Why are music servers so popular? I can think of at least two reasons: 1) they can produce great sound, and 2) they offer convenient access to your music. Although there’s controversy about whether or not higher-than-CD recording resolutions offer superior sound, if you want to play hi-rez files, you’ll need a server, whether a standalone unit or a laptop computer.
New servers appear on the market frequently, and vary widely in cost, complexity, and capability. A basic computer can be turned into a good server, but for those who don’t want to struggle with the often complex and poorly documented setup of softwares needed to get good sound from a computer, many standalone servers are available. I’ve seen comparisons between standalone servers (such as the Wyred 4 Sound MS-1, reviewed here) and computer servers; usually, these comparisons favor computers, which often cost far less. A factor I haven’t seen mentioned is that server software run on a computer -- especially open-source software -- might be better than a standalone server.
But other factors favor standalone servers: 1) A computer can require lots of tweaking before it sounds its best, and few server programs provide enough instruction for the user to easily achieve the best sound. Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool computer geek who actually enjoys tweaking software, your computer server may never sound as good as it could. 2) Such geeks aside, most people find computers (the Mac Mini excepted) ugly things that severely deface a nice-looking hi-fi system. Geek flames anticipated.
Of course, a standalone server is a computer; the difference is that it’s been thoroughly optimized to achieve the best sound. And unlike most computers, it’s packaged to slip into your equipment rack and look like a hi-fi component. What a concept! Well-designed, standalone servers make it easy to perform such audio-related tasks as ripping CDs and backing up the main hard drive. They can also include audiophile-grade parts and power supplies. Unlike some (not all) computers, most standalone servers don’t have or need noisy cooling fans. And those servers that use tablets or smart phones for selecting music to play have remote controls, which computer servers may lack, or offer only a limited version of. (Some computers, however, do come with full remote control.)
One new model that looked particularly interesting was Wyred 4 Sound’s MS-1 server ($1999 USD), a standalone device that’s at least part of a server -- the MS-1’s lack of a display or remote control is an increasingly popular design choice. Want to view lists of the music files loaded on the server and choose some to play? Use an Apple iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. If you already have one or more of those devices, all you need do is load the appropriate Apple app: MPad or MPoD. You can also use a Logitech Squeezebox controller.
The MS-1 is a Linux-based computer that uses the VortexBox server software, and for some functions the Logitech Squeezebox program. It has 1GB of internal memory, and a 1TB internal hard drive on which it stores audio files. The MS-1’s S/PDIF output connects to your DAC via RCA or TosLink. The MS-2 ($2499) has 2GB of memory, a 2TB hard drive, and a proprietary I2S connection via HDMI for connection to Wyred 4 Sound’s own DAC-2.
The MS-1 plays a wide variety of audio files: AAC, AIFF, APE, Apple Lossless, FLAC, Monkey’s Audio, MPEG-4, MPEG-4 SLS/HD-AAC, MP3, Musepack, Ogg Vorbis, QuickTime, WAV, Wavpack, Windows Media, WMA Lossless, and WMA Pro. Of course, the formats of interest to most audiophiles are: AIFF, Apple Lossless, FLAC, and WAV. The MS-1 can play files with resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz.
Unlike many servers, the MS-1 is relatively tiny: 8” square by 3.5” high. That makes it easy to accommodate on an equipment rack stuffed with equipment and other items (like mine). Another reason for the MS-1’s diminutive size is its use of a wall-wart power supply. The MS-1 is styled like other Wyred 4 Sound gear. I found it attractive; its black-and-silver color scheme should be visually compatible with even the most expensive hi-fi components.
An audio component should be quiet, and the MS-1 is fanless -- its only moving parts are in its optical disc drive and its internal hard drive. Music files can be loaded onto the drive two different ways: 1) insert a CD (label side down) in its disc drive and the MS-1 will automatically rip it as a FLAC file; or 2) if your files are already ripped or downloaded, they can be transferred via the MS-1’s Ethernet port. Of course, once you’ve loaded all your files on the hard drive, you’ll want to back them up, which you can do by connecting an external USB hard drive to one of the USB jacks on the rear panel. Backup is a one-click operation -- you have no excuse for not backing up your files. The MS-1 reformats the backup drive the first time you use it, but then will only add new files each subsequent time there is a backup.
