Weiss Engineering MAN301 Music Archive Network Player Review
The MAN301 is an ambitious attempt by Weiss Engineering to create a music server capable of numerous digital and analog configurations and a totally unique user experience through its own custom iPad application. I applaud Weiss Engineering’s ambition and willingness to chart its own course in music server design rather than follow the herd. The MAN301’s ability to pull music from an unlimited amount of storage via Ethernet is great for music aficionados with gigantic multi-terabyte music collections. Weiss’ inclusion of its award winning DAC inside the MAN301 is also terrific for audiophiles looking to combine feature sets or reduce the number of boxes in their listening environments. In typical Weiss fashion the MAN301 features coarse analog and fine digital volume control, audio routing from digital in to digital out, digital in to analog out, Ethernet in to analog out, and many other configurations on several interfaces like RCA, XLR, S/PDIF, USB, and FireWire. As expected the Daniel Weiss designed audio features of the MAN301 are top notch. However the custom iPad application and music server functionality need a bit more fine tuning to make the product a competitor with the best solutions available. Fortunately in the several months since I received the MAN301 I updated its software a few times and was very pleased by the progress Weiss Engineering has made toward better features and improved functionality of existing features. Overall the Weiss Engineering MAN301 sounds very good and its functionality will only improve with time. [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
What is the MAN301?
Officially the device is called the MAN301 Base Station (user manual) or the MAN301 Music Archive Network Player (website). Right or wrong devices like the MAN301 have been termed music servers according to the computer audiophile lexicon. The appropriateness of the term music server as opposed to file player or network player is a conversation for another day. The MAN301 is close to an all-in-one computer audio solution but its external storage requirement precludes such a categorization. Despite its audio component looks the MAN301, like all other music servers, is a computer under the hood (image ). It uses an Intel motherboard with standard RAM and an SSD to hold the Ubuntu Linux operating system. The MAN301 design departs significantly from a traditional computer in other areas such as its high end power supplies (image 1 ) (image 2 ) and isolation between the digital to analog conversion section and the electrically noisy computer components.
The MAN301 at the most basic level is a preamp, DAC, CD player, and music server in one chassis. The DAC / preamp section of the MAN301 is nearly identical to the Weiss DAC202 that I raved about in my June, 2010 review . The MAN301 can be operated in two different modes, preamp mode or network player mode. In preamp mode the user can take advantage of audio routing by using the MAN301 as a volume control between two devices (digital in and digital out) or the user can configure the unit as a digital to analog converter (DAC) routing audio from the digital inputs to the analog outputs. I can’t imagine many computer audiophiles purchasing the MAN301 to use strictly in preamp mode or like a CD player, but Weiss Engineering has given users the capability should it be required.
Throughout the review period I used the MAN301 in network player mode only. In this mode music files are usually pulled from a Network Attached Storage (NAS) unit via wired Ethernet, converted to analog by the MAN301’s DAC, and sent out via XLR or RCA analog outputs. The specific configuration I used during the review is detailed below. In network player mode it’s also possible to setup the MAN301 in several different ways such as using a USB stick or FireWire drive to store one’s music or sending audio out to a USB converter of one’s choice. In simple terms the MAN301 accepts music files from Ethernet, USB or FireWire hard drives while in network player mode. Once a music file has entered the MAN301 it can be attenuated in the digital and analog domains. The coarse analog volume control can be set to 0 dB, -10 dB, -20 dB, or -30 dB. If using the Weiss DAC202 as a standalone DAC one would use the coarse analog attenuator to set the output voltage typically at 2 Vrms, 4 Vrms, or 6 Vrms. The MAN301 uses the same concept but instead of voltage it displays dB. After the analog attenuation is configured to operate optimally with an amplifier or even preamp the fine digital volume control can be used to make smaller adjustments than its analog counterpart. These two volume controls are not readily available to the listener and are not meant to be used as part of one’s everyday use. To access these controls one must enter the User Preferences setup area. When listening to music one should use the main volume fader located in the lower right corner of the iPad application. I must admit to being a bit confused by all the volume controls and capabilities of the MAN301. The coarse analog and fine digital attenuators are standard fare just like the DAC202. However the main volume fader confuses me as it isn’t connected to the fine digital attenuator. I my simplistic mind the main volume fader visible in the iPad playback application should operate the fine digital control once major adjustments have been made using the coarse analog control. This is how the DAC202 operates. Shortly before publishing this review I received an email from Daniel Weiss about the attenuators. Daniel described it to me like this, “Think of it as three attenuators in series: the analog, the digital trim and the digital main fader. With high precision math this no problem sonically of course.”
