Who & What
The Sonore Music Servers are very customizable, both hardware and software, and require very little computer knowledge. The servers are designed and assembled here in the U.S. and shipped to customers all over the world. A few months ago I worked with Simple Design to come up with a Sonore Music Server customized to meet my needs for this review. We exchanged several emails discussing my storage, digital audio output, and software requirements, and available remote control options. A short time later I had the server in place and Simple Design only an email or phone call away to answer any questions. In a way I feel sorry for Simple Design because I'm sure I asked more questions and invented more implausible scenarios than many customers combined. I guess that's what happens when a company has personal customer service. People actually use it. I can't imagine contacting Apple to discuss externally clocking a Lynx AES16 card inside a Mac Pro. That's exactly what I did with Simple Design. My original requirements didn't include using an external word clock for the Lynx card inside the Sonore Music Server, but I asked for it anyway after the fact. An hour later I had the capability to externally clock the Lynx AES16 and a button within the software interface to synchronize the clock without leaving my chair. The whole thing reminds me of Field of Dreams. If you build it they will come. If you provide personal customer service people will us it.
Who is the Sonore Music Server for? As I touched on in the opening paragraph this server is great for computer audiophiles looking to set it and forget it. There's a lot to be said about using a music server day-in day-out and not worrying about bit perfect output, volume controls, software updates, auto sample rate changes, ASIO, WASAPI, Kernel Streaming, firewalls, viruses, background services, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, etc… The Sonore Music Server is also great for computer audiophiles who have good technical knowledge of Windows/Mac but lack the desire or technical chops to build this type of appliance-like server on their own. There are likely many computer audiophiles who would benefit from using a Sonore Music Server so don't consider the aforementioned groups of people as a definitive list.
The Sonore Music Server delivered for review is roughly (L)19" x (W)18" x (H)3". The all aluminum chassis is nothing like a standard PC that's comprised of different plastics. The front panel of this HD-Plex case is a thick piece of silver aluminum without any of the standard unsightly USB, FireWire, or audio ports so commonly found on other computers. The rest of the chassis is solid black with heat dissipating fins running vertically the length of each side. My one complaint about the case is its size. I don't mind the 18" width or 3" height but the 19" length, not including any cables protruding form the rear, may be a bit too deep for some installations using a standard audio component racks. During the last couple weeks I've been using the Sonore server with an Esoteric D-07 DAC. The D-07 ((L)13-5/8" x (W)17-3/8" x (H)4-1/16") rests comfortably on top of the Sonore server with plenty or room to spare. Fortunately Simple Design has smaller case options available, also sourced from HD-Plex, should the 19" length be an issue. The power supply for this server is an external brick style PSU. The PSU's cord running to the server is captive to the external supply while the cord connecting the PSU to a power outlet can be removed and replaced if desired. The external PSU and heat dissipating aluminum fins enable the Sonore Music Server to operate completely fanless and nearly silent. Internally the server has a series of heat pipes that transfer heat away from the central processing unit (CPU) to the external cooling fins. A traditional music server has a series of heatsinks and fans that suck room temperature air in and blow hot air out. These fans frequently produce more noise than any other computer component.
The only sound emanating from the Sonore Music Server was the spinning one terabyte hard disk drive (HDD) used for music storage. In order to hear the hard drive I had to place my ear near the ventilation perforations on top of the server's case. I could not hear the hard drive any other way in my very quiet dedicated listening room. Other components in this Sonore server included a 30 gigabyte OCZ solid state drive (SSD) for the operating system, 2 GB of Random Access Memory (RAM), internal full size disc drive, Intel Dual-Core Pentium processor, integrated graphics controller, Gigabit Ethernet controller, and for digital audio output a Lynx AES16 card. I connected an external USB hard drive to backup music contained on the internal terabyte drive.
