Music server quality.


Has technology progressed to the point where a music server will outperform the very best CD player, or do the very best players still sound better than the very best music servers?
mdhoover
Stock music servers are still in the low to mid-fi sound quality range IMO. Well modified music servers are approaching and surpassing many high end CD players in performance. Not quite better than the best. At least not yet.
I don't think that there is any difference so long as you couple the music server to a good DAC.
Thanks, Thewebgeek and Eharlson.

The reason I ask is that there is really no truly high end CD changer, although I think the Onkyo Integra DPC 8.5 six disc universal player that I have in my system is certainly decent. It benefits enormously from the Dodson DAC that I have, and I'm more than satisfied (ecstatic actually) with the current sound of my system. So it's probably stupid to be wondering about the player. Still, the Onkyo Integra strikes me as the weakest link in my system. For critical listening, it functions solely as a transport, with everything (except SACD and some music DVD's) routed through the Dodson. It's not clear to me just how critical the transport stage is to CD sound quality. I've heard different things, including:
1) the transport doesn't matter;
2) the transport doesn't matter very much;
3) the transport matters a lot.

It seems that if a music server were as good or better than the best CD players, then the answer would be a no-brainer, and the price would be about a log lower to boot. Also, not having to dig through CD's to change music selections is incredibly appealing. However, I'm enough of an audiophile curmudgeon to be unwilling to compromise one iota on sound quality. Hence the question posted above.
Yes - unless you are in the seriously megabux category with Aero, Wadia and the like.

To answer your last question first - the transport is the root of all evil in this equation. Simple fact is that getting rid of the problems associated with electro-optical -mechanical systems is a huge plus providing an instant gain to all who try it.

If you like your DAC, keep it and use it with a Squeezebox or something like an M-Transit or Waveterminal. Better yet get a USB DAC - like Scott Nixon's TubeDAC or if you really have golden ears and a purse to match, Gordon Rankin's Brick or Cosecant. Or have Wayne mod a Squeezebox for you along with one of his power supplies and use it as an analog source.

No matter which approach you take, you will get all the benefits of instant random access, a house free of CDs etc

Plenty of info here and on the Audio Asylum PC Forum
I use an MBL 1511E DAC fed by a Mac Powerbook with the new intel chip. The new Macs don't have a fan but do have an optical digital out, so you can use a toslink cable to the DAC. I have a 500 Gb external hard disc. My 800 + CDs only use about half the space in lossless compression.

I just use i-tunes. The computer, hard drive and cable were under $2K. I was using a Sony XA 777 ES as a transport until I could purchase the MBL transport. But the server system sounds clearly superior to using the Sony and really has me wondering about the benefits of spending the money on the MBL transport.
Ckorody:

Thanks for your excellent insights and info. I'm intrigued, to say the very least. The ultimate (obviously) thing would be a UNIVERSAL server that rivals or exceeds the highest quality of each and every information storage medium (i.e. stores and plays CD, DVD, possibly SACD, HDCD, blue ray, etc.). I'm guessing that such a system does not yet exist, but would love to be wrong about that.

Thanks to Ckorody,* Thewebgeek and Eharlson for all the information so far!

*Who's Wayne?
The Slim Devices Transporter just got an A rating in the
4/07 issue of Stereophile. If you already have a PC, the Transporter makes more sense(less cables & boxes) than spending alot of money to upgrade a Squeezebox, M-Transit or Waveterminal to feed a DAC.
Sorry - Wayne is the resident genius at Bolder Cable - pretty much the leader in SB mods though there are some others now. Wayne has done a number of units for me. He also makes some wonderful cables.

http://www.boldercables.com/servlet/Search?category=MODIFICATIONS

I have a McIntosh 300 Music Server hooked-up to my Accustic Arts Dac1 MK4 using a Stealth Sextet digital cable and very happy.

I do use this when I don't want to just change one cd, I have not as of yet done any direct comparisons to my single cd drive unit but will down the road. I really like the Mac. very classy piece and easy to use. When I had any questions Mac was there to answer any and all which makes me feel confident in owning such a piece of gear.
I use an MBL 1511E DAC fed by a Mac Powerbook with the new intel chip. The new Macs don't have a fan but do have an optical digital out, so you can use a toslink cable to the DAC. I have a 500 Gb external hard disc. My 800 + CDs only use about half the space in lossless compression.

