2019 High-End Audio Buyer’s Guide: Music Servers and Peripheral Products
Audirvana Version 10
If you have so far resisted buying any third-party music playback software for your Mac, Audirvana offers some compelling reasons to reevaluate that decision. Especially if you use multiple DACs or listen to higher-res files and DSD, Audirvana Plus is a more ergonomically elegant and sonically superior alternative to iTunes. And for readers who need to see and hear for themselves, you can download the trial version of Audirvana Plus for free. For fifteen days you can use the full version with no restrictions. I’d be very surprised if, by the sixteenth day, you haven’t anted up that $50 to become a licensed user. BTW, Version 10 also includes MQA.
This inexpensive little device provides wireless streaming to any audio system. Although the Cobblestone won’t be right for a reference system, it simply and inexpensively adds Internet radio, smartphone streaming, and NAS playback capabilities to a secondary “lifestyle” or background music system. The Cobblestone produces listenable, if not riveting sound. The harmonic balance is a bit dark, with forgiving treble and a warmish upper bass.
Roon Labs 1.5 Computer Audio Playback Software
$119/yr. ($499, lifetime subscription)
The Roon music management program offers a rich interface with far more information about the music in your collection than any other program reviewer Vade Forrester has seen. Its flexible and easy metadata-editing tools make it simple to fix the inevitable errors that creep into Roon’s (and any other playback program’s) graphic display of your albums. VF found playing music on Tidal easier through Roon than through Tidal’s own playback program. Most importantly, Roon just sounded good—a little different from, and in some ways better than JRiver.
Channel D Pure Music 3
Pure Music is a great piece of software at a price that even a flea market-scrounging hobbyist audiophile can afford. Combine Pure Music with any recent Mac computer and you have a front end that will play back any digital file from FLACs to lowly MP3s on up to 192/24 high-resolution files with ease. Mate this front end with a top-flight DAC and you have a digital playback system that will catapult you to the forefront of the new computer-playback revolution.
$189, $99, $85, $49 (price varies depending on the feature set)
When Amarra first appeared on the scene it was pricier than most of its software competition. But with current pricing, that barrier to ownership has been greatly reduced. While there are sonic differences between Amarra and its competitors, the nature, scope, and perceptibility of those differences will vary drastically depending on the other components, both hardware and software, in your system. Still, after all these years, if you want to hear how good a Mac-based system can really sound, Amarra is one of the few playback programs you must have. In the end, it’s that simple.
$499 without power supply; $549 with iFi Audio power supply
Suppose you took the playback, or rendering, function from a full-fledged server, installed it on a tiny computer, wrapped it in an enclosure no larger than many USB flash drives, and plugged it directly into a DAC’s USB input. What you’d have is Sonore’s microRendu player, which further minimizes its size by offering only a network (RJ45) input. It plays PCM files up to 768kHz and DSD512. The microRendu produces a pure, quiet, detailed output that sounds far more expensive than its paltry cost. It ships with several playback programs, including Roon (but you need a Roon license). Want better sound? Get a better power supply. Sonore provides a list of nine recommended units.
SOtM sMS-200 Neo
A very small device that plays PCM digital audio files up to 384/32 and DSD256. With a silver isosceles trapezoidal faceplate and a wall-wart power supply, the sMS-200 is just right for a space-limited digital audio player. It lets you store your audio files either on a network or an external USB drive. A software suite called Eunhasu give you lots of software playback options, including the popular Roon (but you need a Roon license). Additional power supplies are available (VF used the mBPS-d2s battery-powered supply). Output to the DAC is via a USB jack. The sMS-200 with Roon was very dynamic, with fully-fleshed-out harmonics and excellent momentum. For even better sound, if your space and budget are larger, you might consider the sMS-200ultra and its matching sPS-500 power supply. The sMS-200ultra also has a matching sCLK-OCX10 master-clock generator which is said to improve the sound even more.
PS Audio Bridge II Network Audio Card
An expansion card that plugs into a slot on the back of PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC and turns the DAC into a complete digital audio file player. The addition of the card requires only a screwdriver, and should be within the capability of anyone who can mount a cartridge in a tonearm. The only input is an RJ45 jack for connection to a network for file storage and remote control. The Bridge II will play PCM software up to 192/32 and DSD128, and will downconvert higher-resolution files automatically. Fully decodes MQA files, Tidal (including Masters), Spotify, Qobuz, VTuner, and is Roon-ready (you still need a Roon license). The sound is essentially the sound of PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC, which is generally regarded as one of the best at its price point, and competitive with some more expensive DACs. The Bridge II card, like the DirectStream DAC, can be upgraded using free downloads from PS Audio, so the sound just keeps getting better.
Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Interface
The folks who brought us the amazing Alpha DAC have finally solved the problem of how to get high-resolution audio out of a computer with the highest possible quality. The Alpha USB is a sophisticated solution to an apparently simple problem: how to connect a DAC to a computer’s USB output. The Alpha USB connects to your computer’s USB port, outputting a coaxial signal (on BNC jack) or AES/EBU (on an XLR jack) so that you can drive a DAC. The Alpha USB’s sonic magic is the result of heroic measures to isolate the “dirty” USB signal from the “clean” SPDIF or AES/EBU output, and the precise, low-jitter clocking of the digital-audio output. The sonic result is state-of-the-art playback of standard-resolution and high-resolution files, exceeding the performance of even the best soundcards.
As the poster boy for Sony’s “High Definition Music Initiative” the new HAP-Z1ES defines what Sony sees as the future of two-channel audio. It attempts to be easy for a naïve user to operate, yet capable of the highest audio quality. As SS put the HAP-Z1ES through its paces he looked for reasons it might be not be considered a true high-performance component—and found none. If you plan to spend more than $2000 on any digital front end—be it an audio-computer, CD player, DAC, network player, or any other front end that uses digital files as a source—and you don’t audition a HAP-Z1ES, you are ignoring what may well be a benchmark digital product.
$2700 w/2TB ($3000 w/4TB)
Aurender’s N100H brings you a surprising amount of the technology, sound quality, and outstanding user experience of the flagship W20 for a fraction of the price. You don’t get features such as dual-wire AES and clock input, but most users don’t need those capabilities anyway. The internal storage is 2TB rather than 12TB, but you can always add a NAS drive for more capacity. What you do get is the same outstanding Conductor app, Tidal integration, and Remote Support. Aurender’s Conductor app for iPad is by far the best RH has used—fast, visually appealing, stable, intuitive, capable, and uncluttered, with features that have been clearly refined through actual use. Sonically, the N100H comes pretty close to the W20’s state-of-the-art performance, particularly considering the cost differential.
Linn Majik DSM
The Linn Majik DSM combines the capabilities of the Majik DS network device with an integrated preamp and a power amplifier. During the review, SS spent time using the Majik DSM as a source component as well as stand-alone integrated amplifier connected to a pair of Linn Majik 140 loudspeakers, and finally, combined with the recently launched Majik Exaktbox-I. This new one-box upgrade takes the simple Majik-DSM-plus-Majik-140-speakers system to its highest performance level using Linn’s Exakt technology. To call the Linn Majik DSM a “flexible” component would be an understatement on the same order as calling The Beatles just another rock band. The Majik DSM can be used as a one-piece stand-alone music center alongside any speakers, or it can be combined with other Linn products to create different setups of increasing price and performance. In short, if you have a lousy-sounding room whose dimensions and sonic issues are such that they can’t be fixed easily with room treatments, the Linn Majik system offers a viable alternative to giving up all hope of decent sound. While not magic, Linn’s Majik system comes as close as possible to musical alchemy, by turning leaden-sounding rooms into sonic gold.
Cary Audio DMS-500
Anchored by superb sonics and wide-ranging connectivity, the DMS-500 is also one of the most format-friendly and un-finicky ‘net audio players you’re likely to find (at least for the next six months). Fully operational for streaming or file playback, wireless or Ethernet, the DMS-500 is now MQA-equipped and thus even more sonically rewarding. The sound of the player is full and warm, dynamic and quick, but never to the point of etch or grain. In short, a winner. Solidly constructed and reasonably priced, it includes an intuitive remote control, which makes navigation a snap (although the new controller app is even better). The large, bright, full-color front-panel display imparts loads of information, and is nicely legible from afar.
