Canned Music Servers: Replacement or Supplemental
In the first part of this series I briefly discussed canned and custom music servers giving a couple pros and cons of each solution. Part II of this series is all about canned / turnkey music servers.
Most audiophiles just want to listen to great sounding music and possibly admire a great looking hi-end system. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a canned music server that fits into an existing system so well your spouse won't even notice. There are two categories of canned music servers. I call them replacement and supplemental music servers. A replacement music server is one that replaces an existing CD player completely. An example of a replacement music server is the McIntosh MS series, MS300 & MS750. These units are basically McIntosh CD players with the additional capacity to store music on a hard drive and present an on-screen display. Supplemental music servers do exactly what the name implies. They are an add-on to existing hi-end systems leaving the current disc player in its place. Supplemental music servers include units by Sooloos, Qsonix, and ReQuest. These music servers have more in common with computers than CD players. They often have 17" touch-screen monitors, built-in RAID arrays, and the (limited) ability to add disk space. Whether it is a replacement or supplemental music server, the main selling point over custom systems is simplicity.
Replacement music servers are the most popular option for audiophiles right now. These servers fit nicely into existing equipment racks and can make it hard to tell the difference between the music server and the disc player it replaced. Replacement music servers are often manufactured by hi-end companies like McIntosh, Linn, Arcam, and YBA. These servers use very good DACs and usually have the same outputs on the back as traditional components. This allows audiophiles to use their existing interconnect cables. The on-screen display is usually an existing TV and the remote is often very similar to a standard CD player remote. In general audiophiles who purchase these units consider all of these features to be pros. What about the cons of these music servers? The one that really makes these servers less attractive is the lack of reasonable expansion and backup options. The McIntosh MS300 has a single 300 GB internal hard drive. The Arcam music server also has a single drive. The only way to add disk space to the McIntosh unit is to buy another one and connect the two! I have heard that the hard drive can be replaced with a larger unit, but this is not supported by McIntosh and involves cloning the disk. Backing up the disk is also a little archaic to me. Users can connect to the Content file on the MS300 and copy all the music from there to another computer. Hmm, I'm thinking the audiophile with $5000 to spend on a small 300 GB music server is not going to do this. The Arcam unit is a little easier to back up. It has a USB 2.0 port on the front as well as the back to connect an external disk. The user then navigates through the menu options and selects archive. Fortunately this unit support incremental backups to shorten the time need to accomplish this. There are many other features on all replacement music servers. This is just an introduction to the features that differentiate them from supplemental servers and to a certain extent custom music servers.
Supplemental music servers seemed to be gaining in popularity with both audiophiles and whole house music fans. I consider these music servers to be add-ons to an existing hi-end system because their strong points are convenience, library management, visual display and selection, and Internet music purchasing etc... As I said earlier, these servers are much more like computers then CD players. In general the sound from these units doesn't compare to that of a hi-end disc player. This is because the internal DAC of these music servers is not top-of-the-line. While it is suggested to use an external DAC, I still think critical listening will be done on an existing disc player. I am expecting some push-back on that statement. But, for now I am sticking by it. CES 2008 is approaching and I hope to see these music servers replacing hi-end single disc players with equal or greater sound quality. I am open minded about this because the situation is so fluid. Technology is just like the music industry, "here today - gone today." That was a re-worked quote from Chris Rock's opening monologue from the MTV Music Awards several years back. It sounded so much funnier when he said it. I consider music servers like the Sooloos system to be the Bentley of music servers. This supplemental music server has a great software interface that exceeds most of the replacement music servers discussed earlier. The appearance of this system would make anyone "add to cart" if they could afford the ~$13,000 starting price. The disk expansion options are available without purchasing a completely new system like the McIntosh. The built-in RAID 1 disk mirroring is one of the biggest strong points of this unit. There is no user interaction required. When a disk fails there is no down time. When it is replaced it automatically synchronizes with the good disk. This type of functionality is not readily available in replacement music servers. There are always exceptions of course. The Sooloos system and competing supplemental music servers are what I would call "inexperienced user" proof. Anyone can see a the album cover of Pearl Jam's Ten and tap the screen to play it. Unfortunately not everyone can navigate the on-screen menus of the replacement music servers. This (cough) may (cough) be another selling point of the Sooloos type systems in that both spouses will have no trouble using it. One more thing, Sooloos will preload your music for you. Sure there is a price for this, but you must consider the value of your time. That is the type of service one can expect with a unit like this.
It is pretty clear that music loving audiophiles should have no hesitation about purchasing a hi-end canned music server. They range from simple to simpler, $5,000 to $13,000 and up. The convenience and ease of use can't be beat. With a canned music server all you have to do is purchase, plug, and play.
In Part III of this series I will discuss custom music servers, both desktop and fully integrated hi-end systems. If you want a little more control and flexibility, plus a few other options not found in canned systems you'll want to read Part III.
Music Servers: Canned or Custom (Part I)
Music Servers: Canned or Custom (Part III)