The following paragraph about volume control is from the MAN301 user manual. CA readers may find this more helpful than my explanation (or not).
“The main volume fader in the network player window is always active as can be seen in the block diagram. The digital volume trim can be enabled individually for each out- put. The DAC output in addition has a 4 level analog output attenuator. This, in conjunction with the digital volume trim, allows to set the output voltage to any level requirement imposed by the subsequent amplifier. The best procedure to set the DAC output level is to first have the digital volume trim and the player fader at maximum and then set the analog attenuator such that the level is a bit at the high side of the volume you would like to get at maximum. Then change the digital volume trim to get the level you would like to have at the maximum player fader setting. Bear in mind to allow for some headroom in case a recording is very low level.”
The MAN301 offers both analog XLR and RCA outputs. I sent the analog output to my Spectral DMC-30SS Series 2 preamp via MIT single ended RCA cables. In this configuration setting the coarse analog and fine digital volume controls to 0 dB and 100 respectively makes the most sense as Spectral’s Super Fader volume control is as good as any I’ve ever heard. Although I still used a preamp I was able to remove one box from my system because of the server / DAC combination. I really like the idea of putting a DAC in the same chassis as the music server but in practice I’m not sure it’s the most sonically ideal design. The sound quality from the MAN301 was very good, but not as good as I remember, albeit over two years ago, the standalone DAC202 when combined with a Mac or PC music server. On many of my favorite acoustic recordings such as Ottmar Leibert’s One Guitar at 24 bit / 96 kHz and Joe Pass’ Virtuoso (ripped XRCD) the sound was somewhat veiled. This pushed the fine details and decay I’ve heard through other systems behind an audible wall that separated me from an emotional connection with my music. Much of the rock music I played through the MAN301 sounded very good with a slight bit of flatness again removing the emotional element. Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged album at 16 bit / 48 kHz has several great moments I can visualize, such as Eddie Vedder writing the words pro choice on his arm with a black marker during the song Porch, when listening to a great HiFi system. The MAN301 just didn’t get me to that place where I stopped thinking and started visualizing the event in my mind. Both flatness and veiled sound are the two major strikes against the sound quality of the MAN301. I’m willing to bet audiophiles without the ability to hear many of the music servers on the market through very transparent electronics will not be bothered by the sonic issues I heard during the review. I’m being picky and pointing out what I consider flaws no matter how big or small and whether or not the flaw will be apparent in all systems. I have a suspicion the sonic issues may be related to this all-in-one style of design although I have no way to prove this hunch. Even though the DAC portion of the MAN301 is isolated from the rest of the server I don’t think it’s as isolated as a separate DAC202 and music server combination. I suppose it’s possible that separating the delicate analog circuits from the computer motherboard by using a separate chassis and physical space (MAN301 server edition only with separate DAC202) could sound better than the MAN301 Base Station. Again, the MAN301 sounds very good. Like every audio component it has flaws that may be improved.
MAN301 Requirements and My Configuration
Weiss Engineering created a terrific user manual that’s available as a PDF and an iBook for the iPad. This user manual is required reading. It’s nearly impossible to install the Weiss MAN app and fumble one’s way to music server success. The MAN301 Base Station requires an Apple iPad with the Weiss MAN application for configuration and control of music playback. There isn’t an iPhone or iPod Touch version of the app and there is no way to control the app from a Mac or PC. The MAN301 also requires a source of music files because the it contains no internal music storage. The source of files can be from USB, FireWire, or a NAS via wired Ethernet. I prefer NAS storage because I can eliminate hard drive noise by placing the NAS in another section of my home, it’s easily expandable if I run out of storage space, and it’s available to every device on my home network.
The MAN301 can be used in several different network architectures. The User Manual describes and displays a simplistic diagram for each architecture. I used the MAN301 in the following configuration that I believe is ideal for network based audio. All networks I design use the following architecture. In this configuration all time sensitive data movement flows through a very robust Cisco network switch without traversing the router or wireless access point. Wired and wireless routers / access points make very week switches. Many routers have four or five switch ports but the backbone of the router is generally oversubscribed meaning the maximum bandwidth of the router is far less than the sum of the port’s advertised bandwidth. I use the RVS4000 router only as the interface between the Internet and my internal network. Thus only traffic going out to and coming in from the Internet flows through this router. I also limit the Apple AirPort Extreme to wireless traffic only for the same reasons as I limit the traffic flowing through the RVS4000 router and I like to separate wireless traffic from wired traffic. As the diagram below shows both the Synology NAS and Weiss MAN301 talk directly to each other over wired Ethernet (CAT 6a cabling) via the Cisco switch built to handle massive amounts of data.
