Sooloos Music Server System Sooloos Control 10, October 2009
Stereophile published an extensive review of the Sooloos Music Server System in the September 2008 issue, and it subsequently became our "Product of the Year" for 2008. But many readers chafed at the system's price of about $13,000, and made sport of comparing the feature and hardware list of the Sooloos system with cheaper off-the-shelf components and freeware. You can't blame them, really. Who wants to be told that the only way to accomplish what Sooloos has done costs not hundreds of dollars, but thousands?
Still, in my mind nothing can manage a collection of thousands of albums, or tens of thousands of songs, as well as the Sooloos approachit's more than just a pretty interface. Due to Sooloos's front-to-back hardware implementation, the interface scales where others quickly tangle. This ability to maintain ease of use as the number of tracks stored rises to five figures is a key element that costs money to get right, and no one else I've seen has done it as well at a lower pricehigher, yes, but not lower. My Sooloos system now contains more than 5000 albumsalmost all lossless imports from CDsand all of it appears and sorts instantly, with no buffering delays. The Sooloos makes it far easier than anything else I've seen to quickly and intuitively move among the thousands of choices.
To my mind, that last point can't be overstated, and it's why, for me, the Sooloos music-server redeems its big price. Yes, it costs money to implement properlymore money than many have or can justify spending (believe me, I sympathize)but it delivers not just convenience but musical satisfaction in spades.
And now the good news: the newest Sooloos hardware and software not only improves the system, it lowers its price. First, the hardware changes.
The Control:One touchscreen has been replaced by the Control 10, which at $5500 is still not an impulse purchasebut now you no longer need Sooloos's Source:One DAC to go with it. They've packed all the networking hardware into the base of the Control 10, and it has an S/PDIF or Meridian SpeakerLink output for direct injection into your system. A fully functional Sooloos system with 2-terabyte Twinstore hard-drive storage now starts at $8000. You supply the DAC.
Looking at the Control 10, you'd think it was a Control:One. But the only thing the 10 has in common with its predecessor is its case, glass touchscreen, and CD slot. Inside, both the parts and the overall concept have undergone complete makeovers. One result of this is a host of new connections on the rear panel. Where the Control:One had a single Ethernet jack and power cord, the Control 10 sprouts a small forest of connectors: Audio In RCA jacks, Trigger and Remote In jacks, Meridian comms and SpeakerLink jacks, S/PDIF out, DC power in (the power supply is now external), and an Ethernet port. All of the Sooloos components have been upgraded to Gigabit Ethernet, with a noticeable improvement in speed for moving large files around.
The graphic user interface, while still sporting the brilliant 18-album grid, has gone through some radical behind-the-scenes changes, trimming the fat all around and making many of the features more intuitive while reducing the number of interim steps. For example, the Focus feature requires fewer button taps to set and clear, and the awkward Collections function has been replaced by Tags that greatly ease the creation of custom groups of tracks. The Settings screens are now directly accessed from the main panel, and there's also a Sleep button. Users can now switch between several light and dark "skins" to customize the OSD's overall look. Paisley is included.
Most important for me is the new ability to sort my entire collection on the fly by Artist, Release Date, or Import Date. Using a handy slider, I can quickly find all of my albums released in, say, 1976, gliding through the years as the albums breeze byor I can sort my collection by the date the albums were imported to the Sooloos server, in a continuum from most recent to the first album entered or vice versa. I use this last feature dailyI can never remember the name of that new band whose album I picked up just last week.
One very potent feature of the new Sooloos server is its ability to use any Web browser, or the ControlPC/Mac software, as a zone for streaming from your music library. This means that, no matter what's being played on your main system, you can stream a unique playlist to your computer and whatever is hooked up to it. I was able to get two computers running their own zones in addition to the main system, each with its own playlist, all going at once. The downside is that the computer zones are currently limited to 192kbps streams, and I found that streaming via WiFi sometimes slowed the rest of my wireless network a tad. Still, the significance of this feature began to sink in as I used it both at home and abroad.
The new software allows the importing of hi-rez audio and WAV files, in addition to the FLAC files the system uses for CD imports. To test this, I downloaded and then imported some 24-bit/96kHz files from HDtracks.com. As soon as they started to play, "96kHz" appeared on the front of the T+A Music Player being used as a DAC, and sweet music poured forth. The only hitch was that 88.2kHz files were downconverted to 44.1kHz. Sooloos says that this is due to a software/chipset issue in the Control 10 that should be resolved by the time you read this. Also enhanced is the Sooloos system's ability to export files as MP3s to iTunes, or to your computer's desktop for use with portable devices.
I've been living with the new Sooloos Control 10 and updated software for several weeks now, and find that, all around, both are better than their predecessors. Still thoroughly recommended.Jon Iverson