SOtM sMS-1000U Music Server

the SOtM sMS-1000U Music Server atop the prototype Linear Power Supply

Device Type: Music Server
Input: 3x USB (for USB peripherals), 1x Ethernet
Output: 2x USB 2.0 (for audio), 1x VGA, 1x DVI
Dimensions (H x W x D): 360mm x 240mm x 68mm
Weight: 4kg
Availability: Through Authorized Dealers
Price: $2,750.00 as reviewed w/USB output and 250GB SSD
US Distributor's Website: www.tailoredtechnology.com
Website: www.sotm-audio.com

SOtM "Soul Of the Music" Server
A music server is a computer. I know you already knew that but I figured I'd state the obvious anyway as a lead in to the most important criteria for any computer destined to act as a music server. Among these criteria I count ease of use as being paramount to worth. If there's anything at all cumbersome when it comes to operation, I'd say that pretty much disqualifies said server as a contender. After all, using a Mac or PC as a music server can be pretty simple. Next on the list of important items is sound quality. Again, if said server doesn't outperform a regular old computer, what use is it? Thankfully the folks at SOtM seem to think along these same lines.

The SOtM sMS-1000 fanless music server is a Linux-based (Fedora release 16) system running the open source VortexBox Media Server software and MPD (Music Player Daemon). The sMS-1000 also comes with Logitech's Squeezebox Server, Samba server, and DLNA/UPnP server preinstalled and it can handle most common file formats (AIFF, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, MP3...), PCM resolutions up to 24/384kHz as well as single and double rate DSD. On the hardware side, we're looking at an Intel Atom N270 1.60GHz CPU with a 250GB solid state drive (SSD) in the review sample. The SOtM server includes their tX-USB audio output card ($300 when sold separately) and there's a CD/DVD slot drive for ripping CDs. Control of the sMS-1000 is through a browser-based interface or any number of iOS or Android apps on your tablet or smartphone.

Options
The standard sMS-1000 Music Server comes with 2TB of internal storage and there are three models to choose from: sMS-1000D includes USB, S/PDIF, AES output ($2,699), sMS-1000U includes USB output ($2,499), and sMS-1000A includes USB and analog output ($2,999) that incorporates an internal DAC. You can also add more storage: 3TB (+$50), 4TB:(+$100). You can also opt for solid state drives (SSD): 120G (+$150), 250G (+$250), as well a SSD and HDD with a Bluray disc drive: 32GB SSD/2TB/Bluray (+$300), 32GB SSD/3TB/Bluray (+$350), and 32GB SSD/4TB/Bluray (+$400).

Setup
Since the review sample was designed to be used with external storage, I had to let the VortexBox software know that I have a NAS on my network for use with the MPaD app (the Creation 5 Media Pro app automatically recognizes the Vortexbox and my NAS). While the process of mounting the drive is relatively straight forward, it is not simply a matter of checking a box. You actually need to log into the VortexBox web-based Admin, enter a name for your NAS, its IP address, point to the shared Music directory, and select "Save" and "Mount Now". SOtM provides a PDF instruction sheet for this process. This is a one-time deal unless you experience a power outage, as I did during the review period, in which case you'll have to reset the IP address of your NAS in this same web-based Admin page.

MPaD screen shots

Controlling the sMS-1000 is accomplished either through a web-based interface or any one of a number of iOS/Android apps. I mainly used MPaD on my iPad since I already had it but you can also use use iPeng, Squeezebox Remote, Creation 5 Media Pro, etc. Through the MPaD app you can create and save Playlists, play entire albums or individual tracks, repeat, shuffle, fast-forward or backward through a track, search, and more. If you are used to Apple's free Remote app, the MPaD app will feel very familiar. The sMS-1000 also supports gapless playback.

If you opt for internal storage, you'll want to back up the data on your sMS-1000. This is easily accomplished through the web-based interface and is as simple as connecting a USB drive and clicking on the "Backup" menu icon.

I mainly used the sMS-1000 with the matching SOtM sDP-1000 DAC (see review) using the SOtM dCBL-USB-S USB cable ($600/1M) and the SOtM Ultra Pure Onho Continuous Cast (UPOCC) copper USB cable ($600/1M) as well as the SOtM SPS-1000 Linear Power Supply ($1,000) which powers both the server and the battery-powered DAC. The DAC was connected to my Pass INT-30A integrated amp with Kimber Kable Select KS 1126 Balanced ICs and the Pass drove my DeVore Fidelity The Nines.

