I recently purchased Neal van Berg’s Music Vault Diamond, a music server designed to output files at any available resolution up to and including 24/192. I had set a number of criteria that were essential, and a few other ‘nice to have’ features. The essentials:
1) Capable of handling high resolution files
2) AES/EBU output
3) Automatic backup
4) Highest quality sound card, preferably Lynx AES 16
The only feature that I would like to have had – and which the Music Vault lacks – is a touch screen of the quality of Sooloos or Qsonix. This, of course, would have added quite a lot to the cost, and in any event Neal argues that a large screen is a potential sound reflector and should be avoided. Instead, control is via a netbook running either Media Monkey or iTunes at the customer’s discretion. An internet connection must be provided. In my case, I had no such connection available, but a Netgear Powerline adaptor proved to be an easy, reliable, and comparatively inexpensive solution. As for the netbook itself, I’m quite happy with the screen quality, but am less enamored with the touch pad. Let me make it clear that I’m one of those who finds any laptop touch pad to be a real pain, so this is a personal issue. Those of you who are more comfortable with these will likely be quite happy with it. Meanwhile, I’ve tried a conventional mouse (needs a flat surface with some space, obviously), a graphics tablet (initially very nice, but ultimately lacking), and finally a wireless trackball (the best solution by far).
The Music Vault itself is a compact, stylish-looking cube. The Diamond is provided with an output cable bundle that seems to be able to handle any type of connector, including of course AES/EBU. Setup is extremely easy – put the unit in place, connect to the Powerline, run the digital cable to the DAC, and attach the power cable. Power up, wait 2-3 minutes, and turn on the netbook. That’s all there is. It has worked flawlessly from day one. As Neal advertises, it is very quiet, with one exception. The fan tends to run at high speed while ripping a CD. If you are simultaneously doing so and listening to low level music, it can be a bit bothersome. However, I stress that this is the only time you can hear the fan in operation.
Although I am a confirmed Mac user when it comes to my (non-audio) computers, I chose Media Monkey as the primary interface due to its capability for automatic resolution switching. Any iTunes user will need no more than 5 minutes to get used to Media Monkey.
In order to provide points of reference, I’ll describe my recent digital gear. But first, let me say that I have been – and to a certain degree remain – a vinyl junkie. Over the years, I’ve probably averaged about 80% LP and 20% CD/SACD, and the digital was there largely for music unavailable on vinyl.
I owned an Ayre C-5xe universal player for nearly 3 years and was generally quite satisfied with it. For the most part, SACD was and is a significant step towards eliminating the digital nasties that typically caused me to fire up the turntable after 30 minutes or so. Redbook CD was as good as I’ve heard from any player, meaning not great.
After reading the rave reviews on the Berkeley Audio Alpha, I placed an order for one with the provision from the dealer that I could return it if it didn’t work out. After a two month wait, the DAC arrived, and it became clear after a very short listening session that a whole new world of digital music reproduction was available. I paired the Alpha with a high quality transport (Accustic Arts Drive), connected by a Purist Audio Aqueous AES/EBU. The immediate reaction was ‘where has the upper mid and high end grain gone?’.
The emergence of functional music servers and the persistent claims from well respected ears that music coming off a hard drive sounds superior to the same disk playing on a transport led to a search for an extremely high quality solution at a reasonable price. As I stated previously, I’m a fan of Macs, so this was an obvious potential route. However, my personal insistence on the Lynx sound card would have required a Mac Pro, plus at least one additional hard drive for backup, plus the backup software, plus either a monitor, or an iPhone or similar for control. In other words, the costs were adding up to the point where I wasn’t feeling great about the DIY solution. There were other options too numerous to mention, and to which I’ll not devote space. Then I read about the Music Vault products. In the Diamond, I apparently had a fully designed and tested unit that met all of the essential criteria. I spoke to Neal van Berg on the telephone and exchanged several emails, and of course ended up ordering a Diamond.