Setup and use
The MS-1 is a small box with only an on/off switch and the CD slot. It easily fit on my rack, occupying less than half a shelf and looking quite at home among the other components. Wyred 4 Sound says that the MS-1 takes 8-12 minutes to rip a CD, and my experience confirmed that. Hi-rez files must be copied from a computer via the network.
To browse and select music to play, I used an iPod Touch and an iPhone 3 running the MPoD app. If your house isn’t wired for Ethernet, Wyred 4 Sound says that other connections will work. I tried a wireless connection recommended by Wyred 4 Sound that did not work, but you may have better luck. I finally gave up and used an Ethernet cable, which is the best way to ensure that the network will work. I connected the MS-1 to my DAC with a Wireworld Gold Starlight 6 S/PDIF cable.
With the MS-1 now communicating with my computer, I had to load music onto the server’s hard drive, and began by using the MS-1’s CD drive to rip several discs. Although I’ve seen servers that ripped faster, the MS-1 rescans a CD multiple times to ensure that the rip is accurate, in the manner of Exact Audio Copy. I can’t imagine an easier process: just insert a CD in the slot, and remove it when the rip is complete and the CD has been ejected. When the MS-1 rips the music to FLAC files, it includes cover art, though since the latter is downloaded from the Internet, sometimes the choice of art is a little quirky. The drive is a bit noisy -- you probably wouldn’t want to listen to music while the CD is being ripped. The drive will not burn or play CDs. Hey, that’s what computers are for.
Having confirmed the ease of ripping CDs, I decided to load some hi-rez files. It was necessary to sit at my desktop computer, where I’d stored the files, and copy them to the MS-1 via Ethernet. Wyred 4 Sound provides instructions for Mac and Windows users, though when I tried to connect from my Windows desktop computer, the MS-1 demanded a user ID and password. I tried providing my network user ID and password, but that didn’t work. The Wyred 4 Sound staff worked hard and found a workaround. In a flagrant display of computer perversity, my Windows laptop, connected to the network via Wi-Fi, worked just as the instructions said it should. Go figure. Once I was able to access the MS-1’s hard drive, transferring files from my desktop computer was just like copying files from one computer drive to another using Windows. Finally, I was able to play files up to 24/192 on the MS-1.
Files transferred from a computer to the MS-1 must be stored in a particular folder and file structure: \\wyred4sound\files\music\flac\artist\album. You must locate the MS-1 server on your network (it’s named Wyred4Sound) and look at the four top-level directories. Click on the “Files” folder, then on the subfolder “Music,” then on the sub-subfolder “FLAC.” Now you’re ready to create folders for the artist and album name. I was a little surprised that all files go in the FLAC folder, but they do. That makes it easier for the ripping function, which creates only FLAC files, to work.
The MPoD app is a serviceable but unspectacular server control program with about the level of competence of iTunes. That means it’s designed for pop and rock music; lovers of classical music may find it unwieldy. The Browse function shows you the directory structure of the FLAC folder, which sometimes worked more reliably than the Album menu choice (albeit without displaying cover art). One feature of MPoD I appreciated was that, every time you start it, it rescans all your music files; if you’ve added or deleted any files, MPoD will show you the current contents of the MS-1’s hard drive.
There were a few glitches. Often, when I selected a file and began playback, I heard a brief click -- only half a second or so, and not very loud. Once, when I started playing a hi-rez file, it was accompanied by very noticeable hash that I’d never heard from either of my servers. It made the piece unlistenable. But when I restarted it, the noise went away and never came back. Overall, the MS-1’s playback was silent.
The MS-1 was physically quiet, too. Hard-drive noise was inaudible more than 3’ from the unit -- just what you want in a server. As noted, the CD drive was a bit noisy during ripping, but you don’t typically rip CDs while listening to music anyhow. It’s not as if you can play CDs in the drive (though that would be a useful feature).
Using the MS-1 was a blast. I spent a lot of time browsing my audio library of AIFF, WAV, and uncompressed FLAC files, wondering how various ones would sound through the MS-1. After the few minutes needed to transfer the files to the MS-1 (file transfer via Ethernet is fast), they were ready to play. The MS-1 played them all effortlessly.
