• Geek Speak: NanoPi Neo, The $7.99 High Resolution Audio Endpoint

    While the prices of many HiFi goods continue to go up, the prices of high tech goods continue to go down. In addition to prices going down, high tech goods almost always increase performance and features while decreasing in size for this reduced price. I wish the HiFi world was like the high tech world in this respect, but I completely understand the nature of building something by hand at the highest quality in low quantity versus building something for the lowest price at incredibly high volume in parts of the world where labor is extremely inexpensive. That may be a discussion for a different day because today is about the convergence of HiFi and high tech.

    I've always recommended that people start by purchasing the least expensive products and move up the ladder until they are satisfied. It simply makes sense. Some people know they will only be satisfied with the best and possibly most expensive options while others feel rewarded by finding a the best value. Neither way is right, it's all about choice.

    Before we get started with this cool new product, I want to address a misconception that some people have with CA covering items like a $7.99 audio endpoint. I've been told by some manufacturers that I shouldn't write about this stuff, it's too DIY and DIY'ers don't spend money, and that it isn't HiFi enough and that they don't like the direction of CA. I believe that type of small-minded thinking is what old-school HiFi is all about and it's something that old-school HiFi must get over if it wants to succeed in the future. CA isn't a DIY site, but we feature cool products when we seen them. Plus, these articles do wonders for bringing in a new audience to the CA community and HiFi in general. CA has a huge contingent of readers in Silicon Valley (and Australia, G'day mates) who love music, are a bit geeky, have technical aptitude, have disposable income, and would likely never have heard of most of our favorite HiFi brands without content like this that bridges the gap. Furthermore, when people purchase $7.99 audio endpoints, they need DACs to make music. Purchase five of these inexpensive endpoints for different rooms, and one will need five DACs. The money saved on endpoints can also be spent on other items such as software, music, amps, cables, loudspeakers, etc... I could go on, but I don't want to derail an otherwise cool product introduction with my rant about why products like this are good for HiFi. Either one believes it or not. The world is changing.

    Anyway, using low cost components to accomplish specific tasks and using higher quality components to get one over the sonic finish line can be not only smart, but also rewarding. I've spent the last 36 hours using the new $7.99 NanoPi Neo from a company named FriendlyARM. It's not perfect, but it's well worth the price. Single and multi-zone high resolution audio from this tiny and inexpensive device isn't the height of living when it comes to sonic bliss, but it's just plain cool.

    NanoPi Neo

    What is it? At a high level, the NanoPi Neo is a single board computer that runs Linux. The concept is the same as my favorite product of the year so far, the Sonore microRendu. The NanoPi Neo, for the purposes of the CA community, accepts audio via its Ethernet port and outputs that audio via its USB port.

    On a more detailed level, the NanoPi Neo is one of, if not the, smallest quad-core ARM based single board computer. At 40mm x 40mm its size is almost laughable. it features a 1.2 GHz quad-core Cortex A7 Allwinner H3 system on a chip and comes with 256 MB of memory. A version with 512 MB of memory is also available for an extra $2. I have both versions here and so far my tests haven't revealed a single weakness that is resolved by the added memory. In other words, it's not needed as far as I know. The four main visual aspects of this board are all that most people will really care about, the 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port, USB A port, SD card slot, and micro USB power port. The NanoPi Neo requires a 5V / 2A micro USB power supply. These can be purchased from hundreds of locations online. I found a couple of them laying around my office that worked great.

    Those who are a bit more geeky can take advantage of the GPIO (general-purpose input/output) pins on the board that provide 2x USB, IR, mic, line-out, SPDIF, power, UART, SPI, I2C, and PWM. There's also a four pin debug serial port header on the board for those who need full access that SSH can't provide. The optional $3.95 PSU-ONECOM can be used for TTL to RS232 connections.

    As of this writing the only operating system image available for the NanoPi Neo uses Ubuntu Snappy Core and the fairly old Linux 3.4 kernel. It has been noted online that support for a newer kernel should arrive in Linux 4.7 or 4.8 in a few weeks. Why does this matter? The big issue for the CA community is better support for DACs and DSD.

    Pi HiFi

    The question then comes down to, how to turn this tiny single board computer into an audio endpoint? The answer isn't rocket science, but it's a bit geeky for many audiophiles. I'm not going to put full step-by-step instructions in this article, like I've done in the past for the Raspberry Pi and Beaglebone Black, but I'll give everyone the gist of what needs to happen. Please ask questions if necessary and I and the CA community will make sure everyone who wants to is able to get this up and running.

