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Qsonix Q105 Digital Music Server Review

A Brave New Audio World

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Qsonix Q105 music serverEditor’s Note 9/15/2010: Reader’s question and manufacturer’s response added at the end of this Review.

The Qsonix Q105 has been one of the most innovative audio components I’ve auditioned. There is so much to say about the Qsonix Q105 that I will have to skip many nifty specifics to keep this article to a reasonable length; but there are two main points that should not get lost amidst all the detail. First, over the course of three months the Q105 has transformed my listening habits and listening experience. This transformation has to do with something we normally don’t write about: how we go about selecting, accessing and playing music for a listening session. Second, the Q105 has proven to me that the growing buzz is accurate: properly implemented, hard drives sound better than even the best optical transports. I’ll discuss much more in this review, but I urge the reader to keep these main points in mind as you read along.

What is the Q105?

The $4,450 Q105 is a slightly scaled-down 2-output version of the original 4-output Qsonix Q110 at $6,550. For readers like me who are not especially computer-savvy, it is a computer dedicated to storing, sorting and playing digital music files, paired with a nifty touchscreen 15-inch monitor that controls the computer. You can network the Q105 to your home computer, but you can also treat it as the stand-alone front-end of any stereo system. If you choose to network it to your home computer you can easily transfer music files you download from the web. If you don’t, you can put a downloaded album on a flash drive and load it via one of the Q105’s four USB ports. In short, this is not a product that will require you to hire a computer consultant to install. I want to emphasize this: the Q105 is extremely easy to set up even if you are not a computer geek.

Once the “computer” side of the Q105 is set up and you’ve loaded some music files, you have several options on how to connect it to your stereo. You can treat it as a standalone digital front-end and play music through its analog outputs just like any CD player. When set up in this mode, you can simultaneously send different music to 2 separate zones. You can also output a digital signal to an external DAC via the Q105’s SPDIF coaxial digital output or via its USB slots. If you use the Q105 this way you will not have the ability to play 2 zones. You must choose between the analog or digital outputs, since you cannot play them all at the same time.

The Q105’s DACs are fine, and it is great to be able to play different music into 2 zones, but if you are a serious audiophile, you will eventually want to output its digital stream to a high-end DAC. I use the SPDIF digital output to connect to my modded Esoteric D-70 DAC with spectacular results that surpass the sound I can get from my custom Esoteric P-70/D-70 combo.

What the Q105 Is Not

The Q105 is not a device that plays multi-channel music. The optical drive in the Q105 is both a CD and DVD reader, and its optical reader will not read formats such as DVD-A or SACD (SACD layer). However, it will read and store the CD layer of hybrid SACDs. Qsonix is planning to introduce support of reading DVD-DATA (DVD ROM) type discs, such as the HRX titles and will allow import of media files from these types of discs in its next software update.

One other thing that the Q105 is not is quiet. Specifically, its fan is not quiet. This is the only real complaint I have about the Q105. I’m a fanatic for dead quiet electronic and mechanical functions, and other audiophiles will probably feel the same way unless they put the Q105 in an enclosure or it is located more than 24 feet away. My system is on open wall-mounted isolation racks, and my room is set up lengthwise, and my equipment is only18 feet away. I discussed this with Mike Weaver, the President of Qsonix. He indicated that one of the problems they have is that many customers put the Qsonix in cabinets that are not properly ventilated, so Qsonix doesn’t have a choice but to incorporate a powerful fan. However, the fan speed is variable, so one of the Qsonix engineers instructed me on how to access and adjust the fan speed switch to get a slower and quieter speed. Even so, if you want dead quiet you need either an enclosure or plenty of space between the listening position and the Q105. In my case, I have an ideal situation in that I have a utility room next to my dedicated listening room, and the wall that holds my DAC, preamp and room correction device adjoins the common wall to that utiltity room. I ultimately mounted the main unit, which houses the computer itself, on an isolation rack in the utility room and ran a cable under the floor to my listening position, where the touch screen control unit rests on a low table next to the main listening chair. The result is dead quiet, plus fingertip control right at my listening chair. As you’ll read below, it’s an audiophile music lover’s heaven.

Loading Digital Music Files

The Qsonix can accept music files via its optical reader, from any computer with which it is networked, or from an external USB-attached drive. The Qsonix reads your CDs or other data sources, automatically reaches out to AMG (All Music Guide) via a permanent internet connection, and downloads and associates the related metadata. This is very cool, and allows you access to things that don’t come with the CD, such as reviews of that CD.

