Known as the ‘Radiance Series’, the QAT MS5 is a Chinese-made music server that gets surprisingly close to a turn-key audiophile music solution. It combines ripper, server software, two terabytes of storage, comes complete with its own RP1 tablet remote, or can be driven by an Android or Apple iPad tablet with (practically) the same functionality. Unlike most PCs retasked for audio duties, it’s every bit a dedicated device, running fanless and using its own operating system for full music duties. And in the rich red and contrasting black finish supplied, it looks pretty cool too.
On-board functionality is fairly limited; deliberately so to prevent the MS5 from ending up being used to surf the net while playing music. On the computer connections side, it has merely a pair of USB ports, an Ethernet connection and a RS232 port for updates. In theory, both of the USB ports could be taken up with a Wi-Fi dongle (supplied) and an external USB storage. I’d recommend a wired connection to the internet where possible. Where the QAT wins over any computer is its connectivity to the audio world, it having both single-ended gold-plated phonos and balanced XLR sockets for analogue output and a gold plated S/PDIF phono connection for digital links. The custom boards designed for audio use are first rate, and feature a pair of 24bit/129kHz Analog Devices AD1955 DACs.
You need that Ethernet connection because there’s no way of accessing the QAT MS5 without it. There’s no wired screen or keyboard option. There is QAT’s own small, dedicated tablet, but Apps are available for all the fashionable fondleslabs. It basically takes over a single shelf in your hi-fi rack, and will ultimately likely push out your existing CD player – and possibly a tuner - when you discover its charms.
You also need that Ethernet connection to access internet radio sources. The QAT takes a relatively simple path with internet radio; it’s a separate ‘radio’ shaped button that pulls down a series of stations and sub-stations. It’s unbelievably easy to navigate, compared to some of the more ‘song and dance’ ways of accessing online radio. Simple means if your favourite station isn’t on the list, finding it is a little harder than some systems, but there’s usually more than enough radio to go round.
The ripping process – via a dedicated TEAC CD drive - is painstaking. That’s a polite way of saying ‘slow, but thorough’. You can skip tracks either prior to ripping or during the ripping process, but don’t quit mid-way through the process or you’ll lose all the data from that disc-ripping session. You can multitask (ripping a disc while playing another) but I think the QAT is happiest divided into ripping sessions and playing sessions.
In terms of metadata, the QAT picked up about 80% of discs first time, and that increased to a better than 95% success rate by the simple expedient of ejecting and reinserting the disc. The remaining discs could still be ripped, but you would need to manually enter the metadata. Automated metadata was confined to album and track details and cover image, but was almost perfectly accurate (one disc pulled up the wrong album cover, but it was a very old CD of Holst’s Planet Suite that most metadata engines fall over at, so no big deal).
The two mild grumbles over the metadata acquisition process fall mainly to genre tagging (it doesn’t do any by default, but appending your own is quick and easy) and classical track listing. Classical metadata is a pain at the best of times, but the QAT tended to list basic track information rather than specific musical information. Once again, this was easy and quick to update and repair, but if you are planning on ripping a lot of classical music and using an iPad, buy yourself a Bluetooth keyboard of some description.
I don’t want this to seem like harsh criticism; most music server software is hopeless at wrangling classical metadata and worse, most is harder to edit than the QAT. And what you get if you go deeper is an excellent system. It’s taking the easy route that defines the QAT. It automatically rips to FLAC (meaning those two terabytes of storage equates to about 3,000 CDs), it allows you to download music stored on a USB drive to the internal storage, and to download music on the internal storage to an external USB drive from the same menu (this potentially acts as future proofing if your source of CDs dries up, because the QAT currently has no provision for downloading music from the internet), although uploading by batch isn’t possible. Playlisting is easy too, although it lacks the drag-and-drop and smart playlist capability of computer-based systems. It’s also best to use the app in a linear manner, rather than multitasking, because it might crash on you. All this means generally is restarting the app.