and that means interfacing with your digital music collection. Getting my collection into the XLi was accomplished using the CasaTunesSync program. After I installed this onto my PC (Mac version also available), all of my music, metadata, cover art, and iTunes playlists whisked across the network. You can also use the front-panel drive to load music the old-fashioned way.
As to the question of file format compatibility, the answer is simple... and not so simple. Out of the box, the XLi will play common file types like MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV, and the various Apple and Windows lossless formats, but according to CasaTunes, it also supports “any file formats that can be played in Windows Media Player or iTunes, including formats that can be added to Windows Media Player. For example, there are add-in codecs for FLAC for Windows Media Player that allow Windows Media Player to work. Once installed and the FLAC files are imported into Windows Media Player, we can play them.” As I didn’t have CasaTunes enable this feature for me, my unit did not play FLAC files.
For control, I started out with the keypads. Pressing and holding the keypad’s source button for a couple seconds gives you access to the selections menu, with full metadata feedback, source selection, and library browsing capability. I loved that any pad can control any zone — a great feature if you just wanted a single pad to control a large area.
Honestly, keypads are so 2000; today the cool kids (and systems) use apps for control. And after using the CasaTunes2 app, I pretty much completely abandoned the keypads. It was so easy to whip through different rooms and browse my collection with this slickly designed app. It made using the system a joy. I really liked that I could just swipe up or down on the iPad to raise or lower the volume. I also liked how the app cycles random images of whichever artist is playing — a way-cool touch. A search bar allows you to easily hunt for that needle in your collection, and you can jump directly to the first letter in albums, artists, and genre lists when browsing the internal library or a connected iPod. With 9,000-plus songs, this proved incredibly beneficial.
The app also makes it a breeze to see what’s playing in each room at a glance and to easily add a room to a listening session. This is great if you want to move from one room to another and pick up your current playlist. You can also have all rooms turn on (or off) at once (another version of this is “Room Groups,” a feature that lets you create areas of speakers that turn on with a single button press) and set the relative volume levels so you get the right balance in each area. This was great for quickly filling common areas with the same music. The streams all play in perfect sync, with no weird room-to-room delay issues creating an echo effect.
The XLi’s real trick is its AirPlay capability, and I used this feature extensively during my testing. With AirPlay now embedded in many receivers and speakers, this is becoming a popular way of adding audio zones. At one point, I had three AirPlay streams going — from two iPads and a PC — to three different zones. CasaTunes says the XLi “can comfortably handle 10 AirPlay devices.” AirPlay operation usually went off without a hitch, though it would occasionally drop out or lose the connection if I changed apps on the iPad. Also, it seemed to have real difficulty working with my AirPlay-enabled Marantz AV7005 preamp/processor.
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