Meridian Digital Media System, July 2012
It's been more than five years since the original Sooloos Music Server hit the market, and four since I reviewed it, in the September 2008 issue. The system became a favorite of mine, and was named Stereophile's Product of the Year for 2008. A lot has changed since then: the hardware, the software, the price, the company's ownershipeven the product's name. One question remains: Is it still the best overall music server on the market?
What's in a name? After only a few years in business, New Yorkbased Sooloos was acquired, in late 2008, by UK audio company Meridian (footnote 1). Sooloos's core executive and tech team remained in place, and the product's name eventually morphed to Meridian Sooloos.
Then, early this year, Meridian sent out a press release announcing a new name for the Sooloos line: the Meridian Digital Media System, or MDMS (which, at my house, we pronounce Muddy Mess, footnote 2). Compared to Sooloos, a name like Meridian Digital Media System sounds wordy and generic. Maybe they didn't like the way Sooloos looked, or maybe it was too close to the name of competitor Sonos. I would have hoped for something more creative.
What would the iPad be named had Apple followed Meridian's branding scheme? The Apple Media Tablet Social Device? The Apple Touchscreen and Multi-Capable System? Here's hoping someone at Meridian will have a change of heart and come up with a spicier handle. I see that the word Sooloos can still be found here and there on Meridian's website, and that another term they use for MDMS system components, Core, has intriguing possibilities. Maybe there's hope (footnote 2).
Hardware: But who cares what they call it, as long as it delivers? When I reviewed the original system, it came in three parts: the Control:One touchscreen, the Source:One DAC/Zone, and at least one Store hard-drive bay, all for $13,000. These days you can get most of that functionality in the latest version of the touchscreen unit, the Control 15 ($7500).
The Control 15 has the same timelessly contemporary exterior designawesome, in my bookas the Control:One, but now comes with a 500GB internal hard drive. This allows you to losslessly store 10001200 CDs as FLAC files. To expand storage, you can connect the 15 via an external, user-supplied Ethernet switch and cable to as many of the old Stores or new Media Drive 600s as needed.
The Media Drive 600, the current MDMS RAID 1 housing component, retails for $5000, and has room for a mirrored pair of 2TB hard disks (one primary, one backup), which the user supplies. This means one MD600 can store up to about 5000 CD-resolution albums as lossless FLAC files.
Though it can function as a system Core and Zone, the Control 15 lacks a built-in DAC. However, it does have an S/PDIF output on its rear panel, in addition to a Meridian Speakerlink connector (if you happen to have the company's DSP Active Loudspeakers), and, on the front, a slot for loading CDs. A welcome improvement over the original Sooloos system, which supported only FLAC and MP3, is that now virtually all non-DRM file types have joined the party, including WAV, AIFF, and Apple Lossless.
The Control 15's S/PDIF stereo output also supports higher-resolution datastreams than did the original systemanything up to 24-bit/96kHz. Higher-resolution files up to 24/192 can be stored on the drives, but will be downsampled before being output from the S/PDIF jack. For example, a 24/192 file will come out as 24/96, a 24/176.4 file as 24/88.2. As of April 2012, Meridian won't promise when or if this might change, which is a bummerI still go to my laptop or Oppo disc player for anything higher than 24/96. Another interesting feature is that, unless you turn this feature off, by default, CD-resolution files (16/44.1) are upsampled to 24/88.2. Unless I'm reviewing a DAC from a manufacturer that recommends turning the upsampling off, I generally prefer leaving it on.
At this point I have three MDMS storage components in my system, each fitted with two 2TB drives, for a total of 6TB of primary storage and 6TB backup. After consulting with a tech at Meridian a couple years ago, I chose the Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB Desktop SATA Hard Drive, available online for under $150. You can use whichever make of drive you like, but so far I've found these to be stellar; they run relatively cool, and thus save a little energy.
All backup functions are automatic and require no configuration or monitoring whatsoever, which for me is part of the MDMS's charm; it's one less thing to tinker with, and essential for the system's effortless operation. In fact, if your system is connected to the Internet and some flakiness appears in a drive, Meridian will contact you about a possible hard-disk problem before you even know you have one. That might be a negative for some, especially those who have some IT skills and love to mess with this kind of thing on the cheap. I also keep off-site a complete set of drives, to which I periodically back up my entire collection, in case of earthquake, fire, lightning strike, or cat fight.
The original Sooloos system has also been expanded to include several additional MDMS components: The Media Core 200 ($4000) and 600 ($12,000), both with built-in hard drives and Core (at least one Core is needed for any MDMS system); and the Media Source 600 ($3500), which can add a zone to an existing system but doesn't have a Core. You can run the two Core components without the Meridian Control 15 touchscreen, instead managing everything via the iPad app or Control software for your Mac or PC. However, I prefer to anchor my system with the Control 15, which I consider essential to the MDMS experience and any serious setup (more on the reasons why below). I also like to run a variety of DACs but run only one Zone, or stream of music, at a time, and so have no current need for any of the Media Core multi-zone products. Your situation may vary, but the MDMS family probably has you covered.
Software and Curating: The heart of the MDMS/Sooloos system has always been, and continues to be, the software. Though it's now been through several iterations, the basic approach is still intact, albeit improved in significant ways: You can now sort your entire collection by artist, release date, import date, or play count, and the Focus, Tag, and Sets functions are further refined for customization and speed.
You can now find and bookmark your favorite Internet radio stations, and access a Rhapsody account if you have one. No Spotify, MOG, Pandora, etc., though I'm hoping these will be added at some point (for background-music purposes, of course).