The Aurender A10 is a “caching network music server/player with analog outputs.” It won’t play or rip a disc, feeding only on audio files streamed or stored on the A10’s own 4TB storage drive or on an external NAS. Music is “cached”—that is, played from a 120GB solid-state drive, which reduces electrical and acoustic noise that would derive from a spinning mechanical drive. Although an external DAC can be employed, the A10 has highly regarded dual-mono AK4490 DAC chips; the player is the first to support full MQA hardware decoding. The A10 is operated via Aurender’s Conductor app (iOS on an iPad is required) that effectively integrates the vast holdings of the Tidal streaming service to files that the user owns and keeps locally. Both single-ended and balanced analog outputs are provided. The A10 can drive an amplifier directly, with gain controlled either with a knob on the player or via the Conductor app.
Lindemannn Audio Musicbook: 25 DSD
Has Lindemann made being an audiophile a little too easy? Could be, but this handsome one-box solution allows users to dial up their music with the ease and alacrity of a short-order restaurant. Equipped with a volume-controlled analog preamp, slot-load CD player, DAC (resolutions of up to 384kHz PCM and DSD256 with native DSD playback), and integrated streamer with onboard Tidal and Qobuz, the Musicbook: 25 DSD offers a mind-bending level of convenience and superior overall musicality—from transient speed and timbral naturalism to macro/micro resolution. Ambient and dimensional cues are solid and assured. For a component not much larger than a summer bestseller, the Musicbook: 25 DSD speaks volumes.
For those looking to quit the computer, there’s the Lumin A1. Capable of pulling audio media from most external digital sources—and (ideally) over a network with a NAS—the A1 is equipped with dual-mono Wolfson DACs that can play back a multitude of formats, up to and including 32-bit/384kHz PCM/DXD and standard DSD. Operating wirelessly through its own terrific iPad app, the A1 releases all the reins of tension, dryness, and constriction that accompany most digital recordings, adding the warm, weighty presence and velvety textures that are hallmarks of great analog. The L1, an external, preconfigured, 2TB storage HDD, is optional for $1200.
Playback Designs Syrah
The ideal partner to Playback Designs’ Merlot DAC, the Syrah is a pitch-perfect player armed with 2TB of hard-drive storage that accepts virtually any file format or native sample rate and supports DLNA streaming and services like Tidal from any Airplay-supported device. Its app offers a series of well-organized, navigable menus including a wide range of settings and attractive readable graphics. Partnered with the Merlot DAC, the Syrah produces some of the most compellingly musical and elevated audio that NG has heard from a source component—digital or analog—in quite a while. If that’s not worth raising a glass to and celebrating, then nothing is.
The vaunted Japanese brand Esoteric has entered the network player category in high style with the N-05 network audio player. Just connect the N-05 to your network, add a USB or NAS drive, add an iPad to your network, and you’re ready to access your music library via Esoteric’s app. Integral Tidal streaming expands musical offerings beyond file-based storage. Of course, the N-05 will also function as a conventional DAC, providing SPDIF, TosLink, and USB inputs. Sonically, the N-05 renders an expansive soundstage of considerable realism, projecting instruments into space with air around them and no smearing. Dynamic contrasts are well portrayed, particularly microdynamic nuances. Timbres are free from edginess and distortion. The build-quality and chassis work are typical Esoteric—that is, drop-dead gorgeous. In sum, Esoteric’s first entry into the network player market is a winner.
$8900 (Complete system w/1TB storage)
This combination DAC and music player from Korean firm Astell&Kern is milled from thick aluminum plates machined smooth and anodized black or silver. A 7″ touchscreen LCD panel folds flat on top of the chassis—like having a small tablet computer built into the player. Although not really large, the AK500N looks very solid (and at a hefty 25.1 pounds it definitely is solid). The AK500N can play music files from its internal SSD storage (up to 4TB), from external USB drives (either flash drives or hard drives), and from NAS drives attached via a network. The AK500N plays PCM files in a wide variety of formats up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD64 and DSD128. DAC chips are two Cirrus Logic CS4398s. Power is supplied by an internal battery supply, so operation is extremely quiet. The AK500N’s bass is spectacular: very deep and extremely detailed, with lots of impact. Its midrange is also detailed, with rich, fully developed harmonics. Dynamics are exciting, particularly microdynamics. Soundstaging is realistic without any blurring. Overall, the sound matches or exceeds anything reviewer Vade Forrester has heard in his system.
