Qsonix Q100/110 Music Server

Equipment report
Categories:
Music servers and computer audio
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Products:
Qsonix Q100/110
Qsonix Q100/110 Music Server

As I scanned the market for music servers to review for this special feature, the Qsonix Q100 stood out from the crowd. When it comes to music servers, the user interface is paramount, and Qsonix had what appeared to be a vastly more friendly and intuitive interface than that of the competition. Most servers rely on text-based lists, menus, and sub-menus rather than on a graphic presentation that shows you album art. It’s like the difference between DOS and Windows operating systems.

I was also drawn to Qsonix for its forward-looking approach to integrating its hardware platform with Web-based music delivery, particularly the tantalizing possibility of accessing highresolution music via downloads. Why wait for a physical format such as HD DVD or Bluray Disc for high-resolution music when you can simply download universally compatible audio files?

The Qsonix Q100 reviewed here will have been updated by the time you read this to the Q110. The newer unit sports a much quieter fan, a front-panel USB port, and version 2.2 software. The software update integrates the Qsonix system with the MusicGiants on-line music store and adds a new feature called Tapestry Tapestry generates playlists based on various attributes you’ve selected). As described in the accompanying interview with Qsonix co-founder Mike Weaver, Qsonix has teamed with MusicGiants to seamlessly deliver music—including high-resolution audio—directly to the Q110 server. Owners of the Q100 can upgrade the software to version 2.2 (at no charge) or the hardware (for a fee) to Q110 status. Pricing for the hardware upgrade had not been finalized at press time.

The Qsonix system consists of two components. The first is an integratedamplifier- sized chassis that contains the hard-disk drive, CD drive for importing discs, computer circuitry, and audio electronics; the second is the 15" touchscreen control panel. The main chassis provides two separate stereo pairs of analog outputs and one S/PDIF jack. The dual analog outputs enable the Qsonix system to simultaneously stream two different playlists to different areas of the house. The S/PDIF jack allows you to bypass the system’s integral digital-to-analog converters and connect the digital output to an external D/A converter. An Ethernet jack provides high-speed internet connection (required), and an RS232 port allows the Q110 to integrate with whole-house control systems such as Crestron and AMX.

The Q110 is offered with three choices of drive capacity: 250GB (750 CDs), 500BG (1500 CDs), and 1TB (3000 CDs). Prices are $5995, $6795, and $7795, respectively, including touchscreen and four analog outputs (Q110). The capacity of CDs per drive is calculated with Windows Media Audio Lossless compression, which provides perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the source. WMA achieves about a 25–40% decrease in the storage-capacity requirement, with no reduction in sound quality. As I mentioned in my review of the Sooloos system in this issue, some in the high end mistakenly presume that a lossless compression system degrades fidelity. In fact, music sourced from the Q100 sounds better than the same music sourced from a state-of-the-art CD transport. (See the accompanying article “Do Hard-Disk Drives Sound Better than CD?”) You can also select, when importing a CD, a lossy compression system that allows the system to store more music. The socalled “High-Quality” mode increases the storage capacity to 2250 CDs for the 250GB drive. This mode encodes the music with a bit-rate of 320kbps per channel, about a quarter the datarate of uncompressed CD-quality PCM. The “Normal Quality” mode increases the storage capacity to 4500 CDs by lowering the bit rate to 192kbps. I used the lossless option for my evaluation.

Importing CDs one at a time (about five minutes per disc) is tedious. Qsonix offers, in conjunction with MusicGiants, the “Concierge Collection” of prepackaged music. You can specify a list of albums you want, or MusicGiants will hand-tailor a library for you and deliver the music on an external hard drive. The hard drive plugs into Qsonix’s USB port and the music is transferred to the Qsonix drive. You can also use the USB port to add an external drive to back up your music library in case of drive failure.

Qsonix offers some interesting features, including the ability to burn a selected playlist, entire album, or compilation to a CD-R (Red Book format) using the Q110’s integral CD burner. You can access your music library from any other networked media device, as well as transfer music between devices. Anyone who has experience with computer-based audio files knows all too well that much of the meta-data is corrupted by wrong information, misspellings, and other errors (or the information is simply missing). Qsonix uses an “acoustic fingerprinting” technology that goes out to the Web to identify the piece of music and retrieve all new metadata, This meta-data come from All Media Guide (AMG), a company that provides CD information, album art, reviews, and other data. AMG’s meta-data have been hand-coded by a team of professionals and checked for accuracy, in contrast with the popular Gracenote CDDB system that relies on user-generated information. Moreover, AMG categorizes music according to a wide range of criteria (genre, mood, style, instrumentation, etc.)—information that can be used for creating playlists based on your particular tastes and mood. The Tapestry feature described earlier is based on AMG’s technology and data, and Qsonix’s implementation of this feature is the first in the industry.

Qsonix’s iPod features are particularly compelling; the interface for managing music and transferring tracks and playlists to an iPod is significantly better than the iTunes interface. Qsonix will also transcode files on its hard drive for storage on the iPod. Unfortunately, however, no lossless encoding is offered; only pure uncompressed WAV files (which consume lots of disc space) and three lower bit-rates with lossy compression are available. (I use Apple Lossless exclusively on my iPod, an option not offered by Qsonix because Apple Lossless is proprietary to Apple.)