I wanted to try backing up the MS-1’s files to a hard drive, but since the hard drive is reformatted each time and I didn’t have an extra hard drive on which to first back up those files, I didn’t try it. But regular, frequent backup of files is essential: The music files on your server quickly become the most valuable part of your system. All you need is an external USB hard drive the same size as the one in the MS-1; no need to buy a 3 or 4TB drive. A cautious backup strategy would be to back up to two drives, and store one of them offsite, in a safety-deposit box or at a friend’s house -- somewhere it won’t be damaged if there’s a fire in your house.
The MS-1’s 18-page manual is downloadable -- an excellent way to keep abreast of updates. The manual was updated once during the review period.
The MS-1 sounded very incisive, with lots of slam; i.e., transients were fast, with plenty of dynamic impact. Nor did it skimp on rich tonality -- instruments and voices were fleshed out. The frequency response was extended at both ends of the audioband, but not overemphasized. Highs weren’t the least bit peaky. The opening chimes in Argento’s For the Angel, Israfel, performed by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra on Reference Recordings’ 30th Anniversary Sampler (16/44.1 FLAC, Reference), sounded distinct from each other but not at all etched. J.S. Bach’s Prelude in D, from the same release, had admirable bass depth and definition.
The bass in Chris Jones’s “God Moves on the Water,” from his Roadhouses and Automobiles (16/44.1 FLAC, Stockfisch), was extended but not boomy; and while his voice had its usual slightly rough and gravelly texture, I could easily understand his words.
Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” from her Greatest Hits (16/44.1 FLAC, FIM K2 HD, a remastering of A&M AM 5 33417 4), was resonant and full, and her guitar sounded quite realistic, with a dynamic lilt that infused the music with life and momentum. It’s easy to see why audiophiles like this recording.
Ariel Ramirez’s Missa Criolla, with José Luis Ocejo conducting the Choral Society of Bilbao (16/44.1 FLAC, FIM K2 HD, a remastering of Philips 420 955-2), was dynamic and spacious. José Carreras, one of the legendary Three Tenors, was clearly in fine voice, which was surprising; shortly after this recording was made, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. (He has since recovered.)
Ottmar Liebert’s One Guitar (24/96 FLAC, Spiral Subwave International/HDtracks) pulsated with life, with strong leading-edge transients that were at times downright scary -- no dynamic compression here. The trailing edges of waveforms subsided without fuss or overhang. Still, it was the initial transients that made the strongest impression on me.
In heavy rotation lately chez Forrester have been Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue, and Cuban Overture, with pianist Jon Nakamatsu and Jeff Tyzik conducting the Rochester Philharmonic (24/88.2 FLAC, Harmonia Mundi/HDtracks) -- large-scale orchestral fare with a piano soloist thrown in for good measure. The recording sounded huge, with tons of dynamic contrasts, yet never bloated or loose. The orchestra was tonally rich, and the piano pierced the thick orchestral carpet with vivid dynamics and lightning-fast transients. Even cranked up louder than I usually listen, there was no dynamic compression. Basically, the MS-1 sounded like the DAC it was connected to -- which is the way it should “sound.”
My Auraliti PK100 is another partial standalone server ($799). By partial, I mean that the user must provide some components, in this case the display/remote control and a hard drive on which to store files. The Auraliti also lacks an optical drive; you must use a computer to rip CDs. Given the current quality of CD ripping software (I usually use dBpoweramp), that’s no hardship, but it’s undeniably more convenient to just pop a CD in the MS-1’s drive and let it do all the work. To upload new files to the Auraliti, you have to plug its external hard drive into a USB port on the computer where the ripped or downloaded files are stored. The Auraliti has an internal DAC and an S/PDIF output; I used the latter to connect it to my DAC.
The Auraliti’s use of an external hard drive has benefits and drawbacks. It’s neater and more convenient to have all parts of the server enclosed in a single chassis, but keeping the hard drive external to the rest of the electronics lets you easily swap it for another drive. And since the Auraliti has three USB jacks, multiple drives can be connected. If your music collection is big enough to require one of the new 4TB drives, it’s just a matter of copying them to the new drive, then plugging that into the Auraliti. Theoretically, an external drive should be noisier than the MS-1’s internal drive, but the Western Digital Elements I use with my Auraliti is just as quiet.
