Published On: August 3, 2020

Plex Media Server: What It Is, Who It's For, and How to Set It Up

Published On: August 3, 2020

Plex Media Server: What It Is, Who It's For, and How to Set It Up

Thanks to Plex Media Server, creating your own whole-house distributed video and music entertainment system is neither as difficult or as costly as you may think.

I used to have real problems with playing movies. Besides not being able to pick up discs or use a remote control, the house was inhabited by some mischievous pixie, poltergeist, or tsukumogami whose sole purpose in life was to hide the exact Blu-ray disc I wanted to watch at that moment. It was the same story over and over: Search for a video in our admittedly chaotic "organizational" system and open the colorful box up, only to discover there was nothing but white plastic inside. Whatever you call the sneaky little imps, they were exceptionally clever. None of our four kids ever caught them making off with a disc or found where the silver platters were stashed. Then Plex entered our lives.

PLEX-ing Your Media Muscle

Plex solved four major problems for me. It's hands-free, my video titles are in one place, my family can use our media library wherever they are without walking off with discs, and my library no longer resembles a black hole. Now, whenever anyone buys a title, we can open the box, rip it to a folder on our home network, sit down, and enjoy. Done. It's that simple. Digital purchases are even easier; just copy the files to the library. I wouldn't call it perfect just yet, especially in music playback and UHD video (more on that later) but it's getting there. In short, Plex is sort of like my own personal Netflix/Amazon Prime/Disney+, populated with titles that I already own, operated off of a server that I control, and without worrying that the movie I'm in the mood to watch tonight got dropped by the service.

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Plex even solves problems I didn't know I had, like integrating streaming TV shows, movies, podcasts, curated playlists, and music videos all within one pretty and easy-to-use interface. Going somewhere? Plex delivers most of my library to me where I am, whether on a walk, in the car, or on vacation.

What is Plex?

Launched in 2008 Plex has grown into a tremendously flexible and feature-rich freemium application (freeware with premium upgrade features) that can stream your content to devices both inside and out of your home.. In recent years, it has even added ad-supported video on demand.

Is Plex free?

It can be. The Plex software is available as a free download, and offers a certain level of features and functionality without the need for a subscription. The basic level of Plex includes the ability to play video files up to Blu-ray (1080p) resolution in MPEG-4 or HEVC formats. I find the video playback quality flawless when watching in my main meda room or on my PC, assuming there are no problems with the file I ripped. Movies on a mobile device can be trickier, however. Plex does support transcoding -- converting video from one encoded digital format to another -- on the fly, but your mileage will vary depending on the speed and bandwidth of the machine where your Plex server is located. Most powerful machines can transcode a video to a single player without issue, but if multiple people are using the server simultaneously, the machine may hit a bottleneck. Audio comes through in multichannel Dolby Digital, but there is no support at this time for DTS, a gap that Plex is trying to fill. I also have no argument with movie audio playback and find the quality to be equal to playing a Blu-ray disc.

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These days, in addition to playing ripped versions of your movies, Plex is also starting to integrate more and more live and on-demand video, as well. This, of course, leads to some complications, as the video streaming market is beginning to resemble the Columbia River during the spawning season, and it's getting hard to differentiate one media salmon from another. Right now, Plex offers about 60 channels and a claimed "tens of thousands" of on-demand TV shows and movies to choose from, but the only major attraction is that they are free. Crackle and Fubo are the only channels I recognize amongst those supported by Plex, and it is important to call out that the free services are ad-supported.

Plex is charging hard into collecting channels and movie and TV streaming rights, though, and in the 24 hours between final edits of this article and its posting, there will likely be more additions to the lineup. Ad-supported streaming content from studios such as Warner Bros., Lionsgate, and MGM are currently offered on Plex, and time will tell if they can attract enough audience to keep going.

Can Plex handle my podcasts and music, too?

But wait! There's more! The base level also lets you put your podcast and music video habit into the same interface as the personal and Plex-provided video content, reducing the number of separate apps needed for an entire evening's worth of entertainment.

PLEX-music-library-1-1440x896.jpgIn the audio realm, the same pretty Plex interface can manage and play music from your personal library, Tidal streaming account, and internet radio. It also plays nice with Sonos, so whole-house audio distribution is easily achieved, but limited in quality to how much audiophile-ness you can squeeze out of your devices. Formats supported range from the dreaded lossy MP3 and AAC files up to high-resolution, 192 kHz/24-bit lossless FLAC. It will play DSD files, but only by first converting (transcoding again) them to FLAC. This is a step below a common technique of "carrying" the DSD signal inside a PCM bucket (DSD over PCM, or DoP) and emptying the bucket at the final digital-to-analog conversion. For me, DoP already isn't good enough, so Plex's handling is right out of the question. About 1000 of my albums are in DSF files converted from SACD discs, and I went through great pains to build my primary audio chain to convert the digital bitstream files once, directly to analog, without first going to a PCM digital format like FLAC. In other words, my Roon subscription is nowhere near being threatened of replacement by Plex just yet. If, however, your main music listening comes from lossy formats, CD-quality sources, or even high-resolution PCM files, you may find Plex to be just what you need to play all your media from a single application.

