Review of STi5 server (Small Green Computer) and Signature Series Rendu renderer (Sonore)
This is a review of a music server and renderer that work together to send music to a dedicated DAC. That’s the only way I’ve used them, and more or less what they were intended for. Sonore and Small Green Computer are closely linked companies that make complementary products. My comments include how I learned about and chose this equipment, so it’s a long post.
After eight months in my living room, this equipment has proven to me that digital music has finally come of age. During a day at Toronto’s AudioFest in October 2018, I was struck by how many long-serving high-end professionals seemed oblivious to recent advances in the pre-DAC chain, and how unchallenged the phono source was in most of the rooms. But these new digital products – adding onto rather than replacing the DAC – can amply repay anyone wanting better digital sound. If you know all about this kind of gear, this won’t be news. But if you are cautiously circling around this prospect, as I was eight months ago, read on.
I acquired the Sonore SSR renderer (original SPDIF version, used) and Small Green Computer STi5 server (new) at the same time in mid-2018. The STi5 is small black computer that is fanless and inaudible at two feet. The point was to replace my 17" MacBookPro as a digital source. It was feeding my Chord Mojo DAC via Lifatec glass optical cable, with some help from Amarra’s SQ+ software. My Prodigy amp by Sophia Electric (US $3000 new) is a refined 10 wpc tube affair. It powers my Tonian TL-D1 Mk3 speakers by Tonian Labs: very fast and tonally saturated floorstanders with 96dB efficiency. My phono section comprises a Rega Planar 3 turntable with RB300 tonearm and Ortofon MC20 Super cartridge played through a Benz Micro PP1 T9 phono stage. All my interconnect and speaker wire are made by Grover Huffman.
For about two years before buying the gear under review, I had subscribed to Tidal’s lossless streaming service. My listening progressively shifted from my own digital and vinyl libraries to streaming. This was partly because I was travelling a lot, but more because of the vast scale of the online catalogue. As I chipped away at my digital sound quality, it approached and then surpassed my modest but musical phono section. I got into the vinyl treasure hunt for awhile; but once on Tidal quickly realized I could hear much more music, much more affordably, on the digital side. Those who have yet to sign up for lossless streaming may not appreciate how much it can expand and accelerate exploring and learning about music. Looking back, I can see that my listening had become too insular and fetishistic, and I needed blow open the doors.
I’ve never subscribed to the "bits-is-bits" viewpoint that sometimes blights online banter. And I’ve known for several years that a dedicated audio computer would produce better results than my all-purpose laptop. But I held off due concerns about equipment clutter, noise and cabling issues, and some confusion deriving from my modest computer literacy at a time of rapid advancement in technical implementation. I had the good fortune to go travelling over 30 months when some big advances were reaching the market. At the same time, equipment choices could be researched on the internet with some confidence, thanks to a few honest and diligent professional reviewers (notably Michael Lavorgna), and the enthusiast online community (notably Computer Audiophile).
So once I finally got worn out from travelling, I settled into my new home and started getting serious about improving my digital front end. I knew that we need audio-dedicated computers to remove the huge amount of noise created inside general-purpose computers. But as a non-technical audiophile, I found the reading a tough slog. Almost nothing I came across even attempted to explain the fundamentals to the uninitiated. A small number of terms for equipment functions (server, streamer, transport, player, renderer) seem to be used differently by different manufacturers and enthusiasts, which gets confusing when they’re assigned to components that combine two or more functions in various ways. The technology is new and the product formats vary.
After a few uncomfortable but determined weeks of research, I slipped into the shallow end of the pool with Google’s Chromecast Audio puck, which was quickly joined by iFi’s replacement power supply and iPurifier re-clocker. These three tiny items cost about C$350 new. I streamed music from Tidal using the Google Chrome browser so that I could send (cast?) it to the Chromecast. What I heard was not superior in every way to using my MacBook Pro with Amarra SQ+ software and optical cable to my DAC. In particular, resolution and frequency response seemed better on my Mac. However, within three days it was clear that although the Chromecast setup sounded less refined, it also sounded freer and more open. Listening to music became more relaxed and fun. Removing the optical cable that linked my workaday laptop to my DAC was a big practical bonus. So this trial setup became my preferred configuration.
