The day I arrived home from CES the fanless mCubed hFX Music Server from End PC Noise was sitting on my front step. The temperature here in Minnesota was -20 degrees Fahrenheit and it was snowing heavily. I unboxed the music server and literally could not hold it in my hands. It was like handling a solid block of ice with thick aluminum fins on the sides. After a twenty-four hour warm up period everything was ready to rock.
Every audiophile who has ever read the traditional high-end audio magazines has seen the name Goodwin's High End countless times. Goodwin's is one of the most respected audio dealers in the U.S. and it carries some of the most highly regarded brands in the business. With products from Magico, Spectral, dCS, and Berkeley Audio Design on its shelves and decades of audio experience Goodwin's is as good as it gets.
Most audiophiles have never heard of End PC Noise even though they've wanted to silence their noisy PC for many years. End PC Noise has been around for quite a while and has earned a solid reputation as one of the go-to places to purchase quiet and silent computers. Fortunately End PC Noise isn't only a place for geeks who can piece together their own music server. It offers turnkey music servers, home theater PCs, digital audio workstations, and even customized quiet XBox 360s.
This collaboration between Goodwin's High End and End PC Noise is perfect for audiophile consumers. Each business sticks to what it does best and the customer benefits. Building and servicing silent computers is not the business of Goodwin's while at the same time End PC Noise is certainly no high-end audio dealer. I'll take a wild guess here and bet that neither company wants to get into the other's line of work.
How It Works
1. Order the music server from EndPCNoise.com.
2. The music server is built by End PC Noise and shipped to Goodwin's High End.
3. Goodwin's installs, configures, and tests a Lynx AES16 with MediaMonkey as the playback application.
4. Goodwin's ships the music server directly to the customer.
Audiophiles seeking an End PC Noise silent music server have two options. One is based on a Zalman TNN300 tower chassis identical to the server I built that was used in the TAD suite at CES. According to Zalman the TNN300 case has been discontinued for several months. If you want this style of music server I suggest you order soon before the well runs dry. The other option offered by End PC Noise, and the subject of this review, is the fanless mCubed hFX Music Server. This unit is styled like a traditional horizontal audio component and fits nicely in an audio rack. There are a few configuration options but ordering the default configuration is entirely adequate in my opinion. Once the order is placed End PC Noise will ship the music server within one to two weeks over to Goodwin's High End. At Goodwin's the Lynx AES16 is installed with the highly recommended legacy firmware and drivers. Goodwin's installs and configures MediaMonkey and tests each music server before it's shipped to the customer. The cost of the Lynx from Goodwin's is $695 and the installation fee is a flat rate of $500. At the customer's request Goodwin's also offers Network Attached Storage (NAS) units to suit the customer's disk space requirements. This may be very desirable for customers with more than fifty CDs as the solid state drive in thehFX music server will not hold a complete collection. This music server should be thought of as a transport only, that requires external storage and an external DAC.
I elected to have End PC Noise send the hFX music server directly to me because I already have a couple Lynx cards and configuring the software is a piece of cake since I have done it a hundred times. It is also entirely possible to use this music server without a Lynx card. The server has built-in HDMI , S/PDIF (optical), FireWire 400, and USB ports. Each one of these ports is completely capable of outputting an audio stream although not all ports operate at the same level with this hFX music server.
Block of Frozen Aluminum
As I mentioned earlier, the hFX music server was awaiting my arrival home from CES in January and sitting outside on my front door step. The unit was a heavy block of frozen aluminum when I removed it from several layers of boxes and packing material. I guarantee I could have reproduced the famous scene from A Christmas Story when Ralphie's friend Flick succumbs to a "triple dog dare" and sticks his tongue to a flag pole in the middle of Winter (Video). The hFX music server is built like a smallish power amp with its thick aluminum fins attached to the sides. The edges are somewhat sharp and serrated. It's a good thing this server can be placed in a component rack and left there for good. I moved it to a couple locations in my listening room and my hands suffered each time I lifted the unit. As the photos depict the hFX has a minimalist exterior that lends itself well to an audiophile's equipment rack. In addition the front slot loading CD drive on the hFX unit is a really nice touch. I doubt any of us want to look at an unsightly Dell or HP spreadsheet machine while we listen to our favorite songs. A big reason thehFX music server is able to operate without fans is the external power supply. This removes a substantial amount of heat from the chassis and allows a smaller chassis with less sizable heat-sinks. The external power supply is fanless and connects to thehFX music server via a captive 48" power cord. The power supply then connects to a standard outlet with a ubiquitous removable cord. This is my only major complaint with this unit. Captive power cords limit options. I'm not interested in upgrading to an audiophile power cable, but I can envision moving the external PSU further than four feet from the rack location of the music server. This isn't a showstopper and it's likely that mCubed , the manufacturer of the case, can offer a longer captive cable. Of course this leads to a bundle of cable if one ever wants to move the PSU close to the server, but at least the option is available. My one minor complaint with the mCubed hFX Music Server that I received from End PC Noise is that the BIOS was not configured correctly for a fanless music server. One of two options must be set in the BIOS for a fanless music server to boot without user intervention. Either the option to pause and require the user to hit F1 upon errors must be disabled, or all fan monitoring must be disabled. The server I received had both of these options enabled. The end result was a message on the screen every time I rebooted. FAN ERROR! Hit F1 To Continue. Not only was the message annoying, but it required that I get up and hit F1 on the keyboard to continue loading Windows XP. After a few reboots I entered the BIOS and made the changes myself to enable a smooth boot sequence.
