Sooloos Music Server System Page 5

If you hit Home at the bottom right of the screen, you can then tap Settings. That's where you name your zones and set such things as the crossfade time between tracks, volume levels, sleep mode, etc. If you get stumped, you can hit Help at any point; a contextual screen comes up with details about your current settings and what you might want to try.

I've only scratched the surface of how you can find and sort albums within the Sooloos system. At first, without a manual, I was a little mystified about how it all worked—but within a few days I'd created strategies to deal with the thousands of music choices, and was diving deeper and deeper into music from artists and albums I hadn't listened to in years. It was far easier to poke around in the Sooloos than through my CD shelves, and the speed of sampling one artist or another had me listening to music I usually pass right by.

A few criticisms: It would be nice to have a Preview option when browsing albums so that you could easily sample a song before committing it to the Play Queue where you'll then have to go to delete it if you don't want it. It would also be nice to sort the entire library by something other than artist name—by genre, for example, so that all jazz albums are listed together alphabetically; or by import or release date; etc. Adding access to Web radio and music-streaming services such as Pandora would eliminate my need to keep a computer in the system. And the album-cover art could be higher resolution, with a larger color palette—iTunes covers tend to look much nicer by comparison when blown up in Apple's Front Row and Cover Flow. And all of the Sooloos components run warm to hot.

I listened to the Sooloos system in four different ways: using its analog outputs (from its internal RME Hammerfall DAC); using the S/PDIF output directly into a Lexicon MC-12 preamplifier; into the new Integra DTC-9.8 preamp (reviewed by Kal Rubinson in the January 2008 Stereophile); and into the Benchmark DAC1 USB. I also compared the Sooloos via the Benchmark to iTunes running on my Apple portable via USB to the Benchmark—and, for a bit of nostalgia, to a Denon DVD-2910 universal disc player. Before I began my listening, Sooloos sent their sales manager over to modify the Source:One by isolating the ground on the S/PDIF connector—apparently, they'd missed a few units.

For all comparisons, I assembled a playlist that included "So What" and "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," from producer Bob Belden's excellent new Miles from India (CD, Times Square TSQ-CD-1808—get this disc!); "Come Together" and "A Day in the Life," from the Beatles' Love (CD, Apple/Capitol 3 79810 2); and several tracks from Choying Drolma and Steve Tibbetts' beguiling Selwa (CD, Six Degrees 657036 1104-2).

I first wanted to determine the differences, if any, between the Sooloos Source:One's analog and digital outputs directly into the preamps. The analog output was about 4.5dB hotter than the digital, so I calibrated the volume with an SPL meter and compensated with the volume control for all comparisons. Bottom line: The Sooloos's analog output bettered both preamps' own DACs in subtle but meaningful ways. Choying Drolma's voice sounded thinner through the preamps' own DACs than through the Sooloos DAC, and the Integra DTC-9.8's soundstage felt more constricted than those of the Lexicon or Sooloos.

Comparing the Sooloos's RME DAC via its analog outputs to the Benchmark via its S/PDIF out was another matter. I give the Benchmark the nod on this one, though not by much—after reading JA's review of the Benchmark back in January, I'd expected more. I'm splitting hairs here, but the Benchmark had a tighter midrange and transients and a more natural dynamic feel, while the Sooloos's analog output exhibited a little woolliness with voices. But the acoustic piano in "So What" was the real giveaway here, with more clarity and focus. (See sidebar, "Kalman Rubinson on the Sound of Sooloos," in which KR describes the even greater differences he heard with some other DACs.)

More obvious were the differences between the analog outputs of the Denon DVD-2910 universal player and the Sooloos-Benchmark combo. The music server won this one by a slightly wider margin, which probably shouldn't have been surprising: we'd added a spinning piece of plastic to the equation. But whether it was the source of the digits or the Denon's DAC, the DVD-2910 lacked refinement, felt looser all around, and exhibited more hash in the high frequencies while not sounding actually brighter.

Finally, I connected both the Sooloos (S/PDIF) and my Mac (USB) to the Benchmark, and switched back and forth between them. I first ripped my playlist tracks to iTunes as WAV files from the same CDs I'd imported to the Sooloos, turned off all iTunes audio modifiers, and set the appropriate sampling rate in the Apple Midi Setup utility. Playing the same track via the Benchmark, the Mac and Sooloos were very, very close—but I give the nod to the Sooloos, which had a tighter, more relaxed midrange. This was especially noticeable on "A Day in the Life," as the instruments around John Lennon's voice took on a more natural spread. But the Benchmark DAC1 was a great leveler here—if it weren't for the more cumbersome iTunes interface, I could be happy with the sound of either server through the Benchmark.

If you've got access to a great outboard DAC, take a listen—you might like it better than the analog outputs of the Sooloos. Otherwise, the latter offered respectable sound, and, as I've often found with good digital, the differences that were there were only barely there.

There are already dozens of music servers on the market, as well as an infinite number of home-brew PC variations. In my mind, however, a touchscreen system running intuitively designed software is the way to navigate thousands of audio files. By comparison, using iTunes to organize and play a large music library I now find simply frustrating. A good interface such as that of the Sooloos (or of an iPod, for that matter) keeps the complexity hidden while offering the user a powerful tool.

The Sooloos is a hugely ambitious product that has completely changed my expectations of music servers. It will no doubt be only one of many touchscreen-based systems in the years to come, but right now, the Sooloos—aimed squarely at the music lover and audiophile—is the best I've used. You can complain about the price or quibble about the sound, but for something that raises the bar this many notches and works this well—it never crashed once in the several months I used it—it has no peer.

You'll want to find a dealer and play with a Sooloos system in person. Using the Sooloos got me more deeply involved with my music library than at any time since I began collecting many years ago. Sign me up. My disc players are history.

EU-USA Stereophile Fan's picture

It was absurd that hi-fi companies didn't (still don't) pay attention to the access side but also we keep talking about controlling it from a smartphone such as the IPod. If one has the money for recommended components he/she should have it to use an IPad 4 or a Samsung Tablet 10.1"