Computer-audio music files are the hot topic in audio magazines these days. To listen to this form of recorded music, you’ll need two items: 1) a server, which displays the music in your collection, lets you pick which music you want to listen to, and then plays that music for you; and 2) a digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, which converts the digital PCM stream from the server to an analog signal that your amplifier can handle. Like most anything in audio, there are a variety of ways the server and the DAC can be implemented. One area that has several possible configurations is where your music is stored. Some servers store it on internal hard-disk drives, some store it on solid-state drives which have no moving parts, some store it on external hard-disk drives, while others store it on a network, where it’s available to all devices which can access that network. In its $4495 Tiki server, the New Zealand company Plinius has opted for the network-storage option, which is why they call the Tiki a network audio player.
Plinius cites its reasoning for picking network storage for the Tiki as isolation, clock configuration, simplicity of design, cable lengths, and multi-room capability. I would add that using network storage for your music files lets you load and retrieve those files from any device attached to the network.
Like any design choice, there are tradeoffs. First, you must have a wired Ethernet network in your home as well as Wi-Fi, and second, you need a device called a network attached storage unit (or NAS for short) connected to your network. From Wikipedia: “A NAS unit is a computer connected to a network that provides only file-based data storage services to other devices on the network.” If you have to buy a NAS to use with the Tiki, it can be a sizeable additional expense, depending on the number of drives involved and the size of the drives.
The Tiki follows the styling design used in most other Plinius components: a front panel that curves back into the sides of the unit. You can have any color Tiki you want as long as it’s black or silver. Except for a large engraved “Plinius” label and a blue pilot light, the Tiki’s front panel is blank. The Tiki’s bright blue rear panel is fairly austere, too; there are left and right channel outputs (both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA jacks), a ground-lift switch, which may be useful in minimizing noise, an Ethernet input, an IEC power connector, and the on/off switch.
The Tiki combines the player part of the server with an internal DAC. I suspect that many audiophiles will appreciate that configuration, since it eliminates the need for two separate components, as well as a cable to connect them. It also eliminates the need for a separate shelf on your equipment rack. There is no remote control; you’ll need a tablet computer or smart phone for that. You probably have one or more of those already, so a separate remote would be a waste of money.
What’s missing from the Tiki? For one thing, there’s no S/ PDIF or AES/EBU digital output. That means you’re limited to the Tiki’s internal DAC. I’m not suggesting it’s not a quality unit, but no matter how good it is, eventually a better DAC will come along. Also, there’s no volume control, so you can’t use the Tiki to directly drive a power amplifier. And except for the RJ-45 Ethernet network input, there’s no digital input, so external digital sources like a CD transport can’t use the internal DAC. I find a CD transport still comes in handy for playing CDs brought by visiting friends, or when I want to play a CD checked out from our local library, which has a sizeable CD collection. If you want an optical drive, Plinius makes a device called the Toko, which looks like a Tiki with a slot-loaded drive. The Tiki has no indicator to tell you what digital sampling rate is being played— useful, if not essential, especially if you have several copies of a song with different sampling rates. But maybe that’s something only reviewers or other nut-cases would care about.
The Tiki will play music files in the following formats: FLAC, WAV (which it calls LPCM), AIFF, and MP3. Except for MP3s, files up to 192kHz/24-bit will play for all formats. The Tiki can’t play DSD files, and while it’s uncertain whether that format will become widely popular, a few servers do offer that feature. With a 100-ohm output impedance, the Tiki should be compatible with any well-designed preamplifier or integrated-amplifier input and capable of driving long interconnects. The Tiki uses the ThreadX real-time operating system. I had not heard of ThreadX; see Wikipedia if you want more information about it.
Physically, the Tiki is a full-width component, measuring 17.75″ by 3.5″ by 15.75″, and its solid build feels like it weighs more than its 12 pounds. It should fit on virtually any equipment rack shelf and won’t cause a hernia when you pick it up.