As I mentioned at the start of this review, a music server lives or dies by its user interface. If the server is cumbersome and difficult to use, browsing through your music library becomes a chore rather than a joy. I picked the Qsonix for review on the basis of its promising user interface, which I previewed at the company’s Web site (you can get a full animated tour at qsonix.com). Despite my high expectations, living with the Qsonix turned out to be even more enjoyable than I had imagined. This is one wellthought- out interface; it’s no wonder MusicGiants incorporated it in its online store, or that jukebox companies have licensed the Qsonix interface for their commercial products.

The screen is divided into three main panels: View, Now Playing, and Playlists. The View panel lets you look through your music library by artist, album name, or genre (with text-based lists), or graphically by cover art. A pull-down menu selects between these views. The cover-art view is the one you’ll use most. Within the coverart view, you can see 15 album covers, or just two larger album covers accompanied by details about the albums (including track listings). A Search tab on this menu allows you to search for an artist or album title. The genre, artist, and album views show how many titles in the library are included in that genre or are by that artist. Tapping the album name or cover art brings up a track listing of that album. From this view, you can tap the Details tab to show the genre and sub-genre classification of the album, as well as bring up a review of the album from All Media Guide. Sampling these reviews of records I know well, I found that most are insightful, although quite brief.

When you find the music you want, you simply put your finger on the cover art, or artist name (or individual tracks if you’ve “opened” the album by tapping it) and drag it into the Now Playing panel. Once music is in the Now Playing panel, you can play a particular track, rearrange the order of tracks (again, with a drag ’n’ drop method), play the list in order, or play the list in random shuffle mode. This drag ’n’ drop operation is the Q100’s core triumph. It’s simple, direct, and intuitive. You see the music on the screen, touch it with your fingertip, and control the playback.

A selection of tracks in Now Playing can be stored as a playlist. All your stored lists appear in the Playlist panel in the screen’s top-right corner. A pull-down menu gives you the option of editing, sorting, renaming, and deleting playlists. As mentioned, you can burn a selected playlist to a CD using the Q100’s integral CD recorder.

The Q110 is a four-zone unit, allowing you to stream four different audio programs to different areas of the house. Switching between zones is accomplished by one fingertap, and the screen changes color to indicate which zone you are viewing or programming. Note, however, that the fourzone output works only from the analog outputs, not the S/PDIF digital jack.

The system has a number of other features. When one track is playing, you can double-tap another song and the new song plays for a few seconds while the original track momentary drops in level. A volume control adjustment is provided on the front panel, but I defeated this feature in favor of using my preamp’s volume control.

The system’s other screens appear when importing CDs, transferring music to an iPod, burning a playlist to a CD, etc., and are accompanied by on-screen instructions. This makes using the advanced features extremely simple. These features are described in an addendum to the owner’s manual (which is, incidentally, excellent), but I actually used them successfully before I even read the manual.

The Q110 has the provision for storing high-resolution digital audio, but not via importing SACDs or DVD-A discs—there’s no standard for ripping SACDs or DVD-A. The high-res formats contain copyright protections, and there are legal issues surrounding the practice. To get highres music into the Q110, you must download it. I hope to have a followup report on this feature when it is implemented.

This graphical method of browsing your library and selecting music, employed by Sooloos and Qsonix, put those two servers in a class by themselves. Despite a fundamental similarity, the two interfaces are considerably different. The Qsonix interface is much busier than Sooloos’, with pull-down menus, three different panels on the main screen (View, Now Playing, Playlists), and dualzone output controls, for example. By contrast, the Sooloos interface is a model of simplicity, with just the album art shown on the main browsing screen and a few other controls. Sooloos doesn’t show you text-based lists; the presentation is always through cover art. Although you select a genre from a list with Sooloos, this action produces a display of cover art. Selecting a genre from a list in Qsonix, by contrast, brings up another text-based list of albums in that genre.

The Qsonix interface is necessarily more complex because of its considerably larger feature set. Sooloos lacks the ability to burn a playlist to CD, and download music from the Web.

As for sound quality, the Q100’s integral digital-to-analog converters are decent (and considerably better sounding than those of the more expensive Sooloos), but I still recommend using an outboard digital converter. The integral converters have a somewhat bright and metallic quality in the upper midrange and treble, along with a slight thinness and lack of warmth in the midbass. This rendered instrumental timbres somewhat threadbare and not fully fleshed out, which led to listening fatigue. But with the Q100’s digital output feeding an Esoteric D-03, the sound was outstanding, and better than any CD transport I’ve heard, including the state-of-the-art Esoteric P- 03. (See accompanying article “Do Hard- Disk Drives Sound Better than CD?”)

I have four criticisms of the Qsonix system. First, the transport for importing CDs is located in the main unit, away from the touchscreen. Importing CDs requires putting a CD in the drawer and then controlling the importation through the touchscreen. I expect that most users will have the touchscreen next to the listening chair and the main unit in a rack, making importation less convenient. The Sooloos system, by contrast, incorporates the CD transport in the touchscreen. Second, Qsonix imports only entire CDs; you can’t select just the tracks you want for importation (a feature Sooloos offers). Third, the meta-data don’t include album credits, meaning you can’t see which musicians play on a particular album. (The album-credit meta-data are available from AMG.) This omission also limits Qsonix’s search function; for example, you can’t ask the system to display all the albums in your library on which drummer Peter Erskine plays (to use my example from the Sooloos review). Finally, the Q100 had quite a loud fan. This shortcoming has been addressed in the new Q110, which will be shipping by the time you read this. The Q110 is reportedly as quiet as a DVR.