I originally looked at loading my CDs as a daunting task that I’d outsource. There is a local company that transfers and copies all sorts of media, and their services included copying CDs onto a hard drive. I thought I’d let them get everything loaded and save me the work. However, I realized that I needed to load at least a few myself to be able to write a complete review of my experience. As it turned out, I ended up loading all of the discs myself. Once I got going, I discovered how good the Qsonix was at identifying the correct CD, so there was rarely anything more to do than: (1) load the disc, (2) look at the disc options identified by the Q105 as a result of its web-based search of AMG’s records, and (3) click on the correct option. The vast majority, I’d say over 95% of the discs loaded were correctly identified as the #1 choice, thus making the loading process extremely simple. Over the course of 3 weeks, I loaded all of my most listened-to discs (about 450), then completed the remainder (about 150) over the next three weeks at a more leisurely pace. It is now three months later and I have approximately 1,200 discs loaded on the Q105.

I also loaded downloaded files from my main computer system. The network connections were easy to make, even for a non-computer guy like me. However, I decided that I did not want the Q105 directly connected to my home computer network on a permanent basis. My kids are not always as careful as they should be in downloading stuff, and the system occasionally gets infected with viruses and other undesireables. I simply downloaded music to my main home computer and then put it on a flash drive and load it into the Qsonix Q105 via one of its USB connections.

The Qsonix Interface:

Building Playlists – Satisfy Your Whims, Run Searches To Get Ideas
and Make Use of “Tapestry”

Music stored on hard drives is obviously no longer a new trend. My kids have been doing it for several years in conjunction with their iTunes downloads and while copying my own discs to their computers. However, they mostly listened to music on their iPods, in the car to custom CDs they burned, or while sitting at their computers. Other than burning compilations to a disc for travel or for a party, I rarely interfaced with computer music. I sit at a desk and work with my computer all day. When I come home, I don’t typically want to sit at my computer to listen to music. I appreciated the convenience of having a single place where I could easily view and select from music files, but it never seemed particularly flexible or stimulating. I still relied on my own resources to choose the music I wanted to play. That all changed when I installed the Qsonix.

The Qsonix interface is the main reason that the Q105 has transformed my listening experience. And it’s not just me – every single person that has used the Q105 in my listening room has raved about what it does. Moreover, they also marveled about how intuitive it was. No one needed to read the manual to figure out the basic functions, and the majority of users were even able to easily figure out several of the more advanced features without reference to the manual.

Take a look at the main Qsonix touchscreen. Touch the button in the upper left corner and you get a drop-down list of choices of how to sort and select from your database of music. Sort alphabetically by album or artist, by genre and “style” (which is a subcategory of the selected genre), visually by cover art, chronologically by year issued (though the year of original issue of a particular disc will not be the same as the year remasters or compilations were issued), search by key word, sort by order entered into the database via the optical disc, and sort by order imported via a USB input. That’s a lot of ways to view your list of music. Then there’s the “Tapestry” function, that generates suggested playlists based on a wide range of criteria such as “Themes” (e.g., “Seasons”, “Activities”, “Feelings”, etc), “Tones” (“Calm”, “Passionate”, “Trippy”, etc.), “Styles” of music (e.g., “Blues”, “Avante Garde”, “Latin”, etc.) and various substyles of those “Styles” (e.g., “Chicago Blues” under “Blues”).

If you just want to pick some tunes to play, simply touch the album or particular song and whisk your finger across the screen, moving that album or song to the lower right side of the screen and create the list of songs to play. If you like what you created, save those tunes to a playlist, which will then remain stored in the “Playlist” section of the screen in the upper right portion of your computer screen.

Creation of useful playlists is so simple when using the sorting options listed above, that you immediately start fulfilling musical whims that you previously thought took too much work to bother. For example, I have a “Stevie Ray” playlist of Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes. This literally took under a minute to create. I (1) moved every Stevie Ray Vaughan CD to the playlist, (2) deleted a few tunes I didn’t want, (3) ran the “Search” function to search for the word “Vaughan” so as not to miss Stevie’s tunes on compilations or where he collaborated with another artist, moved those additional tunes into the “Now Playing” section of the screen, and saved the entire list under “Stevie Ray”. Ridiculously easy.

The TAPESTRY function is an especially intriguing tool for creating interesting and unexpected playlists. It regularly generates suggestions that are based on musical relationships I was not aware of or would not have considered. These suggested lists certainly include some tunes that I think are strange or inconsistent, but that’s easily remedied by a whisk of the finger deleting them from the playlist. The remaining tunes result in interesting and esoteric playlists that will delight you when you are in the mood for them.

Another tool to help create interesting playlists is the PLAY SIMILAR SONGS option found in the drop-down menu list of the “Now Playing” panel. This feature utilizes the TAPESTRY software functions to find songs that have similarities to the one currently playing. Again, after you get a list of these similar songs you can simply delete those that you don’t want to play and keep those that seem to be good “suggestions”.