Note: After this review was published End PC Noise informed me that the BIOS configuration was correctly done prior to shipment and must have reset between the time it left the facility and the time I powered the music server up in my system. I'm guessing the extreme temperatures had something to do with this problem. - Ed.
Upon boot up the silence of the hFX music server is appreciated immediately. The only noise to come out of the music server is from the CD-ROM drive. This noise last about one second and is pretty much unnoticeable. Without a monitor connected to this music server most people wouldn't know it's powered on. It takes a while to get used to a computer working without any noise. Them Cubed hFX Music Server from End PC Noise comes with Windows XP pre-installed. I had to enter my name, the license key code, and a couple other items before entering Windows. This sure beats installing XP from scratch. I installed MediaMonkey and connected to my 5 TB Thecus 5200B Pro NAS drive as soon as Windows loaded. This is not a special version of Windows XP so there is no need to discuss the ins and outs of the operating system. I will say the music server arrived without any software "tweaks" such as disabling services and unloading unneeded programs. This was as I expected because I did not ask for anything other than Windows XP. (End PC Noise informed me that Goodwin's High End does this configuration should the user decide to have it shipped to Goodwin's. - Ed.) To my surprise the mCubed hFX Music Server did not run hot to the touch even though all the heat escaped via the chassis and a few holes in the case. This is a really nice bonus for audiophiles putting the music server in a component rack with other heat producing components.
The installation of my Lynx AES16 digital I/O card was very uneventful. (If you don't want to bother with this install Goodwin's High End will do it all for you.) Once this was finished the music server had three interfaces I used for this review, TosLink, USB, and AES/EBU. I began with the S/PDIF TosLink interface connected directly to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC. This interface was a major headache for me. No matter what I tried I could not get bit perfect output via TosLink. Adding to my displeasure with this interface was the fact that I couldn't get auto-sample rate recognition working either. I believe the cause of these problems was the ASUS/Realtek HD Audio software. First, the software required manual sample rate adjustments. Second, even when the sample rate was correct and all the features of the software were disabled the digital output was still not bit perfect. After several hours I moved on to the other interfaces. I used the USB interface on the hFX music server exclusively with the Bel Canto USB Link. The USB Link converts USB to S/PDIF coax. This allowed me to keep my Alpha DAC and the rest of the system constant. Using MediaMonkey and the USB Link brought me back to the listening experience I was used to. Browsing my NAS device for music, clicking on tracks with different sample rates, and seeing my Alpha DAC read the correct sample rate every time was very nice. Without the beta version of Sonic Studio's Amarra my beloved Mac Pro can't even adjust the sample rate on the fly. The USB interface performed as I thought it would, flawless. Then I moved on to my reference interface the Lynx Studio AES16 digital I/O card with custom HD26 to XLR AES cable. Using this configuration I was able to output bit perfect music from 16/44.1 up to 24/192 and every sample rate in between. Auto sample rate recognition was flawless as well and my listening experience was wonderful. A silent music server with an ultra low jitter source and high resolution audio is tough to surpass. However, comparing the End PC Noise built mCubed hFX Music Server to the Zalman TNN300 that I built from scratch yielded an interesting result. Sonically I prefer the Zalman TNN300 over the hFX server. There was something I can't readily identify missing from sound of the hFX music server. My Zalman is not perfect by any means, but I have no doubt it sounds better than the mCubed hFX Music Server. This certainly does not mean the mCubed hFX Music Server is incapable of sounding as good as my Zalman TNN300. Considering the two music servers have almost identical components I'm willing to bet it's all in the configuration. If I built themCubed hFX Music Server from the ground up, tweaking the BIOS and the OS from the beginning, I'm pretty confident the two would sound virtually indistinguishable. The main reason I did not undertake this reconfiguration is that I wanted to review the music server as it was delivered from the manufacturer and without the added cost of Goodwin's Lynx installation services.
The mCubed hFX Music Server is currently one of only a few silent fanless music servers for audiophiles. The hFX has a plethora of digital interfaces to connect this music server to a complete high-end system. Not all the interfaces perform equally but I have no doubt audiophiles will be able to find the one or two that suit their needs in terms of sonics and convenience.The build quality of the mCubed hFX Music Server is very good. If this music server was located in a traditional high-end audio store it wold not turn heads. The quality and unassuming looks make it fit right in with many existing high-end components, more so than the Zalman TNN300 tower style fanless server also offered by End PC Noise and Goodwin's High End. The absolute silence of this music server is what the one feature that separates it from the likes of Dell, HP, and Gateway etc... Many machines advertise extremely quiet or even silent operation, but these terms often fall into the category of marketing speak. The mCubed hFX Music Server from End PC Noise really is silent and has the makings of a fabulous music server that would fit nicely in an audiophile system.
More details about the mCubed hFX Music Server and purchasing information can be found at End PC Noise and Goodwin's High End.
Price of reviewed music server: $3000 w/o Lynx Card
Associated Equipment: Mac Pro, Lynx AES16e card, Zalman TNN300, Lynx AES16 card, Kimber USB cable, Cambridge Audio DacMagic, Weiss Engineering Minerva, Benchmark DAC1 PRE, Kimber Select cable, Avalon Acoustics speakers, Focal Electra Be series speakers, McIntosh tube amplification, Virtual Dynamics power cables, Richard Gray's Power Company cables, Bel Canto USB Link, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC.