CES 2008: Year of the Music Server

Throughout 2006 and much of 2007, we got the feeling at Stereophile that most audiophiles were scoffing at the idea of a music server in their system.

But sometime last year, perceptions changed. Here we are at the 2008 CES and music servers and related products are popping all over the Venetian and at THE Show.

And then there were the surprising online poll results this week.

We asked in our Vote this past week if you are ready for an audiophile music server, and the response and number of comments have been overwhelming. A whopping 32% of you already have a server of some kind set up, and 44% are ready to jump in. We received more votes in this poll than any other in 2007!

Other than a small group of forward-looking, old-school audiophile companies such as Linn and McIntosh already shipping product, the manufacturing side has yet to develop in any significant way. Which means that most audiophiles are cobbling together all manner of systems, whether it centers on iTunes, Sonos, Transporter, Squeezebox or a home-brew PC/Mac and DAC ensemble.

Magico even built a one-off server for their demo room just so they'd have a source for their collection of hi-rez audio files. We suggested they think more seriously about it as a product instead.

The variety of approaches to creating a hard-disk–based music system was mind-boggling, and will likely lead to a bit of confusion in the short term.

Some products are basically a DAC with various wired and wireless connectivity options but no hard drives for actually storing music (you add those yourself). Some add a CD drive. Others include the hard drives, but not much connectivity. Others are aimed only at iPod owners (docks). Some are made for those with iTunes libraries. Some can't sync with an iTunes library. And some are audio-only devices and some include video. The permutations of features seem endless.

Companies like Sooloos demonstrated a complete stand-alone audiophile solution that focuses on the interface. I was surprised not to see other companies follow Sooloos' lead with a graphic touch screen. Seems to me this is the obvious way to go for anyone with a large collection of music, who doesn't want to have a TV on all the time to choose their tunes. Their software is intuitive (for me at least) and is a blast to use.

But at this time, the Sooloos systems do not include access to music streams, iTunes, Web radio, hi-rez audio, or anything other than a CD loaded on the hard drive via the built-in slot. The company hints this will change in the future, but for now, think of it as a replacement for a CD library and player and add the other streams elsewhere.

There are companies like Lyngdorf, Kaleidescape and Naim, who have created servers sporting graphical interfaces used primarily with a button remote control and a switched-on TV. This will be an obvious choice for a movie-based system, but not so handy for music. I find it very awkward having to turn on the TV to navigate these kinds of setups through large music libraries while using a button remote. Adding a Crestron-type touch screen, where possible, is one way around this issue.

On a slightly more traditional note (if traditional is even the right term here at the frontier), T+A's new Music Player comes complete with the ability to manage several digital sources including streaming radio, music servers, and even a turntable (via the analog inputs) from a single chassis which includes a CD tray. Construction is superb, and just might be the ticket, though once again it comes supplied with a button remote, so accessing a huge library of choices is a daunting task.

In a similar vein, PS Audio had a work-in-progress prototype of its Memory Link and Hovland a prototype of a very similar product, both of which can either play discs or rip them to a media server. Like the Hovland, the PS Memory Link runs Linux and the company says it will handle metadata (album art and info) for whatever you run through it and uses a small display on its front panel.

Wadia demonstrated the first iPod dock (the iPod is, after all, just a compact music server) that takes the iPod's digital stream straight out and into a preamp or the DAC of your choice. Shanling was showing a product that your iPod rests in, complete with tube amps and fancy metal work.

These docks seem more like temporary bridge products to get those that are iPod-centric into better audio. But with these, you have to control your library on the little iPod screen, and the capacity for uncompressed storage is, of course, limited.

And if you have an iPod loaded with music, that means you also have iTunes on a computer somewhere.

Which leads us to the clever companies like Resolution Audio who have figured out that Apple has already put millions of dollars into developing iTunes, the iTouch and its attendant hardware and software, so why not leverage those into the audiophile living room.

Resolution's method for doing this is ingenious, and gets my nod for best overall approach for those who already have large iTunes libraries. But once again, though much better than buttons, I find access to a huge pile of music through an iTouch touch screen remote a bit cumbersome. But very cool and relatively affordable.

And lest we forget, both Microsoft and Apple see all of this activity and are trying to jump into the living room with more gear and software. Apple already aims its Apple TV player and Front Row software at the media server customer, while Microsoft was handing out copies of its Mommy, Why is There a Server in the House? parody children's book.

Should be an interesting year indeed.