A Musical Server
Switching back and forth between my MacBook Pro as music server running the latest version of Audirvana and the sMS-1000 was a snap—move the USB cable from the server to the Mac, restart my media player software and wa la, I was A/B'ing like mad. Compared to my MacBook Pro, the SOtM server was more refined, detailed, and nuanced. It was easier to follow what the musicians were doing and their place in space was more clearly delineated. The sound picture the SOtM painted was also roomier in every dimension and thus had more apparent air between players.

Perhaps even more than these specific sonic differences, I noticed I was generally more relaxed when listening through the SOtM server. Music felt like it flowed more naturally into the room. These differences were very easy to hear and did not require any furrowed brow listening or blind testing to verify. They were plainly obvious each time I hooked the sMS-1000 back up. This held regardless of the music's resolution so 16/44.1 material was a pleasure to listen to and higher resolutions sounded even better.

I also compared the SOtM server to my PC running JRiver Media Center and using the SOtM tX-USB audio output card ($300) and the differences were also readily apparent. There was a larger and more precise sound image and everything seemed better articulated through the server as compared to the PC. In terms of the overall sonic flavor, the PC w/SOtM USB card was closer to their server's sound than the Mac which leads me to believe the SOtM tX-USB audio output card is responsible for a lot of the sound characteristics I'm hearing with both SOtM devices. I'll cover this USB output card in a review all its own but you can color me impressed here as well.

Operating the sMS-1000 with the MPaD app on my iPad was also a breeze and I took some delight in using a headless system which more than likely has something to do with the fact that the remote handled all of the control I needed of the sMS-1000 for music playback making a dedicated monitor and keyboard superfluous. And I hate superfluous.

I also gave the Auralic Vega DAC (see review) a turn with the SOtM server and it was a marriage made in sonic heaven. All of those traits I heard with the SOtM DAC were also apparent here with greater apparent resolution, more space and air, and a larger better defined sound image as compared to the MacBook Pro serving as server. The Vega also imparts a greater sense of tone colors than the SOtM DAC so the added sonic benefits of the SOtM server coupled with the Vega offered a rich and rewarding pairing.

I only ripped one CD since the review sample is not setup for internal storage but the process involved sticking a CD into the cleverly concealed front-mounted CD/DVD slot, waiting, then removing the CD once the sMS-1000 was done ripping and had spit it out. The SOtM rips to the FLAC format by default but you can opt to also rip to ALAC and/or MP3. You can also drag and drop music files into the SOtM server since it shows up as shared device on your network. In case the SOtM rip does not get your metadata right, and with the one rip I did it didn't (Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate's Kulanjan), you'll have to use a separate metadata editor, like MP3Tag, to fix it.

Metallurgy
I also compared the SOtM dCBL-USB-S (silver) USB cable and the SOtM Ultra Pure Onho Continuous Cast (UPOCC) copper USB cable and found that I preferred the latter for its slightly more relaxed and tonally rich presentation. The SOtM silver cable offers a more precise, incisive sound but I found that it pushed things a bit too far forward for my tastes in my system.

The SOtM Stack
As a complete playback system, I think the DSD-capable SOtM stack including the SOtM sMS-1000 Music Server, SOtM sDP-1000 DAC with either SOtM USB cable, silver or copper (different flavors your choice), is a real winning combo. The linear power supply, which will get the same matching (and handsome, imo) chassis in the production unit, at $1,000 is not a must-have item but its certainly nice to know you have an upgrade path if you so desire.

The overall SOtM sound is to my ears delicate, nuanced, and very highly resolving. The sonic gains I experienced with the SOtM sMS-1000 Music Server over my MacBook Pro and PC were both easy to hear and hard to give up. For those listeners not interested in futzing with their PC's internals in order to build an optimized server, the SOtM pre-packaged solution is a sound investment. I was equally impressed by the SOtM sDP-1000 DAC and all together SOtM has a lot to offer people looking for a one-stop computer audio shop.



