The Sooloos Music Server

Equipment report
Music servers and computer audio
Sooloos Music Server
The Sooloos Music Server

The best technology-based products hide enormous complexity and sophistication behind a simple façade. The product does exactly what the user wants it to do— and nothing more—with the magic that makes this happen remaining transparent.

That’s a perfect description of the Sooloos music server, a product that brings some extremely sophisticated hardware and software design to bear on the problem of managing and accessing a large music library. Unlike many pieces of complex technology, Sooloos couldn’t be easier to use. In fact, Sooloos has the most intuitive user interface of any consumer-electronics product I’ve lived with.

Before getting to the specifics of what Sooloos is and the experience it delivers, I’ll give you a small taste of its capabilities. Imagine your entire CD library displayed as album art on a 17" touchscreen panel. To hear a disc, you simply touch the album art. Suppose you’re not quite sure what you want to listen to, but know that you’re in the mood for some classic jazz. With six finger-taps, Sooloos will display just jazz albums released in the 1950s, or those on the Blue Note label, or those by Miles Davis, for examples. This is just the tip of the iceberg; Sooloos’ ability to instantly sort through your library and present to you exactly the music you want to hear at any particular moment borders on the magical.

The Sooloos server is the brainchild of three acquaintances whose respective talents just happened to overlap in a way that was tailor-made for creating a music server. One was an A&R representative for a major label; another was a record-label owner; the third was a software designer. The three friends all had large and unwieldy music libraries, and had been looking for the market to produce a music server that would satisfy their needs. None of the available servers—which rely on text-based lists for album browsing—was adequate, so they started talking about building the ultimate, no-compromise music server for themselves. The product was conceptualized in 1999, and eventually the three partners launched a full-scale development effort that produced the product under review.

The Sooloos system consists of four pieces of hardware called Control, Source, and Store (a minimum of two Store components is required). The Control component is a 17" touchscreen panel mounted on a pedestal. Its base contains a CD loading slot for importing music into the server. The Source contains the computing power, and also incorporates the digital-toanalog converters and analog-output stage. As its name suggests, Store stores the audio files on hard-disk drives. Store devices are available in three ca-pacities: 1, 2, or 3 terabytes. Stores are sold in pairs; one is the primary drive and the second is a constantly updated mirror-image of the primary drive. If a drive fails, you send it back to Sooloos while running your system on the backup drive—no down time. When you put the repaired drive back in, a new mirror image is automatically created. Any number of Stores can be added for unlimited capacity. A 1TB Store will hold about 3000 CDs. Multiple Control units can be scattered throughout your home, connected through Ethernet cables. A PC application also allows you to access music files from, for example, a laptop in the bedroom. For $1000 more, the Source:Five provides four additional outputs that allow for five simultaneous and/or independent streams of music. Multiple Source components can be combined for up to 32 independent music streams.

Sooloos’ industrial design is outstanding; the custom hardware, particularly in the Control component, is elegant and robustly built. The Store and Source components are designed to be left powered-up, but you should know that they produce a considerable amount of heat.

The price for a core system consisting of a Control, Source, and pair of 1TB Store components is $12,900. The system requires an always-on Internet connection. When you insert a CD into the Control’s slot to import to the hard drive, Sooloos downloads the album art and meta-data about that disc from the Internet (specifically, from All Media Guide). In addition to the usual meta-data (album credits, playing times, track titles, release date,etc.), Sooloos downloads brief reviews as well. Being an Internet-enabled device allows Sooloos to download updated software and add features for existing users.

Unlike most servers that provide the option of lower bit rates to increase storage capacity, Sooloos operates with a fixed encoding scheme that delivers CD-quality audio. Specifically, it uses FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec), a lossless compression algorithm that provides perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the source. FLAC encoding realizes about a 25–40% reduction in the bit rate with no loss of quality. There’s a misperception among some in the high-end than lossless coding somehow degrades sound quality. Although I’m the last person to dogmatically cling to the idea that identical bitstreams will always sound identical, lossless coding produces no audible degradation. In fact, music streamed from Sooloos sounds better than the same music played back on a state-of-the-art CD transport (see the accompanying article “Do Hard-Disk Drives Sound Better than CD?”).