Astute Computer Audiophile readers may have noticed that a Lynx audio card is used in this server even though Lynx only provides Windows and OS X device drivers. Simple Design worked with 4Front Technologies to obtain an Open Sound System driver compatible with the Lynx AES16. There aren't many commercial music servers available that use a Lynx AES16 card without using Windows or OS X. In fact I can't think of any off the top of my head. Not only did Simple Design get the Lynx card working in the Sonore server it was able to configure the card for external clocking upon request. This was ideal as the Esoteric D-07 DAC has word clock in/output. I was able to send word clock out of the D-07 into the Lynx card in the Sore Music Server. This configuration resulted in improved sound quality over the more traditional Lynx music server configuration.
During the review period when using the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, that does not have word clock in/outputs, I used a Simple Design provided 2.5 meter Cardas HD26 to XLR AES/EBU cable specifically designed for use with a Lynx AES16 card. Compared to the standard Lynx eight channel breakout cable the Cardas AES cable is a nice improvement.
Simple Design elected to use what is called Vortexbox as the music server software for the Sonore servers. Vortextbox is an open source bundle of applications and features that enable the Sonore Music Server to operate with such simplicity.
Note: Vortexbox is to Linux as Microsoft Office is to Windows. Vortextbox has its main competencies as does Microsoft Office. Each software "Suite" allows additional applications to enhance the computer's operation as a whole. Vortexbox allows applications like Squeezebox Server, TwonkeyMedia Server, and Sonos Web. Microsoft Office allows applications like Outlook, Access, and Publisher to complete the whole package.
Vortexbox features an auto-ripper, using the Musicbrainz online database, to lookup, label, and rip CDs upon insertion into the server. This is a really nice feature as it allowed me to mindlessly swap CDs into the server while tending to other business at the same time. No monitor, mouse, or keyboard required. The auto-ripper works as designed. One should keep in mind that there's no such thing as a perfect ripping application and the Vortexbox is no exception. More important to me is how easy it is to correct misidentified or unidentified albums and incorrect or nonexistent cover art. This gives rise to two schools of thought. The first is that a music server should be an all-in-one machine that enables the user to do anything and everything simply. The second school of thought is that a music server should concentrate on playing music and exclude items that don't further this goal. Given the pros and cons most people would likely end up somewhere in the middle between the everything and virtually nothing approach. This middle ground is where the Vortexbox software resides. The auto-ripper is very nice but the album metadata editing capability leaves much to be desired. Vortexbox has a built-in feature to "Get Cover Art" and also allows use of the third party Bliss application through the Vortexbox interface. Bliss is pretty good at finding the correct cover art but is a one trick pony. Cover art is all Bliss does, no tagging or editing of tags allowed. In addition to Bliss an application for editing tags called Subsonic can be used within the Vortexbox interface. Subsonic is not my first choice for tag editing as its interface is rudimentary at best. In this situation it's best to leave tag editing to the experts and not recreate the wheel by adding more features to Vortexbox. The experts in this case are applications like MP3Tag and dBpoweramp. After using the built-in apps I used dBpoweramp to edit tags on my Sonore Music Server by connecting to the server via Windows Explorer on my PC. Without a doubt dBp was the way to go for me.
Another way to get music on to the Sonore Music Server is to rip CDs using dBpoweramp and output the files directly to the Sonore server. Readers who've already ripped their music collections will be please to know a simple file copy from an existing drive to the Sonore server is all that's necessary. Although these methods are not as automated I'm sure Simple Design can walk its customers though any issues encountered during the process.
PLAYBACK / CONTROL
Simple Design includes two fairly standard playback and remote control options. The first option is Squeezebox Server. Users of Logitch Squeezebox devices will be familiar with the web browser interface. The nice part about this software is there's no Squeezebox required. Squeezebox software views the Sonore server just like a Squeezebox and allows all the same functionality from playback to library browsing to iPhone remote control. The web browser interface includes very basic library navigation and does just enough to get the job done. Remember, the Sonore music server approach is not about endless options or customization. It's more about offering a plug n' play, works every time, somewhat guided listening experience. This is how appliances work. There's only so many adjustments one can make to a toaster, but the toaster works every time. In addition to the Squeezebox web interface it's possible to use the Squeezebox Server friendly iPhone application iPeng ($ 9.99). iPeng functions very much like the Apple Remote application for iTunes. It's a simple interface to the Squeezebox Server running on the Sonore system. While it appears that Squeezebox Server is handling the audio from start to finish, it's actually handing the audio off to the Music Player Daemon. This is a very smart configuration as evidenced by MPD's benefits below.
