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Qsonix Q205 High Performance Digital Music Server Review

The New and Over-the-top Fabulous

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Qsonix Q205 music serverI’m going to be like several of our politicians and claim credit for something someone else did. About 16 months ago, when I was writing my review of the Qsonix Q105, I told Mike Weaver, President of Qsonix, that they should remove the DACs from the Q105 and sell it as though it was a “transport” – just plug it into an outboard DAC. My rationale was that the unit already had a digital output, and the fabulous Qsonix interface could be made available to users who already had high-end outboard DACs and didn’t want to pay for something they didn’t need, i.e., the “midfi” DACs that fed the Q105’s analog outputs. Well, lo and behold, we have the Qsonix 205. However, The Qsonix boys didn’t just go with that one suggestion. They went whole hog and created a really cool step-up product.

So, What is it?

What is it? You can think of it 1) as a silent audiophile “transport” that simply plugs into your favorite DAC; 2) that has an excellent digital output designed by one of the world’s premier digital audio experts; 3) that contains all the music you have; 4) that plays hi-res music files up to 24/192; 5) that upsamples to 192 kHz; 6) that incorporates a high-quality volume control; 7) that uses a DC power supply; 8) that lets you find, sort, search and play your music using a fabulous touchscreen-controlled drag-and-drop GUI; 9) that allows you to use your iPad as a full-featured wireless remote control to access and use that fabulous GUI; 10) that out of the box sounds better than 95% of the CD players and transports available on the market; and that I can recommend without any material reservations. There – you now have a summary of this review.

There are many approaches taken when different computer technologies mature and merge together. One is to create completely open systems that allow tech-savvy computer jocks, and sometimes the rest of us, to brew their own computer audio systems, connecting servers, NAS devices and music streamers. Others look to create proprietary integrated devices that incorporate a variety of features and conveniences in a simple-to-install format. Qsonix took the latter approach, with a single-box device that combines a fabulous interface with an automatic Internet connection to All Music Guide to allow the device to download the metadata that relate to the discs you’re ripping or files you’re downloading.

A Word About The Interface

You should take a look at my review of the Qsonix Q105 in the November issue of Dagogo to get more info on the Qsonix GUI, since I will primarily be focusing on the upgrades and new features of the Q205. However, it is important to know that I regard the features that are incorporated into the Qsonix interface to be “audiophile” features even though they do not affect the sound. Perhaps “audiophile” is not the right word. “Music lover” is probably more apt. The ability to incorporate AMG metadata, to sort and search in multiple ways, to give sophisticated listening suggestions, and to do it all on the fly at your own whim enhances the listening experience so much that it becomes nearly as important as extension, slam, PRAT, tonality, etc. The Q105 had this great interface, but the Q205 now adds even more traditional audiophile characteristics.

So, what’s new and improved?

It’s clear that Qsonix has done a major redesign of the Q205. In fact, it’s really a new product.

Let’s go first to the digital outputs. Qsonix partnered with Wadia on this, and the digital output topology is all Wadia. Furthermore, there are multiple digital output options: two S/PDIF (RCA + BNC), one AES/EBU, and one Optical Toslink. In addition, there is also a second discrete output via USB DAC. This gives you the ability to connect to a wide range of DACs, so whatever DAC you already own, you will likely be able to use it with the Q205. Moreover, all these digital outputs are simultaneously active, so you can connect more than one DAC at a time, feeding one to the DAC in the room that hosts your high-end two-channel system and one to the receiver in your big screen TV party room.

Have a lot of hi-res music? No problem. The Q205 handles up to 24/192 files. If you haven’t heard how good computer-based hi-res files can sound on a good system, you owe it to yourself to listen. Hi-res downloads are now much more available than in the recent past, and there are also a few simple and effective DVD-A rippers available. The Q205 also upsamples to 192Hz, which allows you to make fine adjustments to the sound’s character depending on your taste and your DAC’s capabilities.

