sooloos music serverOne of the more promising pieces of technology to come into the high end audio space over the last decade is the Sooloos music streaming server.  Sooloos was once independently owned, but was purchased by Meridian Audio 5 years ago or so.  This purchase was made because Meridian wanted a piece of the music server market, but didn’t want a piece that required massive amounts of compression that most MP3 players use.  They wanted a piece that allowed their customers to experience the full resolution of lossless audio.

Music Server History

The history of music servers is riddled with broken equipment and dreams.  From Escient to many others there have been a whole host of manufacturers that have attempted to conquer this space.  Many of the difficulties in the early days were tied to the expense of hard drive space.  In order to fit a reasonable number of songs on a device it required compressing the tracks until much of the information from the song was gone.

Jason Harrison of Audio Video Experts, a Santa Monica home theater dealer, remembers well the complaints of his high end clients at the complete lack of devices capable of servicing this market.

While this sort of listening might be fine when using a pair of ear buds, it’s a totally different story when you’re listening on a system like set of Meridian DSP8000’s.  All the detail that you expect when listening on a system like this is completely missing when listening in MP3 format, even if you choose least compression.

Escient attempted to get around this by building the Fireball platform that could either play directly from CD or could be burned to the hard drive of the unit.  The problem was that if you wanted more than one zone of audio you had to have multiple CD’s and multiple CD players.  This was hardly convenient.

The second problem manufacturers faced was the interface.  While Escient in particular did a reasonably good job of this the interface was still slow and clunky.

Along Came Sooloos

Sooloos came along into this market and decided to take a different approach.  Rather than mass producing a product that did a poor job of music reproduction, they decided to focus on the high end market.  They would offer lossless audio and an incredible interface that made selecting your music fun.

They used network server grade hard drives that could be swapped even when the unit was in use in the event of failure.  They also used massive amounts of storage and offered no apologies for the price.  While the units were expensive, they offered everything a high end audio lover could want.  The ability to quickly and easily find all of their music and listen to it in it’s original lossless format.

Meridian Audio took note and decided to gobble them up.  Up until that point most Meridian customers were using high end single CD players or carousels to listen their favorite music.  Finally the Sooloos product offered a way for them to have the best of both worlds.

While the product line was relatively small, this is actually pretty ideal.  The system is typically composed of a player, hard drive system, and touch panel.  The connections to your audio system can either be analog, digital coax, or optical.  The zone player allows you to listen to a different song in anywhere up to four zones.  While the prices for these components are well above other music server systems, the performance is well worth it.

Unfortunately there is no way to handle SACD’s with this system, so if you’ve got a large collection of high resolution albums you’ll still need to keep your SACD player for the time being.

lossless audioIn the world of high end audio there is always some way of improving the sound of a system.  Whether it be with a new and improved amplifier design, or the latest in interconnect design, the upgrade cycle can seem never-ending.  Of course this is exactly what manufacturers want.  But every once in a while something comes along that truly does make a significant difference in the way we hear our music.  As one company that does home theater installation in Tampa is finding, clients are asking for this type of thing more and more often.

This is one of the promises of high-resolution audio.  Here’s a bit of background from a recent article on Electronic House.

Resolution, in audio, refers to the sampling rate. High resolution usually features a sample rate of 96kHz or higher, with a bit depth of 24, shown as 96/24. Sampling rates of 192 kHz are common with high res files. CDs are 44.1 kHz/16, for comparison.

High resolution audio music can come in various file formats, including FLAC, WAV, ALAC, PCM and DSD. Audiophiles argue over which format is the best, with one of the main points of contention being DSD’s use of a bit depth of one vs. PCM (which is the underlying format behind FLAC, ALAC, and WAV), where 24 is standard in the HRA realm. However, DSD uses a sample rate of 2.8MHz, where PCM’s typical HRA rate is 192kHz.

While it does require some additional equipment, the results are absolutely stunning.  Here’s more from the article.

DAC – Yes You Need One

If only it was as easy as downloading HRA files and calling it done, maybe adoption of the format would have taken off more than it has. But simply throwing a 192/24 FLAC file on your iPhone or home server won’t put you in the world of HRA yet. For that, you’ll need a Digital Audio Converter (DAC).

Let’s start with most people’s go-to music device – their phone. Not many mobile devices will handle HRA files, though a handful of Android phones from LG, Sony and Samsung do. Apps exist for the iPhone such as the Onkyo HF Player (free, but with $9.99 in-app purchase to unlock the good stuff), and there is some belief the DAC built into the phone (whose specs, unsurprisingly, are not public) could handle the files in a future update.

When it comes to home use, the picture muddies a bit. If you store your music on a PC, and want to use that PC as the audio source, you’ll need an external USB DAC (and additional drivers to play music above 96/24) as a middleman between your computer and amp if you plan to hook your computer directly to the amp.