The second playback option uses Music Player Daemon running locally on the server with the MPoD iPhone application ($ Free) as the only user interface. Music Player Daemon (MPD) is a very light weight minimalist type of application that runs on the Sonore server. Users don't have to know anything about it or even remember its name. Open Source Software fans are very familiar with MPD and know it as one of the most popular and well supported playback packages. MPD itself is highly customizable with settings such as direct output to an audio card, DSP, resampling, and memory buffering. Simple Design takes care of all these settings for the customer by configuring MPD, and the rest of the server, so it performs at its sonic best. Since I already had MPoD installed on my iPhone controlling MPD on the Sonore Server was simple from the moment it arrived. Using a Sonore Music Server running MPD and controlling it via MPoD can be a refreshing experience. The user doesn't have to worry about configuring the operating system or playback application for bit perfect output or worry about the server going into sleep mode or any number of possible distractions common to users of Mac and Windows based machines. In fact audiophiles new to the music server experience will likely get along better with the Sonore sever than experienced PC or Mac users. This is because the new users have no preconceived notions of what "should" happen or how servers work in other systems. There won't be any over-thinking or outsmarting oneself when trying to play music. Change can be hard for people. If one isn't changing from one music server to another this lack of change will equate to a much smoother ride. Toward the end of this review period I asked Simple Design to totally reset the server. I wanted to experience everything as a new user with a clean slate one more time. This was surprisingly simple. The first time I started using the server I was all over it pushing buttons, figuratively, and trying all kinds of configuration changes. It wasn't long before I lost track of where I was because I had over complicated the whole experience. Upon the server reset I was back in the swing of things with a couple mouse clicks.
One of the Sonore Music Server features I want to highlight is its backup capability. My server was configured with a single one terabyte drive for music storage. If this drive failed I would have had to rerip far too many CDs. Fortunately the Vortexbox software includes a simple way to backup one's music. Connect a USB drive and select the Backup button from within the Backup web page and that's it. Each time the backup button is selected Vortexbox mirrors the internal drive to the external USB drive. There are a couple reasons why I like the way this works. First, after the initial full backup all subsequent backups are very quick. The backup software only copies new or changed tracks to the backup disk and removes deleted tracks from the backup disk. This type of backup is nothing new, but it's nice to see Vortexbox enable this so simply. The second reason why I like this backup implementation is that it's a manual process. I know many readers' eyes just enlarged to the size of dinner plates because I usually sing the praises of automated backup. We must keep in mind there's a time and place for everything. The major benefit of this manual backup procedure is that it allows the user to recover from their own deletion errors easily. An often overlooked cause of data loss is user error. This is usually through accidental deletion or data modification. Since the Vortexbox backup is manual a user who has lost data and hasn't performed a manual backup can easily recover the lost information from the backup disk. If the backup process was automated the external drive would have mirrored the internal drive upon some preset schedule and the data would have been gone forever. Sure there's a chance the user could have retrieved this lost data from the backup copy before the automated backup deleted it for good, but the chances are greater when the backup process is manual. Despite common belief computers don't error often. Automated daily backup of a fairly simple music server would likely run unhindered for months. I can guarantee I wouldn't remember to manually backup my server on this type of flawless schedule.
Of course there is a chance of drive failure before one has backed up via the manual process. If I were a betting man I'd bet on human failure every time over mechanical or electrical drive failure. One piece to this backup puzzle that I would have liked to see is a simple restore button. This button could be setup to mirror the data from the external USB drive to the internal hard drive. I can see many benefits of this simple restore procedure, one being a massive file delete/move/copy issue. A couple times I've been browsing my music collection via Windows Explorer and accidentally either copied or moved a whole $#*!-load of files to folders I didn't know existed and still don't know exist. Since it's nearly impossible to retrace one's steps after a panic ridden attempted recovery from this type of error it would be very nice to click a restore button and have everything put back in its rightful place. This lack of a restore button is not the fault of Simple Design as it didn't create the Vortexbox software. However, I know Simple Design has tremendous pull with Andrew the creator of Vortexbox and I believe this option could be implemented with a little nudge from the Simple Design team.