What is Plex Pass?

PLEX-features-media-master-1440x1937.jpgPlex Pass is the premium level subscription, and it does have some unique features worth considering. At just $4.99/month, $39.99/year, or $119.99 for a lifetime, I suspect most people will find the UHD streaming and synching audio and video media to download and play when you aren't connected to the internet, like in your car during the daily commute, are pretty compelling reasons to upgrade. Another draw is, by adding an over-the-air HD antenna and tuner, Plex can turn into the unlimited DVR of your dreams for broadcast networks. Well, it's limited by your storage capacity, but at today's hard drive costs, that's almost not worth mentioning. If you use Hulu mainly for catching up on broadcast shows you missed, Plex Pass is a good alternative. And you have control over how many hours of programs you want to save instead of Xfinity or DirecTV accountants telling you how many you are allowed. Other goodies that come with the paid subscription are more robust sharing and parental control permissions, a dashboard to monitor users and usage, and extra content in the form of trailers, deleted scenes, and interviews. In the audio realm, the only real extras beyond synching for offline use are synchronized lyrics and a set of visualizations which I could do without.

How do I get started with Plex?

If all of the above sounds compelling and you'd like to launch into the Plex-iverse, just know that a little planning is in order to get the most out of your system. First, are you planning on creating a library of content classified For Your Eyes Only or are you going to share with your household? If it's private, the easiest solution is to locate your library on the network-connected laptop or desktop machine you use most frequently. If you want to watch on a bigger screen, Plex supports casting.

Chances are, though, you will use Plex to share media on multiple devices throughout your home (and beyond) and with more than one person. To meet this need, it is built with a three-tier client-server architecture that keeps information about your library in one place, while the actual media files can be located in any folder that is accessible on your home network, including cloud storage, and the player apps sit on the devices you use to watch. I find it best to think of this in three major pieces: storage, library management, and players.

How do I set up a Plex Server?



High-resolution audio and video files will eat up the hard drive storage in the typical laptop or desktop computer very quickly, especially as consumers increasingly opt for tablets and laptops that use lower-capacity solid-state drives (SSDs) for their light weight and battery-sparing advantages over spinning disks. Most Plex users will opt to use either a USB drive like the popular Western Digital
easystore series or a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) system to store their files. In planning for storage capacity, figure on up to 6 GB per Blu-ray movie disc, 10 GB if there is a full-featured bonus disc, while 24/192 FLAC albums can go up to about 4 GB each if they are multichannel. Translation: each terabyte can store roughly 200 HD movies, 1500 CDs, or 250 high-resolution music albums. With storage costs in the $20 to $30 per terabyte range, figures that certainly won't age well, go big on the storage. Add up your current inventory, estimate for your next two years of library growth, then double that figure.

Double? Yup! And this gets to a recommendation and a lecture. Don't get a simple USB drive; buy a NAS with at least two drive bays (most come as empty units you then add drives to), even if you are not sharing the library. NAS units allow you to configure the storage as a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Discs) device, and RAIDs can give you increased performance, increased data security, or both. I set my four-bay system up as a RAID Level 1, which automatically gives me a copy of every file in case any one disk fails. This is why I recommend doubling your estimated capacity needs.

Mind you, having a RAID Level 1 system is no substitute for backing up your media. Even a level 1 RAID is not -- repeat not -- a backup. Lightning strikes, water leaks, and who knows what else could take out even a Level 1 RAID. I once had a puppy get behind my equipment rack to relieve herself, taking out a lovely PS Audio Power Plant. It being 2020 and all, no one has time to re-rip 1001 movies. If people spent half the time caring for their digital media as they do their vinyl, the digital world would be a lot less stressful.

Back that stuff up, and keep a recent backup offsite. End of lecture.

How do I rip files for my Plex Server?

If you're new to converting physical media to digital files, you may be wondering how you get your discs onto a Plex Server in the first place. CDs are simple: just use any of dozens of applications that will read the audio information and translate into the format of your choosing. My go-to is Foobar2000 because of its speed and flexibility in saving metadata, bit-for-bit error correction, and converting files into dozens of formats. And, importantly, it's free. I opt to rip CDs into lossless FLAC 48/24 files, not because there is any audible difference from the CD's 44.1/16 resolution, but because I can. If any of you vinyl heads want to call me out on resolution snobbery, bring it on.