    The NanoPi Neo ships with nothing for the $7.99 price. I know it's a bit misleading to say it's a $7.99 audio endpoint, but I'm using creative liberty and the fact that some people including myself will already have the other pieces needed for this puzzle.


    NanoPi Neo
    Micro USB cable
    Micro USB power supply 5V/2A
    Micro SD card
    Ethernet cable

    When the NanoPi Neo arrives it isn't plug n' play. One must first download the operating system image and write it to a microSD card. I used both the Mac OS X terminal and Win32 disk imager tool on Windows to write the image to two different micro SD cards. Once the micro SD card is ready, just place it into the micro SD slot on the board and power it up.

    The provided operating system image is pretty good for our purposes, but needs just a bit of fine tuning. Like most systems, it's a good idea to SSH into the board and run apt-get update and apt-get upgrade before moving forward. This will get the system up to date with the already installed software, including ALSA version 1.0.25. For some reason FriendlyARM installed the GUI framework Qt-Embedded on this system even though it has no option for a directly connected GUI. Sure one can port the GUI over a network, but let's be serious about this board. Nobody is going to do that. With Qt-Embedded, FriendlyARM starts QtE-Demo by default at system startup and uses a sizable percentage of CPU cycles. I disabled this by editing the file /etc/rc.local and commenting out /opt/QtE-Demo/run.sh&. I installed the Nano editor for this purpose as it doesn't come installed on this image by default.

    The easiest audio endpoint to install and get working, and the one I've been using for the past 36 hours, is RoonBridge from Roon Labs. Installing RoonBridge on Linux is very easy. Once complete the Linux device appears within the Roon client software as an audio endpoint. All configuration is done through the Roon iOS, Android, or desktop GUI on Windows or macOS. Roon has a small list of dependencies that must be installed before RoonBridge can be installed. Fortunately the NanoPi Neo image already has the listed dependencies met. The only requirement I had to install was curl. A simple apt-get install curl command was all that was needed.

    Installing RoonBridge for Arm devices is as simple as running these commands:

    Note: It's possible to send audio to each NanoPu Neo running RoonBridge individually or grouped together for a great multi-zone experience.

    NanoPi Neo - RoonBridge Results

    I installed RoonBridge on both the 256 MB and 512 MB models of the NanoPi Neo. When playing 24 bit / 192 kHz uncompressed FLAC files to the 256 MB version, there was 96 MB of memory free (image). RoonBridge has a very small memory footprint that makes the $2 more expensive 512 MB version of the NanoPi Neo unnecessary for all but the biggest of big spenders and those dead set on conspicuous consumption (kidding of course). Both models of the NanoPi Neo have the same quad-core CPU. Streaming the same 24/192 music to the units caused RoonBridge (seen as mono-sgen when running the TOP command in Linux) to use about 22% of the CPU. I didn't test the network throughput maximum capabilities, but I am fairly certain that the 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port on the NanoPi Neo is plenty fast for streaming music at even the highest of high sample rates. If or when there is a problem, it's not because the Ethernet port is too slow.

    Speaking of problems, for the most part everything works great, but I did find a couple issues. When playing PCM files at rates of 352.8 and higher I heard pops and ticks through my speakers at predictable intervals, every few seconds. I had one issue streaming DSD64 content to the NanoPi Neo with RoonBridge, but was unable to stream DSD at any higher rates without major stoppages during payback. Fortunately, I believe these issues can be resolved with a combination of the forthcoming kernel update to the OS and some minor OS tweaks.

    Over the last 36 hours I've tested the NanoPi Neo with the Linux 3.4 kernel version of Ubuntu Snappy Core with USB interfaces / DACs from Berkeley Audio Design (Alpha USB), EMM Labs (DA2), Moon by Simaudio (Neo 380D DSD), AudioQuest (DragonFly Red, DragonFly Black) and Schiit Audio (multibit Bifrost). The Berkeley, EMM, and Moon products use XMOS USB chips, Schiit Audio uses C-Media, and Mytek uses its own USB receiver chip. As I wrote earlier, PCM up through 192 kHz works great. DSD64 worked well on the Moon Neo 380D DSD and EMM Labs DA2 but didn't work at all on the Mytek Brooklyn. Neither the Schiit nor the Berkeley support DSD at any rate. The DragonFlys worked up to their support PCM maximum sample rate of 96 kHz.

