Sooloos Music Server System Kalman Rubinson On The Sound
I never thought I would ever use, let alone review, a digital music server. I've resisted the entire category for four reasons:
1) My computer is never in my listening room.
2) I have neither the time nor the patience to rip my large collection of CDs.
3) I'm skeptical of recovering all the sound quality on those discs.
4) How could I easily access what I want when I want it?
Which means I've pretty much ignored music servers and the Stereophile reviews of such products, including even the high-end Linn Klimax DS and the McIntosh MS750. Nor do I have or want an Apple iPod. You can see what a troglodyte I am.
That I am in my present situation I blame on two people. Jeff Joseph, of Joseph Audio, has consistently put on impressive-sounding demonstrations at various audio shows under varying and trying conditions. At the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, his demo was as good as I had come to expect, but although there was indeed a turntable in the room, Joseph was relying on a digital music server for his source: the Sooloos. He told me to get on the stick about reviewing. Yeah, well, not for me.
The other guy is Peter McGrath, of loudspeaker manufacturer Wilson Audio Specialties. At a Wilson event at Innovative Audio in Manhattan last summer, with no more apology than Jeff Joseph had offered, McGrath used a Sooloos system in one of the rooms, with subjectively superb results. It was beginning to dawn on me that my pooh-poohing this product constituted a denial of the obvious.
At that demo I met Rob Darling of Sooloos, who showed me how the interface worked and described the hardware. But all that went in one ear and out the otherI was beguiled by the sounds from Peter McGrath's original digital recordings as played through the Sooloos.
Fast forward a few months. I'm down at the Sooloos offices on Greene Street, in SoHo, to pick up a Sooloos system. Did I say pick up? The +50-lb basic system that Rob Darling had arranged for me consisted of a Control:One with 17" touchscreen, a Source:One with a single output zone, and a Store with more than 2000 albums already loaded on it. Darling and I hoisted them into the cab for my ride uptown, but without help at both ends I couldn't have managed it.
Home Alone: Unpacking the cartons, I searched for the expected instruction manuals and found nothing but a single sheet of paper. It indicated that the three boxes were to be connected to each other and to my Internet router with the supplied Ethernet cables. There was nothing else.
A quick scan of the Sooloos website offered nary a bit of help. I placed the three components on my rack and hooked them up to each other. As for the Internet link, Rob Darling suggested hardwiringhe has not had reliable results with wireless networks. No problemI don't have a wireless networkbut on the other hand, I wasn't going to run CAT5 from the den to the living room. I went shopping.
I came home with a Panasonic Ethernet-over-Powerline system (BL-PA100KTA) and, what the heck, a wireless system (using a Belkin N Router, F5D8233-4). Both worked just fine. The lack of instructions meant that it was a while before I realized that I should power up the Source:One and Store before booting the Control:One. (Sooloos recommends that, in normal use, all components be left on 24/7.) At the other end, I connected the Sooloos's stereo analog output to the Bel Canto Pre6 preamplifier with RCA interconnects.
What I saw on the screen of the Control:One was a bright display with a full alphabet's worth of buttons across the top, and a six-by-three array of full-color album covers. Additional navigation buttons were at the bottom of the screen. Again, without help or instructions, I dove in and found recordings of Bartók's string quartets (under B for Béla, not Bartók, and thus immediately followed by Béla Fleck's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo). I selected one quartet by touching the image of its album cover, and the screen displayed that disc's contents: I could then select the entire disc or any grouping of tracks. I picked the entire disc and was then offered the option of playing it now, adding it to the queue, or inserting it in the queue to be played immediately following the selection already playing.
I chose Play Now, and, mirabile dictu, the quartet which one was playing less than a second later. It was coming from a lossless-compressed, full-bandwidth FLAC file, which the Sooloos can store, organize, and access with amazing speed. What I found was that the Sooloos could be too fast; with no delay between selected tracks, each stepped on the heels of its predecessor. Inserting a few seconds' delay made for more comfortable transitions. I was impressed.
All in the Family: When my wife came home and I showed her the Sooloos, she was as impressed as she usually is with my new toys: not at all. Over the weekend, I encouraged her to select our music, a task that long ago passed to me, when she asked how much it would cost to replace the "needle" on my record player. She asked for instructions, and I told her there were none. But within minutes she was making playlists, defining and populating new genres of music for different moods and occasions, and, generally, taking over. At Thanksgiving (have I had the Sooloos so long?), the entire family, ranging in age from seven to 67, participated in the programming, all without any formal instruction. Everything about the Sooloos was intuitive. Regardless of the lack of explicit instructions, the Sooloos empowered all who tried it.