In my experience, a server’s success depends largely on the quality of the user interface that controls its operation. Plinius offers an app for iPads called Arataki Media Controller, which is the Tiki’s user interface. That means it shows you the music you’ve loaded on the NAS, lets you select which music you want to hear, and then creates a playlist of songs for the Tiki to play. At the suggestion of Frank Gazzo, Sales Manager of Plinius USA, I also downloaded PS Audio’s eLyric Controller app for iPad. Although not written specifically to control the Tiki, eLyric does that nicely, providing a different interface than Arataki. Arataki costs $7.99 from Apple’s App Store, eLyric, $9.99.
Setting Up and Using the Tiki
As I mentioned earlier, the Tiki requires a network attached storage, or NAS, drive to store music files. There’s no way you can plug in an external USB drive or use some other form of storage. The NAS must be connected to the Tiki via a wired network. For purposes of the review, Plinius USA loaned me a 1TB NetGear ReadyNAS Ultra 2 unit, already loaded with 273GB of music, and a NetGear wireless router. Since there are a number of other NAS’s available, each with its own set-up process, I won’t go into set-up details for this one. Setting up servers on a network can be very challenging, but the Tiki was almost plug-and-play. If you run into a snag, your Plinius dealer should be able to help you set up the Tiki. The NetGear NAS was so quiet I put it on a shelf of my equipment rack. Several visitors complained that the NetGear’s blue pilot LED was too bright, but I figure that’s what duct tape is for (no, I didn’t try it). If I planned to have a NAS around on a long-term basis, I’d put it near my desktop computer in a separate room.
Once the network was established, I installed Plinius’ Arataki remote control app. The first version I installed was version 1.1, which I later updated to version 1.2. Arataki’s screen layout has two windows. The right window shows the cover art for each album installed on the NAS, so you can use it to select the music you want to play. To select an album, touch the cover art thumbnail and drag or flick it towards the left window, where a playlist is built. To play songs on the playlist, touch the Play button at the bottom of the left window, and Arataki will play the playlist in the order created. If you don’t want to play an entire album, touch the cover art thumbnail and Arataki will show you all the songs on the album, and you can flick or drag the songs to the left window to create a playlist. There’s a trash can icon in the left window; when you’re through with the playlist, touch the trash can icon, and the playlist is cleared.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It was, but there were a few glitches. First off, not all of the albums on the NAS had cover art, and those that didn’t had only a couple of musical eighth notes displayed as a cover art placeholder. There’s no text to tell you what the album is. You have to touch the cover art placeholder thumbnail on the screen to view a song list, which also shows you text that tells you what the album title is and who the performers are. Since you can’t tell what the album is, it will probably take several trial-and-error iterations to find the album you want to play. To make things tougher, Plinius has chosen a color scheme for Arataki’s control buttons—black symbols on a dark grey background—that makes it very hard to see what function a button performs. And Arataki’s screen layout wastes lots of screen space for cosmetic purposes, space that could make the information displayed easier to read. For example, there’s a 3⁄4″ border around the two windows that comprise the app. Even on a 10″ iPad3 screen, I found it difficult to read Arataki’s information. Also, some of the albums I loaded onto the NAS just didn’t show up at all in the album view window. To be fair, this problem sometimes occurs with other servers’ album views. Several servers provide folder views, which lets you view the files like a folder on your computer. This view shows all the music files on the drive. So I had a problem: To evaluate the sound of the Tiki, I needed to listen to music with which I was familiar, and, after I copied the music files to the NAS, some of those files didn’t show up on Arataki’s screen so I could select them.
ELyric to the rescue. Its user interface was more fully developed than Arataki’s, on a par with other control apps I’ve used. Thankfully, eLyric has a folder view that let me see most, though not all, of the files I loaded onto the NAS. So I wound up using eLyric for most of my critical listening. I also found eLyric’s operational controls more flexible, although that’s a personal reaction. The eLyric app has a few quirks of its own; after you make a playlist and start it playing, when the iPad turns off its screen to conserve battery power, the playlist stops working. You’ll need to set your iPad to never turn off its screen, which rapidly drains the battery. Be sure to reset the iPad to turn off after a short wait when you finish using it as remote control. Even though I use a PC with Windows 7 installed as one of my servers, I usually rip CDs to Apple’s AIFF format. Unfortunately, eLyric didn’t display the AIFF files I had uploaded to the NAS, so even though the Tiki will play those files, eLyric can’t queue them up in a playlist. Arataki will display and play AIFF files—if it can find them.