Playlists you’ve created are stored and available in the “Playlists” section of the screen. Simply touch one and move into the lower right portion of the screen to load it for playing. If you like the list, but want to reorder the sequence of music, simply touch and drag them to where you want them, or touch the button at the bottom that reorders the list randomly. This is a great way to keep playlists fresh, since reordering the sequence of connected music helps prevent the boring familiarity that can set in when hearing the same songs in the same sequence. Interestingly enough, randomly reordering music in a particular playlist will also occasionally cause my brain to recognize a musical relationship I hadn’t thought of when the tunes were separated by five or six other tunes.

Say you loaded some CDs that a buddy gave you to check out, but you don’t know anything about them, so you’re not sure which to play first. No problem. Touch the TRACKS/DETAILS/REVIEW button until the review comes up, and you can read about the music before deciding. Touch the same button to get to “Details” and press one of the categories listed under the assigned “Genre” or “Styles” and get a list of all other albums in your database with the touched characteristic (e.g., “American Punk”).

By now you should be getting the idea that the Qsonix interface causes your brain to absolutely light up with new ideas about what you might like to listen to, and then goes on to give you multiple alternatives to go to a connected/related series of musical selections that expand the way you think about your music. I cannot overstate how musically rejuvenating this aspect of the Q105 has been. Right now, my playlist has The Association’s “Cherish” paired with George Thorogood’s “Bad To the Bone”” – what irony…

The Qsonix As A “Transport”Through Its Digital Output

Once I moved beyond my unbridled enthusiasm for the Q105’s fabulous interface and how it reinvigorated my listening pleasure, I turned my attention to implementing tweaks to make it sound its best. I started by connecting it to the rest of my system via the digital output. At the time that I did this I left my Esoteric P-70 transport connected via three top-of-the-line Transparent Reference digital cables using the three-cable AES-3 method of connecting the P-70 to the D-70, which had always been the best-sounding way to operate the Esoteric combo. I left the Esoteric P-70 on its wall-mounted isolation platform with all of the tweaks I’ve implemented over the years. Conversely, I placed the Q105 on a non-audiophile stand without any tweaks. When I connected the Q105 to the Esoteric D-70 DAC my only choice was to connect a Transparent Premium digital SPDIF cable to the single standard SPDIF output of the Q105, which meant that I could not use the special AES-3 dual channel upsampling and clock-slaving functions that made the Esoteric P-70/D-70 combo so special. I made no special effort to find the best word-length or upampling mode. I simply played discs first through the Esoteric combo and then played the identical disc that I had loaded into the Q105. I had hoped that the music played through the Q105 would at least sound close to the sound that I got when I played the original disc in the P-70.

Despite having been told that hard drives can sound pretty good, I was completely surprised when the sound was not only comparable, but I actually found that it sounded modestly better on some tunes! Intrigued, I spent the next hour and a half testing out different word-length and upsampling modes on the D-70 until I found what I thought was the best sounding. I then went back and reran the compared discs. This time the improvement was both more pronounced and more universal on all the tunes that I compared. I was impressed, but also very wary. Sometimes something new can sound better at first blush, but pale after extended listening. Music through the Qsonix was more detailed, with firmer images, but I was concerned about some sibilance and a touch of harshness. I disconnected one of my Transparent Reference digital cables from the P-70 and, using adapters, inserted it between the Q105 and the D-70. I made one more set of adjustments to the word-length setting on the D-70 and Voila! My concerns evaporated. It was at that moment that I realized that I may never buy another optical disc music player.

The final steps in my comparison between the P-70 and the Q105 as “transports” came when I called Aural Symphonics to obtain an Echelon Digital cable (review to come). I then installed the Q105 on a wall-mounted isolation rack, connected it to the D-70 via the Aural Symphonics Echelon Digital, plugged in a LessLoss DFPC Signature power cord and added Walker Audio Valid Points. “This is really, really good” I thought.

Ripping Your Own Discs

There are numerous other features I have not specifically discussed in this article, including connectivity with your iPod, creation of “Media Groups”, protected access, screen savers and how you enter info about discs not recognized by AMG when you load them. However, they are also mostly intuitive and are for the most part additional functionality and features. The one additional feature that I found very useful was the BURN TO CD disc ripping function. It allows you to pick a proposed playlist to burn to a writeable CD, calculates the tracks that can fit on the disc, and burns them. This makes it easy to burn, for example, six CDs for a road trip, or three CDs for a themed party somewhere away from your Qsonix. Convenience and ease are hallmarks of every function available on the Q105.

