by John Grandberg
Apparently this is becoming something of a trend. Me. Music servers. Voluminous words and pictures thrust at the reader in a vain attempt to convey an experience — one which ends up being more than the sum of its parts. I can show screenshot after screenshot of the user interface and explain every detail on how a system works, but there’s something more to it than that. An essence. Which I suppose is a pretentious way of saying “you really gotta try these things for yourself if at all possible”. But you knew that already right?
With CD players there’s not much to talk about. Open drawer. Insert disc. Close drawer. There you go. Some are better than others in terms of button feel or display legibility but really we aren’t talking drastic variation. Especially with higher-end devices which should all be impressive in these aspects. Turntables? Yeah, there’s a lot of moving parts (literally), which is one thing that might draw users to a certain model over its competition. The feel of it all. Still, unless we’re talking about some radically different turntable design, the basics remain fairly similar. We end up judging on sound more than anything else.
Music servers (and streamers and file players of all types) leave vastly more room for interface variation. Some have front panel buttons, while many rely purely on apps running via iDevice or Android. Sometimes we even get a browser-based interface accessible via any networked device. In each case there are numerous approaches, thus many opportunities to get it wrong (or right, if you’re an optimist). The hardware is still critical (duh) but there’s more to consider — a device might sound amazing yet offer a very poor user experience, taking it down a few notches in overall desirability. Or, it may have a killer app that’s great to work with, but have just mediocre sound.
Korea’s SOtM, a significant mover and shaker in this segment, aims for high marks in both categories. And I’d say they tend to succeed. While SOtM may not quite be a household name, their internal USB output cards are very highly regarded, being used as the foundation in many other devices. You’ll find them in commercial products from brands like Auraliti, YFS, and Antipodes. You’ll see them used in the various generations of CAPs projects. And you’ll see them used by individuals just looking to turn their Dell desktop into a respectable source. Yes, SOtM certainly knows USB.
SOtM knows other stuff too. The device under review is their latest music playback device, dubbed the sMS-1000SQ. It’s a dedicated music server aiming to compete with devices from Aurender and Lumin among other brands. The goal is to provide ridiculously-high-quality playback with any format you can possibly imagine, with meticulous attention paid to the smallest design aspects. I know, I know…. sounds like marketing hyperbole. While many brands talk about such details, SOtM is out there making stuff like ripple and RF noise filters for SATA hard drives. They feel that every little detail matters. And they hope you agree.
What Is It?
Let’s backtrack for a minute so we’re on the same page. The sMS-1000SQ (starting at $3000) is a music server that can play, store, and rip music. It streams tunes from internet radio and services like Tidal or Quobuz. It connects to your network and can play music from a NAS as well as local storage via internal or external drive. And it handles DSD and DXD without breaking a sweat. The OS lives on a 32GB solid-state drive which is always a good thing for sound quality. So far, so good — pretty straight forward right?
That simplicity begins to erode when one goes to actually buy the device — this thing has more options than you can shake a digital stick at. On the $3,000 base configuration, the sole output is high-quality USB via SOtM’s proprietary tX-USBexp card. An extra $500 will get you the same USB solution along with digital outputs of the coaxial, Toslink, and AES/EBU variety. Alternatively, the extra $500 brings USB plus analog outputs (and therefore onboard D/A conversion) in RCA and XLR form. $250 more (on top of either one of the output upgrades) gets you a 4TB internal hard drive. Are you keeping track? Those are just the options listed on the web page of SOtM’s North American distributor. Beyond that there are multiple other storage configurations available (in both SSD and traditional spinning platter), system clock upgrades, and the choice of internal optical drives in either DVD or Blu-ray format. It’s a dizzying array of options making it difficult to market the thing in a simplistic manner… confusion aside, choice is always a good thing for the consumer. For example: I personally have no use for an internal DAC and would prefer not to pay for that if at all possible. Same deal with what I consider “legacy” digital outputs — I only need USB. I find the optical drive useful and would like a decent amount of internal storage. Other folks might find those choices a complete waste. With this many configurations available, nobody gets forced to pay for stuff they don’t really need. Makes sense to me.
