by John Grandberg
“It’s hard when you’re stuck upon the shelf.” So sang Eddie Vedder on “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”, circa 1993. While I’m reasonably confident he wasn’t referring to audio gear, the idea does seem to apply to one poor component in my setup – the little PC I built to handle Roon Server duties. Since I now base nearly all of my listening around Roon, this particular device is a critical link in my chain. And yet I keep it segregated from my other gear as if it had some rare infectious disease.
How did it come to this? I did a lot of things right with the build. It’s reasonably powerful, quiet, and for the most part, future proof (as far as these things go). It’s got a nice external linear power supply and a quality dedicated USB output card. This build sounds quite nice feeding a DAC directly, but is mostly used as a server feeding other devices. The one area where I missed the mark is the enclosure. I went with a “Silverstone” brand HTPC-style case which cost me a fair amount and looked great in the pictures, yet is downright ugly in real life. The build was also a nightmare in terms cable management, and I never did manage to get the optical drive lined up properly – which means it doesn’t always work. With so much potential not quite realized, the mere sight of this device is enough to frustrate me. So it lives in isolation, tucked away on a shelf in the cabinet where I store my printer paper. The other day I caught it writing a 35,000 word anti-technology manifesto – living apart from your peers for so long will drive you crazy.
Roon fans looking to buy rather than build aren’t hurting for options though. Particularly if you’re willing to separate things into a server-streamer combo. Grab a sonicTransporter from Small Green Computer, plus a microRendu or SOtM sMS-200 to stream from server to DAC, and you’ve got yourself a very respectable solution. What could go wrong?
Well, for one thing, you’ll no doubt end up wanting an upgraded power supply for the microRendu, or SOtM, or whatever you decided to use for your Roon Endpoint. These things tend to be held back by their stock wall-warts, which is not at all surprising. But what if you’re one of those people who likes a streamlined system? At this point you’ve got three boxes in play – server, streamer, and the upgraded power supply, plus the mess of cables tying the whole thing together. Isn’t there anything simpler available?
One excellent solution I recently had the pleasure of spending time with is the Clones Audio HOST. For those unfamiliar with the name – and that might be a lot of you – Clones Audio is a small Hong Kong based audio firm specializing in quality gear at reasonable prices. I’d call it a “boutique” brand if ever there was one, owing to their hand built nature and very specific design philosophies. Those ideals include using the shortest signal paths and simplest circuits possible, utilizing linear power supplies in every product, and choosing quality over quantity when it comes to power output. Nothing revolutionary, just solid, traditional audiophile concepts done right, and sold without ridiculous prices. They got their start doing excellent versions of the classic 47 Labs Gaincard amplifier – Gainclones to use the common parlance – which explains the name “Clones Audio”.
The company dipped their toes into the digital side of things a few years back with the well-regarded Sheva DAC and recently moved on to the current offering, a second generation unit called the Asher. Making a perfect dance partner for Asher, or just about any other DAC for that matter, is the subject of this review – the HOST music server. Clones uses all caps on the title so I’m going to stick with their format even if it kinda feels like I’m shouting.
The HOST is dedicated playback system which feeds directly to your USB capable DAC. On the outside, the enclosure is what I’d call “gracefully utilitarian”. It’s a simple black brushed aluminum affair with just a single power button and a small Clones logo for distinction. At just over 12 inches wide by 10 inches deep and 3.5 inches high, the HOST won’t dominate an audio rack, and the tastefully dim power LED won’t distract during late-night listening in the dark (I know I’m not the only one who does that). This thing integrates into a system far more naturally than your average laptop or desktop PC ever could.
The guts of this system are an interesting mixture. Leveraging several unique Clones Audio components plus some off-the-shelf bits chosen for their specific properties, the device makes for a slick balance of price versus performance. The designer was clear in communicating his intent for this as an easy to use device with an approachable price tag – the unspoken implication being that yes, there may be a few inherent compromises involved, but they aren’t all that significant in the grand scheme of things. I’d have to say I agree with that sentiment.
Note – this thing is, after all, a computer. If you don’t care much for technical discussion then feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.
