Blue Smoke server, Music Vault or Zalman??

SlickenSmooth -- Wed, 05/05/2010 - 19:47

I'm thinking of getting the Berkeley Alpha DAC and a music server. I'm kind of tired of disc swapping. My intention is to have playback equal to the best CD player I've heard, the Spectral SDR4000S Pro. I'm considering 3 options;
1) Blue Smoke server. Any users on here who can tell me about it? Is it worth it's costs (7k)? What advantages does it have over other music servers?
2) Music Vault Diamond. Recieved some rave on here and is cheaper than Blue Smoke server, but more importantly is it as good?
3) Custom built Zalman TNN-300 with Samplitude (for higher quality playback than MediaMonkey). Will save me lots of money. But I'm not super well versed in computers, so ease of use is really important for me.
Is it possible to get to the level of the best cd playback or am I dreaming? Any suggestions?

ScottB -- Wed, 05/05/2010 - 20:54

 I've been using a Blue Smoke server with Berkeley AlphaDAC for nearly a year now, in a pretty high-end system (Spectral DMA-360/Magico M5). I had previously used a purpose-built fanless PC with Lynx audio card, as well as a Weiss AFI1 Firewire-based solution. The Blue Smoke is, overall, clearly the best of these options.
A quick digression. The purposes of a music server in the context of a high quality external DAC like the AlphaDAC are: 1.) Deliver a bit-perfect, low jitter, low noise digital signal to the DAC and 2.) provide a first rate user experience (organizing, searching, browsing of the music library).
The Blue Smoke addresses point 1 with a comprehensive approach to both hardware and software engineering. Low voltage processors, good electrical isolation, advanced DSP, and other things contribute to low jitter and systemic noise contribution. On the software side, very specific re-engineering of the audio rendering stack allows for bit-perfect performance even from software not specifically designed for bit perfection, like Windows Media and iTunes, which is a pretty neat trick.
The above also means that, from a media software perspective, the Blue Smoke is pretty much agnostic. Windows Media, Windows Media Center, WinAmp, MediaMonkey, iTunes, and others can all deliver excellent audio results - it's a matter of personal preference as to the best interface for you. I use, and strongly prefer, J River Media Center in conjunction with DbPowerAmp for ripping - these two in combination provide much more comprehensive metadata retrieval and navigation, very important for large Classical music collections like mine. But hey, that's just me.
I'd say one other thing - the $7K price doesn't seem reasonable if you think of it as a PC. But consider - an advanced PC music server based on a fanless case and Lynx Studio card will run you about 3,500, all in - ask me how I know. And my fanless PC was disappointing from an audio perspective - slightly closed in and harsh in the treble. The Blue Smoke is much more compact and cool running, and the aesthetics and build quality are far superior. Throw in all of the advanced hardware and software engineering that simply can't be duplicated in a DIY solution, and the Blue Smoke begins to actually look like a bargain in the context of a higher-end system like mine.
I won't claim that the Blue Smoke is the best answer for anyone. Music server technology, in general, is in the early stages of development, and you can expect anything you get to be somewhat obsolescent in a few years. And I've not heard or used all of the contenders, by any stretch. But I'm very happy with the Blue Smoke at present, and haven't thought twice about any other music serving solution since I got it.

7ryder -- Thu, 05/06/2010 - 00:48

FWIW, my house has a wired LAN and I rip all CDs using dBpoweramp from my desktop PC.  Until recently, files have been saved on a NAS, but I just upgraded to a Windows Home Server.   My source has been a Cullen modded Sonos ZP-80 (the jitter spec is way lower than the Blue Smoke's spec) and I use the digital outs.  Processor is a Classe SSP-800 and I currently run the Sonos directly into it, but I have used a PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC as well.  Amplification is Parasound (JC-1s for the mains and A51 for surrounds/center), speakers are Usher Mini Dancer 2s and I have a couple of JL Audio f112s.
The downside to using Sonos is that it doesn't do hi-res files.  For that reason, I have just bought a Linn Akurate DS which will replace the Sonos (expect for the zones in the rest of the house).  All of my equipment is in an equipment closet, so I don't have to worry about the sound of the server. 
You might want to explore the PS Audio stuff...they are getting ready to beta test their Bridge which will take digital files right off your NAS/WHS and put it into their DAC via their HDMI interface. They are claiming zero jitter.  Price hasn't been decided yet, but the PWD is $3K and the bridge might be a couple grand more max.  You could get a ReadyNAS to hold your files and rip your CDs.
Both the Linn and the PS Audio (when the Bridge is out, probably June) can use an iPhone, iTouch or iPad for a control point.  Both of these systems are UPnP systems, so they can use all of the software listed above too.
Is it possible to get better than CD via digital?...yes, get a Linn Akurate or Klimax DS

SlickenSmooth -- Thu, 05/06/2010 - 05:16

I've already auditioned the Linn Klimax DS. And compared it A/B to dCs Puccini+USB clock as a networkplayer. The Puccini was better, no doubt. Then the dealer put the Puccini vs the Spectral and it's unbelievable that even though the Spectral doesn't do High-Res that it makes cd sound so natural and musical without any colourations. The high-res files had more resolution yes, but the Spectral cd player bested it on all other areas. I'm wondering if the blue smoke server, alpha dac (it's like a sibling in terms of sound to the Spectral), bypassing the preamp will best it. Certainly I love the convenience of having all music at your fingertips. I'm kind of tired of wanting to hear only 1 track on a cd and having to walk to the cd player 20 times on one evening.

