audiophile music servers the latest products, info
I am very interested in a music server and would like to know more about the latest products and information. I have been doing homework and still not sure if I can get the best audiophile sound out of a server. I have Wilson Audio W/P 7s and Krell 350 Mono blocks. I would love the convenence of puting all my 1,500 CD on a hard drive, but if I have to sacrifice any sound quality I will pass for now. My question is, is there a product out there now that is up-to-speed with the best CD players? Which ones? and what options should I be looking at? Thanks for your feedback!!!!
There are probably a hundred threads which answer your questions on Audiogon. Just try a little harder to find them. The short answer is yet, even the CEO of SimAudio has admitted that a hard-drive based system with DAC can outperform his top of the line CD player. I would begin looking at a number of USB DAC's (Benchmark, Bel Canto, etc...) and a MAC Mini computer with external hard-drive. Going that route you could even use an iPod touch to access the music on your hard-drive.
The analog output from any of the music server/Sonos/SB3 is a waste of time. I have a fully modified Bolder Sb3 and it does not come close to an external high quality DAC. The key is a very good quality DAC and then you can get rid of your expensive cdp. I have switched over to music server a year ago and have never looked back.
I bought Exemplar musicserver after listening to many servers at CES and the RMAF. The closest competition for the Exemplar IMO was the Blue Smoke, but I feared that it was not going to come to market.
I have several Macs and have tried using them directly and through the USB port into a dac. I have not liked what I heard in comparison with and separate dedicated music server. I rip all cds into the .75 terrabit hard-drives and backup with fewest errors WAV files. Seldom do I see any errors, but some cds take as long as 45 minutes to get there. The normal time is 7 minutes or less.
One thing that continues to amaze me is that treated cds sound different than untreated cds even through this process. Untreated have better bass but less sense of soundstage. How this happens defies what I know about this process.
get a mac mini, a jitter reduction device, toslink/aes/coax cables, and a very good dac and you might be surprised on what you hear. don't waste your time going straight from a computer into a dac or a preamp. you will not get the sound you are looking for. also, if you want to compare a music server with some of the best cdp's out there, you will need a very good dac, and right now, the best dac's use coax, toslink, aes, or glass connections.
I have never found the PS Audio gear to be any good. I guess YMMV. I would also strongly suggest that any compression, including lossless, is not the route to good sound. I have also found that the cabling is critical to the sound you get.
If you don't want to wait for a lot of good one-box solutions to appear, you can go the PC (or Mac) audio route.
If you want more info on computer audio I suggest you check out the PC Audio forum here on Audigon. Most of the hundreds of threads Lush mentioned in his post are on that forum. You will find a great number of very worthwhile "prescriptive" solutions (such as the one Rbstehno just posted here), and you will also find a great deal of helpful background information.
Like good CDPs or good transports, computers (PC, Mac or Linux) can very good "PCM data handling machines" and as such are the least important part of a good digital audio system. As others have said, its the equipment upstream that is most important. IMO if you put enough research and money into those upstream components, you will have unrivaled sound quality.
The Qsonics has a phenomonal touch screen and great user interface; plus has high quality audio sound. Check out their webpage...easy and fun to use; can get with 500Gb or more hard drive; and it connects to the Musicgiant on line store for easy downloads....qsonix.com
I use the QSonix with a Benchmark DAC1. The user interface is absolutely fantastic - search the threads for "QSonix" and you'll find my detailed description.
Sonically, IME you will hear the sound of the DAC with little character imparted by the server vs. a high end transport. I have used my DAC1 with my Cary 303 as a transport - and the dig outs of my Bel Canto and Sony SACD-1 CDPs as well - for comprison purposes. The Cary has adjustable OS rates (and a non OS setting) as well as user selectable tube and ss output stages. The DAC1 sounds a bit different than any setting on the Cary.
The Bel Canto, Sony, Cary and the QSonix sounded damn near identical (to my ear) when used a a transport with the DAC1. It's always possible that YMMV, but I would expect that most listeners (even the lunatic fringe) will be satisfied with the sonic performance of the QSonix as a transport.
2 other quick notes:
The analog outs are pretty decent, but unlikely to make you happy - you will very likely want to use the unit as a transport.
My model is the (older) 100 and gets quite noisy from time to time. Th e newer 110 is reportedly quieter, but reconditioned 100s are available at pretty steep discounts. If you can isolate the drive chasis (as I can), IMHO the 100 -though not cheap - is a pretty compelling value in touch screen servers.