Marcel Balcarek's picture

I am software developer and attended both the RMAF and CES. I personally use a computer based server (Windows XP Pro) which haa 2 hard drives in a mirrored configuration (RAID 1). I rip all my music using Exact Audio Copy to FLAC. I like EAC because it interfaces with AccurateRip which provides a level of confidence that my rips are bit for bit accurate. I use the Sonos connected via ethernet CAT 5 cable. It then hooks to an external DAC (Benchmark DAC1) via digital COAX. Even though the Sonos has quite high jitter, the Benchmark reclocks the data. I am very happy with the sound through my Apogee Duetta Signature speakers.I like the Sonos' user interface (which is software upgradable as new features are developed) and I also like the Sonos' features like the wireless capabilities and also the access to Internet radio stations.I find most of the music servers out there to be quite expensive and seem to offer little over what I have(?). I am interested in quality reproduction and also convenienc

Dan's picture

"No doubt "music servers" will come on because of convenience(though personaally I think if you are not willing to go to the trouble to put on a CD you do not deserve to hear the music!)." - TAS reviwer Robert E. Greene commenting on the TAS issue #177 article on Music Servers.From Message #18953 at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/regsaudioforum.

Henry Wang's picture

The idea of putting my music library on a server is the most exciting thing I've seen in audio in a long time. Still, I find that handling it all through my computer is the easiest way to go since I can control all the software and audio sources with my mouse. I'm not excited about using a little display like on some of the components shown. If I don't have a stack of discs to look at any more, then I need a way to control everything easily. My iMac is the best way I've seen to do this so far.

Tman's picture

I've been running a PC/iTunes music server for two years now. We have no CDs in the house. Plan to add the iTouch remote this month actually.

Chris West - NaimUSA's picture

Further to Jon's comments about the Naim servers, I would like to clarify one thing about our user interfaces; Whilst a display,TV, or touchscreen can be connected directly, we have also employed a web browser interface. This means any web capable device (touch screen or not) can be used to navigate the GUI. What's more, our servers from NS03 on up, will also have a touchscreen mounted inthe front panel for direct control.

Wes Phillips's picture

Robert Who? Is that the same guy who said that side firing woofers were 90 degrees out of phase?

Dan's picture

Wes-It's the same dude......self proclaimed DSP RC expert, who doesknow how to rip/burn a CD. Check out his forum.Aloha.

david hyman's picture

hmmm, didn't i give a keynote about this years ago at the stereophile show when i was CEO of gracenote? i said the transport would disappear. i also said in many cases, the sound quality is superior. no one really believed me. ahhhhh. redemption.(just when i bought a turntable!)

Jon Iverson's picture

Chris West: Thanks for adding the info about the Naim touch controllers - looking forward to seeing those next time.David Hyman: I remember that keynote - many of us were right there with you. What I am noticing now, however, is the big change we sense in our industry and readers (and some of my fellow writers). A lot of audiophiles equated a media server/iTunes with lo-rez MP3 files. This perception shifted over the last year, and I'm astonished at the difference in tone in the emails I now get from readers - and the response in our Vote last week. It also doesn't hurt that we can now get a terabyte of disk space (to store 2000-3000 lossless CDs) for under $300.As I am fond of saying: the mass market selects, and then audiophiles perfect. One thing I didn't anticipate is how much fun it is to rediscover my music library via a music server type system. And it now sounds good too.

Michael H's picture

Can anyone tell me what Resolution Audio's fantastic solution was - as the hyperlink to the blogspot doesn't seem to work

Jon Iverson's picture

Fixed the link - there was an extra space in there.

Hew's picture

RE: A lot of audiophiles equated a media server/iTunes with lo-rez MP3 filesThat's a really sad observation. I never thought the definition of an audiophile is a person who doesn't RTFM? Maybe some small percentage of audiophiles = luddite. When looking at iTunes years ago you could see the choices of how to import. I chose lossless and never looked back.I'd like an article describing in greater detail how the exact same DAC can be sold in a case for $300 and $3,000. Maybe time for a double blind test if you're brave enough

qsonic's picture

The reviewer forgot to mention one exciting new product coming from the "old" YBA : the YBA DESIGN all in one solution (YS201) with a 500Go audio and video server, incredible GUI, 2 zones, DVD with 720 upscaling, 24/192 upsampling + 3 additional digital inputs, bult-in database, ipod synchro...And more : a built-in AM/FM tuner and 2x50W stereo amplifier (not a digital amp, a mosfet one) !Everything in just ONE (beautifully designed) single box for less than 5K ! Get a nice pair of speakers an ipod touche and you are done !