    Of course every audiophile, including myself, wants to know how the tiny NanoPi Neo sounds when connected to a true HiFi system. For the most part it sounds good. The NanoPi Neo is by no means as good as the microRendu, but it's pretty good regardless of price. One downfall of the NanoPi Neo is its reliance on a micro USB power input. I have a feeling the 5V/2A power supplies I am using with these units are injecting some serious noise into my system. I've yet to see a well designed USB power supply. Again, the NanoPi Neo sounds good and may likely be all some music aficionados need to send music to another room of the house. But, you've been forewarned, the whole process of getting audio out of the NanoPi Neo is a bit geeky compared to purchasing a plug n' play off-the-shelf Ethernet to USB device.

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    Comments 57 Comments
    1. rikhav's Avatar
      rikhav -
      You have an increasing subscriber base from India as well
      Thanks for keeping us updated with such products
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by rikhav View Post
      You have an increasing subscriber base from India as well
      Thanks for keeping us updated with such products
      Great to hear @rikhav
    1. rikhav's Avatar
      rikhav -
      Many a times you prefer casual listening and would like to have just one server for all your music
      Mini pi would serve as a great alternative for that casual listening session where ultimate sound quality is not the need of the hour
      Ofcouse raspberry pi itself is not so costly but cost wise nano pi breaks new barriers
      Let's hope this has a positive effect and soon we have a more powerful raspberry pi 4 with separate bus for Ethernet and USB and a gigabit LAN port
    1. mac_and_dac's Avatar
      mac_and_dac -
      I used the Raspberry Pi as a front end for my hifi for a long time. It's only out of laziness that I have gone back to my Mac Mini. I had 4 Pi's at one point, set up with different OS's and configs. I even wired up an LCD display and wrote some Python code to show which track was playing!

      I could leave a Pi running for months ... it never crashed, and I was able to control the music player (mpd) from my iPhone.

      I think the Pi cost 100x less than my speakers!

      Maybe I'll go back again and play some more.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi @mac_and_dac - Then you'll have to change your username to pi_and_dac :~)
    1. mac_and_dac's Avatar
      mac_and_dac -
      'pi_and_chips' has a nicer British ring about it ...
    1. ednaz's Avatar
      ednaz -
      "I've been told by some manufacturers that I shouldn't write about this stuff, it's too DIY and DIY'ers don't spend money, and that it isn't HiFi enough and that they don't like the direction of CA."

      Those manufacturers aren't thinking clearly, or are behaving with denial in pure self interest. Other than a very small number of people in any country, money matters, and if music is your drug of choice, you want to have your high in as many places as possible, and as potent as possible in each location. To be provocative, I suspect that most of the 1% really don't give a crap about HD sound quality, not enough to spend up. I know many in that category, and have been absurdly fortunate to be in the very bottom sludge of that category, and I find myself astonishingly alone when talking about resolutions above low quality Apple audio streams, or about high quality DACS. I want the best quality sound that makes sense in every living space... but I'm not wasteful enough to want to have the same quality (at the same economic impact) system in a space I spend a few hours a week in, as I have in a space I spend half a day, every day, in.

      I've built the best system possible in my primary listening space. I want to get as close to that as possible in spaces where I spend less time or pay less attention, but I don't want crap. This is the kind of article I'm hugely enthusiastic about. Lower cost approaches to better sound... for a huge part of my world, this is exactly on target.
    1. andybob's Avatar
      andybob -
      Thanks for keeping interest in this end of the market alive Chris. It opens the door for young hobbyists and keeps manufacturers honest.
    1. Dan Gravell's Avatar
      Dan Gravell -
      I'm another that hopes you keep discussing this approach. Let's call it "white box" rather than DIY - understanding what we are putting together, rather than being compliant consumers.

      Any market of any size has many different ways in; we don't all need to live in an Apple hegemony...
    1. MrUnderhill's Avatar
      MrUnderhill -
      Thanks for all your hard work. Currently listening to a microRendu > U12 > Bel Canto 3.5vb. Great music, and in large part due to your championing small business.

      The mR is currently making a bit of a splash on the Naim Forum. If the bigger companies had filled this hole in the market at a reasonable cost and with the same quality then Jesus et al would not have been able to step in. More power to the the small guy; and, to you.

      Thank you.

      Happy Music Listener!
    1. iamimdoc's Avatar
      iamimdoc -
      For this of us who don't really speak geek speak

      If one had a decent PC with jriver on their network, with music on a nas and a USB DAC

      plug cat 5 cable on same network into this device
      Plug a USB DAC into this device
      Plug the DAC into appropriate stereo gear
      Get power supply for this device
      Configure this device
      Configure Jriver

      Play music and control with Jremote and this device would be silent as has no moving parts

    1. IQ_AV's Avatar
      IQ_AV -
      Chris, I bought a RPI 3 and will get a hifi berry Dac to go along with it. Any comments on whether I should get the Dac PRO. My requirement is to use the wifi feature of PI3 as well as blue tooth for the family to stream on the fly and also run Roon Bridge.