Continuous Improvement

There are a few things that don’t work as well as others, as well as some things that are “wish list” items that Qsonix is working on. For example, I loaded several fairly obscure compilation discs that required some manual data entry. The system required me to enter an album artist, so I entered “Various Artists”. This resulted in “Various Artists” showing up as the artist on each song in the compilation, so I proceeded to manually enter the artist on each individual track. After I completed the manual entry I listened to the album, and all the artist data showed up. That night before I went to bed I started the system maintenance function, which performs database maintenance, volume leveling and several other routines. To my consternation, when I looked at the album the next day each individual track again showed the track artist as “Various Artists”. I pointed this out to Mike Weaver, who indicated that this is a system glitch that they expected to correct in the next issuance of system upgrades, which they expected to make in the first quarter of 2010. I should note that I was told that the Q105 that I received incorporated a new not-quite-final version of their software and that may be a few bugs to iron out. I plan to reenter the track artist data when the software upgrades have been downloaded to my Q105.

A nice “wish list” item coming is a separate association of each piece of music with the composer. Right now the artist might be the “Chicago Symphony Orchestra” and the album title might be “Mozart Symphony No.9” In that case the composer’s name is right in the title. However, that’s not the case with “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand The Weather CD. Unless you know that it’s a Jimi Hendrix original, you wouldn’t have a way to discern that. This new software upgrade will automatically provide that information as part of the downloaded metadata that gets associated with the downloaded disc. Nice.

So What Do I Really Think?

I bought the review unit. Even with the fact that the new software wasn’t finalized, I absolutely fell in love with how the Q105 enhanced my ability to access my music, make new musical connections, explore my musical whims, and generally become excited again about both old and new material. The fact that its hard drive improves on the sound of even the best optical drives was to me an unexpected bonus – the chocolate syrup on great vanilla ice cream. (Cleaning up the giant mess of CDs in my listening room was proverbial cherry on top.) So let me wrap up this review and get back to my music, where I’m sure to discover yet another new nugget that makes my musical day.

FOLLOWUP:

Since I originally submitted this review for publication, the software upgrade I mentioned above (Version 2.6) has been implemented. One day I fired the system up and…voila!. The interface looked a bit different and there were new features, enhancements and fixes that addressed virtually all of my wishlist items. The most immediately significant to me was the new ability to associate and search “Composer” information. Now, not only does the system download and display composer information, but the drop down list of the MENU BAR now includes “Composer” as a method of sorting your collection. Thus, when viewing an album, you not only can see the artist and get reviews, you can also see the composer and sort by composer.

Another useful piece of information which now shows up is resolution information, I assume a result of the fact that Version 2.6 adds support for the optional “Performance Audio Pack” upgrade that delivers third-party external USB DAC (Digital to Analog Converters) capabilities, .wav uncompressed CD ripping and import and playback of high-resolution 24-bit audio. The Performance Audio Pack upgrade is available to all new and existing Qsonix customers and is priced at $600 USD.

Overall, the software upgrade addressed virtually all of my nitpicks, and also added capabilities that I had hoped for. Stay tuned – I’ll let you know how things fare with high resolution downloads!

9/15/2010

Reader’s Question:

Sir,

I just bought the 105 from Audio Vision Xxxx Xxx Ltd. I’m enjoying using it.

Whilst some album covers come up, there are far too many that don’t. Then I am compelled to choose from what’s in the database. Most of my collection was bought from Tower Records, Virgin Records & HMV. They are full priced legitimate CD’s. Why do I have this problem?

I have recorded approximately 500 or half a terra byte of music, how long should the back up take? Whilst backing up, can I playback some music?

Thanks

Suresh L.

Manufacturer’s Response:

Suresh,

I would be happy to advise you on your questions and congratulations on your purchase of the Q105. Regarding the album art question, we are currently dealing with an industry wide issue relating to Universal Music Group (UMG) and their negotiations with our data provider (AMG) regarding UMG based album art. Essentially AMG was forced to remove access to all UMG based album art temporarily while they re-negotiate their fee structure for album art. UMG is asking for a massive rate increase for access to album art and AMG chose to take-down this content until they can reach a settlement, which we have been told should be within the next 30-60 days.
As you have noticed, and depending upon the content you are loading, this can impact the album art in our system quite dramatically.

We are implementing a new feature in the next software update that will allow you to quickly and easily find appropriate art on the Internet. In many cases this includes album art of a much higher quality, better coverage and a lot of International or localized content. You will find this to be a very good solution to fill in the gaps in your collection. We expect to release this update (free to all users) in the very near future.

I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused in the meantime.

Regarding your backup question, it would be best to run the backup overnight one night, as a 500GB backup will likely take 4-5 hours and the system cannot be playing during this time. Simply connect a PC formatted USB external drive to your Q105 and access the “Backup System” function from the Tools/System menu to initiate the backup, it will run automatically and if started one night will be completed by the a.m.

Please feel free to contact me at mike@qsonix.com if I can assist further.

Best Regards,

Mike Weaver, President
Qsonix, Inc
www.qsonix.com

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