Music in the Round #71 Page 2

What about multichannel? Just as with DigiBit's website, the Aria's documentation makes no mention of multichannel, but that's okay—the Aria handles multichannel files with the same facility as it does two-channel. The only difference is that you need to ask DigiBit to install the appropriate ASIO driver for your device. As far as I know, the list of such devices is short, and currently limited to the exaSound e28. I e-mailed DigiBit to request the exaSound ASIO driver, and was told to leave the Aria powered up and connected to the Internet. When I looked at it the next morning, there was my e28 on the list of available devices. As far as the files themselves were concerned, the Aria handled them transparently: Play a stereo file, get stereo. Play a multichannel file, get multichannel. I played multichannel FLAC, WAV, DSF, DFF, DXD, and even ISO files. But the Aria's built-in ripper won't rip multichannel discs. Damn.

It's getting hard to discern differences among file servers, so long as their processing is fast enough to ensure that the data get to the DAC on time and unchanged—unless, of course, you want to apply some sort of processing, such as upsampling or format conversion. A file server should be the equivalent of a "straight wire with gain" or a straight data pipe. With the exaSound e28 DAC, the Aria sounded just marvelous. At no time were there any unwanted noises, not at file initiation, not between tracks, and not when the format changed. The sound's impact and immediacy were advances on the same files played through the Oppo, but that might have been due to differences between the Oppo and exaSound DACs, as well as processor speed.

In fact, the Aria music server was beyond criticism. My only complaints are about the absence of things that DigiBit seems to have intentionally excluded. First, unlike the plain-vanilla implementations of JRiver Media Center, the user can't reprogram how music formats are handled and processed. Only DigiBit can do this, and in my case, they had to. The review unit arrived with a default setup that upsampled all formats to DSD128 for USB. Some people recommend this, but not all DACs can accept DSD128, and not everyone wants it. The e28 makes glorious two-channel music with DSD128 output, but the Aria stuttered when I switched to multichannel: I got bursts of sound from the front L/R speakers, nothing from the others. DigiBit removed the default upsampling, and all was well for bit rates up to 352.8kHz! I suspect that the Aria's highly efficient N2600 processor was pushed to its limits by a task that's handily dealt with by the i5 and i7 CPUs used in modern PCs.

A related matter is that the Aria user can't introduce other software or add-ons to the system. The Aria runs so well, does its tasks so smoothly, and sounds so good that this is mostly a good thing. However, I think that good room equalization is almost a necessity these days, and there's no way to implement that with the Aria, nor am I confident that the N2600 could handle the additional workload.

But all that is tangential to DigiBit's goals for the Aria music server. Designed to be a straightforward music player, it is a delight to use and makes no compromise in sound quality. Fundamentally, the Aria's sound was as satisfying as that of other high-quality, computer-based servers—but unlike them, the Aria's design, and a user interface so sophisticated that it's simple, make it plug-and-play with network expandability.

Sharp Electronics SD-WH1000U Wireless High Resolution Audio Player
In June 2014, Sharp Electronics showed and demonstrated prototypes of these components at CE Week, in New York City. I thought they were the highlights of that show, and pestered Sharp to send me samples for review. Recently, a very large rolling suitcase arrived. It contained a SD-WH1000U Wireless High Resolution Audio universal disc player ($4995), two VR-WR100U Wireless Bridges ($999 each), and all ancillary devices and cables. In most cases, this would be a reviewer's dream—everything I needed was provided—but the limitation of having only two Bridges was a disappointment. Still, I was excited to at last get my hands on these babies.

There's no shortage of universal players out there. What makes the Sharp SD-WH1000U special is that it's one of the first serious audio/video products to incorporate the WiSA protocol for wireless speakers. I've been following this technology since it was a hand-wired circuit board, and it always seemed the answer to the need for wires all over the place in a multichannel system. Not all homes are easily retrofitted with in-wall wiring, and folks like me end up trying to hide all the cables cluttering our listening rooms. WiSA provides a stable, high-resolution, wireless link for systems with up to 7.1 speakers, and supports calibration of speaker distance and delay. In some systems, including those with Sharp's VR-WR100U Wireless Bridges, WiSA also supports individual channel EQ.

That's not to say that WiSA is the Sharps' only attractive feature. At CE Week, I was also told that the SD-WH1000U's USB and Ethernet inputs would support hi-rez audio, including DSD and multichannel. In addition, its multiple HDMI inputs and other connections meant that the SD-WH1000U could be the only electronic device in a system: Just add powered speakers.

The SD-WH1000U impressed me as soon as I hoisted its 27.6 lbs out of its foam nest and placed it on my rack. It sits on four hefty, pointed feet with nonmarring tips. Inside its sturdy case, each of the larger components—eg, the disc transport and the R-core power transformer—is mounted on its own base, and everything I saw indicated that Sharp has spared little expense to ensure that the SD-WH1000U will be taken seriously by serious audiophiles (eg, high-spec, 32-bit ESS Audio ES9018S DAC chips are used).