Worried about being able to store all your music? The Q205 has1TB or 2TB storage capacity options. Even in today’s hi-res download world, that’s pretty hefty storage. It doesn’t incorporate mirror drives, but the backup is easy and quick, and the Qsonix software regularly reminds you to do the backup.

Unhappy about noisy computers in your listening room? No problem. The Q205 has completely rebuilt the cooling system of the Q205, and it is now virtually silent. I was unable to hear it at all from 5 feet away in a silent room and when I was closer I had to listen hard. The Q205 can simply be dropped into the spot previously occupied by your transport and it will probably be as quiet or quieter than that device.

Looking for a way to have a volume control at your fingertips without using a preamp? The high quality digital volume control built into the Qsonix is pretty good. If your setup is like mine, with a DAC that has a manual analog volume control, you get tired of getting up to change volumes for different music. Some digital volume controls lose way too much resolution when you use them, so many audiophiles shy away from them. This is not the case with the digital volume control on Qsonix units. You can give it some very substantial attenuation before noticing any deterioration. Since I’m very picky and nearly paranoid about loss of resolution, I find the Qsonix volume control perfect for normal volume adjustments. Now I just set the general volume range with the DAC’s manual analog volume control and use the Q205’s volume control for smaller adjustments and never have to leave my listening chair.

Don’t want to go through the work of running hidden wires to a touch screen next to your chair? Or maybe you want your digital system to be more portable? Again, no problem. The free Qsonix app for iPad works great, mirroring nearly all the typical operating functions of the hardwired touchscreen, though not the networking, maintenance and backup functions. I downloaded it and had it working within 20 minutes. The ability to use the Qsonix throughout my house via the iPad has further increased my appreciation and utilization of the Qsonix.

Musical Character

During my listening sessions I used the Q205 primarily with my Lessloss DAC 2004, though I also used it with a Sony EP9ES and two receivers with digital sections. The Q205’s character was consistent throughout. I should also note that the Q205 made every DAC it was paired with sound quite good. This is consistent with my past experience that in a two-piece digital systems the transport is often more important than the DAC.

I know that this is a generalization and that there are several exceptions, but most digital sources have generally fallen into one of two camps. In one camp are the ultra-transparent, ephemeral three dimensional imaging sources that tend to be a bit light on bass. In the other are the highly dynamic, full-bodied sources with powerful bass slam. Both may be highly detailed, but the way in which that detail is conveyed is distinctly different. As is always the case, much of this is dependent upon the rest of the system, but lovers of symphonic music tend to lean to the first, while rock fans tend to lean to the second. The Qsonix Q205’s sound tends toward the second camp. It plays all types of music well, but it really comes into own with powerful, full-bodied music. When playing Sting’s “Desert Rose” from Brand New Day, the drums and bass were visceral and explosive. A similar experience occurred when playing the Moody Blues’ “Lunch Break:Peak Hour” from Days of Future Passed. The attack of the orchestra was fiery, combining the music’s insistently aggressive violins and the machine-gun like staccato of the woodwinds and flutes.

The potency of the music is also accompanied by very solid images of the performers. There is nothing translucent about them, and you get the sense of a real live performer there on the stage, belting out music. Sonny Rollins was standing in front of me playing his sax when I teed up “St. Thomas”from Saxaphone Colossus. Other components attempt to accomplish a sense of you-are-there by conveying ghost-like images from which the music emanates. Not so the Q205. It’s images feel/sound solid, and I feel that is the method the Q205 uses to convey realism.

Another characteristic of the Q205 related to the forgoing is its big sound with a wide and deep soundstage that is neutral in its spatial balance. Images seem life-size right there in front of you on the soundstage, which on sparse recordings conveys a live, cabaret-like feel to the music. Moreover, “life-size” in this case means “right-size” – there is no “big head” effect as you sometimes get with some systems.