I placed the Tiki on a shelf on my equipment rack. I connected the analog outputs of the Tiki’s internal DAC to my linestage with Audience Au24 e balanced interconnects, and used an Audience powerChord e to provide power. The Tiki was already broken in, but for around 100 hours I played music over the network, with the Tiki driving the linestage.
The Tiki sounded harmonically rich and dynamically robust. Frequency response was extended. On Jennifer Warnes’ CD The Well, the song “The Panther” has a variety of percussion instruments that produce lots of high-frequency information. A system with overemphasized highs can sound a bit brittle on this piece. The Tiki presented the high frequencies with no peakiness or edge—no digital nastiness here. Argento’s “For the Angel, Israfel,” played by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference Recordings’ 30th Anniversary Sampler, opens with delicate strikes on orchestral chimes, which were detailed without any edge; however, through the Tiki I could tell that each of the chime strikes was louder than the one before. I’ve never heard that effect before, so obviously the Tiki was capable of resolving very slight differences in microdynamics.
Remember when digital recordings of stringed instruments sounded like fingernails dragging across a blackboard? Neither do I, but I do remember when digital recordings of strings sounded somewhat bleached and threadbare. The Tiki belied that impression, sounding sweet and harmonically dense with stringed instruments. On Rachel Podger and arte dei suonatori’s recording of Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza (192/24 FLAC, Channel Classics), the sound of the strings was delicate and harmonically complete, disproving the notion that digital string sound has to be unpleasant.
The Tiki’s bass had plenty of weight and detail. I’ve heard a few DACs with a bit more low-frequency extension, but the Tiki’s low-frequency performance was solid. You don’t normally expect to hear deep bass on early music recordings, but on Jordi Savall’s music from the CD La Folia 1490-1701 [Alia Vox], the bass drum extends down into the mid-40Hz range. The Tiki did a respectable job of reproducing both the frequency extension and the detail of the bass drum. On the cut “Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” it was obvious that the Tiki accurately tracked the continuously varying microdynamics, allowing the music to sound more expressive. You could tell the musicians were having a terrific amount of fun playing the piece.
Already on the NAS was a recording of The Tallis Scholars’ “Allegri Miserere,” which I assumed was ripped from CD Gimell’s Allegri Miserere. This a cappella choral setting of Psalm 51 has the singers arranged in two groups within a church. The larger main group has several singers placed at the front of the soundstage, while a small solo group is located well behind the main choral singers. A good measure of a component’s ability to reproduce depth is provided by comparing the main group of singers with the more distant solo group. Through the Tiki, the solo group sounded appropriately distant, but was a bit nebulous, slightly fuzzy. I’ve heard them sound slightly more focused.
A computer-based music server uses a standard computer running a server program to perform the server functions. Music files may be stored on the computer’s internal drive or externally. For comparison to the Tiki, I used a Hewlett-Packard dv7-3188cl laptop computer running 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium, and the Windows server program J. River Media Center. J. River plays back WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, and a host of other PCM file formats. It also plays DSD files with a compatible DAC. My HP laptop is connected to my Audio Research DAC8 DAC via a WireWorld Platinum Starlight USB cable, which was everything Alan Taffel said it was [see Golden Ear Awards this issue—Ed.]. So whereas the Tiki puts all the hardware (except the NAS) in one box, my server consisted of two boxes (the computer and the DAC) plus an expensive USB cable. Although J. River has a beautiful user interface, the computer is tethered to the DAC by a relatively short cable, so I used an iPad app called JRemote to remotely control J. River. JRemote lacks a folder view, but its album view displays almost every music file on the server. J. River itself has a folder view, as well as an amazing ability to capture cover art from a wide variety of sources, art that’s then displayed on JRemote. You’ll see very few cover art placeholders. It also displays the sampling rate of the music file being played.
