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Geting started in CA and the SONORE one year on...

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My SONORE one year on, Jim Nuzum (Sydney, Australia)

I’ve lived with my Sonore for almost a year and after some initial teething problems, I’ve gotta say it’s a simply brilliant bit of kit and CA is the only way to go.

Firstly an important qualification: Rather than a formal review of the Sonore unit itself, this is intended to be more of an “essential few steps in getting started toward CA, featuring the Sonore” as a more than capable central source. I’ll leave the more scientific reviews of the unit itself to those so equipped. I should also point out, that no-one asked me to do this, nor do I have any commercial affiliation with any of the companies to which I refer.

Acquiring Sonore

From the very first contact (from Sydney Australia btw) I found the support first class in every way. I was finding my way with computer based audio and went through an exhaustive learing curve, made all the more enjoyable by my natural curiosity, a high Australian dollar and the almost real time responses to my many questions. We then got to specific config detail, which in my case included an early generation of their standard box, 2 X 2TB Western Digital Blacks and WIFI - price agreed and I pushed the (paypal) button. All was in motion. Adrian proactively kept me in the loop as key events unfolded, with a shipping/tracking number. The box arrived about 3 weeks later, precisely on schedule.

For reference my entire system is:

McIntosh MC452 (L&R), McIntosh MC452 (Second Zone - 2 Channel), McIntosh MC303, McIntosh MX150, Revel Ultima Salon 2's (L&R), Revel Ultima Voice 2 (Centre), Revel Ultima Gem 2 (Rears), Revel Ultima Gem 2 (Second Zone), MIT Magnum MA (Interconnects/XLR's), Audience AU24e (Speaker Cables), Sonore Music Server, Oppo BD95, Pioneer Kuro 60”, Nordost QX4 (Mains Purifier) Quantum Base QB8 (Power Distribution), Nordost Blue Heaven (Power Leads).

Set up is as follows >> Unit is to reside in my rack, fed lovely 240v via the Nordost QX4 (Mains Purifier) Quantum Base QB8 (Power Distribution), Nordost Blue Heaven (Power Leads). I rescinded the wifi capability on fine tuning the spec., after “doh” moment, in guidance from Jesus. Essential message here was that having the unit hooked into your network wirelessly is adding an unnecessary layer of complexity. Hardwire it straight to your router (if you can) and there’ll never be any “connectivity” issues. Simple. So its etherneted to the router, juiced from Nordost, talking via a 1 meter Cardas AES/EBU cable to the MX150 and controlled remotely by Berrie’s, MPaD app (more later), which can be “stolen” at 2.99 from that store.

The Box – contents and mission

The Sonore is an industrial Linux box (Redhat / Apache web server I believe), the heart of which is a studio grade Lynx AES-16 audio card (serious kit), which will be outputting, in my case, via the AES EBU to the AES 5 EBU MX150 input. So Linux, Apache, 2 WD Black’s and a Solid State drive where the O/S lives (makes sense right) and sufficient storage capacity for a gazillion CD’s (in excess of 50k tracks anyway, all losslessly encoded). Also, understand that the Sonore is what’s called “headless”, Its mission in life narrowly defined as “store and deliver” when asked, nothing else. So you need an interface to it. Your options are both web and app based. The web GUI is nice but doesn’t provide the portability, responsiveness or flexibility of the iPad route, but gets the job done. MPaD is the player in the space here – natively and exclusively developed for the ipad/iphone platform, it’s evolved, attractive, highly functional and mercifully ad free. You need go no further.

Plugged it all in, lit it up and after a few minutes while the MPaD and Sonore introduced themselves to each other, had full control of all my music in a simply brilliant GUI. Well so I thought.

Now this is what I call “Support”

No sound…….. zilch – disappointment city. Rechecked everything, I don’t know, maybe 1,000 times and still nothing. At this stage I’m thinking I’ve now got a $2700 music platform which is not only aesthetically uninspired, it’s also mute.

I then called Jesus – the tech genius – who spent over an hour with me remotely logged into my laptop and rechecking all variables in the Sonore setup (trust me here, there’s plenty). I then, under Jesus’ guidance pulled the box apart to see if anything was awry. All looked good and the unit had tested perfectly before being shipped. This call was to be the first of perhaps a dozen calls , Jesus would have with me. Through all of this and various helpful inputs from Ron Cornelius and Chuck Hinton at Mac (who were all very supportive), I’m thinking the probable weak link here is the Sonore. A second Cardas cable was tried but still no voices. Adrian and Jesus remained 110% convinced it was a Mac issue and were standing by their components and build quality.