I just use i-tunes. The computer, hard drive and cable were under $2K. I was using a Sony XA 777 ES as a transport until I could purchase the MBL transport. But the server system sounds clearly superior to using the Sony and really has me wondering about the benefits of spending the money on the MBL transport.
-Sw23
Sw23,

Very interesting information. Have you compared the sound quality of the MBL transport to that of the server?
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The Slim Devices Transporter just got an A rating in the 4/07 issue of Stereophile. If you already have a PC, the Transporter makes more sense(less cables & boxes) than spending alot of money to upgrade a squeezebox, M-Transit or Waveterminal to feed a DAC.
-Kana813
Kana813,

Thank you for the information. Once I learn more about these devices, I may be able to understand what you're talking about. My knowledge base on music server technology is zero right now.
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Sorry - Wayne is the resident genius at Bolder Cable - pretty much the leader in SB mods though there are some others now. Wayne has done a number of units for me. He also makes some wonderful cables.

http://www.boldercables.com/servlet/Search?category=MODIFICATIONS
-Ckorody
Ckorody,
That's useful information and I'll check out the link.
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I have a McIntosh 300 Music Server hooked-up to my Accustic Arts Dac1 MK4 using a Stealth Sextet digital cable and very happy.

I do use this when I don't want to just change one cd, I have not as of yet done any direct comparisons to my single cd drive unit but will down the road. I really like the Mac. very classy piece and easy to use. When I had any questions Mac was there to answer any and all which makes me feel confident in owning such a piece of gear.
-Dev
Dev,
Thanks for the info. Going with a known high end manufacturer like MacIntosh has a certain appeal to me. I would be very interested in the outcome of any comparison you make to your single disc unit in terms of sound quality.
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Thanks to all of the respondents so far. It is VERY clear to me that I know NOTHING about music servers and have a LOT of research to do before even thinking about buying one.
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I've been considering too...and the thing is it appears to me a lot of servers are actually made by non tradtional audiophile companies.....but that may not be a bad thing: for me the most important thing will be storage space, user interface and digital outputs given I will be using my dac. There is the sooloos system for example. Sounds interesting to me as it has terabyte capacity! Oliver is another.

Then there are PC based systems such as Squeezebox, Sonos etc...the question on these are not the quality (again if you use the digital outputs to a good DAC) but to me the fact that PCs tend to crash. I do have the Sonos. The positive is these are generally not a very expensive option (obviously using Airport Express is very cheap though it doess suffer in quality). A very interesting development is msb tech developing a IPOD cradle which charges the IPOD, and they configure your IPOD to actually have a digital out. The IPOD then becomes a remote control, sending uncompressed digital wirelessly to a base station of sorts which in turn can be hooked up to your dac.
I also hear Arcam has come out with one.
If you pockets are deep enough, here another one:

http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue28/novaphysics_memoryplayer.htm
I guess I just don't get the packaged server products. Are they for people who are afraid of computers?

What do they do that a simple Mac running i-tunes can't do, cheaper? That is, assuming that you want to use your own dac? I have a squeezebox, but it doesn't sound nearly as good as the mac going straight into the dac with the optical output. Am I missing something here?
Henryhk,
The Arcam would be expected to be a good unit, I suppose.

Kana813,
My pockets are not that deep. (My grave might be deep if I bought one and "forgot" to tell my wife.)
just to add another option - there is Cambridge Audio unit that has received good ink, and it is quite affordable, any comments?
Sw23...I think on using your notebook etc or PC..a) personally I tend to upgrade my PC more regularly as the pace of tech development is much faster and b) they tend to crash much more frequently than servers (virus etc) and finally c) I use my PC for so much other stuff anyway could actually inibit usage flexibility if married to my music system. ...I do use a PC based system due to my IPOD and also via Sonus yes...but still interested in what the servers have to offer. Also finally I guess, for some rooms at my place wirless distribution doesn't work that well so need mutiple options to consider. Obviously a PC based system also has lot of advantages such as convenience, user interface, flexibility, software upgrades etc as well.
I bought a laptop that is dedicated as a music server. Its a mac. It never crashes. It's not wireless. As I said, I used the wireless squeezebox and found that the sound quality of the macs using the new intel chip and the digital output directly via toslink into a dac sounded clearly superior to the squeezbox into the same dac. Of course you want to have an internet connection so that i-tunes can get all of the data about the cds that you add to your library. But I honestly don't understand what it is that these other products offer. My laptop and 500 G hd cost about $1800 and that is literally all that you need if you already have a dac that you like. The mac has its own remote with a screen configuration that is visible from across the room or you can hook it up to a TV monitor. Don't want a laptop, buy a mini for $500! I'm not getting into the mac vs pc thing here for computing. This is just as a dedicated music server and nothing else. I think its cheaper, works better and sounds better easier to add more storage capacity etc.
the tribe has spoken