The Auraliti PK100 and the Wyred 4 Sound MS-1 sounded a bit different. The PK100’s leading-edge transients weren’t as defined or as powerful as the MS-1’s, yet the trailing edges were better defined -- when a piano note was struck (as many are in Rhapsody in Blue), it sounded overall more like an actual piano note floating in space. And the tonality of the note was just right. As with the MS-1, the PK100’s frequency extension was very extended at both ends of the audioband, yet I heard slightly deeper bass from Bach’s Prelude in D; the room pressurized quite nicely, even without a subwoofer. And the chimes in For the Angel, Israfel seemed slightly better defined, with a very slight increase in extension through the Auraliti.
Ottmar Liebert’s guitar sounded less brutal and a smidge more harmonically whole -- more like a real guitar. There was still plenty of dynamic slam, but less than with the MS-1; overall, the guitar sounded more realistic through the Auraliti. As with the piano, guitar notes seemed to have more balanced, more natural leading and trailing edges.
Through the MS-1, the orchestral instruments in Missa Criolla seemed farther from the front of the stage, where tenor Carreras stands, so the MS-1’s faster, more dynamic leading-edge transients created more apparent clarity and detail. The Auraliti’s presentation of this recording was equally spacious; both servers spread the instruments out widely.
The bass in Chris Jones’s “God Moves on the Water” seemed to extend a bit deeper through the Auraliti, with a barely perceptible increase in bass detail. If I hadn’t been desperately trying to distinguish between the two servers, I probably would have said they sounded pretty much the same with this track. One thing I did notice was that, with the Auraliti, Jones’s voice sounded smoother, though whether that means the PK100 was less or more accurate, I don’t know.
In short, the differences between the servers were perceptible but small. If you listen mostly to rock, especially the more energetic variety, you might prefer the MS-1; while classical and, presumably, jazz fans might prefer the Auraliti’s slightly softer sound. That’s not to say the MS-1 sounded bad with classical music; I cheerfully listened to classical through it for long stretches.
The MS-1’s disc and hard drives made it much more convenient to use, and the ability to upload music to it via my network was a definite convenience, and for some might cinch the deal. Both servers use the same control app, so functionally they’re identical.
Wyred 4 Sound continues its tradition of bringing the latest technology to market at extremely reasonable prices. I wouldn’t call their products cheap, but their value-to-dollar ratio is off the scale. While you can use a computer as a server for less dough, it may not work as well as the MS-1 or have a remote control -- and unless it’s a Mac Mini, it won’t look as good.
The MS-1 music server sounded superb, was user-friendly, and wouldn’t look out of place in the priciest audio system -- which pretty much checks all the boxes on my list. Geek that I am, if I were getting a Wyred 4 Sound server, I’d probably shell out the extra $500 for the MS-2, with its increased RAM and bigger hard drive. And if I already had a Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 DAC, getting an MS-2 just so I could use Wyred’s proprietary I2S connection would be a no-brainer.
The Wyred 4 Sound MS-1 is a fantastic deal.
. . . Vade Forrester
- Speakers -- Affirm Audio Lumination speakers, JL Audio Fathom f110 subwoofers
- Amplifiers -- Audio Research VS115, Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk.III, Art Audio PX-25 stereo amplifier
- Preamplifier -- Audio Research PH5 phono preamp and LS27 line stage
- Sources (digital) -- Meridian 500 CD transport, Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player; Hewlett-Packard dv7-3188cl laptop computer running 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium and foobar2000 music-server software, v.1.1.7; Auraliti PK100 music server; all servers and digital players connected to an Audio Research DAC8 DAC
- Sources (analog) -- Linn LP12 turntable on custom isolation base, Graham 2.2 tonearm, van den Hul Platinum Frog cartridge
- Interconnects -- Crystal Cable Piccolo unbalanced, TG Audio High Purity Revised, Clarity Cable Organic, Audience Au24 e balanced, Purist Audio Design Venustas unbalanced
- Speaker cables -- Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio, Crystal Cable CrystalSpeak Micro, Audience Au24 e, Clarity Cables Organic
- Digital cables -- Wireworld Starlight 52 USB, Gold Starlight 6 S/PDIF, Gold Starlight 5 AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond USB
- Power cords -- Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Audience powerChord e
- Power conditioners and distribution -- Audience aR6-T, IsoTek EVO3 Sirius
Wyred 4 Sound MS-1 Music Server
Price: $1999 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Wyred 4 Sound LLC
4235 Traffic Way
Atascadero, CA 93422
Phone: (805) 466-9973
Fax: (805) 462-8962