Back to Florida

The only real way to resolve this was to ship this puppy home and plug it into an MX150 there. Chuck Hinton promptly volunteered to send the Sonore chaps an MX150 (how cool is that?) and back for a short Florida holiday, went the Sonore. Within days Adrian, I think it was, popped up with an only just discernible “told you so” tone, to confirm that my box was fine and they’d traced the problem to what appears to be a non-standard config on the MX150 input. Without going into insomniac arresting detail, from what I understand, the hot signal and ground were non-standard on the McIntosh implementation and no configuration tweak we attempt would resolve it. Within a few days I had a confirmation from Adrian, cost/time to have Cardas perform a minor modification of my AES/EBU wire – something like 6 days and 80 bucks. About 10 days later DHL was grinning through my front door. Another really nice touch here before I forget: Jesus kindly offered as a gesture of goodwill, installation of newly available sotm sata filters (these cunning little devices contain/substantially eliminate unhelpful noise generated by the HDD’s before they get to your music signal) plus an upgraded bunch of firmware. Nice

Take 2

Plugged it all in, lit it again, fired up MPaD, selected an album, selected a track a voila, noise. But not just any noise; arresting noise, immediately discernible with purposeful authority, intricacy and presence. It was at this point I’m thinking all that research was time well spent and that I’m going to enjoy getting to know and living with my Sonore for many years to come.

A year on…

Almost 12 months on, I’m still revelling in just how good this thing is. From the subtlest of highs to bass so effortless and enveloping and everything in between, the sound is crisp, sharp, detailed, delivering microscopically detailed soundstages with aplomb and where until now, they hadn’t existed. The highs are particularly intricate with effortless detail delivered so crisply that I’ve often looked at the top of my speakers, wondering, “how could you have made that sound?" (the bell in the MASH theme song for eg.). Of course Mssrs. Mac and Revel could stake a valid claim over responsibility here and while that’s of course true too, it all starts with the source. That’s why they call it the source.

To now engage so conveniently with my entire music collection via a robust, beautiful GUI and a “so close to perfect, who gives a toss?, sonic quality” source, is indeed a revelation; ability to handle all your Redbook standard CD’s at 44.1 kHz and all the way up to the new, increasingly prevalent “high resolution” 96kHz and 192kHz material, immediate, down to track level access to all of my collection, browse and search via album covers, tracks, artists, genres, etc., on the fly playlist creation – that you can sit down for 5 mins a create your perfect, occasion specific playlist is just awesome. And with almost 3000 watts of Mac power available, the neighbours are just loving it to bits too. Bless them. As an unexpected bonus it also outputs my several multi-channel (WAV and DTS files) with outstanding authority over all 6 channels, which the neighbours just love too.

So your takeaways here are:

1. Throw out all of you CD’s – medium is dead, loose em
2. Sorry – re-digitise them first (EAC / FLAC) - yes it’s tedious, if you have capacity to outsource the learning curve, pay the kid next door to do it (EAC/FLAC with all tags and album art) and then loose em.
3. Computer based audio is the only way forward; it’s moved on now to the point where sonic attributes can easily exceed those of more conventional, traditional sources. You’ve already bought your last CD. Notice how all the heavy hitters of the Hifi industry are now doing CA; they all have different/proprietary names for it, but open any of their boxes and you’ll find essentially the same PC based architecture wrapped around audiophile grade power supplies and other components.
4. Also check out – EAC, Jaikoz, MPaD, VLC, iTracks
5. The beauty in the Sonore is in its purity, simplicity and robustness – designed, engineered, purpose built for task, nothing else. It’s also an open platform where no proprietary surprises lurk. Yes it’s a complex beast but Jesus and the end product shield you from all of that. You just plug it in and turn it on as a preconfigured black box and your bragging at work the next day. Your laptop sees it as simply another drive, where you can drag/drop folders.
6. Macintosh support is legendary. Thanks to Ron Cornelius and Chuck Hinton, lovely work guys.
7. Quality/Bang for buck ? Under any objective measure the Sonore is the “AMG Black” of the class and without knowing it, probably defines the genre today. With criteria restricted to devices that “just store/output music”, I challenge anyone to offer a demonstrably superior platform at any price.
8. And finally, Sonore guys are exceptional. They take great pride in their craft and cheerfully go above and beyond what could reasonably be expected; hey I had Jesus working Sundays there for a while. They’re small, devoted pioneers within what will later be more mainstream acknowledgment of this as a transition period and deserve our support.

The MX150 rocks. On a totally unrelated tangent, the MX150 has an uncanny ability to absorb stereo input (TV/STB) and via some very ingenious up-sampling, transform it into startlingly accurate 5.1, (shoved out via the MC452 2X 450w and the MC303 3X 300w) curiously isolating voice/dialogue to feed the centre channel, whilst presenting a discernible L&R and preserving enough nuances for rear effects. It’s really quite extraordinary and I’m not sure Mac itself even knows just how good it is.

Your turn…

Anyway, if you’ve delayed diving in to CA because it’s well you know, all a bit much, it’s time to get off your bum; the only tedious bit is getting your CD collection migrated – once done though, everything else sort of falls into place. Ohhh and another thing, don’t be a tosser and rip to MP3’s when 2 Gigs runs 100 bucks. I mean, really. Go to a Lossless only format, totally ignore all the WAV verus FLAC ping pong and go directly to FLAC, (EAC is the gear), also consider your folder structure, naming conventions, etc. before commencing and ensure you ID tag everything correctly as you go (Jaikoz). Once done, trust me you’ll love me for this tip.

This article would have helped me immensely 12 months ago when starting out in search of a clearer understanding of all this. I humbly submit it as the foundation for yours.

Jim Nuzum
Sydney, Aug 2012
Tags: sonore