amen
I cannot really judge on quality of sound on squeeze box vs a mac (given I have tried neither)as u said but I wonder whether it may have to do more with wire vs wireless...but in any case u make valid pts which I was not aware of such as having remote for mac....never knew. However in terms of user interface....not sure how the mac remotes works etc...but I do have Sonus and its the best remote I have ever used on any consumer elec product bar none: the flexibility, visibility, funtionality, everything is absolutely genius: Squeeze box falters by a huge margin on this. Sound quality of Sonus feeding into my external DAC vs playing CDs...well my digital CD front end is top tier to say the least so benchmark is very high: the Sonus enjoyable but can't match my Meitner set up: but I bet its just as good as a average (?) CD player set up.

The MSB Tech IPOD solution also sounds interesting as the IPOD becomes a defacto remote: and MSB at least in the past via its DACs and CD players has done very well with digital auido so I find it very interesting: will be checking it out soon. Will check out the mac solutions you have pted as well.
Not sure if that is directed at me, Ckorody, but if it is, you completely miss my point. Its just a plastic box. It does this one thing very well and rather inexpensively. My original question is, why would you spend more, what do you get by spending more? I made this choice at the advice of Gordon Rankin at Wavelength (I'm just using a different DAC). It has absolutely nothing to do with the Mac/Microsoft nonsense.
I almost decided to invest the money for a stand-alone music server then I realized that the stand-alone music servers are dead ends, because if I am to 'enter' all my hundreds and hundreds of CDs into the proprietary server without back-up capability, I definitely will need to do backups - these servers do not have backup ability.
"these servers do not have backup ability"

This isn't true, most of the music servers I've seen have
USB or wireless connections which allow for backup to an external HD or PC.

Here's info on the Cambridge Audio unit:

http://www.cambridgeaudio.com/assets/documents/sManualImportantInformationSheet.pdf
Actually sw23 my comment was not directed at you so much as it was intended to ratify your position - that the Mac doesn't crash etc...

To cut to the chase - I have a Bolder modified SB2 with all the trimming including the Bybees but not the uber power supply. I have a Wavelength Brick in my workroom/reference system. IMHO it is better then the SB2 -In my work room I also prefer the Brick because I can use all the conveniences of the Mac to control it rather then having to use the excellent but not quite native SB interface.

The only possible next step is to get a Cosecant... that IMHO is the only way up from here.

BUT when I go into my HT room or the bedroom or the guestroom and fire up my various modded SBs I am not hating life - In fact I am very pleased with all the work that Wayne at Bolder has done for me. The two "good" SBs with modded power supplies, the platinum Sonic Caps etc all function as analog outs (no DAC required) and the sound is excellent - much better then I ever expected to own for my budget. My installation is simpler and more space efficient. I no longer need a power conditioner - I need one pair of good ICS etc All of them share one iTunes library with the Brick - and all this is very powerful stuff for me.

Now, just for the record, I had a TriVista fully modded by Parts Connexion. $3,400 MSRP. I supported it with another grand in cables and isolation. It was better then the SBs. I never compared it head to head with the Brick because I sold the TriVista to get the Brick. The TriVista probably was better - for 2x-3x the investment it should be. But I do not miss it. You might

YMMV
I tried the MSB Tech IPOD system at dealer today. Basically a docking station hooked up to an external dac, IPO reconfigured so it outputs digitally, and wireless from IPOD to the docking station.

The main system hooked up was unfamiliar to me so I can only comment on the context of relativities: MSB Tech Platinum DAC, Moon Audio CD & amplification, and Wisdom Audio speakers.

I compared a) CD vs b) IPOD in the docking sation vs c)IPO in hand?data sent wireless to the docking station.

c) was quite good but when switching to b) the difference was immediate: bass got tighter and imagining better defined, sound staging improved. Moving from b) to a) was much less of an improvement, but I did think CDs had better solidity to the notes, if u know what I mean. The diff from c to b was far greater than b to a.