Unfortunately, Sooloos has no provision for importing LPs, SACD, or DVD-Audio. The Sooloos hardware platform is, however, compatible with high-resolution digital audio with sampling rates up to 192kHz. Sooloos is working on an on-line subscriptions service (available January, 2008) that will deliver not only high-res downloads to your server, but allow you to browse and purchase music from a 500,000+ CDquality library through a single buttonpush, using the terrific user interface I’ve described. You can also transfer music between Sooloos and an iPod or similar device using a PC application provided by Sooloos. Sooloos transparently creates both FLAC and MP3 versions of a CD when importing so that you don’t have to keep separate libraries for home and for transferring music to a portable player.

Speaking of importing music, you have several options for getting music into Sooloos. The first, obviously, is to manually load each CD in your collection into Sooloos’ transport. At about eight minutes per disc, importing your music library quickly becomes tedious.

Another option is to send your CDs to Sooloos and they will (for a fee) load your library into the system before they ship it to you. A third option is to specify at the time of purchase a list of CDs you want loaded. Sooloos will buy the discs, import them, and ship the CDs along with the system. Finally, you can purchase blocks of music already loaded on the server, such as a package of essential rock records or the entire output from a specific record label over a specific time frame (all 1960s Prestige titles, for example). Whatever the solution, getting lots of music into the server is paramount— the more music loaded the better the experience and the greater the benefits of Sooloos’ sophisticated search and narrowing features.

In its most basic operation, you turn on the Control component (Store and Source are left powered-up) and your music library appears as album art on the display. The combination of a large display and bright, high-resolution graphics is compelling. You can manually scroll through the covers with back and forth arrows (18 albums per “page”), or jump to a specific artist’s name by touching the letters on an alphabetic display. Touching an album cover brings up a screen showing information about the record, including the tracks. You can select specific tracks to add to the playlist, or add the entire album. You can add as many tracks or albums to the playlist as you like.

The album information page includes tabs for displaying how the album is classified by genre, credits, and something called “mood.” Displayed in a vertical strip on the right side of the screen are thumbnail album covers of other titles by the selected artist, along with ratings of the albums and the year in which each album was released. I liked this last feature; it encourages a more global view of a particular artist’s or band’s work with the ability to quickly jump to any record.

This method of selecting music to play is far more convenient than finding a CD on a shelf, taking it out of the case, and putting it in a CD player. But that’s not Sooloos’ raison d’être. Most of us have music libraries that are far too big to scroll through, and we often approach a listening session not knowing specifically what we want to hear. If that’s the case, you press the Focus icon on the home page to bring up the Focus page. The Focus page allows you to narrow down the range of displayed albums according to several criteria: genre, credits (who plays on the record), label, release date, and “mood”—or any combination of these. For example, I selected Genre from the Focus page which brought up a list of musical styles. From that list I selected Blues, and then from the 65 (!) sub-categories in Blues, chose Texas Blues. The main screen then displayed from the total of 2536 albums in the system just nine titles—five by Stevie Ray Vaughan, two by Clarence Gatemouth Brown, one by Lightnin’ Hopkins, and one by Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Johnny Copland.

You can Focus in multiple layers if the first Focus is too broad. For example, if you focus on Progressive Rock, you can then narrow down the range of titles by specifying only those albums released in the 1970s. Focus will also winnow your collection by showing you what you’ve played most recently, over a selectable time frame. Focus narrows down your music collection from several thousand titles to a more manageable dozen or so that you’re interested in with just six fingertaps. The entire Texas-blues Focus I just described took just 15 seconds from the time I thought about playing Texas blues to listening to Stevie Ray.

A simpler way to Focus is to touch the button “Focus on Albums Like This” which appears every time you’ve selected an album. If you’re not sure exactly what you want to listen to, but have selected an album, this feature suggests records of a similar style. Another way of finding the music you’re looking for is through Sooloos’ Search feature. You type in the name of an artist, album, or song and the system displays all relevant albums. You can also explore your music collection by musician. I was listening to Steps Ahead’s first domestic album and was struck by Peter Erskine’s terrific drumming. What other albums does he play on? A Search of the library, this time by album credit, turned up five other records featuring Erskine’s drumming. Just those five albums are displayed as cover art until you reset the Focus.