Silence is Music

davidkm (not verified) -- Thu, 05/13/2010 - 14:48

Thank you gentlemen after reading your post. I found the software I love for my media server J River Media Center and dbpower amp. I think you should know that ver. 15 of J River Media Center comes with webremote built into it and will work with any smart phone. It will also do webplay and stream media to my Iphone from home to anywhere.  And it does this with all the Cd art-work. dbpoweramp is the best ripping software that I have used. Ounce again thankyou for posting your comments.

firedog -- Fri, 05/14/2010 - 17:15

 I doubt the Blue Smoke is worth the price. Robert Harley uses a "quiet PC music server" from and a Berkeley DAC, and I think the called it the "best digital he's heard". You can get both for about the price of the Blue Smoke.
The MV is another good option. AFAIK, both companies will custom make the PC with the features you want.

ScottB -- Fri, 05/14/2010 - 18:48

I also used, for a while, one of the servers with Lynx card - an identical configuration to RH's, except in a horizontal instead of vertical case. This is essentially just a fanless PC, with no particular attention paid to audio quality considerations other than the Lynx card. A configuration like this is $3500-$4000 depending on options. Relative to the Blue Smoke, the case is much larger, about 3-4x higher and 50% wider, the build quality is very rough compared to the elegant Blue Smoke, and it runs much warmer. The real disappointment for me, though, was the sound - there was a subtle hardness to the treble, and a slight lack of air, compared with my previous solution (a laptop driving a Weiss Firewire AFI1 digital breakout box).

I should also have mentioned that the Blue Smoke has switchable proprietary hardware and software-based oversampling algorithms, which they invested years in developing. Although I only use these features part of the time, the hardware algorithm, in particular, has a striking influence on sound quality that I might describe as analog-like. Treble response is smoothed, the edges of images are softened, and the entire soundstage expands considerably. For those who have always hated the characteristic sound of digital recording, these algorithms could be a godsend.

Whether or not a component is worth xxxx dollars is a frequent and contentious topic on these forums, and there can be no answer to that question which is true for all, or even most, enthusiasts. For me, having spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to piece together various ad hoc solutions which ended up being unsatisfactory from one perspective or another, the Blue Smoke is well worth it, even before you consider its unique oversampling capabilities.

If I were looking to put together a less expensive but still superb server/DAC combination, I'd go with a fanless netbook (like the Dell mini-10), connected to an Ayre QB-9 USB DAC. This is the exact combo I use as my desktop headphone system source, and it's truly superb, for about $3k total. Of course, it doesn't have the ability to function as a digital preamp like my AlphaDAC, but otherwise I think I'd be happy with it driving my $100K main system.

Suteetat -- Mon, 05/17/2010 - 09:04

opps, duplicated post below, sorry.

Suteetat -- Mon, 05/17/2010 - 09:03

Scott, do you still have your computer music server/Lynx?
I am curious if you ever tried XXHighend program. I have been using this program now for the last few months and
the sound quality is significantly better than MediaMonkey with direct waveout or asio. The program can be a bit quirky and
the interface is not nearly as nice but I think the sound quality more than made up for it. You can download a free trail version.
Just curious how this might compare to a purpose-built music server. While using MediaMonkey, I was also thinking that a dedicated server like Blue Smoke might be a better way to go, or perhaps the new Naim unit but now with XXHighend, I am not so sure.