The Q205 remains a highly detailed source, and if you couple it with other top notch components you will be able to hear every detail of meticulous recordings. If you’ve read some of my other reviews you know that I’m not a fan of excessive detail, which can at times sound very unnatural. This was not the case with the Q205, whose presentation of detailed recordings always sounded like the real thing while letting you hear every brush stroke, pluck and performer grunt.

The Q205 also produced excellent PRaT and speed when the music called for it. You may say that good pace, rhythm and timing should be a given with digital components. Alas, I am regularly amazed by how many components I get to hear that fail to convey liveliness properly. The Q205 is not one of those, and it will keep your toes tapping when listening to toe-tapping music. It was hard not to dance when the Talking Heads were playing “Totally Nude” from Naked. This characteristic, along with the full-bodied, powerful sound described above, is also similar to my experiences with Wadia players and DACs. You will never have the sensation that the music is dragging or too languid. If you have that problem, it won’t be the fault of the Q205.

I should confess first that “transparency” is not one of my top audiophile values. A three-dimensional soundstage is definitely near the top of my list, but an overemphasis of the see-though characteristic of “transparency” can result in overly ephemeral images that don’t accurately convey the experience of being at a show. I’ve never heard anyone comment on transparency at a show where a live, 20-piece jazz band is rocking the house. So when I say that the Q205 is not the last word in “transparency” you shouldn’t be alarmed, because you won’t notice any deficiency. Moreover, in my experience transparency is mostly dependent on your DAC and the cables you use. The MIT MA-X Digital (reviewed in November, 2010) between the Q205 and the Lyngdorf RP-1 was instructive in this regard. By adjusting the articulation setting of the cable I could increase the sense of transparency as desired, again demonstrating the virtues of the MIT cables that incorporate the articulation adjustment feature.

Conclusion

Remember that I have not repeated observations of all of the great features of the Qsonix interface that I discussed in my November 2010 article on the Q105, and I strongly recommend that you check it out, because the Qsonix’s operating features changed my overall listening experience, and they could do the same for you. This article has only focused on the new audiophile-targeted model Q205 and its improvements, so you need to read the earlier article to get a sense of the wide range of intuitive features it also incorporates.

Is the Q205 the “best” all-in-one audiophile server? There is no way I can say, because I’ve only heard a small number of them. However, I definitely can say that it sounds as good or better than every high-end disc transport I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot. It’s not as nuanced and dimensional as the impressive Linn Akurate DS, but that unit is a streamer, not a server, and requires connection to network, as well as some programming of the Linn software.

Is the Q205 the ultimate all-in-one source component? At this time its combination of features in a single component is hard to match. Easy ripping and downloading, combined with automated downloads of metadata, intuitive touch screen operation, and high-end digital outputs is a tough combination to beat. This is especially true for those who (a) are not inclined to go through the effort of designing and installing a networked system by themselves, or (b) realize that the cost of paying a networked music expert to design a custom solution will cost as much or more than just buying the Q205.

Does the Q205 have issues? Yes, but they are minor, and Qsonix continues to provide free fixes that are automatically downloaded during scheduled updates. Like what issues? For example, the volume-leveling feature does not always work as well as it should, and volume adjustment is necessary between songs that are recorded at radically different levels. Another situation is that sometimes downloaded files are not automatically recognized and paired with metadata, and you need to manually supplement information. Neither of these affects sonics, and the only sonic issue I’ve encountered is that after the unit plays a 24/192 file, the Qsonix has to be manually reset if you don’t want the 24/96 file that is playing next to be automatically up sampled to 192. However, even in this case you will not have an issue if you prefer your music upsampled, which I often do, and resetting to a lower sample rate is just a touch of a button. I can tell you that the improvements to your listening experience will far outweigh these minor glitches. It is definitely an easy way for an audiophile who is not presently into computer audio to make the transition and immediately begin enjoying the benefits.

I can recommend the Q205 without reservation. It’s not cheap, but you get a bunch of value for your dollars. Definitely audition one and hear (and see) what it can do, or email me and I’ll be happy to answer your questions.

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