Note: The well written MAN301 user manual refers to a network switch as, “[A] device [that] looks similar to a Router, but has a very limited functionality in that it simply acts as an Ethernet port „extender“ in order to be able to connect additional devices to the network.” In the most simplest of terms written for many audiophiles this description is all they will need to know. However, it is incorrect and could mislead audiophiles seeking additional information about network audio. The device described above is actually a network hub. A network switch is a bit more intelligent than a hub in that it increases efficiency and network speed by routing data directly to individual devices. Switches are also capable of packet prioritization or Quality of Service that routes user defined important data at a higher priority than other traffic. For a simple tutorial on hubs, switches, and routers see the following link .
Using the MAN301 in the aforementioned network configuration worked pretty well but not flawless. High resolution music playback suffered a few dropouts here and there during the review period. The MAN301 software updates improved performance and came very close to eliminating this issue entirely, but more work must be done to perfect network playback. Both my network and the MAN301 hardware of capable of flawless high resolution playback. I suspect the issues I experienced can be resolved by increasing buffers on the MAN301. Increased buffers may reduce the speed of initial playback while the buffer is loading, but this should be worth the tradeoff. On a similar not the MAN301 supports gapless playback for the most part. Initially I could not get the MAN301 to smoothly transition between tracks of The Dark Side of the Moon at 24 bit / 96 kHz. Weiss Engineering listened to my concern and included a fix in its next software update. Currently DSOTM plays gapless unless the user skips ahead to the end of a track. When I let the tracks play all the way through, as most DSOTM fans do, gapless playback is flawless. When I move the slider that displays the current playback position toward the end of the track the MAN301 will not play the next track gapless. This is due to an empty buffer as the next song is selected in an unexpected fashion. This is really not an issue for me and I suspect most computer audiophiles won’t care either. I only mention this behavior so people testing gapless don’t assume the MAN301 can’t handle such playback if they haven’t let the tracks flow organically from one to the next.
The MAN301 is capable of using existing collection of music stored on one’s NAS and adding to that collection through its built-in ripping feature. My current music collection stored on the Synology NAS is about four terabytes. When I first setup the MAN301 and directed it to my music folder on the NAS the MAN301 was nearly out of commission until the following morning. I was unable to play music without major skipping and I was unable to navigate the user interface with any speed while the MAN301 scanned my music collection on the NAS. As long as users know this going into the endeavor it’s not an issue. As somebody without patience I wanted to scan my collection and start playing music instantly. An email from Daniel Weiss about this was very similar to something Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid would have said, “Patience young grasshopper.” During the review period I purchased a few new CDs and used the MAN301’s built-in ripping feature. The entire process is very smooth and allows for editing of the metadata before the CD is ripped to a NAS. Album art, track names, comments, etc… can all be changed prior to committing the disc to one’s library. Much like other computer based ripping programs the MAN301 provides the user with a few different options for each CD. One option may have the correct album art but all the words are in lower case while the next option may have everything just how the user desires. It’s very easy to select the best match and move on to ripping. After each album was ripped to my NAS I experienced something very strange that I couldn’t and still can’t figure out how to fix. The music appears in the MAN301 library as it should, but the folders and files can’t be seen on my NAS through normal means. The MAN301 rips music to my NAS as invisible folders and files. I was unable to view anything ripped by the MAN301 through Windows Explorer or OS X Finder. I thought this had something to do with file permissions and the user account that crated the ripped files from the MAN301. Even after logging in as the admin user from my Mac and PCs and enabling viewing of hidden files I was still unable to view the files. Browsing the NAS via the Synology DSM web browser interface and its File Station program enabled me to see the ripped material. Nothing about the files appeared to be abnormal. I even set the user permissions to 777 allowing everyone full access. The permissions change didn’t change anything when browsing from a Mac or PC. Daniel Weiss acknowledged this as a problem he has seen, but does not have a solution for at the time of this review.
Note: According to Weiss Engineering the next MAN301 update will include access to the Gracenote database when ripping CDs. This is the same database used by Apple’s iTunes and has become an industry standard for most mass market metadata inquiries.