ScottB -- Mon, 05/17/2010 - 14:22

 I still have the fanless Lynx server, but it's not so easy to plug back into my system at this point. I never tried XXHighEnd, although I'm familiar with it and have had a few bulletin board exchanges with its creator. He did some rather involved, but innovative, testing on the impact of software in the context of his complete system. XXHighEnd was a non-starter for me, since the whole raison detre of digitizing my music collection was to improve accessibility and discoverability, through powerful searching/browsing capabilities. Even iTunes is nowhere near flexible enough for me in that regard.
Beyond that, I'm philosophically not a fan of covering over hardware problems with software tweaks. In the context of a bit-perfect digital media server, that is exactly what programs like Amarra and XXHighEnd do. This seems to not be well-understood in the audiophile community, so allow me a bit of a digression.
In the early days of CD playback, a number of seemingly unscientific tweaks became popular in the audiophile community - stacking CDs double in the playback tray, damping rings, surface treatments, etc. These tweaks were mocked by the "objectivist" community, who "knew" that none of this stuff mattered as long as the data was perfectly read, which it almost always is in CD playback due to the advanced error recovery mechanisms built into the format and the players. But of course, the data turned out to be not quite the whole story. CD players have a quite a number of components that are mechanically and electromagnetically "noisy" - vibration from the CD drive, electrical noise from the drive motor, laser servo, data buffering, DSP chips, even the graphic displays. And all that "noise", if not carefully isolated, could impact the clocking of the data (jitter), A/D conversion, the analog outputs, and even other components connected to the same A/C circuits.
Today, all of those funky tweaks are mostly out of fashion. Rather than try to indirectly address the "noise" issues caused by disk vibration and error correction algorithms, high-end CD player designers have long since learned to damp and isolate the noise sources themselves. But we're now revisiting the same kind of problem, in a different form, with music server technology. Given a properly designed bit perfect software stack, the data reaching the sound card will be identical, regardless of the specific software used. The sound card has no way to "know" what's in the software stack that feeds it. But a typical PC (or Mac), even if configured with no moving parts (i.e. fanless with solid state disk drive), is a very electrically noisy environment. Processors, memory, memory buffers, power supplies, graphics cards, sound cards, network interfaces, and graphics monitors are all noisy (for instance, Peter, the author of XXHighEnd, has measured anomalies in the output signal correlated to the once-per-second graphics refreshes caused by updates in the "time remaining" display in the graphical mode of his program). This noise, again, can affect both the clocking of the data, and electrically adjacent audio components through the main power ground.
One way to deal with the problems of media server hardware is to design the playback software so as to minimally use or disturb the noise creating hardware. Minimize graphics use, minimize disk reads, minimize use of compute resources by not using any encoding (not even lossless encoding) in your music files. Its the software equivalent of keeping the error correction circuits quiet through application of damping to a CD. But a better way, obviously, is to minimize noise creation by the hardware in the first place. Use of lower power circuits, good shielding, mechanical damping, careful case design, and properly designed AC power conditioning can reduce the EMI issues to the point where the server can be software-agnostic. This is the approach taken by the Blue Smoke, and that's one major reason I purchased it, since as I said I want my software decision driven by usability considerations.
BTW, in the case where we are *not* using software purely in bit-perfect mode - if we're using software-based volume control, or software-based DSP - the design of the software obviously does have a direct impact on audio quality. Both Amarra and XXHighEnd claim to have put a great deal of thought into their software volume controls - although they seem to have opposing opinions on the best technical implementation :)

Suteetat -- Tue, 05/18/2010 - 19:11

Scott thanks for your reply. I gave up on writing long reply as the stupid spam filter kept blocking my answers several times over the past day when I tried to answer.

ScottB -- Wed, 05/19/2010 - 20:42

Suteetat, I'm sorry the filter killed your replies, I know they would have contributed much to this discussion. I've had the same experience myself several times. I'm disappointed that this experience continues even for long-time reputable contributors like us. If AvGuide expects this forum to be a major contributor to its business/community model, it has to aggressively fix a spam filtering model that regularly rejects lengthy, well thought out contributions from regular, non-inflammatory members.

AvGuide, fix this. Fix it now. Fix it, or lose the loyalty of those you can least afford to lose.

firedog -- Wed, 05/19/2010 - 21:02

++++ I've had more comments labeled as spam this week. This is the only forum I know of with this problem. Not only have they not fixed it, the form that comes up when they label your comment as spam implies that they will read your submission and post it if it is okay. But this never happens. Even more frustrating. I participate b/c sometimes I feel I can help, and sometimes I learn something.

Suteetat -- Wed, 05/19/2010 - 23:06

Scott, let me try again,
I agree with you and I think Blue Smoke goes to extraordinary effort to minimize hardware interference. However, my experience with XXHighend also shows how the software side also affect the sound quality. My feeling is that XXHighend tries to optimize the use of the hardware properly rather than doing DSP or anything that will alter bit output (well not including the upsampling bit but I think it is upsampling done right, but that's different story).
I took some effort to improve the computer server, using Stillpoint ERS paper, better cable than Lynx stock cable etc. I am also looking to replace switching power supply with linear power supply etc.
After all these efforts, I am really wondering how much better a dedicated 3rd party music server would be vs regular home PC with program such as XXHighend. Certainly if it is not too much effort for you, I would be curious to see how XXHighend/server would compare to Blue Smoke!
I am also not quite clear about your point on volume control. If I understand correctly, any digital volume, be it software base or something like Berkeley, if you turn the volume down enough, bits will be lossed. Of course may be different implementatoins will have different effect.

Suteetat -- Wed, 05/19/2010 - 23:08

Sorry, this is now the fifth or sixth time spam filter stopped me from posting on this thread. It would be ironic if this message gets through!

Suteetat -- Fri, 05/21/2010 - 02:35

Another stupid spam filter, I am really sorry, but I think I shall give up on this thread for now. Strange, I just reply in another thread with no problem!

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