This may support the previous talk of Wavelength PC etc vs some wireless solutions...the diff in sound quality may well be more about wireless vs wireline as opposed to PC based vs music server based etc.

However c) does offer a lot of convenience in that the IPOD becomes your remote control. Accessing playlists for example become a cinch and one can quickly move from track to track for example.

I would have liked to do a side by side comparison of say Sonus or Squeezebox wireless vs the MSB but could not. My hunch is that the latter is better but just hunch as I could not do any sort of direct comparisons.

Thus it seems to me the MSB IPOD system which costs circa US$2500 (including an 80G IPOD reconfigured so that digital output is possible)...is niche product with the following value add

1. For some homes.places....wireless thru out the house is difficult due to inteference, type of walls: in such cases a room by room approach is required.

2. IPOD user interface is familiar, u can charge it, and most of us have one anyway for portability...so nice way to integrate things

3. If need be and you don't need to keep switching tracks and prefer better quality, you can play it with the IPOD in the docking station which probably beats most if not all wireless solutions.

4. IPOD is much smaller than a notebook!

But also the strengths also mirror its weakness: remote...nothing beats Sonus. Capacity limited to 80GB, no multi room capability....etc

I am interested but still will continue to think thru and investigate options...may come back to this however.

Hope that helps
Henryhk- Great info. It would be interesting to compare the
MSB Tech IPOD system to a MacPowerbook feeding the same DAC
via it's built-in digital output.

You say "nothing beats Sonus," I guessing you're referring to
the Sonus display remote, but how does the Sonus sound quality compare to Mac set ups, and is the Sonus software as easy to use as iTunes?
Thanks to all for the responses so far. I didn't realize how little I know about this topic. For that reason I'll sit on the sidelines for a while, and let others with more knowledge do the talking.
Hi- yes wireless can potentially always be an issue - very prone to interference and not much can be done about it. A wired approach will always be more robust.

For me a $2,500 iPod misses the point of what's going on in the marketplace. First, a totally tricked out Squeezebox is a lot less and does a lot more.

But more importantly - at least to me - is that the whole PC thing is all about using widely available, mass market, highly standardized products to drive prices down without compromising quality. Put another way, when a 500Gb hard drive is $139 an iPod for $2,500 is nuts.
"the diff in sound quality may well be more about wireless vs wireline as opposed to PC based vs music server based etc. "

I'm not sure that a finding regarding the implementation of wireless in the MSB iPod product should be generalized to, say, laptop or desktop based systems.

"yes wireless can potentially always be an issue - very prone to interference and not much can be done about it. A wired approach will always be more robust."

My own wireless front end doesn't suffer from any robustness or interference issues, or sound quality issues, for that matter. It's Apple based: iMac G4 with external drives in the study functioning as the server, a wireless iBook in the living (music) room providing iTunes control, and an Airport Express providing AirTunes to S/PDIF conversion. Sounds as good as wired configurations (leaving out the AX) I am able to set up with my system.

I used to have an issue with occasional dropouts in the signal. But when I finally replaced my 801.11b router/wireless-access-point with an 801.11g unit (due to a free upgrade in my DSL service), that issue disappeared. I should have made that change earlier, but I really didn't think that bandwidth would be the limiting factor.

So, no doubt wireless is not going to be successful in all environments, but I don't think audiophiles who might be interested in the great convenience of wireless should automatically write it off.
Kana813: Nothing beats Sonus...I meant strictly the Remote and its user interface. Felxibility, easy interface, album covers...the works. Simply awesome. Set up is very easy. And you can expand and daisy chain thru out the house so it has mutli room capability. Using the remote u can even have each room playing different music at the same time! Sonic quality vs Mac....can't say as I personally have not used a MAC set up...but my hunch is that will be worse than MAC directly connected to a DAC (as well as Sonus) but better or similiar when using the
MAC wirelessly.

On Squeezebox, and especially the new Transporter...seems the value add here is that it has a very good internal DAC. But for those who already have excellent DACs like myself already, I find this redundant.

