Blue Smoke Black Box Music Server

Music server manufacturer Blue Smoke returned to CES this year as part of the Rockport Technologies suite in the upper echelons of the Mirage. The company's product is the $6,995 Black Box music server where they focus on creating an optimal environment for digital music on the hardware side and assume the customer will choose a Windows compatible music player and interface. For their demo, Windows Media Center was used with a Dell touchscreen (seen on the right) and keyboard/mouse combo for the control functions. A MSB DAC, located under the Black Box in the photo above, converts the data to analog.

Blue Smoke's Peter Sills explains that inside the box one half is devoted to the PC and the other to their proprietary sound system. The company has adopted some of MSB's technology that makes use of ethernet-type RJ-45 connectors and CAT-6 cables to facilitate high rez audio data and networking via MSB's version of I2S in addition to all the usual input/output suspects. Blue Smoke has also spent time coming up with some software apps to handle audio files at all resolutions in as clean a method as possible.

What really caught our attention was the company's claim that they had a way to allow SACD's DSD data to be captured as PCM and played back with their system. Due to Sony's draconian implementation of SACD copy management, Blue Smoke has adopted support of MSB's I2S network link which provides the ability to capture the files that started life as an SACD disc and then play them from your hard drive. Sills explained that you first start with an SACD player that has been modified with MSB's XPort DSP upgrade to convert the data to PCM before sending it out of the machine. After capturing the data and doing some editing with an application like Sony's Sound Forge Pro to chop up the stream into FLAC format and adding metadata, you ultimately end up with 32 bit/176kHz PCM files.

Sills assures us that sound quality is maintained through this process, but let's hope Sony finally sees the error of their ways and allows DSD the freedom it deserves.

Max's picture

proprietary, windows tethered system...totally a waste of time. I will never put my money into a system that is closed source and only works with one vendor. linn is going the right way with their open source approach. works with windows, linux and osx, even on the iphone.

Peter's picture

There is very little proprietary about The Black Box, other than our audio processing system. The Black Box adheres to the Windows standards and is open to users who would like to add there own interfaces, devices, etc. In fact, it is probably the most "open" of all systems in this regard.There are some factual errors which we have alerted Stereophile to and they shall be addressed in the above piece. Captured SACD data is in 176kHz/32-bt PCM format and can be played back on anyone's DAC. The MSB link is MSB's implementation of I2S as there is no standard interface for I2S (each is unique to the vendor). We chose to work with MSB as in addition to high-quality sound, they offer a wide family of products which work on the MSB network. However, nothing is stopping you from using a Berkely DAC, Bryston, BA Labo or any other you may desire.We are working to update our web-site to clear up any confusion about the operation of The Black Box, and apologize for any misunderstanding.

Jorge's picture

Regarding "...allows DSD the freedom it deserves", I think this is not entirely precise. DSD is an audio format (which encodes 1 bit @ 2.8MHz as you know). DSD is not the same as SACD, which is a release medium, not an audio format. I believe that copy protection applies more to SACD than to the DSD encoding technology.In fact, any person can buy digital audio recorders from Korg or Tascam that can capture analog audio in DSD format. So, what lacks freedom it is not the DSD technology, but the DSD data stored inside commercial SACD's. What copy protection prevents is transferring DSD data from a commercial SACD to a user's hard drive keeping its native DSD format (in a fashion like rippig CD's, which keeps the riped audio in its native PCM format if the destination is a .wav file).If this copy protection is justified, this is a different matter.Regards.Jorge Z.

Jon Iverson's picture

I've updated the main post to more accurately reflect the process. Thanks Peter and Ron for your help.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Well, this is the second year in a row that this product has been reported on, and it's still not clear to me what this thing does, and how it provides any more functionality than a Mac Mini running iTunes or Amarra. You still have to provide your own DAC, control devices, and monitor. A year on, and smoke is still being blown in our direction...

Peter's picture

We are working on a new Q&A on our site to try to clear up any confusion. However, a Mac Mini running Amarra is a fine little system. What The Black Box does is take that to the next level. The PC components in the box have been designed to fully support the audio side - very low power, noise, temps, etc. There are no moving parts and the entire case has been designed as a heat sink. The audio system in The Black Box is proprietary using mastering-grade DSPs. This, along with our software, takes the audio output to another level. Think of it as the ultimate design in an audio PC should you have the resources to both design the computer as you would want, and the ability to design your own audio hardware and software. Look for the Q&A on our site next week.