One more thing to consider is the upgraded power supply. The base unit comes with a standard switch-mode PSU but for the hardcore among us SOtM sells the sPS-1000 linear power supply. It goes for $1,000 and has a beautiful enclosure matching exactly the look of the music server. The sPS-1000 is a triple-rail design incorporating an AC filter, a large toroidal transformer, extensive regulation, and ripple filtration before spitting out clean power in your choice of voltages. I tapped one output for 19V to feed the music server itself and 9V from another going straight to the USB output card. This isolates the USB card which then no longer relies on motherboard power — only the best will do for our digital signal! sPS-1000 has a third variable output which I did not make use of. I believe that output can be used for their matching sDP-1000 DAC but I don’t have one on hand to try.
That matching DAC doubles as a pre-amp — Mike Lavorgna gave it a hearty recommendation over at AudioStream. There’s also a power amp in the series though I don’t see it available for sale quite yet. Or at least not in North America. They even make a bespoke rack which holds the entire system — music server, DAC/pre, linear PSU, and power amp all in a cool looking stack. Sounds good to me.
Contrary to some competition (Aurender and Auralic to name two examples), SOtM apparently doesn’t see themselves as being in the software business. Hence they offer no dedicated app available for Android or iDevices. SOtM runs VortexBox which is a Fedora-based Linux distribution specifically made for use with music servers. On top of that, it runs Logitech Music Server (LMS). As such, it can be controlled through a variety of methods including browser login. That works well enough and makes the system versatile if not really flashy. More appealing to my tastes is iPeng for iDevices which is a mature 3rd-party app that’s been around for ages. I remember using it with my Logitech Squeezebox devices circa 2009 and I believe it was around for a while even before that. If you’re on Android you’ll have to make do with one of several good-but-not-quite-great choices, my current favorite being Orange Squeeze. Windows tablets, such as Surface Pro or the Dell Venue Pro models, have Squeeze Remote which works fairly well too, though iPeng remains my favorite overall.
In my view, SOtM has made an interesting choice here. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they’ve chosen tried-and-true options that have been refined over time by a much larger user base than the audiophile world could offer. iPeng is quite a nice piece of software. VortexBox is simple but impressive, making CD ripping a painless experience. And LMS is very mature as well. I think of all the people out there who finally made the leap to music servers when the Slim Devices (later acquired by Logitech) Transporter came out back in 2007. That device went a long way to legitimizing the entire concept of an impeccably-done music server, one worth the hassle of learning some new stuff in exchange for the rewarding experience it offers. Some years later the Squeezebox Touch came along and brought a more affordable take on that same endeavor. Since Logitech killed those types of devices (why, Logitech, why?) there’s been something of a hole in the market for this stuff. I won’t pretend the sMS-1000SQ is mainstream enough to replace the entire line, but as a logical step up for a Transporter user? Absolutely. They already know the software so it would almost be plug and play.
Interestingly, as I write this, SOtM just came up with a Windows-based version for a somewhat higher price. Conventional wisdom says Windows is not an ideal candidate for hardcore audio quality, but SOtM seems to think they’ve cracked that nut. They tested a number of different Windows versions and if I’m not mistaken settled on Windows Server 2012 R2 running AudiophileOptimizer. This allows them to offer playback software like Foobar2000, JRiver Media Center, and, potentially most exciting of all, Roon. The Linux version fully supports Tidal and other lossless streaming options through the IckStream plugin but if you wanted to do Roon the Windows version is your only choice. Personally I have not yet investigated Roon but I know a number of fellow writers swear by it. So while other brands rush to become “Roon Ready” on their servers, SOtM has it ready to go right now — at least on one of their models. The Windows version adds $500 to the base price so that’s something to consider.
My review loaner from SOtM is an interesting configuration. I’ve got the Linux version with the standard DVD RW drive, the upgraded system clock, and the USB output. My unit appears to have the analog output jacks but with nothing actually wired to them internally — apparently this was a show display unit and they wanted to show off that option. I’ve also got the sPS-1000 power supply because why not go all the way, right? I didn’t get the big internal hard drive (dang!) but was still able to test the ripping capabilities using leftover space on the 32GB OS drive. By my math this equates to $4,650 as tested, which is not out of line with competition from Aurender, Lumin, Naim, Linn, etc.
I got the device all set up in my system with surprisingly little trouble. To be fair, I’ve gone through most of this stuff in the past with the Slim Devices/Logitech gear, so I’ve already learned the ins and outs of LMS, ickStream, iPeng, etc. I won’t pretend every user will have the same smooth ride, but in practically no time I was streaming Tidal, ripping CDs, and playing all manner of hi-res PCM and DSD. The device comes with Bliss already installed and gives the user 100 free “fixes” with which to clean up your library — I recommend buying the unlimited license for all future tagging needs. I find it indispensable.