Probably the most conspicuous use of proprietary tech is found in the beefy linear power supply. Clones actually sells a stand-alone version of this PSU dubbed “Power Station”, and the HOST essentially has two of them on board – one powering the motherboard and the other dedicated to running the SSD and proprietary USB output card. The two super low noise regulator modules share a fairly massive toroidal transformer – about the largest that would possibly fit in this enclosure – and the whole affair is isolated from the rest of the system by a thick internal wall.
The USB card in question is another proprietary Clones product which they call “SHAAR”. Don’t ask me what the name means or why they continue the trend of all caps. SHAAR is a dedicated high-quality PCIe to USB “audio gateway” with a laundry list of welcome features: ultra low phase noise master clock module with a precision 1ppm TCXO, ultra low noise regulators covering all digital chips plus clock and USB power, over current protection, and noise filtration on the power input. This card plus the linear regulated power supply form a solid basis on which the HOST platform rests.
A key aspect of any computer playback device is the operating system. In this case we get a customized Linux build with simplicity and audio quality being the primary objectives. Extraneous functions like the onboard Toslink output are disabled, but nobody buys a device like this to use the onboard optical connection anyway. Or at least they should. The OS lives on a small internal solid-state drive which is separate from the drive used for music storage – this is the same approach used by Aurender and B.M.C. and likely many others who make audiophile playback devices, and for good reason: in the event of a storage drive failure, or merely upgrading to a more spacious drive, there’s no need to worry about reinstalling the operating system. Most HOST devices will ship with this custom Linux build and Roon as the only software the user ever interacts with – buyers can alternately choose Daphile as the operating system, but I suspect the vast majority will go with Roon.
From there we move to off-the-shelf parts in the form of an ASRock motherboard with integrated Pentium J3710 processor. This CPU, a quad-core model released in early 2016, has an extremely low TDP of just 6.5W, which allows for completely passive cooling. The HOST has not a single fan anywhere and thus runs totally silent. Contrast that with the standard modern Intel i3 or i5 chip at 65W, or even the power-optimized T-series at 35W. Both require fans unless the builder employs a fancy enclosure with integrated heatpipe solution. Even then, it could be argued that the J3710 has plenty of power while causing less problems with EMI and RFI and other undesirable noise. The system runs a single 4GB stick of RAM, though a free slot allows for upgrades if the user ever feels the need.
HOST comes in a variety of configurations with respect to storage. Mark Sossa, the cheerful proprietor of Well Pleased AV and distributor of Clones Audio in the USA, sent over a review loaner armed with a 1TB Samsung SSD. This version sells for $2300, while a HOST equipped with 2TB drive goes for $2600. Clones does list 256GB and 512GB versions on their website but Mark didn’t give me prices on those and honestly I’m not sure I’d recommend going that small. You want room to grow on a device like this, especially if you intend to add more DSD and high-resolution PCM material to your collection. Those formats take up significantly more storage than CD quality releases, so 256GB or 512GB would fill rather quickly.
Two things to keep in mind when considering which storage configuration might be right for you. 1) That array of USB ports on the back panel? Ignore that. Clones disables those through their customized software. The thought process here – running what will likely be a traditional spinning platter drive over USB will take an unwelcome hit in SQ compared to the SSD. Fair enough. 2) Roon makes it relatively easy to access music stored on a NAS or other network drive. Streaming over the network still theoretically reduces SQ by some small amount, but it isn’t enough to have much impact on the end result. So Clones suggests using the SSD for your favorites, or reference material, or maybe your entire collection if it fits in the available space. But don’t feel bad about using a NAS whenever necessary.
The HOST is relatively simple to get up and running. Connect AC and USB cables, and then Ethernet to get going on your network (note there is no wireless connectivity here). Press the front panel power button on the device and if all is configured properly with your router, a network location called “RoonServer” will appear. From there you simply drag and drop music. Barring any network gremlins, this step couldn’t be easier.
Next you’ll need some way of controlling Roon. Install the software on whatever device you intend to use, and it will automatically seek out the HOST on your network. Then log in using your Roon account, and the Tidal tab in Roon if you enjoy that as well (I do), and you’re all set.