In sum - find a DAC you like and the QSonix will sound great and the interface will change your listening habits forever. I coud never go back to a CD player (or even a text based server) after living with the QSonix.
I still don't get computer audio for the audiophile. The only true benefit is that you don't have to get your butt off the couch to change songs. People are talking about dumping $10k for a sonoos thing and then running it into a $1k benchmark DAC for "good" sound. Why on earth would anyone spend all that money for a sound that is not nearly as good as a $4k cd player just to sit on the couch and surf. Sorry, but these are my opinions and no matter how you slice it it is just convenience, which costs a lot of money all to hook it up to a mediocre DAC. Once you start hooking up expensive DACs then the whole thing is lost even more.
Then there are downloads. To get the best sound you need to buy the CD anyway then rip it. Sure there are hi-rez downloads....about 20 of them in weird genres. So for arguments sake let's say everything is downloadable in hi-rez. Then what, you are faced with backing up drives and media......CDs can last forever (at least as long as the average human lives)....hard drives have been lasting for about 5 years.... I have CDs that are almost 30 years old and play with no problem....I have had 4 computers in the last 10 years........So now you download all this stuff and every 5 years or so you need to copy it to a new hard drive somewhere.
Sorry folks, I am not seeing it. I am sure I will get hammered for this post but I couldnt take it anymore. It is downright silly to invest in something like a Sooloos thing to me.
Good points Arbuckle. I'm considering a Sooloos-like device because the interface could get other family members more involved in use of my system. Once you get started, there's no reason not to rip everyone elses music into the system. In my case that's several thousands more songs, leaning toward Radiohead, Brazilian traditional music, to a really eclectic bunch of stuff. Right now, they're afraid to touch my system.
After using iTunes at work for the last couple of years and on planes with my iPhone, I really like that type of interface, finding it much easier to find what I'm looking for, or putting together a program mix to suit my mood.
The troubles with most "servers", including the Sooloos, includes; little attention paid to the the DAC (I can overcome that with the excellent DAC in my Playback Designs); lack of hi rez; 1/3 of my album art isn't available for the system; my 1200 LPs will need to be manually archived then ripped; and pricing is out of character with performance (Sooloos, Mac, Linn).
Pluses are; digital ripping services as low as $1 per disc; all in one solutions; nice interfaces.
Mac-based solutions tend to be overly minipulative and controlling. I've got an Apple TV for viewing my photos. It's basically a hard drive with a wireless reciever. Unfortunatly it only works with iTunes running on a nearby computer. Doubly unfortunately, Apple feels compelled to "improve" iTune periodically and it screws up the wireless connection. In the nine-months that I've had the Apple TV I've had to set it up (bacially reinstall it) about three times. Last weekend, it took 3-hours to resync several gigs of photos that had been synced two time previously. Imagine doing that with a terabyte of hi rez data.
SO, I can never trust Apple. In the PC envirnoment at least hard drives act like hard drives and don't puke all there data everytime the application changes. I'm waiting another year and if there's no pre-packaged solution that does almost everything right, then I'll probably build my PC-based server.
People are talking about dumping $10k for a sonoos thing and then running it into a $1k benchmark DAC for "good" sound. Why on earth would anyone spend all that money for a sound that is not nearly as good as a $4k cd player
Why do you say "not nearly as good?" Many will say that it is indeed as good, if not better.
Another questionable part of your argument is that it's all about convenience. There is that, but the real benefit, according to many I know who have made the move, is ACCESS. They all say they listen to far more of their collections than they used to, and discover or rediscover hidden treasures. That's not about being lazy, it's about getting more out of your music collection.
The following is my opinion but it is based on pretty extensive long term empirical observation.
I have told this tale many times on various forums but here it is again.
My reference system includes a pair of B&W Nautilus 802 speakers, a dCS Delius DAC and dCS Purcell upsampler that I use to upsample CD to DSD. The stereo amplifier is a very, very large Mark Levinson circa the late 1990s--I forget the model number. All of the cabling is high-end Transparent Audio and I am also using their reference digital cable and power conditioner. This system has evolved through decades of meticulous, strategic trade-ins and upgrades.
The last CD transport I used was a very, very heavy, well built Goldmund Mimesis. Again, I don't recall the exact model number. I'm not in front of my system right now--it might have been the Mim39. This was the type of unit with a top that you lift up like a record player and a clamp that fits over the CD.
