The Brennan B2 Audio System – A User review

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The Brennan B2

The Brennan B2 is made by Brennan Audio a small British company. It is a compact device which allows you to rip CDs and copy music files to the B2’s internal storage for playing back. The B2 also has Internet radio facilities. It can be used as a CD player if you want to play a CD without copying it. One of the B2’s unique features is that provided you have a WiFi connection it has a uniqe IP address and can be accessed via a web browser

The person behind the design of the B2 is Martin Brennan a British electrical engineer. The company has been in business for several years. You can buy Brennan products either from their website or from Amazon. In the UK it is usually quicker (and slightly easier) to order items via the Brennan section on Amazon.

The Brennan B2 is designed with a Raspberry Pi computer at the heart of the machine and is available with storage capacities of 64Gb ,500 Gb, 1 TB and 2 TB. The device is available in two colours black or metallic grey (which is a very dark grey more graphite in shade than gunmetal).

A couple of pictures of the B2 are shown at the top of this article.

Please note that I have no connection with Brennan Audio other being one of their customers.

I bought my B2 a few weeks ago and decided to wait until I had set it up, installed my music files and used it for a while before posting this review.

I owned Brennan’s previous model ,the JB7, which served me well for a few years. The JB7 does not support the FLAC format or Bluetooth so I decided to replace it. Last year I converted all of my CDs to FLAC files and had these stored on my PC from which I streamed them to my new B&W Bluetooth speakers.

However as the PC is stored in the home office it is a nuisance having to boot it up simply to listen to some music when I am in another part of the house. I did think of adding a large capacity external hard disk to my laptop to do the same thing which is another solution but this is not always to hand.

So needing a compact player which could rip CDs, play downloaded files or CDs on the fly the B2 seemed a suitable replacement for the JB7.

Why Buy A Device Such As This ?

My reasons for buying the JB7 and then replacing it with the B2 were:

1. I was in the position where I had both a large CD collection (currently 1200 plus). I also have a large library of legitimate music files which I had downloaded via the Internet. I download files  either by purchasing them from Amazon, iTunes or through subscription sites to which I belong. I needed a solution which would allow me to store all of my music on one platform, which was easy to use and provided acceptable sound.

2. Before buying the JB7 I had a seperates based system which took up a good deal of space, several power outlets and had lots of cables cluttering up the place. I also had some very large B&W stand mounted speakers which sounded great but took up a lot of room. I really needed something more compact and thought it a sign of the times that my audio system made my desktop PC look small.

3. The Brennan also has a feature which I use a great deal which is random play of tracks. This is obviously not possible with a system such as my old one but I find it a great way of listening to music in much the same way as I do with the audio sytem in my car.

Devices Considered

Before deciding on the B2 I did consider a couple of alternatives which do much the same thing. These were the OH3 from Olive Systems and the X12 from Cocktail/Novafidelity.

The OH3 was soon ruled out. Although it is a nice piece of kit it is very expensive at over £800 and as much as I like my gadgets that is far too much to pay. It is about the same size as a hi-fi seperate but there are few Olive dealers in the UK. I had read several adverse reviews and complaints about reliability on audio forums in the USA where the OH3 is made. Many of these were directed at the bigger model the OH4 but the OH3 also came in for criticism.

The X12 is more comparable to the B2, It is roughly the same price, slightly bigger in physical size. Its has some features which the B2 lacks such as displaying artwork while playing music. However, the B2 offers Bluetooth support which the X12 does not based on the evasive answers I received when I asked Cocktail support about this. So having experience of Brennan’s earlier model the JB7 I decided to go for the B2.

What Do You Get With a B2?

When your B2 arrives the box will contain:

  1. The B2 model you chose,
  2. The  power supply,
  3. A connecting lead for the power supply,
  4. A WiFi dongle,
  5. A SD card containing the B2’s operating sofware,
  6. The small B2 remote control
  7. A brief user guide.

If required Brennan can also supply a set of bookshelf speakers, a Bluetooth dongle , a copy of the CD database on CD-ROM, or an external hard disk drive for backup. So for a small company the service is fairly comprehensive.

The documentation with the B2 is enough to get you up and running with the device but the Brennan website contains more information and is updated frequently by Martin Brennan. So its worth while bookmarking it and checking it from time to time.