Associated Equipment

COMMENTS
jky999's picture

As a Vega owner, I was happy to hear abt the copascetic pairing.  Just curious, did you get a chance to play DSD in Exact mode with the Vega and SOtM?  And if so, any dropouts?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...I listened to the DSD download of A Love Supreme in Exact mode with no dropouts.

jky999's picture

Thanks and excellent.  I don't suppose you've digitized any of your vinyl to DSD yet?  There's a Tascam DSD recorder (the DA 3000) that is getting good reviews on the pro audio site Gear Slutz.

I'm about to embark down that path shortly.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

....but I've heard some vinyl to DSD rips that Philip O'Hanlon has done and they are pretty spectacular.

Archimago's picture

Can't help but feel the Atom N270 is *very* underpowered for a machine of this price in 2013!

The N270 is a first generation Atom from 2008 meant for those old netbooks... I wonder why they did not go dual core! For example, even the Atom D2700 at 2.13GHz from 2011 is "end of life" and would have possibly opened up opportunities for this server like maybe realtime room correction with convolution filters and DSD-to-PCM conversion in the future (not even sure if Atom would do the job).

Back in 2009-2010, I used an N270 music server for Squeezebox duties and found it slow for a large 5000-album music library.

Audreal's picture

We have more than enough processing power to run our very light weight OS.  Our objective is to minimize the amount of processing and heat while focusing on the task of serving audio data.  That helps this unit sound better than any Mac or Windows computer I have heard.

The value is in the hardware that is handling data output.

Elise_B's picture

My beef with music servers like the SOtM sMS-1000U is that unlike LPs, which generally included lengthy notes on their jackets, or CDs, which generally included informative liners, music servers typically provide only the title of the album, the name of the artist, the title of the track, and possibly a date.  That limited set of metadata doesn't cut it with my collection, which contains many recordings of operas, or, I dare say, with the collection of any serious music lover.  This review of the SOtM music server includes a screen shot of MPaD, but includes no comments about the quality of the experience.  Looking at the screen shot included in the review, would anyone realize that a quartet is performing on the recording?  Any idea who are the members of that quartet?  Would you like to know who composed each piece?  Are you interested in some biographical information about Don Cherry?  All that information and more was typically available on CDs and LPs, but not with this product (or others like it).  Of course sound quality matters, but for me this review is like a review of a car that discusses the sound of the engine in minute detail but fails to notice that the car can't be driven because it lacks wheels.

I turn to publications like AudioStream in the hope that I will learn of products that will enhance my enjoyment of music.  I believe that music servers have greater potential to enhance the user experience than any product since the LP, but not just because gifted listeners perceive their sound to be "delicate, nuanced, and very highly resolving".  AudioStream can be a valuable resource in this new audio world, but only if reviews include comments on all aspects of the user experience, not just subjective (or objective, for that matter) assessments of sound quality.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

That's an excellent comment and a very valid point. The current state of metadata in general is a sad state when compared to what you typically get with an LP or CD.

While this does not directly address your concerns for every user/scenario, I find that while I'm listening to music and using my iPad as a remote, as I did with the SOtM server, if I have questions concerning what I'm listening to, I just browse the internet from the same iPad. This can potentially be a source of even greater information than liner notes but it can also be a great distraction.

One interesting app that I saw integrated into the Naim nStream remote app was called Rovi which provides extended metadata, liner notes, reviews, additional artwork...It is geared toward delivering the kind of user experience you are talking about. I did not get a chance to really dig into Rovi (I saw it at RMAF) so I don't know how extensive its database is. But its certainly an interesting idea.

Audreal's picture

Elise there are many options and plugins available to control this server. 

http://mpd.wikia.com/wiki/Clients

MPad keeps things very simple and provides basic transport controls and database search functions.  It is fast, light and stable.

I use Gnome Music Player Client most often.  I run a portable version on every computer across my network.  It has plenty of features for my needs without installing the available plugins.

If I want to see detail about the music I am playing I click on the options here:

http://gmpc.wikia.com/wiki/GMPC_SCREENSHOST?file=1_main_window.png

The second option under web links - "Lookup album on Wikipedia Album" is very handy.  On most albums I find more info with these web links than on the printed material supplied with physical media.

Playlist creation and management is top-notch with GMPC.