When first powered up, the SD-WH1000U searches for WiSA-compatible speakers. I bypassed that and immediately connected it, with a pair of XLR cables, to my Audio Research MP1 multichannel preamplifier, popped in Hans Vonk and the St. Louis Symphony's recording of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (CD, PentaTone PTC 5186 320), and sat down. Wow! The sound quality of this massive work was positively sterling, and as clear and detailed as I have ever heard it from a CD. As a simple CD player, the SD-WH1000U made the grade.

But this was just the beginning. From the Sharp suitcase I retrieved the two VR-WR100U Wireless Bridges and Sharp's WiHD transmitter. The latter enables wireless connection wireless transmission of the HDMI output to a remote display, which I didn't try. (The SD-WH1000U has its own WiSA transmitter for audio.) I connected the Bridges to the L and R inputs of my McIntosh MC-303 three-channel power amplifier with XLR cables. The Bridges, too, are impressively constructed, weighing nearly 9 lbs each; they mediate 24/96 audio output via XLR and RCA analog outputs.

I rebooted the SD-WH1000U and let it search for the Bridges. Within a minute, it had connected to both Bridges, and I used its OSD to identify them as the left and right front speakers. Back to Turangalîla, and guess what—it sounded identical to the direct wired connection through the ARC MP1, except that the volume could now be controlled via the Sharp player. Based on this simple comparison, I believe that the Bridge's DACs are the same ESS chips as those in SD-WH1000U, and that the WiSA wireless transmission is entirely transparent. Good news.

I played around with audio files on USB drives and from my remote NAS, both of which the SD-WH1000U had no trouble accessing. Again, the sonic results were entirely satisfying—in stereo. It was only when I attempted to play multichannel discs or files that I hit a brick wall. Apparently, the SD-WH1000U can output to the wireless Bridges and WiSA-compatible wireless speakers, or it can output to HDMI—but not to both at the same time. I'd hoped to run a hybrid setup with the front L and R speakers wireless and the other channels via HDMI and an external processor, but this is not possible as the Sharp is currently configured. The options are to get four more Bridges or use just the HDMI to explore the SD-WH1000U's multichannel performance.

But that, too, was a disappointment. Whether connected to the HDMI input of the Oppo BDP-105, the Meridian HD621/Reference 861, or the Marantz AV8801, all I could get was two-channel stereo. Strangely, the Sharp's OSD properly indicated the format of the source (eg, DSD 5.1), but the receiving devices always indicated that they were getting only stereo. Even stranger was the discovery that the Sharp offered effective speaker-setup options for WiSA but none at all for the other outputs. It seems that with only stereo WiSA outputs available, the HDMI outputs were similarly constrained.

A home visit from a Sharp technician confirmed all this. He agreed that being able to use HDMI and WiHD at the same time would provide a logical upgrade path from one to the other. Sharp has offered to get me additional Bridges, and to discuss this the engineers in Japan for comment and, hopefully, resolution. For all the tantalizing promise of the Sharp SD-WH1000U, I regard it as still a work in progress. I will report on that progress in due time.


SteveG's picture

The Seattle Symphony site only provides links to Amazon and iTunes downloads. I've found surround sound FLAC files at Primephonic and Highresaudio, but am wondering whether those are my only options. The Primephonic site is much cheaper, but does not specify that the 5.1 files are 24/96.

Kal Rubinson's picture

The 5.1 FLAC files can be accessed at hiresaudio by clicking on the FLAC option and noting the dropdown list.

At the Primephonic site, the default is WAV but it, too, is a dropdown which shows the FLAC 5.1 option.

SteveG's picture

Thanks! I found those, but am a bit confused about the Primephonic downloads. They list the 2-channel FLAC files as 24/96 but don't say the same for the surround FLAC files. I'd rather order from them since their prices are considerably lower than the Hiresaudio prices, but Highresaudio specifies that their surround sound fles are 24/96. I've also found them on the Classicalshop, but I'm not sure they sell to USA customers. I've got questions in to Primephonic and Classicalshop, but no replies as yet.

By the way, we are Seattle Symphony subscribers, and it will be interesting to hear these new recordings of pieces we heard in concert. Unfortunately we did not hear any of the Dutilleux.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I hope they give you the answers you need and that you will post the responses here for others. I also made an inquiry with my press contact from the SSO.

SteveG's picture

Thanks, I'll let you know what I find out.

SteveG's picture

The Classicalshop responded that they do sell to USA customers. They point out on their site that if you buy the surround sound download they include all other available versions, including MP3, Cd quality, and 24/96 stereo.

Primephonic responded that their Seattle Symphony surround sound files are indeed 24/96, and that they analyze incoming files, creating a spectrogram, to make sure that they originate from high resolution recordings: "Audio files that produce spectrogram not matching with the delivered description are dismissed."

I think I'll buy a couple of the recordings from Primephonic, which has better prices than the Classicalshop and Highresaudio.