You do have a Roon account, don’t you? So much has been written about the topic that I won’t beat that poor dead horse, other than to say I absolutely love this service. I resisted Roon at first but now I’m totally sold on the software and can’t recommend it highly enough. And after using more than my fair share of music servers/streamers, I can confidently say this – there’s absolutely no way a small firm like Clones Audio would have the resources to come up with software anywhere near this good on their own. Not knocking them, that’s just the way it is. Come to think of it, I have yet to use any proprietary control app, be it from Aurender, Linn, Naim, Lumin, Auralic, or any other audio company, that I enjoy anywhere near as much as Roon. So, yeah, good choice by Clones.
For controlling music playback, I mainly used an iPad. Android tablets work fine as well. I find tablets to offer the ideal experience for this sort of thing. I also successfully controlled the device from a Windows PC and a Macbook Pro, and the experience was just as good from a software perspective. But aren’t we trying to get regular computers out of our listening rooms? That’s why I like tablets best for this situation. I personally don’t enjoy using a smartphone for this job as the richness of Roon feels diminished on a smaller display. But, you certainly can if you want to.
Notice I haven’t titled this section “listening” or “sound quality” as you might normally expect. That’s because mere sonic performance alone isn’t enough to make or break a playback system of this nature. The sound aspect is important, no doubt, but so are a number of other attributes which contribute to the overall experience of using the device.
First up is system speed. I worried that the relatively low power CPU wouldn’t be up to the task of handling a decently-sized library without lag. My fears were unfounded – loading up the 1TB SSD with tunes, plus adding a bunch more from my NAS, the HOST was just as responsive as my far more potent desktop PC. Browsing through well over a thousand albums was a breeze. Large DSD and hi-res PCM files played back nearly instantaneously. I was even able to play two streams at once – one through the HOST directly and the other streaming to a Roon Endpoint in the other room. I love how Roon makes multi-room audio incredibly simple. I didn’t try more than two devices at a time so I can’t say how far the HOST would go before running out of steam, but I suspect it could handle at least a bit more zone without much trouble. Especially if all music was standard 16-bit/44.1kHz. That said, this is probably not the server you want for feeding a dozen rooms with a mix of DSD and hi-res PCM.
Next is system noise, with the word “noise” having several meanings. The HOST itself is physically silent, and I love that about it. No fan for cooling the processor, no case fans, no power supply fans, and no obnoxious “processor whine” as I’ve encountered on several occasions using passive cooling on standard desktop-oriented processors. As someone who’s dabbled for years building my own PCs, I know how components billed as “quiet” or “silent” usually end up settling for “not incredibly loud” as a more accurate description. I’m admittedly rather sensitive to this sort of thing, but for me even a slow speed case fan or laptop exhaust is often enough to distract. The HOST is truly silent and never gets more than mildly warm, so it passes my physical noise test with flying colors.
The other type of “noise” has to do with feeding your DAC a clean, high-quality signal. In that area, again, the HOST does an exceptional job. With a well executed power supply, dedicated USB output card, and purpose-built Linux OS, I can’t say this is entirely surprising, but overall the $2300 HOST competes with plenty of more expensive competitors. Obviously this will come down to the DAC being used – the HOST is, after all, a transport, so it helps to think of it as such. Some DACs hit their limit when fed by a basic laptop and don’t have much room to grow, while others really shine when fed a superb signal from the Clones box. I find this isn’t necessarily related to DAC pricing either…. some expensive models are fairly transport immune, while plenty of modest devices are extremely picky. Whether or not this is a good thing really depends on your system and the goals you have for it, so I won’t judge it one way or the other.
In my case I found many – but not all – of the DACs I had on hand performed their best when fed by the HOST. The B.M.C. UltraDAC absolutely loved it, as did the Resonessence Labs Veritas and the Esoteric D-07x. All of these showed significant improvement over using my MacBook Pro or any number of “audiophile” discs spinners on hand, each costing more than the HOST itself. In these cases the difference tended to be across the board – low end heft, midrange purity, treble clarity and air – the works. Why transports matter so much is something that continues to bother me, as it seems like it shouldn’t make much difference. But I can’t argue with what I hear in so many of these cases.