J. River can be adjusted to provide excellent sound quality. For some, that’s a drawback: To get the best sound quality, you have to adjust J. River properly, whereas with a prefab server like the Tiki all the adjustments necessary for best sound have already been made, giving you a plug-and-play unit. The cost of my digital playback system, including the server, cable, and the DAC, was around $6360. That’s nearly $2000 more than the Tiki/ eLyric system, although that price doesn’t include the cost of the NAS and the router, which you may already have. If you have to buy a NAS and a router, they could cost $500–$700, maybe more, depending on the capacity of the drives you choose. I’m currently using one of my laptop’s internal drives to store music files, but that’s nearly full, so I’ll be exploring more capacious options soon.
Through the computer server, “The Panther’s” high frequencies were hard to distinguish from the Tiki’s. The Tiki made the microdynamic differences on “For the Angel, Israfel” more distinct, though; on my system, they sounded essentially equally loud. Remember when I said “I’ve heard a few DACs with a bit more low-frequency extension?” Well, the Audio Research DAC8 was one of those DACs. On “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” the DAC8 produced noticeably deeper bass with more slam, and just as much detail as the Tiki. Leading-edge transients seemed better defined by a slight margin.
I tried to compare the DAC8’s performance on “Allegri Miserere,” but I had replaced my 44.1/16 rip with a 96/24 FLAC version downloaded from Gimmell, which absolutely stomped the 44.1/16 rip. In my experience, one of the most audible advantages of a high-resolution music file is a better-defined soundstage, which the 96/24 version displayed in spades. It also had higher definition and clarity, so that I could better hear how each individual singer sounded. But although interesting, this was not a fair comparison. Oh, yes, the hi-res version’s channel balance was also better, though that’s why we have balance controls. Or at least some of us do.
Excellent sound, drop-dead looks, a quality built-in DAC—what more can you ask for? Well, in today’s market, you can ask for and expect an easy-to-use user interface, and while serviceable, Arataki 1.2 doesn’t measure up to other control apps I’ve tried. Arataki is constantly being upgraded and may someday be competitive with other remote-control apps, but as of the time of the review it made using the Tiki a tad harder than other servers I’ve tried. Fortunately, PS Audio’s eLyric Controller resolved most of my objections to Arataki. It’s weird to recommend part of a server system from one manufacturer, and another part from a different manufacturer, but if I didn’t do that I would be unable to give the Tiki a strong recommendation. Besides, if Plinius recommends eLyric, why shouldn’t I?
The Tiki itself sounded excellent. It had no trouble playing all commercially available PCM files I loaded onto its NAS, including 192/24 FLAC files. And while I personally would prefer the upgradeability that a digital output provides, I suspect most people will really appreciate that the Tiki has an excellent built-in DAC, which won’t need to be upgraded for some time. Like all Plinius gear, the Tiki’s looks are just smashing—a welcome change from the typical box-with-a-thick-faceplate styling of most components. The Tiki will grace any equipment rack, looking right at home beside the highest-end equipment, and providing high-resolution sound that’s easy on the ears. I hope Plinius upgrades the Arataki Media Controller to make an all-Plinius system easier to use.
SPECS & PRICING
File formats: AIF, WAV, FLAC, MP3
Bit rates: 16 and 24-bit
Sampling rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192kHz PCM files
Outputs: Analog balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA); no digital output
Inputs: RJ-45 Ethernet
Internal storage capacity: None
External storage: On network attached storage (NAS) drive connected via network
Optical drive included: No
Operating system: ThreadX
Remote control: Yes, via user provided Apple iPad
Dimensions: 17.75″ x 3.5″ x 15.75″
Weight: 12 lbs.
PLINIUS USA (U.S. DISTRIBUTOR)
3439 NE Sandy Boulevard #128
Portland, OR 97232
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