I sort of lost interest in the hobby for a while and then finally broke down and bought an iPod for use while on the go. I suddenly found I was listening to a lot more music again because of the functionality and I got curious about "servers". So I did some research and came up with the SlimDevices (now owned by Logitech) Squeezebox which is basically a small device that can recieve music files from your computer wirelessly or via ethernet. It can be used either with its onboard DAC or it can hand off a digital signal to an outboard DAC. I only use the digital coax output and wireless ethernet (wifi) for input.
I was expecting this unit to be a fun little toy for $300 that I would play around with but not as a replacement for a bona fide audiophile transport. So I was absolutely astonished to find that the difference in sound quality between the Squeezebox and the Goldmund was simply negligible, provided I used the same Transparent Audio digital cable. The Goldmund might have been a little sweeter and more nuanced, but in other ways I actually preferred the Squeezebox.
I had to seriously strain to hear the difference and if there was a difference, it was utterly outweighed by the functionality of Squeezebox.
So my answer to your question is, yes, you can use a hard drive based server system and get really, really good sound. However, you will get the best, most cost effective results if you think of the "server" as a replacement for the CD transport, and not a full front end system. It is just a pass through to get the music (the files should be uncompressed .wav files) into your DAC.
Once you go to a drive based system, there is no going back, in my opinion. The ability to access your entire library instantly on demand brings the hobby into the 21st century. For me it is a how did I live without this type of addition.
The problem is that everything depends on the performance of your DAC. If you have a good DAC, you will get good sound from a server. This is not exactly the golden age of the stand-alone DAC, however. The new dCS Paganini system, for example, is very music server unfriendly because unlike the older and cheaper Elgar generation products, there is no way to upsample an external digital source.
So the only limit to how good a server system can sound is how good the DAC is and all the associated components.
I do not subscribe to the notion of the "audiophile" music server for $10k. If you are going to spend $10k, spend it on a DAC, or a player with an onboard DAC that can accept an external digital source. Period. If an audio hardware reviewer is going to review a $10k server, they better compare it to $10k DAC.
I recall Stereophile comparing a $10k Linn server system to an Ayre Disc player that I believe is more like $5,000. That is not very helpful. The DAC is the most important part of the equation, and the Squeezebox proves that the serving can be done on the cheap, so a $10k Linn server should be compared only to a $10k DAC or disc player, because that is basically what it is. There is no inherent sound quality disadvantage to a hard drive based system if you are using uncompressed files. In fact, there may be advantages (Boulder's new $25k player is based on buffering a minute or so of data into RAM and feeding the DAC from the RAM, not directly streaming off the disc. What does that tell you?) Servers do not deserve, and should not be given special treatment as far as reviews and sound quality are concerned. They are basically DACS and should be treated as such.
The only criteria that really matter for servers are the quality of the user interface and supporting software, and the quality of the digital output on the server unit. There is no unit on the market right now that I am aware of that emphasizes those two things. So there might be room for improvement in these types of devices but the Squeezebox seems to do the job.
I completely agree about the Paradigm change in the "music replay ritual" associated with music server - you will never go back. But, what surprised and delighted me was the world-class digital playback which a Lavry DA-10 DAC brought to my system. Few, if any CD players can even come close.
I sold my Naim CDX + XPS ($9K) after hearing my squeezebox digital output into a Lavry DA-10 DAC ($975). On the Naim forum, there are several who claim that an apple MacBook or Mac mini Toslink into the DA-10 outperforms their Naim CDS3 players ($17K). This I believe, as the sound I am hearing is better than any CD player I have ever heard, by a wide margin.
A friend brought by his Rega Apollo over for comparison, and was shocked at the difference ("wipes floor with..."). Once the word gets around, you will not be able to sell you CD player for a doorstop. Give it a try, you will be amazed!
Tbg: the commentary is about the Wadia. I only want to say that the Wadia 170i + Ipod combination (which is a hard drive based "server") sounds as good as the (20 times more expensive) MBL transport (for CD playback of course).
how can anybody spend $6k to $20k for a music server that doesn't sound any better than a pc based server at 1/3 to 1/10 the cost? i have had a few people go the route that i have gone instead of purchasing the qsonix and sooloos systems. the only thing you get with the sooloos system is a touch screen. big deal. the interface is the same as itunes 8 and itunes gives you more flexibilty. also, these 2 systems do not allow you to surf the web or do other multi-tasking tasks while playing music. either of these systems by themselves sound terrible without using an external dac, same with using a computer. if all you want is a touchscreen, by all means, spend the $$$, but you wil not increase the quality of your music unless you spend $$$$ on a good external dac (and jitter device).
i read the stereophile review about the sooloos system and i thought it was a joke. the reviewer complained about pc's/macs being to complicated to setup and the interface of the sooloos allows him to sit on the couch and enjoy the music. isn't this the same magazine that swears by vinyl and isn't setting up a turntable correctly more involved than hooking up a simple mac mini? and doesn't it take more effort to playback vinyl than anything else? either this reviewer was under the age of 7 or over the age of 80. go to any apple store and watch the kids under 10 years old operate a macintosh and play with itunes.
