No server is an island

No hi-fi is an island entire of itself; every component is a piece of the system, a part of the mains.—John Donne, from The Compleat Audiophile, 1623

Around the time I took over as Stereophile's editor, I bought a Peloton, the internet-enabled stationary exercise bike. It was a lifesaver during the pandemic, when gyms were closed; despite the poor audio quality and the awful music many of the instructors choose, it's good, diverting exercise.

I quickly learned I'd be wanting Bluetooth headphones, since dangling wires get in the way. The Peloton, though, can be finicky about Bluetooth connections, and I can be finicky about sound, so I went through half a dozen choices before I settled on one that gave me good-enough sound and also connected consistently. I'd love to recommend some obscure high-end brand, but, while I tried several, none of the obscure ones established a Bluetooth connection with the Peloton bike with sufficient dependability, and none of them sounded as good as I had hoped. I ended up with Apple AirPods Pro. They're good enough for Peloton's inherently crappy sonics, and they connect reliably.

A few days ago, though, I climbed on my bike, started up a class—and found that the volume was much too low, even when I set it at maximum. I've never found the AirPods Pro quite loud enough, but now I had to strain to hear them. I continued with my ride to nowhere, and I set a new personal best for a 45-minute ride. Woo, hoo!

A couple of days later, as I prepared for my next ride, I set about troubleshooting the volume issue—but who you gonna call? Apple or Peloton? The AirPods still worked fine with all my Apple devices, so I contacted Peloton's technical support. They walked me through some obvious trouble-shooting steps and a few not-so-obvious ones. Nothing worked, and then it was time for dinner. I'd missed my ride.

It turned out that neither the AirPods nor the Peloton were entirely at fault. A Bluetooth connection, like any kind of networking connection, is the result of a negotiation. The two devices talk and come to an agreement, and parameters are set—including, apparently, the maximum volume of the Bluetooth 'phones. In an all-Apple ecosystem, this usually goes well, but the Peloton is an Android-based device. That complicates things.

Also complicating things was a third party I didn't realize was involved—a third "voice" in the room, and maybe a fourth. My AirPods were still chatting with my iPhone, and possibly also with my laptop, which caused negotiations to hit an impasse. When I silenced the other voices (by disconnecting the AirPods from those other devices), the AirPods reached a suitable agreement with the Peloton. A quick reset, and all was well.

Bluetooth ain't hi-fi (although it might be soon), and neither is Peloton. So what's the relevance? In a traditional audio system, the fault for a failure may lie with the amplifier, the preamp, the source, the speakers, or a cable—but when something is wrong, something is at fault—some particular thing. With a little patience, you can isolate the problem and assign blame. But when a network is involved, responsibility is diffuse and often shared. If you've ever managed a project, you know what a headache diffuse responsibility can be.

Many of us are handy. If we have a plumbing or electrical problem, we can usually fix it ourselves. Some of us can even repair our own amplifiers. With networks, though, few of us take that approach. Instead, we visit (if our internet service is still working) or Best Buy (if it isn't) and buy a new router. Manufacturers of home networking equipment want us to think that buying something is the answer to our problems. (Sound familiar?) And in fact, that new box does appear to solve the problem, or seems to. Consumer devices are made to be fault tolerant. Even so, unless you're a networking engineer with the right diagnostic equipment, there's no way to be sure that your network is working optimally. That sets the stage for errors that are hard to trace.

Even networks that seem to be working well can fail without notice. The various parts stop talking to each other when the software (or "firmware") that runs routers, extenders, servers, and networked DACs is updated, with or without our knowledge. A failure to update can also cause problems. The worst is when the updates stop completely—when companies "brick" a piece of equipment by abandoning support after several years. (Brother just did that to my otherwise perfectly good laser printer.) Some servers run software made by a different company, like Roon. If my server runs Roon but is made by Acme Server Co., who do I blame when something goes wrong?

I feel sorry for companies that make networked servers—first, because few hi-fi companies have deep knowledge of networking and software, which makes designing and servicing these products difficult, and second because, while networking has changed the nature of our problems, attitudes haven't changed: I paid good money for that server, so it damn well better work; don't you go tellin' me it's my network's fault.

To their credit, many companies that make internet-capable music components accept the challenge of troubleshooting customers' home networks. How could they do otherwise? "Not our fault" isn't a popular response, even when it's true.

This shift from clearcut blame to negotiation is a sea-change, not just in hi-fi but in the wider world. Apologies to John Donne for appropriating and distorting his Commentary in the epigraph above, but he won't care; he's dead. Instead, I'll end with some suggestions.

Keep your home network simple: Anything not essential is likely to introduce errors. Use wired connections for servers, networked DACs, and so on, since Wi-Fi is inherently flakey. Consider hiring a network engineer to optimize your home network.

And when something goes wrong, don't assume the fault lies with the server, even if your email and Netflix are working fine. It could be that what you've got there is a failure to communicate.

thethanimal's picture

…for whom the master clock tolls,
It tolls for thee.

tonykaz's picture

I borrowed it from the New York Magazine that used the above as their Slogan about New York ( from decades ago )

It certainly applies to audiophiles today!!!, I think it always applied to we aspiring audiophiles.