So far, so goodbut a few matters need attention.
First, although the hard-drivebased Store is fairly quiet, its external power supply hums loudly and can be heard from four or five feet away. The solution was to move the Store (or Stores, if you have a larger library) to another room while keeping it on the network. This was accomplished by unplugging the Store from the Source:One in the living room, moving it to the den, and running the links, either wireless or powerline, from there. I suspect that it is in such an arrangement, with the Store streaming the music to the Source:One, that Sooloos is suspicious of the reliability of wireless connection. For me, it worked as well as the hardwiring had, but, remember, the Sooloos was the only system on the network.
The second matter was the sound. When I played any of the albums in the library, the sound was clean, balanced, and generally satisfying. However, when I compared the sound of the Sooloos's analog outputs directly with the sound of the discs ripped to it, there seemed to be less subtle detail in the treble and, more important, the dynamic range seemed narrower. Not that it was badthere were no artifacts, and the Sooloos sounded superior to most FM broadcasts. I think it sounded better than what you can get from any packaged hi-fi or home theater in a box, but remember: I was playing it through a Bel Canto Pre6 preamp, Bel Canto Ref1000 monoblocks or a Classé CA3200 power amp, and a pair of B&W 802D speakers. I expected better.
The solution was to swap out the Pre6 for my trusty Meridian Reference 861 and the latter's excellent digital processing and DACs. A Stereovox VX2 datalink linked the Sooloos's S/PDIF output to one of the Meridian's digital inputs, and the Meridian's display confirmed that it had received a 44.1kHz source. While the Sooloos's analog outs sounded more rich and powerful via Meridian's 24-bit/96kHz input ADC, the all-digital path, with 150 MIPS DSP dejittering and upsampling to 96kHz, elevated the performance to a new level.
Since I'd begun with Bartók, I ripped a copy of Antal Dorati and the Detroit Symphony's recording of his Miraculous Mandarin (CD, Decca/London 411 894-2), a powerful reading that the engineers captured at its dynamic and detailed best. Comparing the level-matched, upsampled digital feeds from the Bel Canto PL-1A universal player and the Sooloos server, I was unable to hear any differences. Each blew me away with the color and range and, especially, the gut-churning declamations from the contrabassoon, Wagner tuba, and bass tuba.
At the other musical extreme, Marianne Thorsen's violin, in her recording of three Mozart violin concertos (SACD, 2L 38SACD), was equally sweet and pointed through the two players, and the soundstage of the accompanying Trondheim Solistene was equally deep and wide. Comparison with the two-channel SACD track was often difficult, but the subtle improvements in detailing and microdynamics were always in favor of the SACD, when they could be heard at all. What the Sooloos could not do, of course, was compete with 2L's multichannel SACD track in the coherence of the individual instruments or the ensemble imaging. Nonetheless, when used as a digital source for a quality DAC, the Sooloos was as good as any other CD source I've tried.
I am seduced! Of the +2000 CDs already loaded on the sample system, fewer than 150 were classical, and fewer still would be my choice of performance. Conversely, I got to hear lots of music previously unknown to me, and make some new friends. And, having lived with the Sooloos for months now, it has won me over, and I have begun thinking how wonderful it would be to have all of my music on it. A quick calculation suggests that I would need four Store units for real-time backup, which would bring the system cost for one zone into the region of $24,000!
Nonetheless, the Sooloos has effectively dealt with all of my original concerns:
1) My computer is never in my listening room. No problem, as the system is networked and can even be synchronized, via the Internet, with remote Sooloos installations in a second home.
2) I have neither the time nor the patience to rip my large collection of CDs. Well, I'm still impatient, but buyers can have Sooloos rip their collections for $1/disc, and deliver the system with everything loaded. Because all Sooloos hard drives have automatic mirror backup, the Sooloos is a secure home for your collection.
3) I'm skeptical of recovering all the sound quality on those discs. No longer! I would be very happy to rip all my CDs to a Sooloos and then put them in dead storage.
4) How could I easily access what I want when I want it? Again, no problem. Sooloos's user interface is not only intuitive, it's flexible enough to be customized for all of my needs.
The bottom line: Under the influence of the Sooloos, this troglodyte has evolved. I am now convinced that, if you can afford it, the Sooloos is the way to go for CD listening. Can you buy or rig up a system for less? Definitely. Will it sound as good as the Sooloos? Maybe. Will it be as friendly and accommodating to use? I doubt it. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood, "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel I can afford it?'" Well, do ya?Kalman Rubinson