My Calyx Femto and Meitner MA-1 DACs were a bit less critical of transport quality but nonetheless sounded excellent. The MacBook did make beautiful music with them, but I still preferred the sound made by the Clones device by a decent margin. Imaging and soundstage realism, rather than bandwidth or tonal weight, tended to be the major distinction on these two examples. If the HOST was significantly more expensive I might say the difference is small enough to not be worth chasing. But since the HOST barely costs more than my MacBook, it makes a good case for itself when used in a system resolving enough to showcase the improvement.
These sonic upgrades were not completely universal though. The small but versatile Cayin iDAC-6 was less concerned about transport quality. Ditto the DAC-10H from NuPrime. I’m speculating here, but my experience says the NuPrime has such excellent jitter rejection that it doesn’t care as much when fed by a mediocre source. And the Cayin is at its best when used in tube mode, which imparts a certain warm, romantic glow over the whole affair…. not the sort of sound conducive to A/B source comparisons. I still nonetheless preferred the Clones to more basic transports, but this was a very subtle improvement – if every DAC behaved this way, I wouldn’t recommend the HOST at all, nor any other high-end playback device for that matter.
I do a lot of playback through an Aurender X100L ($3,500), but I’ve also owned or spent lots of time with the SOtM sMS-1000SQ ($4,650), B.M.C. PureMedia ($5,390), Linn Akurate DS ($7,600), and Naim HDX with XP5 PSU ($12,000) just to list a few. Despite the large price differences involved, the HOST gives up little or nothing compared to these better-known competitors in terms of sonic performance. In fact I’d say it actually beats some of them in certain aspects when judged purely on sound quality alone. It might not have the gravitas of the big Naim, or the extreme clarity of the SOtM, but considering the price discrepancy involved I don’t feel the disparity is significant enough to matter.
Something you don’t hear enough audio reviewers admit when discussing transports – often times you end up with a slightly different sound from one device to the next, rather than a sound that is better or worse. In this respect the Clones device could be vaguely characterized as a more “musical” transport where some others are more neutral or colder. This is splitting hairs though – the lion’s share of your front-end’s sonic character comes from the DAC being used, and the transport just needs to be of a high enough caliber to unlock everything that DAC has to offer. In that respect the HOST definitely belongs in this more expensive group.
Remember, the HOST is only $2,300 as tested, which is quite affordable in this field. And again, keep in mind that your DAC may not be able to take advantage of the differences, so the more expensive devices might be wasted anyway. That makes the HOST a clear value leader.
I do think it’s important to note that most of these competitors do at least some things that the Clones device can’t. Some have built-in DAC functionality, either standard or optional, and those DACs can be quite capable. For simplicity, it’s hard to beat an all-in-one affair like the Naim or the Linn. Others, like the Aurender, have vastly more available storage. My X100L has 6TB but can be had with up to 12TB for those crazy enough to need it. The B.M.C. PureMedia handles home theater playback which may be a big draw to some users. And many of these allow for easy CD ripping which is again something the HOST won’t handle. So let me be very clear when I say the Clones offering is “on par” with the others – on sound quality, yes! In other ways, not as much.
And you know what? That’s not a problem. If every device had the same feature set, many of us would end up overpaying for stuff we don’t need and won’t use. The HOST is very clearly designed as a killer value product for users with USB DACs (or nice USB to SPDIF converters) who have bought into the Roon ecosystem like I have. If that describes you, this thing is absolutely recommended, but I realize not everyone fits in that category.
The main reason you want a lot of processing power in your music server is for handling very large libraries. Roon maintains a database for album art and other metadata, and the larger it gets, the more horsepower it needs for a seamless experience. Nobody wants laggy performance while scrolling through a music collection, nor do we want to wait for an actual song to load – for better or worse, we’ve become accustomed to a practically instant response on these sorts of things. Does Clones give us enough juice in this device?
The answer ends up being “it depends”.