    1. skikirkwood's Avatar
      skikirkwood -
      Good article Chris, and I would encourage you to publish more articles of this type! I think it's unfortunate that others in the Audiophile press have virtually no mention of the exciting developments happening with low cost single board computers and custom Linux distros for music streaming other than John Darko.

      I'm running a beta release of Volumio 2 on a Raspberry Pi 3 with an IQAudio Pi-DAC+, and even when playing back 96/24 FLAC tracks the CPU tops out at 6%. When streaming Spotify the load is even lower. Unless you are doing realtime resampling or some kind of DSP processing, you just don't need very powerful or expensive computer hardware to stream any kind of audio today, including hi res PCM and DSD.

      I also like the fact that these are open systems - you can run Volumio, Rune, Moode, PiCorePlayer, Roon and many other software platforms, and with microSD cards going for $8, it's easy to experiment with newer versions of all of them or better yet have multiple devices running different platforms on them.

      One small technical comment regarding the flashing of images - there's a new multi-platform app from https://www.etcher.io that makes it easy to flash images and worth mentioning, especially for Mac users who haven't had good GUI options for quite a while now.
    1. Tubefan9's Avatar
      Tubefan9 -
      Awesome! It would be cool if this thing had wifi built in.
      I wonder if anyone will start making add-on dacs like hifiberry for this.
    1. skikirkwood's Avatar
      skikirkwood -
      Regarding your concern about noise being injected into the unit and therefore somehow contaminating the audio output of the DAC connected via USB, one simple experiment would be to run the NanoPi on battery power. You could use any portable battery charger designed for smartphones such as the units from Anker and have the NanoPi run off it via a microUSB cable. I've done this with my Raspberry Pi, and cannot detect any difference in audio quality from the $10 5V/2.5A power supply I use.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi @skikirkwood - Happy to read your comments. I was actually thinking about you shortly after this post and wondered if you might see it. Great to see you found it.

      Thanks so much for the link to Etcher! Writing images through macOS terminal is so painfully slow. This tool looks awesome!
    1. skikirkwood's Avatar
      skikirkwood -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile View Post
      Hi @skikirkwood - Happy to read your comments. I was actually thinking about you shortly after this post and wondered if you might see it. Great to see you found it.

      Thanks so much for the link to Etcher! Writing images through macOS terminal is so painfully slow. This tool looks awesome!
      Hi Chris, I have CA in my Feedly news reader, so I never miss a new posting!

      Full disclosure here - a few weeks ago I decided to help out the Volumio development team get a stable 2.0 release, so I'm now spending my spare time late at night developing the Volumio 2 Spotify plugin. I've never been happy with third party Spotify user interfaces, but the new Spotify Web API should make it possible to have a user experience close to a native Spotify app. And what's really nice about Volumio 2 is you can have playlists and queues of tracks from multiple sources - your own music, music streaming services, Webradio, etc. Not quite a Roon experience, but good enough for most people - and of course Roon only integrates with Tidal, not Spotify.

      Speaking of interesting developments in the SBC audio world, it would be interesting to get your take on the now fully funded Audiophonics Kickstarter project:


      In particular, the 389 Euro version with a Sabre ES9018K2M DAC and linear regulated power management board should be of interest to many of your readers.
    1. MPA1's Avatar
      MPA1 -
      Very interesting article, it sparked my attention and would be a nice summer project.

      It speaks volumes that the industry isn't happy about these articles.

      I do have some questions which I couldn't find an answer to, I hope somebody can enlighten me[emoji1]

      To my understanding it's important that the Ethernet and USB are on a different bus, is this the case?

      Can I connect my Mytek 192 dsd? And will it be recognised? Haven't used USB on the mytek, but I know it's driver dependent so I foresee trouble.

      Right now Audirvana is my player of choice, with tidal upsampled to dsd 128. Is it possible to send the signal over Ethernet to the NanoPi Neo?

      I can power the NanoPi Neo with a USB battery, yes?? Is it possible to power the NanoPi Neo and charge the battery simultaneously? Or is that battery dependent?

      Sent from my iPhone using Computer Audiophile
    1. hopkins's Avatar
      hopkins -
      I finally installed mine (with RoonBridge) connected to a Singxer F-1 USB card. It sounds increadibly good, given the price.
      Thanks for finding this board !
    1. dearchap's Avatar
      dearchap -
      The board seems to have a SPDIF/OUT header. That seems to be a better option than going the USB route.