As I still had the transport, I was able to do a direct comparison of playback from it and from the server. I can confirm that there is a significant difference in sound between the two, with the superior sonics invariably coming from the server. I’ll get into the details in a moment, but will first offer a couple of sweeping generalizations.
1) Redbook CD (i.e. 16 bit, 44.1 kHz) reproduction through the Diamond is at least as good as, if not better than, SACD was through the Ayre C-5xe. This includes, of course, the CD layers of hybrid disks. I have many SACD recordings with which I am intimately familiar, and can state this without reservation. I can also say with certainty that a great deal of the improvement is due to the Berkeley DAC, but that this is most certainly not the whole story, because the same CD layer played from the transport vs. that reproduced from the Diamond shows a clear improvement in favor of the latter.
2) High resolution files, such as those from Reference Recordings, provide absolutely the most natural music reproduction I have ever experienced, bar none.
Not being a engineer, it’s unclear to me why music played back from a hard drive should be so much better than that from a high quality transport. Yet, my ears say that it is so, so I’ll avoid the theory and simply describe what I hear.
First and foremost, I admit to a strong bias towards audio gear that provides a great 3D soundstage with rock stable spatial cues. Unlike every other digital source I’ve ever experienced, the Diamond has this in spades. In this regard, it is very LP-like. I would argue that a proper soundstage (assuming that it’s been correctly recorded and engineered) is a fundamental requirement for creating the illusion of audio reality. The Diamond is capable of telling you exactly what sort of venue in which a recording was made. Unfortunately, it will also tell you the difference between a natural soundspace with correctly recorded ambience, and artificially added echo. I have more than a few recordings where I had previously thought the former was the case, but the server/DAC clearly reveals engineering shenanigans. Regardless, I’ll take the honest reproduction any day.
The utter lack of upper midrange and high frequency grain is the other great triumph of the Diamond/Alpha combination. I have literally hundreds of CDs which I had written off as unlistenable. These are largely from the 80s and early 90s, and, while it’s clear that they do have some very fundamental problems, most are quite tolerable now. The apparent harshness and glare that made these disks so unpleasant has been reduced considerably. More recent disks, on the other hand, are now allowed to shine. I find myself saying repeatedly “wow, where did that come from?”. Suffice it to say that I’m enjoying all of my digital music far more these days.
One of the real acid tests for digital is the violin, particularly massed violins in an orchestral setting. The inability of conventional CD players to reproduce these in anything like a fluid, glare-free manner was the single greatest reason for my personal propensity towards running over and pulling out the nearest LP. The Diamond/Berkeley has changed all of that. Apart from a few disks, those same violins are now heard ranging from “quite pleasant” to “stunningly gorgeous”. Color me extremely impressed.
I won’t go into the detail of examining each section of the musical spectrum. All of the traditional strengths of digital are present, and all of the traditional weaknesses are essentially eliminated. What more could one ask?
A primary reason for going the music server route was the ability to play back high resolution files. There seems to be a movement towards providing downloadable music in at least 24/96 format, while Reference Recordings’ HRX copies are available by physical disk only. I have now acquired four of these, and each and every one is at least an order of magnitude above its HDCD counterpart. One must pick and choose carefully, as they are definitely expensive at $45 each. We can only hope that the trend towards selling high selling resolution music in one form or another will continue.
Finally, I’ll touch on one very obvious selling point for the music server, namely the convenience factor. I hate searching through shelves of CDs to find a particular title. Those days are over. Media Monkey provides a decent, though slightly clunky, interface which makes that search vastly easier. True, the automatic information download from freedb.org will occasionally come up with missing track information or cover art, but it’s comparatively rare. Of course, this is not the Diamond’s fault, but is a consideration for anyone contemplating a move to a music server. Other than that, it’s all quite functional.
To summarize, the Music Vault Diamond, along with the Berkeley Alpha, has elevated my digital listening experience far beyond expectations. I stated early in this review that perhaps 20% of my listening time was devoted to digital reproduction. I would estimate that this figure is closer to 60% now. This, from a long time vinyl fan, is the highest possible recommendation.Associated gear Click to view my Virtual System