User Interface / iPad Application
It has been years since I grabbed a CD case off the shelf to view album art or liner notes after the initial CD ripping process. I suspect many computer audiophiles are in this same boat. We now interface with our prized music collections through an iPad or Android tablet. Without physical media iPad apps have become the only way to visually connect with our music. These apps can also enable us to browse and play music however we want rather than one 16 bit / 44.1 CD at a time. Humans should dictate how we listen to music. Technology should enable this and follow our direction. Too many apps force us into ridged structures by using technology for technology’s sake or because the app was designed for the designer only. The MAN301 iPad app named Weiss MAN in the app store is one of a kind and lands right in the middle on the continuum of usability. The app has some features not found in 99% of other appliance-like music server apps such as adding the currently playing track to any existing playlist, metadata editing directly from the iPad, analog and digital volume control, separate user accounts with separate playlists, and a very granular search feature enabling a user to search specific metadata fields and any combination of these fields. The Weiss MAN app has a steep learning curve. Users attempting to bypass the manual will get nowhere fast. The help of a good dealer and some time spent with the user manual should go a long way toward increasing one’s enjoyment of the server. Once I got the hang of the Weiss MAN app and learned its differences from most other apps I liked it and was able play my music collection without referencing the manual for additional assistance. I really like the ease with which tracks can be moved up and down in a playlist or queue while listening to the track in the playlist. Creating additional playlists and adding tracks to the lists is really simple. I stumbled upon a very nice feature by accident and at first I was frustrated because I didn’t know what happened. I was Browsing by Artist > Album and displaying the list of albums for a particular artist. In this case I was under Dave Brubeck. I selected the album art photo for the album Out Last Time Out, as opposed to selecting the album title or + symbol. The Weiss MAN app immediately put the entire album into the queue and started playing. This is a great shortcut for those interested in playing an entire album, or even an entire artist's repertoire, without any extra taps on the tablet. This simplicity encourages one to use the playlist features much more than other apps I’ve used. It’s well know that people take the path of least resistance and won’t use a feature that’s counterintuitive or forces the user to work harder than he should. The Weiss MAN app is a positive step forward toward ease of using its features and it continues to get better with every update.
That said there are some serious issues with the Weiss MAN application that can’t be ignored such as slow album population time and unusable search features with my four terabyte library, inability to find one’s music because of slow metadata updating, and other quirks that decrease usability and enjoyment of one’s music collection.
My biggest issue with the Weiss MAN iPad application is its delay when populating different views. For example, upon logging into the MAN301 the Weiss MAN application takes between 15 - 18 seconds to populate the initial screen with a list of artists in the library and the music currently in the playlist / queue. Sure this is a “First World problem” that one can look beyond but it’s an annoying problem nonetheless. The delay in view population becomes more annoying when browsing albums by individual artists. In the main view where Artists is highlighted one can select the artist name to view albums by that artist or compilation albums on which the artist performed (great feature). Browsing into Nat King Cole the Weiss MAN app took ten seconds to populate thirteen albums. Unfortunately the app took ten seconds to populate the same thirteen albums after I exited the Nat King Cole artist view and re-entered immediately. Ten seconds seems to be the norm when browsing this way as this was the time it took to display 99 Pearl Jam albums and five PJ Harvey albums. My stopwatch was identical for each view. The feature that should not be overlooked is the app’s ability to list compilation albums under each artist. Many compilation albums fall into the Various Artists category in most apps and are never seen or heard from again. Browsing with the Weiss MAN app enabled me to rediscover some great music by my favorite artists.
The Weiss MAN app’s search features aren’t all unusable, but the default search function dissuaded me from using it more than a few times. Selecting Searches from the left side of the app displays saved searches and enables one to search his collection. When I entered search phrases into the box the MAN301 would search without providing any usable feedback, only a rotating wheel signaling a search is in progress, and did not produce results in a reasonable time frame to make it usable. To Weiss Engineering’s credit searches can be narrowed by metadata fields speeding up the results significantly sometimes. In addition a much better way to search, when an easy search is all that’s necessary, is to browse by artist and start typing the artist name in the search box from the main screen. This quickly displays the artist. I ran into problems when searching for all my Live Pearl Jam albums. Browsing by artist and searching only Pearl Jam albums for the word Live worked pretty good except for the ten second delay in populating the Pearl Jam albums. This method took me eighteen seconds from start to finish. Attempting the search by selecting criteria such as Artist = Pearl Jam and Album contains the word Live can also be done but really removes one from the listening experience. Some hard facts from my searches reveal a default search for Pearl Jam Live took 30 seconds to produce results, searching the same terms for albums only reduced the time by only four seconds, searching albums only for Album Artist = Pearl Jam, Album = *live* returned results immediately, but took time to enter the query. When searching for all albums with the sample rate of 192 kHz the Weiss MAN app returned results in 35 seconds and interrupted playback for a slight blip when the results were finally displayed. What I consider slow or unusable search features may be very acceptable for some readers. I encourage readers to search their own music servers and wait for ten, eighteen, thirty, or thirty-five seconds before viewing the results. This is a great way to discover one’s tolerance for search behavior.