Its a trend these days to make documentation available via the internet or on CD-ROM so one can’t fault Brennan for that. Unlike a certain camera manufacturer I won’t mention. Spend nearly £500 on a digital camera and you get a six page leaflet. You then have to download the 350 page manual via the web.

The B2 Design

First a few comments about the design of the B2 before moving onto what it is like to use.

The B2 is a very compact device with a small footprint and takes up minimal space. It is built around a Raspberry Pi which shows in the design of the casing. This is a reason why I if I was rating it on Amazon I would only give it 4 stars out of 5.

All of the ports/sockets apart from the SD card reader are on the rear of the B2 which as a result looks busy. The case is metal not plastic and is available in either black or metallic grey.

As far as logos go the B2 has a large “b” on the top in shiny black and next to it the number “2” in drilled holes (which I imagine is for ventilation). Personally I think this looks rather lame and would have preferred a small discrete badge with the words “Brennan B2”.

B2 Rear Sockets

The B2 has three USB ports on the rear designated USB A, USB B and USB C (logical enough). 4 speaker sockets, the power connector. An Aux-In socket for connecting external sources e.g. turntables (for converting from vinyl) etc. A dual function Analogue Out/Optical Out socket and a HDMI port.

There is a slot for threading through an Ethernet cable to connect to the Raspberry Pi internals. I suspect most people will avoid using this unless you really want to take the casing apart and plug a cable into the Raspberry Pi motherboard which looks a fiddly job.

USB ports

On models fitted with a hard disk drive USB B cannot be used. USB A is reserved for the WiFi dongle (which is supplied). This leaves USB C for the optional Bluetooth dongle, connecting USB sticks for transferring files, external hard disk drives or anything else you might wish to connect.

As the port is on the back of the B2 it is a pain having to remove a dongle to plug in a USB device to transfer files. More so if you are using wired speakers and have to pull the device forward. The JB7 had its single USB port on the front where it was far more accesible.

Speaker sockets

These are fairly close together which might be a problem if you use banana plugs on the ends of your speaker cables as these can be a tight fit.

HDMI Socket

The HDMI socket is not currently supported. Based on information on the Brennan website there are no plans to do this. I understand that if you do connect it to a TV it displays a series of diagnostic messages.

SD Card Reader

I mentioned the B2’s SD card reader. A SD card is supplied with the B2 which contains its operating system. The SD card fits into a slot on the side of the B2. However this is not a flush fit and stands proud of the case. This is due to it connecting directly to the Raspberry Pi internals.

I suppose this is okay if you intend to swap over SD cards for storage. It makes them easier to remove but I think it looks messy given that the B2 is not a cheap device.

Personal Gripe

One feature which I do not like about the B2 is the absence of an On/Off switch. The JB7 had one but the B2 does not.

Instead the instructions advise you to either switch it off at the mains or unplug it when it is not in use. This absence is an oversight in my opinion given that were not talking about a cheap product. The B2 does go into Standby mode after 5 minutes if it is not in use but it still draws power which illuminates the display panel on the front.

At the time of writing I notice that a link to an in line switch ,available via Amazon, has been added to the Brennan website so I am probably not the first person to raise this point. However,I find it annoying to have to buy a cheap add-on as the B2 lacks such a facility.

B2 Front Panel

The front of the B2 is fairly minimalist. There is the CD slot , four small buttons, a knob and the small display panel.

The display panel is white on black and shows the track currently being played. This is easilly read. Other information is shown underneath in a very small font. These are details such as artist etc. You have to get very close to the B2 to read this.

In standby mode it displays the current time in 24 hour format.

The menu choices are displayed on this screen when you want to change them. This is done either by turning the knob on the front to scroll though the menus and pressing it to make a choice or using the B2’s remote control.

The other controls on the front of the B2 are four push buttons which are used for things such as activating random play of music stored on the hard disk or playing CDs if you insert them into the slot on the front.

Overall its fairly tidy with a clean and minimalist look.

Right so that’s the design – compact, small footprint and a few quirks now what is the B2 like to use ?

Copying Music/Data to the B2

Before I move on to this I need to explain something about the B2’s file structure which caused me a few problems. This is important if ,like me, you are copying music/data from another device.

The B2 uses a hierarchical structure of Artist/Album/Track for storing data. You need to replicate this on your source before copying files to the B2.

