Sooloos Music Server System

Earlier this year, in an online poll, we asked the magazine's readers if they were ready for a music server. The response was startling: 32% of you had already set one up, and 44% were ready to. Only 7% responded "probably not" or "never." In the polls we conduct online, we rarely get this kind of positive consensus about anything audio.

The computer industry and the Internet have already eaten the music business for lunch, and now they look ready to have consumer-electronics hardware manufacturers for dessert: For the last few years, the computer folk have led innovations in audio sources, either with iTunes, iPods, and downloading, or with homebrew software/hardware music servers lurking in geek lairs everywhere. USB DACs and media-server bridge devices have become abundant, and even some audiophile companies have stuck a toe in.

But working with a mouse or remote control and a monitor—or, especially, a couple of buttons and a small LCD screen—is like pushing sound files around with a wet noodle. I consider it design negligence to create a system that stores thousands of audio files without addressing the issue of quick and easy access to those files.

And transferring your music library to a music server can be a minefield, not to mention a lot of work. The idea looks great on paper: Instead of piles of plastic disc cases that need to be shelved and arranged, why not put everything on a hard drive the size of a small book? Instead of programming a CD changer, why not just create and save a virtual playlist? Then there are the rumors that uncompressed digital music can sound better off a hard disk than from a plastic disc.

But in practice, creating a system that can handle all the details, sound good, and protect your investment requires the temperament and time of a tinkerer. It's like working with a Swiss Army knife when what you really need is a great screwdriver.

Then I saw the Sooloos system up close, in the company's suite at The Venetian on January 8, 2007, during that year's Consumer Electronics Show. That moment changed all of my expectations of music servers. This was clearly no me-too product, but a top-to-bottom reinvention of how we relate to music.

But was Sooloos an audiophile company or a computer company? Though their proof of concept was brilliant, and appeared to leapfrog Apple's iTunes interface, and their hardware looked audiophile chic, would Sooloos find enough buyers for their +$10,000 system, before they ran out of cash? How would it work—and sound—in the real world? Would Sooloos continue to grow, or would they be eaten? And, most important, when would Sooloos meet Stereophile's notorious minimum of five US dealers and thus be eligible for a review in the magazine?

It's now more than a year later, and Sooloos is still standing, delivering, and innovating. As of summer 2008, they had about 50 dealers. It was time for a closer look.

What It Is
Think of the Sooloos system as a source component like a CD player. You feed it your CDs, which it converts to lossless FLAC files, stores them on its hard drives, and organizes them visually for you on a touchscreen.

To date, all Sooloos systems include the Control:One: a 17" touchscreen with a CD slot in its base. For the past year or so, the rest of the system has included at least one Store hard-drive music-storage component, and either a Source:One or a Source:Five DAC-and-router. Beginning in June 2008, the Sooloos component roster has been expanded by the brand-new, less expensive Ensemble, which combines the functions of a Source:One and a Store in a single box, albeit with some limitations (see sidebar, "Ensemble DAC & Hard Drive").

The Sooloos is a semiclosed system: you can't just hook up any touchscreen or hard drive to a Source:One, fiddle with third-party software widgets, or start streaming your favorite Web radio station through it. You can, however, use the Source:One's digital output with your own DAC, and use any networked device with a Web browser (such as an iPhone, an iPod Touch, or a laptop) as a remote control.

Each component in a Sooloos system is highly specialized, its sealed box containing many features. Some may find a closed music-server system antithetical to the DIY, open-system attitude prevalent in the greater server market. But, as you'll see, the Sooloos approach pays off big for the audiophile whose primary focus is the enjoyment of a music library, not tinkering with technology.

Which brings us to the c word. Convenience is usually a pejorative when used by audiophiles to describe such things as iPods and CD players, but the level of convenience offered by the Sooloos system's touchscreen and software not only make it easier to use, but can actually bring audiophiles closer to their digital music.

For this review, Sooloos sent me a Control:One, a Source:One, and a 1-terabyte Store (since replaced by the Twinstore). While the company is adding new products fast, these three are the bedrock components of a full-fledged Sooloos system, and should remain so at least through 2009.

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"