In order to keep things simple, my initial listening was done using the exceptional B.M.C. UltraDAC as an all-in-one DAC/headphone amp unit. I paired it with the ultra-revealing Sennheiser HD800 and HiFiMAN HE-1000 headphones using balanced cables from Effect Audio, as well as a variety of flagship custom in-ear monitors from Noble, JH Audio, Lear, and Empire Ears. Connections of all types were handled by Cabledyne Reference Silver while an Equitech power conditioner provided balanced power to the system.
Initial thoughts: the SOtM gave a powerful, dynamic presentation, with a huge sense of drive. The UltraDAC has what I’d call a slightly warm, “analog” feel, and this transport really brought out those properties. Bass in particular was deep, tight, and authoritative, plumbing the depths on the 24-bit/176.4kHz version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. “Articulate” is another word that comes to mind.
This same impression applies to the deep impacts on Tron: Legacy Reconfigured (ahem, excuse me, R3CONF!GUR3D) featuring Daft Punk tracks remixed by various electronic musicians. The sense of slam was palpable, especially on the big planar magnetic drivers of the HE-1000. Here was “full range” to a degree that very few speakers and rooms can actually accommodate, and yet the level of control involved was equally impressive. It’s hard to put into words how enjoyable it was listening to everything from Cashmere Cat and Soul Oddity to Gary Karr and Cecil McBee. Just superb bass performance.
Lest you think I’m just a basshead with no concern for other aspects, I present to you the beautiful midrange of this setup. Stunning. Soulful. Utterly liquid. Vocals on this rig just drip with passion. I had a blast hearing both the similarities and the differences between Rachel Brown (the singer, not the flautist) and Arleigh Kincheloe of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. Their voices and styles have much in common, and when Brown’s typical soulful pop veers into a sort of reggae-funk on the track “Speechless” (from The Band which is more of an EP than a full-length album), the lines become blurred all the more. And then there’s Jane Monheit cover of “Over the Rainbow“, and “What a World“ as sung by Eva Cassidy, the surprisingly beautiful “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” by Sufjan Stevens, and pretty much anything with Freddie Mercury or Damien Rice or Marvin Gaye…. hopefully you get the picture.
Another word that comes to mind is finesse. The SOtM enables its DAC partner to unravel complex compositions with ease, something even expensive transports can often stumble over. In this aspect I’m reminded of several higher end Krell and Levinson disc spinners I’ve owned. On the flip side, I’ve always found tonal accuracy to be better handled by what some may call “less technically advanced” choices — the 47 Labs Flatfish and Audio Note CDT Three come to mind. The sMS-1000SQ handles tone just as well, while at the same time hitting scale, layering, and complexity far better than I’ve ever heard from either of those. It really does seem to offer the best of both worlds.
Moving up to the top-most regions of the musical presentation. The B.M.C. UltraDAC has an extremely well done treble presentation. It certainly sounds respectable even when driven from a pedestrian source, but it takes a really nice transport to bring out the absolute best it can offer. It’s the type of thing where you wouldn’t really have any reason to suspect the DAC was being held back until you hear it unencumbered. When paired with a MacBook Pro running Audirvana I get enjoyable results, but the top end is a noticeably less distinct, going too far towards “smooth” and losing some realism in the process. The SOtM unlocks more extension and thus more air, giving cymbals proper levels of shimmer and allowing vocals to sound more convincingly lifelike. There’s a sense of delicacy at play which just isn’t present with most other transports. The word “unforced” comes to mind — this transport doesn’t blurt out details but allows the DAC to effortlessly flow with a wide open presentation. Once again a top-notch sonic performance.
As I read the above paragraphs it seems almost silly to break down the performance into specific attributes like I’ve done. The key to the SOtM is its organic, natural sound. Yes, we get sonic fireworks, we get micro-detail aplenty, and massive staging and all the rest. But the thing tying it all together is how coherent it sounds. I never once felt like the SOtM was doing anything to color the presentation in any way. That was up to the DAC to take care of — or not, in the case of a neutral DAC. The entire goal of the sMS-1000SQ is to provide a pristine signal and let the rest of your chain do what it does. I’d say mission accomplished on that front.