The general recommendation I’ve read is that an Intel i3 CPU is adequate until a library reaches roughly 20,000 to 25,000 tracks. Beyond that, it’s suggested the user moves up to a more potent i5 processor. The CPU in the HOST is closer to a low-end i3, so I would say users with enormous libraries might plan accordingly. I had around 15,000 tracks on the device (with lots of hi-res and DSD) and it ran flawlessly for me, but that’s not really close to the limit. Just something to keep in mind. There’s also the 4GB RAM which didn’t seem to cause trouble for me (thanks again, lightweight Linux!). Users with large libraries might spend the extra $50 or so for an extra 4GB stick though.
The last thing I have to address – the new options brought by the recent version 1.3 update to Roon. I had the HOST on hand for several months, but these things can’t stay forever, so I shipped it back in January…. which was unfortunately just a bit prior to the new 1.3 launch. As such I was not able to test out the more demanding aspects such as advanced upsampling and DSP options. Clones Audio did confirm with me that since the system was designed and launched prior to any mention of Roon 1.3, it was not conceived with that sort of thing in mind. These features are CPU intensive and require more power than Roon would otherwise need for a smooth experience.
Based on how Roon 1.3 taxes the CPU in my current server (the ugly one), I’m able to make some educated guesses on how well the HOST would perform at these duties. I’m fairly confident CD quality material can be happily upsampled to 24/96 without any trouble, and it can almost certainly handle DSD64 upsampling too. Going higher to 192kHz or DSD128 is probably acceptable, but things may start getting dicey beyond that. Keep in mind, HOST can play back native DSD128 or 384kHz PCM without issue – I’m purely talking about upsampling limitations here. I also wouldn’t count on reliable multi-room audio while upsampling, as that seems to hit the CPU harder than expected. I don’t have much use for the various DSP options myself but I can load up my server with parametric EQ and speaker compensation with very little impact. CPU load only goes up by a few percent, which is a much smaller hit than upsampling. I suspect the HOST would be adequate for this job but this is just another educated guess. For their part Clones doesn’t make any promises regarding Roon 1.3 features, so again potential buyers should plan accordingly.
It’s really not that hard to build your own music server. You can buy a nice motherboard, powerful CPU, plenty of RAM and SSD storage, and a nice looking case without spending thousands of dollars (just make sure you know what you’re getting into with the enclosure). If you aren’t as sensitive as I am to noise, this is a fairly basic project. Build this thing, play music directly from it, or stream from there to an endpoint such as the SOtM sMS-200 (review coming soon), and be happy with your result. I wholeheartedly support this approach.
Here’s the thing: building or buying a regular PC that will do a good job serving Roon to an endpoint isn’t all that hard. If you’d rather simplify your setup by connecting the server straight to the DAC, that’s where it gets more expensive and complicated. Dedicated USB output cards and linear power supplies ain’t cheap. If you want the device totally silent, that makes things even more difficult, and you’ll have to find the right low-power CPU with adequate passive cooling. And for maximum sound quality, there are a lot of little details to get right on the software side too. I know people who got lost on that journey years ago, never to return. Then comes tweaks to mess with like the Audioquest Jitterbug or UpTone Regen. Again, lots of research to do and options to try. It ends up being a far more involved build than the basic PC, with a higher cost and – more importantly – a lot more time spent getting everything just right. Once again, this is something I still recommend for those who have the inclination. It’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s rewarding once complete.
For those who don’t have the knowledge to handle their own build, or just lack the time to spend monkeying with it, the Clones Audio HOST makes an excellent alternative. It’s totally silent. It looks great in an audio rack. It’s very simple to get up and running. And it performs quite well with Roon assuming your music library isn’t absurdly large. The sound quality is superb too – clearly better than a more pedestrian PC or laptop, and on par with competing audiophile devices costing quite a bit more. I had zero hesitation using it in an extremely resolving system comprised of far more expensive components. Despite the price difference involved, the HOST didn’t look or sound out-of-place in the least.
The HOST isn’t trying to be all things to all people. But it succeeds at what it does set out to do, and at a very reasonable price by music server standards. If you find yourself in the market for such a device and don’t have the time or inclination to build your own, the Clones Audio HOST is a very appealing option worthy of serious consideration.