I discussed this slow search issue with Daniel Weiss who assured my the large size of my library, currently at almost four terabytes, was the main reason of my displeasure. The Weiss team is actively working to speed up all aspects of the app including search for such large libraries. Daniel has always been very honest with me but I still needed to test what he said about such a large library being the cause of my issues. I created a pretty small fifty gigabyte library with all my Pearl Jam and Nat King Cole albums and a few other high resolution items. Searching this small library produced nearly instant results. I don't know where the breaking point is or how large of library it takes to slow down the MA301 so much that it's unusable. Based on my testing fifty gigabytes works wonderful but four terabytes isn't so good. I look forward to improved speed with much larger libraries as the Weiss team works on the issue.
The MAN301 and Weiss MAN app are also slow to respond to metadata updates done via other means from the Weiss MAN app itself. This results in an inability to find one’s music easily. For example, I downloaded the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out at 24 bit / 176.4 kHz via HDtracks and placed it on the MAN301. I discovered the Artist metadata tag was just Dave Brubeck rather than the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I made the metadata change via JRiver, briefly forgetting I could do this via the Weiss MAN app, and waited a few minutes or so before checking the app. I found five of the seven tracks in the correct Dave Brubeck Quartet view but two of the tracks still listed under Dave Brubeck. I rechecked the metadata to find it was all identical and correct. A few days later I checked for the tracks in this album and all were listed correctly under the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Although the Weiss MAN metadata editing is very nice for an album at a time I still recommend using another app with full keyboard and mouse like JRiver for massive metadata editing.
Overall the Weiss MAN app is quirky and needs additional fine tuning. As I was timing my search results I logged completely out of the server versus ending my session. After thirty seconds I attempted to log back in but received this message, “Error when logging on: “User account seems to be locked due to critical maintenance operations.” I was able to login ten seconds later, but the message likely caused by a database operation is a bit quirky. Another quirk I experienced was after leaving the server on overnight to run repeatedly through a playlist. The following morning the server had stopped playing, was unreachable via the iPad app, and was not visible on my network. The power to the server was still on but had to be removed via power cable to get the server back up and running. I have since left the server on for days and weeks at a time without experiencing a similar problem.
The Weiss Engineering MAN301 is a full featured music server appliance with obvious traits from its pro music lineage. Several digital and analog configurations to satisfy nearly all computer audiophiles’ needs and great efficiency allowing removal of one or more boxes from one’s listening environment. The built-in music server, DAC, and preamp may be just what many users are looking for to maximize space and reduce clutter. The quality of Weiss Engineering’s DACs with stellar fine digital and coarse analog attenuation has been proven time and again. My review of the Weiss DAC202 is no exception. However, in its current state I found the Weiss MAN iPad application a bit too slow and quirky to use as my everyday digital music source. Fortunately the ambitious team at Weiss Engineering continue to improve the MAN with each software update as evidenced during the review and in the forthcoming inclusion of Gracenote database look up capability. Further improvement may make this server one to watch in the future.
- Product - Weiss Engineering MAN301 Music server with DAC
- Price - $12,262 (with DAC), $9083 (without DAC), $3179 user installed DAC upgrade.
- Product Page - Link
- user Manual - Link (18.5 MB PDF)
- Source: 15" MacBook Pro w/ Retina Display, C.A.P.S. v3 Carbon Server
- DAC: EMM Labs DAC2X
- Preamp: Spectral Audio DMC-30SS Series 2
- Amplifier: Spectral Audio DMA-260
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Apple Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 4, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Playback Software Windows 7: J River Media Center 18
- Playback Software Mac OS X 10.8.2 : Audirvana Plus
- Cables: MIT Matrix HD 60 Bi-Wire Loudspeaker Cable, MIT Oracle Matrix 50 Analog Interconnects (RCA), ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables, Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Micro Connectors Augmented Cat6A Ethernet Cable, Apple AirPort Extreme, Cisco RVS4000 Router, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service
- Product - Weiss Engineering MAN301 Music server with DAC