Jayboard,.,..guess you are right: but in that dealer demo room as well as my own exp at home, wireless has suffered: though still very listenable indeed...good for background relaxing music, parties etc...so far for me not more than yet (in terms of my own exp). But whether its music severs or the IPOD in docking station (or likely PC via Wavelength), directly connected systems I think are competitive in sound quality though perhaps suffering for the last mile of refinement (so far of what I have heard, I would be gladly pointed alernatives where this is sin't so) and have the flexibility that comes with digitally stored music which obviously CD players lack. As such, I want both!
>

Excuse me for jumping in here, but... HUH?
Are you having a lot of interference problems on your wifi setup generally? I'm not even sure what that means. If you're having reception problems, you should check your router or perhaps you need a booster.
I've had a Transporter now for about 3 months. I also have a big time Audio Research system that I love, with an Oracle 2500 CD player for a digital front end.
Head to head, the Oracle is beter. It's less congested and a bigger sound than the Transporter.
But, that's only if you listen head to head.
If you instead start out listening to the Transporter, and pump it through my Ref 3 pre-amp and then into the 2 tube power amps, the Transporter sounds great.
And what really is cool, is how much fun it is to go whirling through my music collection without getting out of my chair.
I usually use my laptop for this, cause it's nice to see a large selection of what's available at once, and choose from that. It also lets me look at reviews and articles about artists while I'm listening.
Then it's just touch and play for anything on my hard drive upstairs.
And with the Transporter, I can use iTunes to manage my music collection, which is very nice. Apple just keeps coming up with new ways to organize the GUI, to automatically supply album art, etc.
I use Apple lossless, which is just a conversion from WAV lossless (and you can go back again at some point in the future if you want to).
Make no mistake: I also have a large Vinyl habit, so I'm listening to three formats now and all three have their pluses. But the Transporter is a huge step in the evolution of high end playback. To ignore it or call it a $2000 squeezebox (which I also have) is simply ridiculous. It just means you haven't heard it.
If you hate all digital sources, you won't like it. If you love the sound from CD's, I'd say this matches all but the top of the high end, with fantastic convenience.
I also bought it at a major discount from a guy here on AG, who recently sent me an email saying he had a couple of new onces (I told him I want another for my second system). if you're interested and don't see him here, email me and I'll try to hook you up. I have no relationship or financial interest in this whatsoever - just sharing a good source.
>

Excuse me for jumping in here, but... HUH?
Are you having a lot of interference problems on your wifi setup generally? I'm not even sure what that means. If you're having reception problems, you should check your router or perhaps you need a booster.
I've had a Transporter now for about 3 months. I also have a big time Audio Research system that I love, with an Oracle 2500 CD player for a digital front end.
Head to head, the Oracle is beter. It's less congested and a bigger sound than the Transporter.
But, that's only if you listen head to head.
If you instead start out listening to the Transporter, and pump it through my Ref 3 pre-amp and then into the 2 tube power amps, the Transporter sounds great.
And what really is cool, is how much fun it is to go whirling through my music collection without getting out of my chair.
I usually use my laptop for this, cause it's nice to see a large selection of what's available at once, and choose from that. It also lets me look at reviews and articles about artists while I'm listening.
Then it's just touch and play for anything on my hard drive upstairs.
And with the Transporter, I can use iTunes to manage my music collection, which is very nice. Apple just keeps coming up with new ways to organize the GUI, to automatically supply album art, etc.
I use Apple lossless, which is just a conversion from WAV lossless (and you can go back again at some point in the future if you want to).
Make no mistake: I also have a large Vinyl habit, so I'm listening to three formats now and all three have their pluses. But the Transporter is a huge step in the evolution of high end playback. To ignore it or call it a $2000 squeezebox (which I also have) is simply ridiculous. It just means you haven't heard it.
If you hate all digital sources, you won't like it. If you love the sound from CD's, I'd say this matches all but the top of the high end, with fantastic convenience.
I also bought it at a major discount from a guy here on AG, who recently sent me an email saying he had a couple of new onces (I told him I want another for my second system). if you're interested and don't see him here, email me and I'll try to hook you up. I have no relationship or financial interest in this whatsoever - just sharing a good source.
Jmandell- you should check out mauimods.com's upgrade for the
Transporter.
Wireless and networked servers are superior technically to USB or Firewire, although some wireless servers are limited to 16//44.1 currently. Networked is superior because networked streaming audio is clocked at the destination, not from the source like USB or Firewire. This provides the opportunity to reclock or clock with very low-jitter clocks in the receiver unit. This can also be accomplished using USB or Firewire, but is much more difficult and costly.

The current sound quality issue with wireless is due to implementation more than technology IMO. Give it some time and things will get a LOT better.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Manufacturer