Rbstehno, there is enormous convenience to some music servers, but it comes at a cost, as you say, in money but also in realism. I first heard a VRS server about seven years ago and it was awful, but about three years later it was very much improved and its convenience was evident.
Since then I have used my Macs with and without external dacs, typically USB connected. I have heard six different specifically music directed music servers RCA connection. Furthermore they minimize the processing within the processor. My only real complaint is that I still want to play sacds.
You paint with too broad a brush. There are music servers that are clearly better than computer based systems, but not all of them are.
I just posted this in another response, but feel it is just as pertinent here. I have been using a Memory Player for the last two years. About six months ago the Build 7 upgrade was implemented which takes the performance to an even higher level. I have yet to find a mechanical transport that will outperform the MP. Read what www.stereotimes.com and www.positive-feedback.com have to say. Mark Porzilli, the designer, uses techniques that are unique in a high-end consumer product. First, he has implemented RUR, Read-Until-Right, a technique that the pros use for certain applications. RUR re-reads the CD many times until it gets the data contained on the CD right. Second, the Error Correction Code is eliminated because Mark believes the Reed- Solomon ECC corrupts the audio related digital data. Third, the playback takes place from a solid-state or "flash" memory. And that is what he is willing to reveal about the design of the MP. My guess would be that there are a few other tricks of his that he will not discuss in order to maintain his competitive edge. Since the MP is his invention, why reveal everything. The MP is a very special product unlike anything - mechanical transport or CD player - that is out there today. All Music Servers provide access and selection features that outdo the MP in the area of ease of use, but none, to my knowlege, are likely to approach the MP sonically. You should also read the response of Rcprince to "Any updates on the Nova Memory Player (10-29-08)" in another Memory Player inquiry. He is an actual owner of an MP and has done very careful comparisons to CD transports and players.
Boulder has a product similar to the Memory Player called the 1021 but it does not store music. The key is playback from solid-state or "flash" memory and DSP/Upsampling in the software domain.
The advantage of these types of devices over a Squeezebox as a transport setup is, I would imagine, audiophile build quality and power supplies. Discrete power circuity and a better power supply, audiophile grade wiring and digital outputs are what will distinguish really good server transports from true audiophile grade devices.
Theoretically you could build your own "server" using a home theater PC chasis. You could build a music server PC in a home theater profile for under $1000. But, the problem is, you have cooling fans, 7200RPM hard drives spinning, powerful multicore processors and graphics processing units, and a whole host of motherboard chipset devices humming away in the same chasis as your digital outputs. The potential for interference and noise is horrifying.
In my view, the ideal device is a very simple Squeezebox type device with no onboard DAC that can handle 96khz files, accepts an external word clock and has the component build quality of an audiophile CD transport. The Transporter does not quite fit the bill although it is very close.
Actually I take back what I said about the Memory Player. After reading the white paper on Read Until Right (RUR) and the use of sequential memory I am not sure if there is another product on the market that handles the data in the same way. It may be in a class by itself. I would love to hear it.
wait until next year. ps audio will be introdcing the "perfect transport", at a retail price between $2000 to $2500. based upon my conversation with a technical person, it could , perhaps be competive with the memory player.
I recently received my upgraded APL NWO 3.0 SE back from Alex and it has a modded Squeezebox Duet installed inside. It is not really a fair comparison at 2x the price of the MP (the one with the DAC), but I would venture to guess it could handily beat it.
I have the convenience of being able to play redbook, sacd, or dvd-a any time or to stream my music collection from a silent pc. The Duet remote is awesome, very easy to use.
IMO, one of the best DACs made with access to all my digital music in one box. Yes, Alex was MIA for awhile but he certainly came through in the end.
I have been studying audiophile grade servers for the last 6 months. Three got a fair amount diligence. Low to high $$$: YFS 3SE with BR. MP64S with BR Core Audio Tech top Kryptos Studied others to These are not real big names in the game but do offer current technology and upgrade abilities.
You can't go wrong with the PS Audio PWD MKII with Bridge. Look at all the reviews by the pros and by the general public - me included. The MKII/Bridge has gone up against a variety of players and systems that are vastly more expensive than this relatively affordable and exceptional system.