A feature called Swim plays randomly selected tracks. Swim on its own isn’t a compelling feature—the opportunity for jarring juxtapositions is high. But Swim combines synergistically with Focus to create a stream of randomly selected music from within a genre or sub-genre that evokes a sense of surprise, serendipity, and discovery. Swim and Focus together bring out tracks and artists you might not have listened to for a long time. (When importing a CD, you can flag favorite tracks so that they are more likely to be played in Swim.)

Albums culled through Focus can be stored as a Collection. A Collection is a group of albums to which you can add or from which you can remove specific titles. A good use for a Collection is if different family members, each of whom might have diverse musical tastes, access the system. Each member would have a Collection, so that he or she sees only those titles of interest. In other words, your teenage daughter’s Britney Spears albums will be invisible to you, and she’ll never see your Billy Holiday records. You can, however, introduce your daughter to Billy Holiday by transferring an album from your Collection to hers. Separate Collections can be a way of not only isolating different family members’ tastes, but also of sharing and suggesting music.

All this sounds a bit tedious when explained in words, but it’s actually incredibly simple, intuitive, easy to learn, and fun. More important, the ability to dig down and instantly find exactly the music you want to hear (or think you might want to hear) completely transforms the way you interact with your music library.

The Sooloos marketing literature emphasizes the system’s ability to program hours of background music, quickly set different moods for different occasions, and the social aspects of music listening. Although Sooloos delivers on these promises in spades, a more compelling reason to own the system is, in my view, Sooloos’ function as a vehicle for exploring your music collection, discovering connections between musicians and albums (the Peter Erskine example earlier), following the evolution of an artist, and just gaining insight into music through instant access to anything in your collection. For example, I listened to the great Zappa guitar instrumental “Black Napkins” from Zoot Allures and wondered on which other albums that track appeared. (Many of Zappa’s 72 officially released records—many of them double albums—are live sets with performances of previously recorded works.) A Search instantly brought up a list of discs containing performances of that piece.

Most TAS readers will connect Sooloos to an outboard digital-toanalog converter rather than use the system’s integral DAC and analog output stage. (See the accompanying article “Do Hard-Disk Drives Sound Better than CD?”) That’s a good thing, because the sound from the analog output jacks was significantly inferior to what’s possible with even a mediocre external digital-to-analog converter. The sound from Sooloos’ analog jacks had compressed dynamics, hard timbres, leanness in the midbass, and an odd mechanical quality. Using an outboard digital converter is mandatory, in my view. It’s not surprising that the integral DACs are lacking; they are asked to operate inside what is essentially a computer.

As stunningly powerful as the system is, there are aspects of the Sooloos experience that I found disappointing. First, Sooloos ships with no owner’s manual. That’s right—no owner’s manual. For guidance, the purchaser is expected to go to the Sooloos Web site and use the “Knowledge Base” to get answers to specific questions. (Sooloos now includes printed “quick start” instructions.) Although I would have preferred sitting down with the system and a printed manual, I tried the on-line instructions but found them to be of little help. The instructions were typical of those written by someone intimately familiar with the system, who expects the user to be familiar with concepts and devices that are second nature to the manual’s author. For example, I couldn’t get the system to boot up the first time, and learned from the on-line instructions that the system must be connected to the Internet. And how do you connect it to the Internet? “Since all of our Systems ship using DHCP, you will need a DHCP router to get the System up and running the first time. At that point you can switch your System to use static IPs.” What if you don’t know what DHCP or a DHCP router is? (I didn’t.) Similarly, the on-line instructions have this useful piece of advice: “Launch System Manager (this should not be necessary), and perform whatever tasks you need to.” The system’s sophistication, both in its user interface and in the thought behind its feature set, is undercut by the lack of a professionally written owner’s manual. Once the system is up and running, however, there’s little need for an owner’s manual—Sooloos is that easy to master. I gave a visiting manufacturer a 30-second overview of Sooloos and sat back and watched him navigate the system. He had mastered the basic functions of selecting music and Focus within minutes. Moreover, he was instantly enthralled and declared with great enthusiasm, “I’m getting one!”