Super Audio CDs (SACDs), the jewel of my audio heart, present a much bigger challenge. They can be either two-channel or up to 5.1 discrete channels, and the very nature of 1-bit format is oil to a computer's 8-bit water. For stereo SACDs, I routed my Oppo (RIP) BDP-93 to the wonderful little Korg DS-DAC-10R. The "R" in this gem stands for "Recorder," which is exactly what you think. Connect the Korg's USB to your PC, play the SACD, and Korg's companion Audiogate software creates DSD files on your computer. The process is slower than ripping a CD, but it was as good a reason as any to go back through my entire stereo SACD collection. That Korg DAC is a fine piece for everyday duty, too.

Multichannel SACDs are a whole different beast. In theory, a person could buy three of Korg's larger studio DSD stereo recording DACs, daisy-chain them and connect their clocks to record up to six channels, again with Audiogate, but I was short on both money and competence to do that. Fortunately there are options. The first is to send your physical discs and an empty flash drive to Golden Ear Digital and, after paying $7.50 per disc, a short time later you will get everything back with multichannel DSF files, stereo, or both, on a flash drive. The other method is much more work: acquire specific early-model Playstation 3 or Oppo universal disc players and jailbreak them using readily-available proven code. You can look that one up yourself, but finding someone willing to part with that hardware will cost you.

Ripping DVDs is widely-available technology, but Blu-rays are tougher...

Wait, is ripping Blu-rays to Plex even legal?

That's actually a good question, and truth be told, the answer isn't 100 percent clear. Making a digital copy of a Blu-ray disc that you own and keeping the physical copy in the closet is a legal gray area. Ripping a Blu-ray and then selling the disc is, without question, illegal. Breaking the Digital Rights Management (DRM) encryption on any disc is also illegal. Which technically means that you can rip your discs to your heart's content, you just can't watch the ripped files, if doing so requires cracking the DRM. Companies like Modulus, who make sophisticated and expensive media servers, argue that the U.S. DMCA Act technically allows for DVD ripping and playback, but admits that there's uncertainty about whether this applies to Blu-rays. Just know that a fully satisfactory exploration of these murky waters would require a separate (and lengthy) article.

With that said, people still do it, and if your computer has a Blu-ray drive, the most popular option, and the one I use, is the combination of freeware MakeMKV and Handbrake. MakeMKV extracts the audio and video from the disc into MKV files which, technically, Plex will play, but they are the video equivalent of WAV audio files: bit-perfect but huge. Like 50-GB-per-movie huge. Handbrake losslessly compresses that MKV file into MPEG-4 video and AC3 audio. Handbrake also lets you batch files up to run overnight if you have a bunch, like when I got the 11-disc box set of the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus.



One tip I can give you on Handbrake is to convert one movie first before you start ripping your entire collection. It's especially helpful to pick one title that has a lot going on, like a complicated menu structure and multiple discs. Something like the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King Extended Edition. This will let you see if the settings you used in Handbrake reproduced all of those features before you batch up 100 movies to compress over a weekend you are away on holiday. Assuming "holidays" and "trips'' are ever things again. I had some problems with recent movies compressed all the way back in time to silent pictures, and The Hunt For Red October lost the subtitles on Sean Connery's Russian dialogue.

This process also works for DVD-Audio discs, if you are the world's only other person besides me who still owns them. I have a bit of an audio hoarding problem.

So creating files isn't so bad, right? It just takes some time (remember that backup lecture?), but it is all quite doable.

Oh wait, I forgot UHD. Being a relatively new technology, ripping a 4K disc is not so straightforward. Not every 4K-capable computer drive is compatible with software like MakeMKV, and there is conflicting information on the web about how to make it work. Imagine that. It is evidently possible, but I have yet to try it.

How do I configure and manage a Plex Library?

Steves_Plex-iverse.jpgThe Plex library management server can run on Windows 7 SP1 and later, Mac OS X 10.9 and up, the five major Linux distributions, and FreeBSD operating systems. There is official support for over a dozen popular NAS brands, including Synology and QNAP, as well as Nvidia Shield systems, and the Netgear Nighthawk x10 routers. System requirements are quite low, generally 2 GB of RAM and a pretty basic processor depending on the operating system, so you probably already own the hardware needed to start. Even so, it pays to check the Plex requirements page before you buy. NAS systems in particular can be finicky, with some models from any one brand working fine while others do not.