The Control 15 also has four interface themes (including paisley!), and even the option of switching between two different interface layouts. Other features include a volume control for the local zone (this can be bypassed), checkboxes for security (very useful during parties, to keep folks from accidentally deleting your entire collection of Led Zeppelin bootlegs), and a much-improved export function. This last upgrade makes it a snap to export lossless or lossy copies of anything in your collection to a variety of devices for backup or portable use.
Classical-music fans will appreciate that even more attention has been paid to how metadata can be manipulated and sorted either in micro- or macrodetail. There is now an Edit mode that lets you grab huge swaths of your library and perform global tasks or create tagged groups. The end result is the ability to fine-tune, customize, and curate your collection of music to a greater extent than was possible before.
The new iPad app, called Core Control, now mimics the functionality and layout of the Control 15 software with a grid of album-cover art, playlists, etc. However, there's a slight latency when using an iPad to scroll through album covers (they load via your network) or call up different functions. By contrast, you walk up to a Control 15, touch the screen, and everything works instantly and intuitively. With about 8500 albums now stored, I can zip from A to Z as fast as my fingers can work the screen. Meridian tells me that some of its customers have stored tens of thousands of albums and have yet to experience a latency problem. With the MDMS iPad app, moving around your collection takes time, as each finger tap triggers a new request for data and art over the wireless network. This is true of most of the music-control iPad apps I've tried that run a grid of album coversthe iPad is pokey, and lacks essential real estate, compared to the Control 15 and its larger screen. The app also has some quirks: for example, album covers are sorted from top to bottom instead of from left to right, as on the Control 15. Compared to the Control 15, the new iPad app is two steps forward and one step back: The iPad is more portable and way cheaper (the app is free, and used iPads cost about $250), but sluggish.
I ran the app on both an iPad 2 and 3 and found it a bit quicker on the 3, though the text was ragged in spots on the newer Retina display. There were also a few bugs here and there and I had to restart a few times, but this is an early version (2.102) of the Core Control app, so I'm guessing it'll get better over time. Still, if you have a large collection of music and want to experience the real MDMS magic, think real hard before you decide against having at least a Control 15 in the room.
On the other hand, having the Core Control app on iPads spread around the house or next to the couch is a wonderful thing for occasional use. And if you need to save some money to get into the MDMS, then try it out with only the app and save the Control 15 for later. The fact that Meridian has a complete and mature system that can be run from an iPad makes it competitive.
In addition to the Control 15 software and iPad app, there's an app each for PCs and Macs that can provide most control and editing functions from your computer's desktop. What's not included in these applications is the visual album-cover grid, which I imagine loses its appeal when worked with a mouse. Instead, you find stuff using a search function or branching-path method that's quite effective (and is also included in the app and Control 15 software). I've found editing metadata and replacing album art much easier via my MacBook Pro than with the Control 15; I fire up the ControlMac application (ControlPC for Windows users) almost every week.
Another function of the desktop Control applications is to give you another zone for playback on your computer. I'll often work at my desk, and access the MDMS library for local playback through my desktop system, the only drawback being that the bandwidth is limited to a 192kbps datastream. By the way, though an iPad runs the software, you can't use an iPad as a local zone for listening; it can control only other zones.
Listening: Impressive hardware and software mean little if the sound quality doesn't measure up, and in my system it did. I've been using the Control 15's S/PDIF output to review D/A converters over the last couple years, continually comparing it with the sounds of my computer (using various playback apps), disc player, iPod/iPad, NAS, or visitors' playback equipment. What I've found is that if a DAC or digital preamp/hub's inputs are properly engineered, the various sources can sound very consistently similar in comparision with the sounds of different DACs. In other words, the sounds of the MDMS and other sources sound much more similar to each other than do the sounds of any two DACs. I also prefer leaving on the upsampling for 44.1 and 48kHz files, and find 24/88.2 and 96 playback competitive with other high-resolution sources.
Conclusions: When the Sooloos products first appeared, they got two things right. First, they had the fundamental insight of how to create an intuitive touchscreen interface for managing and quickly accessing large collections of music, topping even Apple in this regard. Second, they orchestrated a very logical and carefully executed complete system of hardware and software that is easily greater than the sum of its parts, and solves just about every problem that still plagues the typical computer-audio or music-server system.
With the Meridian Digital Media System, Meridian has added to the Sooloos legacy with worthy upgrades (though maybe not in the naming department) and more options for bringing an MDMS into your life. It would be even better if the Control didn't downsample 192kHz files to 96kHz at its coax output, and, of course, it ain't cheap. But I guess you can't have everything.
Four years after my first review of the Sooloos system, I still don't think there's a better overall music-server system for the music lover and audiophile who wants to do away with the clutter of CDs and iTunes. I've seen and heard some pretty good mashups of DIY and commercial software and hardware, many of which now use iPads for control. But I've yet to come across anything that, overall, beats a Control 15based systemespecially if you've got lots of music.Jon Iverson
Footnote 1: Meridian Audio Ltd., Latham Road, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE29 6YE, UK. Tel: (44) (0)1480-445678. Fax: (44) (0)1480-445686. Web: www.meridian-audio.com. US distributor: Meridian America Inc., 110 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012. Tel: (646) 666-0140. Fax: (646) 666-0152. Web: www.meridian-audio.com.
Footnote 2: Meridian says the new name applies only to the hardware. The interface will still be known as Sooloos.Ed.