The first member of Technics’ new R1 system is a network player dubbed the SU-R1. While it won’t spin silver discs, it’ll handle pretty much everything else. The SU-R1 is a streamer as well as an unusually comprehensive DAC. Streams of hi-res PCM or DSD files can emanate from either a LAN-connected NAS or a directly connected USB drive. Additional USB inputs provide support for PCs, Macs, and thumb drives. The SU-R1 even sports two sets of analog inputs. Inside the SU-R1 lies its share of the tech that Technics has lavished on the entire R1 series. The clock is battery-powered, which shields this critically sensitive element from AC line noise. Because the degree and nature of jitter differs by input, Technics built a specific jitter-reduction circuit for each source. The USB module is graced with an expensive ruby mica capacitor. Plus, there’s a Direct mode that bypasses everything but the bare minimum circuitry. Engaging this mode results in an immediate and distinct uptick in transparency. The sound is direct and pure. There’s nothing to obscure your ability to dive into the music like an inviting pool on a summer day.
$13,800–$22,150 (depending on power supply)
In the NDS Naim has designed a network player that can handle a wide variety of sources and, with the addition of Naim’s UnitiServe and a NAS drive, becomes a full-fledged, highly capable music server. The best news is that Naim has created for the NDS (and all Uniti-series products) a fabulous music-management iPad app. The NDS/UnitiServe is the perfect solution for many music lovers who want to transition to computer-based audio without the limitations of turnkey music servers or the confusion of do-it-yourself systems. Fortunately, Naim has imbued this highly capable system with a terrific-sounding DAC section. The NDS is high in resolution but without hyped “detail,” voluptuous and rich in tone color without euphonic coloration, and musically vivid without being sonically vivid. The NDS also has a particularly powerful and appealing expression of music’s rhythmic flow. It’s the kind of sound that lets you become quickly and deeply immersed in the music, not the sound.
Baetis Audio Reference 2
Baetis vociferously rejects the standard deployment of the universal serial bus (USB) as the default digital interface between a music computer’s motherboard and a DAC, maintaining that transporting audio data within a USB signal generates deleterious digital noise. Earlier Baetis designs achieved notable sonic results with a coaxial SPDIF output terminated with a BNC connector; now the company has determined that a higher-voltage SPDIF takes the playback of high-resolution stereo audiophiles to an even higher level of fidelity. To AQ, the Baetis Reference 2 achieves the closest approach yet to musical realism in digital’s long-frustrating history.
Aurender’s top-of-the-line W20 is one of the most feature-laden and capable turnkey music servers on the market. It also happens to have the best music-management app, an important consideration when choosing a server. Load the W20’s internal hard drive (up to a whopping 12TB) with music, connect one of its many digital outputs to a DAC, link a tablet to your wireless network, and you’ve got virtually unlimited music. Seamless integration with streaming service Tidal greatly expands the W20’s functionality. The W20’s sound quality is outstanding, perhaps in part due to its 240GB internal cache memory, battery power supply for critical circuitry, and other performance-oriented design tricks
Linn Klimax DS and Klimax DSM
$23,375 (Klimax DS), $27,500 (Klimax DSM)
Best known for its venerable LP12 turntable, Linn Products was one of the first brands to abandon CD and SACD for file-based digital streaming, and the company’s first Klimax DS was one of the reasons for the switch. Now in its third iteration, the Klimax DS streamer and Klimax DSM streamer with built-in preamplifier raise the performance bar to new heights. Central to the latest Klimax is the new, fully retrofit-able Katalyst DAC architecture, which uses a sophisticated circuit to create better power supply feeds to individual subsystems in the DAC chip, and greater clock precision. Although the existing Klimax was one of the best digital streamers in production, the latest Katalyst or “DS/3” model towers over its predecessor in virtually all aspects of performance.
This elegant and capable music server beautifully blends high technology with luxury. It combines in one chrome-plated chassis a CD ripper and 2TB of storage, and has the ability to play music from a streaming service, USB stick, or external drive. What’s more, the MC151 has variable output levels and source switching, making it a fully capable preamplifier. Burmester’s iOS app makes it easy to find and play back music. Music stored on the MC151 can be accessed by any other UPnP device on the network. The crowning glory of the Burmester MC151, however, is not its features, but its sound quality. It brings out exceptional upper-octave life and air, but still keeps the midrange warm and natural. Bass is equally excellent.
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