Fafner's picture

In general, I avoid arguments with audiophiles because they are a fool's errand.  True believers can always respond "I can hear a difference" even when an audible effect is theoretically impossible.  However, occasionally I lose my self control.  This review and the blather from the US distributor pushed me over the edge.

The only original feature of this product is the case.  The product appears to be based on a standard Intel Atom motherboard, so anyone who is handy with a screwdriver could build a comparable system.  He or she would not have to worry about integrating the necessary software components because they come prepackaged in the free, open source VortexBox Linux distribution used in the product.  There is a plug-in board made by SOtM but available to anyone.  As you say, anyone not interested in futzing with computer hardware and software will find value in this product, but it is hard to see why such a pedestrian product is worthy of a review in AudioStream.

As to the claims about the secret sauce responsible for superior sound quality, pure hooey.  We are supposed to believe that superior sound quality results from two refinements, a linear power supply and an audio USB board. Mr. Hudgens tries to impress us with the observation that "no high end audio engineer would incorporate common computer power supply schemes in a fine preamp or power amp design".  I wonder whether Mr. Hudgens has noticed that unlike the circuitry in preamps and power amps, the circuitry in computers is digital.  Surely that essential difference would influence the design choice. The notion that linear power supplies automatically make analog circuits sound better is itself questionable, but implying that any putative benefits in preamps and power amps automatically transfer to digital circuitry is blowing smoke.  In digital circuitry, noise on the power lines doesn't matter as long as its amplitude is not sufficient to alter the digital interpretation of the signal.  Moreover, I wonder whether advocates of linear power supplies in computers are aware that standard motherboards have at least one voltage regulator module -- usually more -- which is a switched-mode power supply (SMPS) of exactly the sort found in "common computer power supply schemes". Thus, the power actually delivered to at least some components will have been conditioned by a SMPS even if you use a linear power supply to power the motherboard.  Despite the passion of advocates, it is hard to see how linear power supplies could have any impact on the performance of purely digital circuits such as the sMS-1000 server.

As for audio USB and special USB cables, bits are bits.  In digital circuitry, noise on signal lines doesn't matter as long as its amplitude is not sufficient to alter the digital interpretation of the signal.  If it is, you will know even if you are half deaf.  There will be ticks, clicks, pops, or even tweeter-destroying blasts corrupting playback.  If you don't hear such corruption, then the transmission of the signal through the USB interface and cable was perfect.

I suppose that the comments about how you set up A/B testing were supposed to impress us with the scientific rigor of your methodology.  The point of A/B testing is to eliminate a reliance on memory in subjective tests.  I don't know how long it took you to move the USB cable from the server to the Mac and restart your media player software, but it surely was not instantaneous.  Nor was the music continuous at the switch point, so memory was certainly a factor.  The testing was not blind: You always knew which source you were listening to after switching the USB cable.  If you really want to impress us with your scientific rigor, you would be doing double-blind ABX testing with multiple subjects, but if you are going to claim to be doing A/B testing, at least do it properly.

It may be true that this product -- this stack of products, really -- has excellent sound quality, but if so that quality has nothing to do with the use of a linear power supply, an audio USB interface, or special USB cables.  In fact, I doubt that the actual subject of this column, the sMS-1000 server, had any effect on sound quality at all.  Bits are bits whether they come from a MacBook Pro or a dedicated music server -- unless at least one of them was also processing the signal.  The test should have been controlled for that possibility unless the point of this review was to assess the merits of the software performing that processing.  This review wastes "ink" on a purely subjective review using a flawed methodology of a product unlikely to have any real impact on subjective quality and promulgates theories of questionable merit.  I expect better from this publication.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

;-)

Audreal's picture

Everyone I know who has actually listened has heard the difference :)

I appreciate what Michael offers here in the same way that I enjoy sitting with other listeners who make subjective observations.  When my friends and I go to live music events we also compare subjective reactions afterward.  We focus on entertainment, not science, in these discussions.

For scientific observations I appreciate what John Atkinson contributes at Stereophile.

We have always needed subjective and scientific observations in audio electronics. I don't expect to find both in the same place.

I hope Michael continues with the current AudioStream format.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...the experience and enjoyment of listening to music, I don't think we'll stop listening to and enjoying music anytime soon.

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