I went on to pair the SOtM with DACs from Resonessence Labs, Esoteric, Anedio, Calyx, Chord, NuPrime, EMM Labs, Questyle, and several others. In each case I experienced exceptional sound, often the very best I had yet heard on said DAC. The only exception is certain models in which the USB input doesn’t quite stack up to one of the other option. In those cases I used the Audiophilleo 1 USB to SPDIF converter and got ideal results that way, but that’s really dependent on the DAC rather than the transport — nothing SOtM can do about that. Still, I got exceptional sound one way or the other, really bringing out the best each DAC was capable of.
Loyal readers may recall me having reviewed several other music servers/streamers/players in the past few years. What they don’t know is how many have passed through here without earning a write-up. The number approaches double digits — with less than half of those feeling worthy of review. What makes a music server miss the mark? Poor user interface is the main culprit, followed by significant operational quirks, questionable reliability, and plain old mediocre sound — especially when high prices are involved. One or more of those drawbacks is perfectly acceptable when using a Sonos or Bluesound unit costing maybe $500 or so. But when the price hits a few thousand dollars and climbs from there, I expect far more.
Having said that, allow me to summarize my thoughts on previously reviewed models and where they stand in relation to the sMS-1000SQ. First up in chronological order, the Auraliti PK90. For $949 plus $399 for the linear power supply, it remains my budget recommendation, at least in theory. I say “in theory” because I’ve heard ongoing complaints about responsiveness from the company — a potential deal killer. That’s one area where we reviewers can’t properly evaluate… the manufacturer or marketing people we deal with give special attention, as is required to facilitate the review, and it’s just not representative of the real experience a normal customer would have. Beyond that, my favorite iPad control app mPad seems to be broken in recent versions, making the PK90 less appealing for iPad users. There are some decent Android control apps but they aren’t on the same level. The SOtM unit sounds better and does more, with a correspondingly higher price. The Auraliti (complete with SOtM USB output card on board) remains an excellent piece of hardware though, and worthy of consideration for users with Android devices willing to go it alone if support dries up.
Next came the Aurender X100L, which has several advantages over the sMS-1000SQ. Aurender’s Conductor iPad app looks and handles better than any software available for the SOtM, including iPeng. X100L can also be configured with more internal storage — up to a whopping 12TB. Setup is more straight forward too. All that said, on pure sound quality alone I get better results with the SOtM. It’s not a massive difference, but I do hear it consistently. Perhaps the comparison is unfair — my loaner from SOtM has the clock and power supply upgrade options which make it significantly more expensive. A basic sMS-1000SQ comes in at $3,000, directly comparable with Aurender’s smaller X100S which has less internal storage (but still more than the SOtM at that price), and I would expect those to be roughly similar in performance.
Lastly, the B.M.C. PureMedia. It’s got a bit of a different focus than the rest of these, having lots more functionality but also requiring a monitor and some type of keyboard/mouse for controls. In basic form it more or less ties the budget Auraliti for last place in sonics — which, make no mistake, is still very good — though it jumps up to Aurender levels with the addition of B.M.C.’s PureUSB1 active USB cable. The sMS-1000SQ still takes the lead by a small margin in that area, and the user experience is just so different that it’s hard to directly compare.
Ultimately these are four distinctly different options with different target users in mind. Sounds like a cop-out on my part but it’s absolutely true. If I had to break it down I’d say it like so: the Auraliti takes the budget recommendation — at that price it’s up against stuff from Cambridge Audio and Marantz which do a fine job for what they are yet simply aren’t in the same class for audio quality. The only sonic competition might be a used Bryston BDP-1, which was designed by…. the folks at Auraliti. So there you go. The Aurender X100L is best for those who value the app experience, as well as users needing massive storage. You don’t often see 12TB of internal storage on these types of things. Oh, and it sounds fantastic as well. The B.M.C. PureMedia is best enjoyed as the centerpiece of a mixed use media/music setup. For those willing to master its myriad features, it’s a rewarding experience indeed.
That brings us to the SOtM sMS-1000SQ which is, by a slim but worthwhile margin, the best choice for sound-hounds chasing top USB DAC performance. It gets high marks in other areas too, with no real weaknesses to speak of unless we count the HDMI output which doesn’t do anything useful. With tons of configuration options including that smooth slot-loading optical drive, the SOtM really does have something for everyone, and is worthy of serious consideration even among the first-rate competition mentioned above.
Recommended? You bet.