If you do not do this the B2 assumes that the artist for each recording you copy is called “usbc”. This is because it assigns the port name as the top folder.”usbc” being the port into which I plugged a couple of memory sticks to copy some files as a test.

So a quick erase of the data on the B2. A reorganistion of my source data to support this structure and the files copied across easilly.

In case you were wondering I had all of my albums organised under folders for the album on my PC. The artist etc is picked up from the information attributes on the individual songs in Windows when I play tracks in either Groove or iTunes.

Copying or “ripping” CDs to the B2 is very easy. You just insert a CD into the slot , select copy to HD either by using the knob to scroll through menus or the remote control and wait for the B2 to copy the files. This takes about 5 minutes per CD. The B2 tries to match CDs to data in its internal database.

The matching is fine most of the time but I ran into a couple of problems with some CDs I tried. For some reason the B2 insisted that an Altan CD I was copying was a Shostakovich Symphony performed by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Another was  “Sunday At The Village Vanguard” by Bill Evans which the software insisted was a French language course (!!!) So you may have to enter some details manually.

As I was “experimenting” with this I found that several of my CDs were not recognised at all and came up with “unknown” as the artist despite being legitimate and fairly well known recordings.

Anyhow this was an exercise to try the B2 out to make sure it worked and was not how I intended installing data.

As I had all of my CDs already copied to my PC I did not relish having to sit in front of the B2 ripping my collection of 1200 plus CDs one at a time.  I copied the lot to some high capacity USB sticks, inserted each into the B2 and left it to copy while I got on with other things.

Now to using the B2.

Searching Music

The B2 is a very easy device to use. You can search for music by either artist/album/song/individual letter or string of letters select the matching entry and play it. You can also select a playlist or use random play.

Some users find the searching limited but it meets most of my search criteria. I’m not sure what others wish to search on. I’m not in the habit of searching for tracks by genre,year etc in either Groove or iTunes.

The B2 supports playlists and these are very useful for grouping tracks together how you like. So if you want a playlist for “loud music to annoy the neighbours late at night”,”bass guitar soloes” ,”Irish rebel songs” or “Plainsong” the B2 supports it. Some of those examples were made up by the way. You can use these playlists either via the remote control, the scrolling menus on the front of the B2 or the B2’s WebGUI which is very useful and more of that later.

Random Play

Random play works by pressing the “Next” button on the front panel. The B2 will play tracks in a random sequence based on how recently the track was played. The B2 has options for sequing (fading in) tracks as they change.

I like to use Random play. Its a good way of rediscovering music you might not have listened to in a while (“Sahara” by McCoy Tyner what a great album). Alternatively it can make you wonder what made you buy it in the first place. Such as some of the music I listened to when I was younger. I never did discover “Whatever Happened to Benny Santini” but  to this day wonder why I bought that CD by Chris Rea).

CD Player

The B2 can be used as a CD player without copying files. Just load a CD and select Play from the menu and it will play the CD for you.

Speakers

You can connect the B2 to either wired speakers or to wireless ones via Bluetooth.

Using the B2 with wired speakers the B2 is a capable amplifier. I tried it with an old set of Mordaunt Short bookshelf speakers I keep in a spare room. I needed to turn the volume to about halfway on the B2 for an acceptable level in the living room which is a large room. Depending on your system you could also connect the B2 to the Aux-In socket of an amplifier and use that to control the volume.

Using Bluetooth speakers I connected the B2 to my B&W speakers ,via Bluetooth. The speakers then control the volume level. The sound is very good with good tonal seperation.

Now for something unusual. Out of curiousity I decided to connect the B2 using the Analogue Out socket on the B2 to my B&W Bluetooth speakers. These have a Line-In socket for non-Bluetooth devices. This is not the sort of thing most people would do. With this configuration the sound level is controlled from the B2. As expected it was not that good as it was using an analogue connection but it was tolerable although the B2 needed to be turned up a bit further.

Overall the B2 produces a nice clear sound given that I listen to fairly wide range of music.

Internet radio

This is supported on the B2 using the supplied WiFi dongle. Most of the popular stations are available.

I must admit that I do not listen to the radio a great deal as I find the inane prattle of most DJs grating and the adverts on commercial stations annoying. Internet radio was not the reason for my buying the B2.