You’ll also need to download a program to play those files, as Windows Media Player and iTunes won’t handle the higher resolution HRA files. J-River Media Player is one of the more popular. Finally you should ensure the DAC uses asynchronous USB for the best possible results, and one with balanced output is a good idea as well.

Many newer stereo or home theater receivers contain high quality DACs, but it becomes difficult sometimes to pin down the specs for your receiver’s DAC and to understand if you truly get all that HRA files have to offer by using DLNA, for example, to stream the tracks right to your receiver.

To avoid the work that comes with trying to use the PC as a source, newer all-in-one hardware is appearing, such as the Aria Music Server that seemed to put Norah Jones right in the room with me at Paragon Sight and Sound. Oppo’s 103 and 105 Blu-ray/DVD players can also play back HRA from an attached USB hard drive, and the Oppo BDP-105 includes a 2-channel asynchronous USB DAC input.

Special amp/DACs exist for headphone listening from computers or mobile phones, such as the Audioquest Dragonfly USB stick or the Denon DA-10.  Full article at Electronichouse.com

More and more companies are coming out with products that are capable of storing and reproducing lossless audio.  As storage devices capable of holding these massive files are becoming cheaper and cheaper, we’re only going to see more.

control4 logoThere is a lot to be said for simplicity when it comes to audio products.  Unfortunately even the most basic 2 channel stereo system typically requires a couple of remotes.  Once you move into the realm of home theater, this can often put you at 4 or 5 relatively complicated remotes.  This makes using a system a chore rather than enjoyable.  This is where Control4 steps in.

Home Automation Controls for Stereo Purists

While those that prefer to listen to their music in it’s purest forms may not necessarily need a full blown home automation system, combining all of your remotes into one simple and easy to use interface is practical no matter how basic your system might be.

Anyone with more than 2 components to turn on and set to the proper inputs knows what I’m talking about.  And as soon as you introduce a media player like Sooloos or comparable high quality music library product you can forget about trying to use the factory remotes.  It’s just unworkable.

What About the Cost

Lots of people get hung up on the cost of home automation products.  This is especially ironic for those that enjoy high end audio since some will pay in excess of $30,000 for a pair of speakers such as the Wilson Sashas.  And you can easily pay $5000 per monoblock amplifier if you’re looking at products like Krell.  I can think of dozens of past clients that would spend as much on audio gear as they would on a high end automobile, but then scoff at paying $1000 for an easy method of controlling all of their equipment.

Of course there is the setup and installation to consider, and this will often run into the $1k plus range.  But when you think about how often you use your remote to use your system, it’s really money well spent.  After all, when you’re in the mood to listen to your favorite album, the last thing you want to do is have to hunt around for the right remote in a 4 or 5 step process to turn everything on.

I know that some guys take a certain amount of pride in being able to operate such complicated equipment.  But lets get serious, it’s glorified button pressing.  A chimp could do it.  So if you’re looking for the next upgrade to  your system get in touch with a Control4 dealer.  They can help you streamline and simplify your system.  For more information check out http://www.twisttechllc.com/residential.php.  Here you can see installations and even case studies about the best uses of home automation technology.

In the end the the convenience is well worth the additional expense.  And besides, if anyone else wants to use the system they won’t have to ask you how to do it.

krell monoblock

Krell Industries has a long history of manufacturing high performance audio components.  For more than 15 years their mono-block amplifiers have been considered one of the benchmarks of the industry.  They utilize massive power supplies so that no matter what speakers you pair them with you will never be lacking for power.  You’re more likely to cause the lights to dim in your house than to overwork one of these bad boys.

The Krell Duo 175 stereo amplifier is no exception to this.  Rated at 175 watts into 8 ohms or 350 watts in to 4 ohms this beast of an amplifier can push just about any speaker you can throw at it.

This particular amp utilizes Krell’s iBias technology.  This enables the amplifier to deliver huge sound without generating tons of heat.  While mono-block type amplifiers are not typically stored in equipment racks, these most certainly could be.  So how does this work?

Typically when you’re using an amplifier at normal listening levels, the extra power must be bled off through the heat sinks of the amp.  This means that the amp is actually generating power that the amp doesn’t even need.  With the iBias system the output transistors of the amp only receive the exact amount of power that they need.  This makes for a highly efficient design.  This same technology has a dramatic impact on the sound as well.  The mid-range frequencies have a much more rich  and full sound than in previous models.

Remote Monitoring

Another cool feature of the Duo 175 is that it is network capable.  This allows you to monitor all the relevant information about the amplifier in real time  This interface can be monitored from a computer or a smart phone.

The amp can be configured to email you or your audio video integrator should any of the diagnostics report an issue with fans, circuitry, or power supplies.

Overall the Duo 175 is pretty impressive.  It offers incredible sound and flexibility.  It’s one of the few audiophile quality amplifiers out there that can be rack mounted or in a more traditional open air environment.  Definitely worth a look.

Check it out at http://www.krellonline.com/stereo-amps.html