If you plan on sharing your library throughout the house, a popular option is to install the server on a NAS that is always on and hard-wired to your router,

either directly or through a network switch. This setup ensures your teenager doesn't call you at 1:00 am to turn your laptop on and that you have enough bandwidth to play multiple movies to different locations at the same time. We have some 50 devices on the home WiFi, so wired connections are my only buffer-proof option.

If, like me, you prefer to buy audio separates so you can better match component functionality to purpose and upgrade a piece at a time as needed, you can apply the same thought process to your Plex media server. NAS systems are optimized for storing tons of bytes, not running applications. A not-terrible idea is repurposing a previous computer, should you have one, from boat anchor to Plex server.

Cheap is the obvious benefit here, but noise can be a real issue.

A better idea is to buy a simple PC and use it as a dedicated Plex server. We have come a long way from the home theater PCs of the 1990s, so grab a family room-friendly, fanless, low-cost mini PC like the
Frunsi Triangle as the processor to run the server and connect it to the same network as your file storage. You get more horsepower at lower cost than building comparable capability into the NAS. Pro tip: unless you can afford to populate your NAS completely with solid-state drives, stick the NAS as far away from any viewing location as possible. Those multi-terabyte spinning disc drives are noisy. Also, their reliability is directly related to heat, so make sure your NAS gets good ventilation.

When your hardware is in place and running, download the appropriate server application and install it the same as you would any other program. It's about a two-minute process and completely pain-free. Start the Plex application and you will see this:

How_Plex_Works.jpg

After a promo for Plex Pass, the premium level subscription, you are asked to name the server and check if you would like to access the server away from your home network. Checking this box is not a guarantee of successfully configuring your network to allow this, but it's far better odds than my limited network administration skills. It worked fine for me.

The next wizard step is the heart of setting up your server: telling Plex where you store what kinds of media files.

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Adding a library is a simple process of clicking what kind of media you want in it -- Movies, TV Shows, Music, Photos, or Other Videos -- and giving each library a name. (While the first four types are self-explanatory, I use two Other Videos libraries, one for music videos and one for family videos. I may create a separate library for Documentaries at some point, too.) Then point Plex to the folder or folders that type of media is in and the software will start loading metadata, thumbnails and, if available, trailers. Depending on your library size, this initial setup could take minutes or many hours.

A key point here is Plex can be picky about your file folder structure. It should be organized to not have more than one type of library file in each folder. For example, if you have home videos in the same folder as your movies, Plex can't tell the difference and they will all show up in the Movies library. Multi-season TV shows are a special case. Plex requires you to create one folder for the show's name and a subfolder for each season, otherwise each episode will show up as a standalone title. Episodes should be named by season and episode number, e.g. S07E10 for a show's tenth episode of season seven. There is a decent media organization guide on the Plex support pages you would do well to follow.

How do I play these files on my TV or projector (or phone)?

Player apps, the "client" part of the architecture, are available on virtually any video platform you might have, unless you've somehow kept a mid-80s CP/M machine alive in your basement. From computers to gaming platforms, mobile devices to smart TVs, virtual reality headsets to Android Auto (not at the same time, please), there's likely a Plex app for that. They are all free and they all work, something the high-profile HBO Max could learn from. Download the appropriate app from your device's store or directly from Plex, sign into your account, point the app to your server, and you're all set.

A key feature for me is that the player interface is somewhat customizable. For example, if you don't like or need to have Plex streaming options at the top of the menu along the left border of your screen, it is an easy task to change.

Why Plex instead of (insert competitor here)?



When I started migrating my video from discs to digits, I had no intention of using Plex. The QNAP NAS I purchased came with its own media players for music, movies, and more, and they all worked just fine. The problems we encountered living with the QNAP software, though, were many. Too cumbersome, too difficult to manage users and permissions, too hard to access from a number of devices, and, not to put too fine a point on this, too ugly. After researching Kodi, iTunes, and other player apps, Plex stood well ahead of the others. Its clean interface, portability across all our devices, and simplicity solved our problems and Plex is now a part of our everyday lives.

Plex isn't perfect, particularly for music, but honestly what media server and player app is? Its strength in media organization and video playback is undeniable, and the company clearly has a mission to aggressively grow and improve its capabilities. It costs nothing to experience its most impactful features, and I look forward to growing along with it.

Additional Resources
In Terms of Accessibility, the AV Industry is Getting Worse, Not Better at HomeTheaterReview.com.
The Launch of HBO Max Has Been an Unmitigated Dumpster Fire at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Getting Started With Basic Home Automation: Control4 Edition at HomeTheaterReview.com.

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