Encouraged, I resumed my research and psyched myself up for some bigger purchases. The most important thing I learned at this stage was the value of separating the music server (pulling streams from the internet or files from a disk), renderer (player), and control point (user interface). I hadn’t budgeted for a big upgrade, and this one was particularly costly: since a discrete server and renderer represent new categories of high-end gear – for me, anyway – and don’t liberate older equipment for re-sale. But I’d been building my system for long enough to know that my best course of action was to inhale deeply, buy the gear I would eventually buy anyway, and save myself the extra effort, delays and minor losses that come with staggered upgrades.
A contributing factor was my trial of Roon as a replacement interface for Tidal, and a streaming/library integrator, shortly after I introduced Google Chromecast to my system. I was hooked on Tidal’s catalogue, but never liked its interface. The way Roon leads me to (and just plain-old ’plays’) music that I don’t know but really like is revelatory. Roon’s powerful contribution to exploring and choosing music is – combined with lossless streaming from a huge library – a significant aspect of the case for investing in a high-end pre-DAC stage.
So I took the plunge! Buying direct from Small Green Computer (SGC), I choose the Sonic Transporter i5 (STi5) with 2TB of built-in storage. On Canuck Audio Mart I sourced Sonore’s original Signature Series Rendu (SSR), which has SPDIF (coax) and i2s outputs (versus the USB output of the current Signature Rendu SE). I’ve never actually heard USB sound that I like, and felt more comfortable spending real cash on SPDIF (and spending less of it on an out-of-production model). On SGC’s advice I also ordered two short runs of ethernet cable from Blue Jeans Cable: one to connect each of my new boxes directly to my internet router.
The STi5 arrived first. I loaded my digital music library (about 500 GB) onto it without difficulty. Then I compared the STi5 to my 2017 MacBook Pro as a file server, using the Chord Mojo DAC for both. I can’t remember exactly how I hooked up the STi5 for this comparison; but it was one of those situations where the improvement was so immediately obvious that I didn’t spend much time on it, and haven’t looked back. My remaining impression is one of a more stable, solid and clean sound using the STi5.
My SSR renderer arrived shortly after this. Comparing the SSR to the Google Chromecast was a mind-bending experience. This was approximately like switching from a $300 mass-market direct-drive turntable to a $3,000 audiophile rig. There was really no comparison, and frankly I was completely floored.
Of course I’d expected a major improvement; but this was more like dying and going to heaven. Every aspect of performance was radically improved, such that experience of listening to and appreciating music was completely transformed. A normal first reaction would be to assume that, by some freakish coincidence, one was listening to a series of different productions of exactly the same tunes by the same bands. What had been interesting and enjoyable – before listening fatigue set in after an hour or two – became engrossing and moving, for as many hours as I could sit still.
My gamble had paid off.
DAC manufacturers tend to overstate the independence of their DACs from the quality of upstream components; and my upgrade strongly confirmed this belief. Not to put too fine a point on it, my DAC sounds at least twice as good as it did before I inserted the SGC server and Sonore renderer. I was puzzled by the brief but rather sweeping character of some SGC and Sonore reviews, until I reached the same conclusion: my system was now producing the best sound I’d ever heard at home.
It’s hard to articulate the nature of the improvement because it’s so fundamental. But subjectively, three things stood out for me as being especially improved: the sense of each instrument being distinct and independent from all the others; their tone and timbre; and a sense of refinement, or hearing the natural beauty of sounds untainted by electro-mechanical infrastructure. The sound I get now I would describe as insightful, articulate, smooth, beautiful, involving and inspiring. It doesn’t sound like phono, but neither does it sound like the digital we’ve struggled with for the past 30 years. To me it sounds considerably more real than either of those.
If you aren’t tied solely to a phono source for serious listening, don’t yet have serious gear in front of your serious DAC, and have some cash to spare, you should seriously consider getting yourself a dedicated audio server and renderer.
I’m in no position to compare my SGC and Sonore models to other models made by them or their competitors. But I can tell you that, after eight months of serious daily listening, along with lots of casual listening, I’m incredibly happy. More than any group of upgrades I’ve made to my system over 30 years, this one – including Roon and lossless streaming – has viscerally improved my quality of life.
Finally, I’ve found that Andrew at Small Green Computer and Jesus at Sonore stand completely behind their respective products and support their customers – including technically marginal guys like me – with lightning speed. It’s hard not to admire people with so much innovative capacity, integrity and commitment. Thanks guys!