Using the Sonore Music Sever daily for several weeks I slipped into a comfortable groove. Automated CD ripping was easy. Using the Musicbrainz online database lookup was probably as accurate as many similar programs. Within my sample set of ripped discs were a few softballs that were easily identified as well as Mobile Fidelity releases, odd double disc sets, and some standard audiophile fare Scottish nose whistle albums. For the most part I was satisfied with the CD lookup performance. Some Mobile Fidelity album covers were properly embedded into the FLAC files while others were identified as the standard CD release. Such is life in an imperfect world. If the Sonore server cost ten thousand dollars and promised perfect metadata I may have a different perspective. Every day listening was a fun experience. Getting used to not thinking about little operating system idiosyncrasies and not thinking about iTunes or J River annoyances was weird at first. I felt like I should have more to do than just listen to music. As Metallica said, Sad But True. I can honestly say there wasn't one single incident that required me to reboot the server, other than configuration changes in which I initiated and assumed a reboot was necessary. There was no need to have a keyboard, mouse, and monitor at the ready. In fact there is nothing the average user can do with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor connected to the Sonore Music Server.
The sound quality produced via the Sonore Music Server's Lynx digital output is great. There's definitely a benefit to a low overhead operating system and a low jitter audio card. Even though I used an external word clock for some of the best listening sessions it certainly isn't a requirement to produce sound quality on par with the best Windows and Mac based servers. If I had to place the sound of the Sonore Music Server on a continuum with Mac and Windows servers I'd place it closer to the Mac systems. In my experience many mac systems sound a bit softer and tube-like than PC systems. Neither Mac nor PC systems, when at their best, are near the poles of mushy or harsh. The Sonore system is no silver bullet that hits the bull's eye every time. It's merely a great sounding server that rests between the sound of a Mac and a PC but closer to the Mac than anything.
Like any high end audio purchase one must consider the pros and cons of the Sonore Music Server. On the plus side I consider the absolute ease of bit perfect playback at all sample rates and the appliance-like nature of the system as overwhelming positives. Possible negatives include the lack of a built-in solid metadata editor, fear of an unknown operating system for some users, and a chassis that may be a bit too large. None of these are show stoppers in my book. Perhaps the single question potential purchasers should ask themselves is this, "Do I want to give up control for the simplicity of an appliance-like server or do I want to retain control to configure and install any piece of software I desire?" There's no right or wrong answer to this question. Throughout this review I made an effort to mention the Linux operating system by name as infrequently as possible. By doing this I hope to convey that music servers of this type are something entirely different from DIY geek machines. This review is not about Linux versus OS X versus Windows. It's about a final product that offers something audiophiles are seeking. Interested or hesitant audiophiles will be happy to know Simple Design is taking part in Rocky Mountain Audiofest 2010. At RMAF curious consumers can bring in their own
Manufacturer - Simple Design
Price - Sonore Music Server - $1999 [Product Page]
Price - Cardas 2.5m HD26-XLR Cable - $329 [Product Page]
Sonore Music Server Manual *[Link]
Verity Audio Fidelio loudspeakers, McIntosh MC275 amplification, Richard Gray's Power Company High Tension Wires, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, Wavelength Audio Proton, Esoteric D-07 DAC, C.A.P.S. server, Bel Canto USB Link, Halide Design Bridge, dCS Debussy DAC, dCS Puccini U-Clock, Kimber USB Cu, Kimber USB Ag, Benchmark DAC1 PRE, Kimber Select KS1011 Analog Cables, Kimber Select KS2020 Digital Cable, Kimber Monocle X Loudspeaker Cable, ASUS Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim, Apple iPad, Sonic Studio's Amarra, M2Tech hiFace, Weiss Engineering DAC202, Lynx Studio AES16 Digital I/O Card.