Mr. G Holt was the first Magazine guy that aimed at delivering solid advice and useful opinions.

Mr.Atkinson was the 2nd guy, that I knew of - back in England - 1980ish,

Tyll Herston & Steve G were the 3rd and 4th brilliant guides to all things Audiophile.

Lately, Stereophile seems to be growing a brilliant crop of insightfully philosophical enlighteners in folks like Mr.RS in Canada, the brilliant 5.1 Mr.KR, the imaginative Artist Mr.HR, the "must read" Mr.Micallef and all his Vintage Jazz thougths ( the Jazz Sheppard too ! ) & our Technical Editors Mr.JA & Mr.JA

I go back decades to recall various audio related publications mostly absent of editorial insights.

I met Mr. Ivor of Linn and re-sold Air-Containers of his mid 80s products, he was always brilliant and insightful to me and my Partner.

I can't think of any other Audio Publication that has ever attempted to supply all the help Audiophiles need, especially us Blue Collar Working Class Audiophiles that are watching our funds being attacked by inflationary pressures.

Thank you to all you Stereophile staff for your focus and encouragements.

Tony in Florida

rschryer's picture

And you're welcome!

Jack L's picture


Too true. Daily workout is vital for our health & brain well-being. Particularly helpful for seniors like yours truly.

To save time (while still working a some-40-hours job a week) & money (gym. membership & gas in commuting), I've done my excercing at home for decades now. Min. one solid hour excercing without resting immediately after a healthy breakfast at home before going to work.

This daily morning workout includes full body warm-up, 2,000 times jumping jog, 300 times 20lb-dumbell lifting by each hand for training the upper-arm bicep.

Last not the least is 900 times off-the-floor push-ups on push-up hand bars with both legs lifted off the floor on a chair. No more 'cheating' like conventional push-ups with both hands & feet touching the floor.

Such DAILY workout plus healthy home-cooked foods generate ample energy for my busy daily work (involving desktop computer all the time), & my afterwork home activities, e.g cooking, house maintenance/gardening & HiFi music enjoyment. Not missing my wife's briefing of her stock market performance daily, for sure !!

Jack L

rschryer's picture

...full "body warm-up, 2,000 times jumping jog, 300 times 20lb-dumbell lifting by each hand, 900 times off-the-floor push-ups on push-up hand bars with both legs lifted off the floor on a chair? This stuff is not important to the general audiophile population.

MatthewT's picture

Of 900 inclined pushups.

Jack L's picture


You got to pay for it, pal. Nothing comes free !

I've done such 1-hr morning workout for last 20 years. Don't fancy to try to do it or you may kill yourself really quick - heart attack mybe.

Jack L

Jack L's picture


I still recall some 12 years back when I was still working in a store of Best Buy as an evening/weekend part-timer while retaining my electrical power engineering day job.

The new manager come in my store the first day & already heard about my push-ups. So he challenged me to do 50 push-ups for $10. When I did up to 60 times within only one minute, he stopped me, saying "Jack, you won the 10 bucks.

Out of courtesy, I spent the 10 bucks to buy coffee for whoever was there as witness.

So for 900 times push-up, how much you would like to pay for my show ?

Jack L

MatthewT's picture

20 bucks. No edits, non stop, any breaks to be taken in the ready position.

Jack L's picture


Wrong maths - it should be $180 not a penny less on par with what I won 12 years back neglecting money inflation.

Mail me a bankcheck first to start with.

HaaaaHaaaaaaa !

Jack L

PS: you want to know how much I would make in selling my Best Buy (BBY) stock ($29/share I paid) for $101.88/share today ?

Jack L's picture


Plesae read the caption of my above post replying JA's quote workout is his LIFE-SAVER at home when the gym is closed due to the pandemic.

I seocond his idea how important is workout whereable avilable, at home or in the gyms.

Good health with improved vilality due to workout surely enchance music enjoyment. This is NOT unimportant to "the general audiophile population".

I am only endorsing JA's deep concern about missing workout in his gym.
Take it or leave it, pal !

Jack L

ok's picture

..a personal computer is the preferable way to go.

Jack L's picture


Too true !

Being addicted to vinyl, I take my home network straightly for my family entertainment: line/cordless/cell phones, light-speed unlimited WiFi & TV news/movie channels. Simple, & damn affordable !

Still working a 40-hour-weekly job, I don't have the leisure to buy Netflix 0r Amazon movies. I would save my leisure time in playing my large vinyl music collection instead.

That said, I still enjoy classical performances thru FREE YouTube streaming thru my WiFi DVD player hooked up to my 4K UHD TV & music to my audio system using my existing home network provider of course.

I get up to 4K UHD ultra-fine piecture resoluation & HD HiFi sound. Simple, affordable & most important: trouble free via my existing network provider. WiFi down due to bad weather or whatever is only a phone call away to get verbal technical help or in-home repair which very rarely happens.

Jack L

MattJ's picture

I am mostly shy with streaming, WiFi and such. I love digital, but I am wary of digital with no hardware, lol. I love CD's, and I love my Ipod (although not digitizing everything at 256 has made some tracks noticeably inferior to CD), but I have to get used to the idea of music out of the ether.