However, it is a useful bonus and works although I found that first connecting to a station took a while as it downloaded the stream via WiFi. I have experienced this with some software I use on my PC. I have read that this initial delay seems to be a problem with several forms of internet radio and is not unique to the B2.

Bluetooth

This requires an additional dongle (approx cost £10) which must be plugged into the USB C port on the B2.

The B2 supports Bluetooth In for allowing devices to connect to the B2. So you could connect your smartphone to the B2 and play music stored on that via the B2.

More importantly (well for me anyway) the B2 now also supports Bluetooth Out for connecting to speakers. So no more speaker cables trailing across the carpet. I had some initial trouble getting the B2 to pair to my Bluetooth speakers. At one time the B2 tried to pair itself to the TV. After some brief trial and error with the pairing sequence on the speakers and the B2 it was up and running and works well.

The WebGUI

I like this feature. Provided you have the WiFi dongle plugged in, the B2 has its own IP address. This allows it to be accessed via a web browser from either a PC, Tablet or Smartphone.

I have not tried to connect to the B2 from my Smartphone as having fingers like sausages I usually end up hitting the wrong thing on the screen. I have used it from my PC and laptop/Tablet and it works well using either Chrome, Firefox or Edge. I do not use Opera as a browser but guess it should work using that.

The WebGUI allows you to control the B2 from these devices and this is where I find it useful, it also allows you to transfer files from the PC to the B2 and index them.

I have not bought CDs in years but I do download music from a number of different sources to my PC. So having installed the back catalogue to the B2 I can keep it up to date by copying across any new music I might download via the internet.

The transfer speed depends on the speed of your WiFi connection. For a few tracks this works well but for larger volumes of data (eg box sets or some classical recordings) it might be quicker to copy them to a USB stick and use that.

The other thing the WebGUI does is to allow you construct playlists from tracks already installed on the B2. This is easier than using the B2’s remote to do that. The WebGUI is also a very easy way of correcting any entry errors made when indexing tracks.

Right that’s enough so assuming you’ve managed to read through this without falling asleep well done and thank you.

Should I Buy One ? Is It Value For Money?

Now the next questions are would I recommend the B2 ? Is it good value for money ? The answer to the first one is a qualified yes.

If,like me, you have a large CD collection that you wish to access along with downloaded files the B2 is fine. It is an excellent and very capable solution which allows you to store all of your music on one device. It has a few quirks but the sound is good. Once you get used to it, it is a very easy device to use and takes up the minimum of space.

Value for money ? This is not easy to answer. As I said there are cheaper solutions available. If you are on a budget you might like to consider these. You could use a hard disk drive on a PC to store your music and stream it to a set of speakers. This is cheaper but not as convenient as the B2 and some people might not be happy with the set-up.  As much as I like the B2 I do think that its expensive.

Alternatively there are streaming services. These include Spotify, the latest arm of the Apple empire Apple Music and Amazon. All charge you to play music and might not have things you enjoy.

At the end of the day its a matter of choice.

Update:

As I have owned the B2 for a while now I though I would revisit my review of the device. Generally it works well although I have encountered difficulties with the “Bluetooth Out” connection to my speakers. Through a process of trial and elimination this was traced to a faulty dongle which Brennan replaced free of charge. This is a relatively inexpensive add-on but it is one thing I do not like about the B2 the reliance on cheap add-ons for what is an expensive device.

Compared to some other items of equipment , the B2 does have a “hobbyist” look and appeal which could be understood if it was cheaper. But it is an expensive device.

There is a new device on the market from Nativ Music which uses a touch screen to play music and looks very polished and well designed. This can be ordered with two hard disk drives in a RAID configuration to store music and has some very good reviews. There is a downside to the Nativ Music which is its price. I was informed by the company that to supply and ship it to the UK would cost nearly £1,500. Its a nice device but very expensive.

As far as other developments with the B2 go, Martin Brennan has been adding extra functionality. Some of the changes are to the B2 software such as image viewing, guest user access (allows others to play your collection of music but not modify or delete anything) and support for SONOS. Access to some of the system settings is now made easier via the WebUI.

While this is appreciated it makes me wonder why you need the B2 if the extra functions are only accessible via the WebUI when a PC with an extra hard disk does the same thing and as I mentioned above is cheaper.