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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Better than Olive Opus, A review!!

In the quest for a quality digital audio file server we next tried the Sonos Zone Player and the Sonos remote controller. Since we wanted only digital output we did not need the Zone controller with a built-in amplifier. The output was to be directed to an ADC contained within a Mark Levinson CD player. The player has coaxial SPDIF input and the Sonos has SFDIF coaxial output so it seemed like a perfect match.

The Sonos does not store audio files, it merely receives a digital stream through the network and outputs to the stereo system. The Mark Levinson DAC has the best Burr Brown (Texas Instruments) device available a few years ago. Before the digital data is sent to the DAC, it is re-clocked to eliminate jitter.

What could go wrong, all we needed was a decent digital audio stream for the Mk. Lev to do its job?

The Sonos has a full compliment of useful features. It is light-years ahead of the Olive Opus in terms of user friendliness. It is actually possible to find exactly what you want to play from an extensive library and to set up programs and playlists without having to spend a week reading obscure documentation. We really had high hopes for this system. It couldn't be easier, buy a couple of boxes and plug them in.

We installed the Sonos and listened to some CDs that we know very well. We compared the sound of the Sonos to direct playing of CDs on the Mark Levinson CD player as well as playing through a $29 Turtle Beach USB sound card and through an Airport express. Itunes sucks for streaming to the Airport so we used Media Monkey together with Airfoil.

Our highly subjective opinion was that the $29 Turtle Beach sound card connected to a notebook computer with Toslink to the Mk Lev was the best sound. Next was the Airport via Media Monkey and Airfoil. Why did the Sonos not sound as good? We are talking about a digital stream that is being re-clocked by the Mark Levinson?

Before losing interest in this thread please consider that we did find an excellent solution to the digital file serving goal. For about $280 anyone could duplicate this system and produce results limited in quality only by the stereo to which you connect it.

My interest here is the hope that a reader will offer some suggestion as to why the Sonos does not sound as good as it should. Our evaluation was quite subjective but we used methods that we feel are appropriate for comparing realism and quality of recorded audio. We know that the Mark Levinson components connected to a dedicated 30-amp circuit can handle just about any music thrown at them. The B&W speakers are difficult to beat. Excellent recordings sound like excellent music on this system.

We chose familiar recordings and paid attention to a limited set of specific effects, comparing the sound when played from the CD to the sound when played from other sources. Out principle test CD was Leonard Bernstein's Final Concert. This is an excellent recording of Benjamin Britton's "Sea Pieces" and Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Both pieces cover the full range of dynamics and musical complexity. Subtle effects mix with substantial orchestral background in both pieces. The recording is clear and does not seem overly edited. There is a fair amount of "live performance" noise that was not edited out including grunts and groans from Bernstein, baton clicks and coughs from the audience. Listening to the recording under the best circumstances,one has the impression of a live performance, nothing distracts from that impression. Played through the Sonos (WAV file ripped to hard drive), the performance lacks this feel. In addition to a general impression, we concentrated on a few specific effects which we feel correlate with the impression of a live performance. Strangely enough a few of the most indicative effects were what most would consider defects. Bernstein's moaning and occasional baton clicks, sit on top of a full orchestra. In the best circumstances, they sound like what they are. In less than ideal circumstances, they are unidentifiable noise that confuses the brain. To us, it is better to have a clearly identifiable sound than a confusing noise that distracts you from the music.

We did not concentrate on just the noise, we also listened to a few specific instruments. Flute seems to be a good indicator of musical accuracy. Plucked violin strings are another good test sound. We could hear clear indications of instrument character and clarity in complex contexts when everything was working well and less than this in other cases. It is certainly possible that jitter could mask these subtle effects but the Mark Levison is re-clocking the digital stream. Why does the final solution (to be announced in a future post) sound so good but the Sonos doesn't? Why does the $29 Turtle Beach USB sound card sound better? And why does the final solution (to be announced soon) sound soooooooooooooooo good?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Something to avoid

A good friend of mine asked me, a while ago, about the idea of installing a digital file server to interface with his high-end stereo system. He is a dedicated audiophile who owns a wonderful system, mainly Mark Levinson components and B&W speakers. He wanted an audio file server that matched the quality of his existing system. I remember making some suggestions as to what to look for and what to avoid. My friend bought a device for which he had high hopes. This was the Olive Opus 4 digital music system. After many months of frustration trying to fit the things to his needs, he finally gave it to me. This was a mixed "blessing." I now own a file server on which I have loaded over 500 CDs. The audio quality is certainly good enough for my "better than average" system consisting of vintage NAD components. The negative side is that the rest of the system is worthless. Once you have spent many hours ripping your CDs to the internal hard drive (much of is wasted time due to some really horrible programming and inefficiency of process) you are stuck with incredibly primitive access to your music. In addition, the library file is almost impossible to edit with the provided tools and no option is provided to export the library or playlist files for editing in an external application. The manufacturer is good at making excuses, but there is no excuse for this!!! Itunes and Winamp both allow you to export and edit the metadata acquired in the riping process, but not the Olive Opus. You are supposed to edit each track's information with a buggy and slow application. Pretty much everything about the whole system, other than the quite decent D to A conversion and resulting sound quality, is disappointing to say the least. Stay tuned for the system that we finally put together that puts the Olive Opus to shame at a fraction of the cost.

Starting in a positive vain

To start the blog on a positive note, I'll mention one of my favorite toys that is joy to own. Actually, I own two of them, because I live in two places and liked the first one so much that I needed to buy a second. My favorite toy is my "Live Performance LX" reproducing piano system. I have one installed in a vintage Chickering piano and one in a vintage Weber piano. The performance is astounding due to superb engineering by the one man who has the most experience and understanding of modern reproducing piano system of anyone on earth. This is, of course, Wayne Stahnke who owns "LivePperformance" the manufacturer of the LX system. In time, I will be adding posts about what I have learned about maximizing my enjoyment of this fine toy.