My father would regularly intone about vehicles, “Never buy a car in its first model year. It takes a year or two to fix all the problems.” I have applied that thinking to many facets of life. I live in a home built like a fortress in 1966 with heavy framing actually nailed together, and with copper plumbing throughout. I buy motorcycles a year or two old, have used an “HD compatible” projector in my HT, and do not pursue the hottest and most expensive phones. Back when I played video games I bought the next to current generation machine and picked up games from the used media store. It’s not that I couldn’t buy more recent models, but I prefer to let others pay the development costs and have the kinks worked out by the time I buy.
That philosophy of buying, and seeing no clear winner in terms of the technology for file servers for music playback, were reasons why for the past two years I have used a Mac Mini with HQ Player software as my music file server. It has worked adequately and I enjoyed discovering the degree to which USB cables and DACs can elevate a simple computer server as source. However, the advent of Tidal’s CD quality streaming music and ROON’s user interface signaled to me that the time had come, the ergonomics and hardware were both at a point where a dedicated file server would be a logical next upgrade. Forgive me, then, dear reader for not furnishing you a review of the original StreamPlayer or the StreamPlayer II. Something tells me this is the serendipitous model, the one worth the wait.
At AXPONA 2016 while exploring some companies whose products I have reviewed I found Jim Salk demonstrating this third version of the StreamPlayer, his Linux-based server. I had seen previous generations of this product, but wasn’t quite ready to grab hold of it. Now that it was ROON-ready and would offer seamless integration with Tidal I was a taker. Jim and his wife Mary are among the most courteous and helpful of manufacturers I have met, and throughout the review arrangements Jim consistently delivered more timely service in support of my transition to the StreamPlayer III than anticipated. Critically, Jim was both knowledgeable and reachable, as no less than three times when I called him with minutia of the operations of the StreamPlayer Gen III (hereafter StreamPlayer III) and expected the need of leaving a message he picked up the call. In this review Salk Audio provided some of the closest to real time assistance I have experienced from a manufacturer in 12 years of reviewing. That bodes very well for those potential purchasers who need a bit of assistance after the purchase. An obligatory mention of the packaging and delivery of the StreamPlayer III is necessary, and it was by the book, well protected and delivered.
Home grown electronics
There is something to be said for a manufacturer who develops proprietary machinery versus representing another’s. Jim is known for his high quality, high value speakers, but he is less known for digital servers. Jim is not a weekend warrior hacking away at assembling a file server/streamer. His background is engineering, specifically audio engineering. He states, “I started exploring digital audio processing in 1973, long before personal computers came on the market.” Jim was steeped in computers already when IBM introduced the first PC. He has been building his own computers for decades and was on the Internet before the World Wide Web existed! He has his own web servers and has been programming since 1985.
When he says he was looking for a streaming device and was not impressed with products on the market, you need to understand he is the kind of man who has a deep skill set to develop his own. His choice of Linux operating system for the StreamPlayer III underscores his knowledge base in computer audio. Among the advantages of a Linux operating system is avoidance of a proprietary OS, the capacity to have a purpose built OS using only code required for the task of audio processing, the robust (read “virtually crash-proof”) nature of the OS, and the presence of thousands of people worldwide who can develop additional functionality. I suggest that the audiophile community extend their appreciation of Salk Audio to include file server/streamers, for the StreamPlayer III is a rich experience, fulfilling my expectations of how a quality digital source should perform. How it did so is the subject of this review.
The weakness of this Review
The fundamental weakness of this review is that I have not dealt with other aftermarket file servers/streamers for comparison. This inhibits me from speaking authoritatively about the performance of the StreamPlayer III relative to competitors. However, I can speak confidently about its use relative to a Mac Mini used as a server with specialty audio software, and indirectly in comparison to a twin tower PC based filer server I heard previously in my room.
I can also discuss the comparison of the StreamPlayer III as a source versus high-end CD players. I’m surprised to see numerous comments posted on forums by audiophiles still using CD as their primary digital source. How easy it is for me to forget that three years ago I was one of them. Now that I have been doing file playback for a few years I feel CD’s are archaic. The StreamPlayer III has contributed fundamentally to that conclusion.
I consider myself with the StreamPlayer III to be two steps removed from the CD as source. The Mac Mini was superior to the CD from the get-go, but the StreamPlayer III has distanced itself entirely from the Mac Mini. I juiced the performance of the Mac Mini by using software called HQPlayer, mixing in a variety of DAC’s and USB cables as well. Yet, after two years of experimentation, the initial setup of the StreamPlayer III not yet optimized trounced the Mac Mini! My first thought was, “Oh, man, I should have switched a long time ago!” However, the user interface is also critical, and until ROON made its appearance in the audiophile community I wasn’t overwhelmed by the other offerings on the market.
Before I expound upon ROON and its importance to the StreamPlayer III I hasten to add that I compared two different CD players at the $10K price point and found the Mac Mini setup and complimentary DAC to match their performance. The conclusion should be simple enough, that in my experience file servers/streamers have capacity to surpass all but the most extravagant CD players. So, if the StreamPlayer III betters the Mac Mini, is it any wonder I do not have motivation to return to CDs?
NEXT: Part 2 – Strength
Source: Musical Fidelity M1CDT Transport Streaming Music Service: Tidal Playback Software: ROON DAC: Eastern Electric Minimax DSD DAC Supreme with Burson, Dexa NewClassD and Sparkos Labs Discrete Opamp Upgrade; Exogal Comet DAC and upgrade power supply, LampizatOr Big 7 Preamp: TEO Audio Liquid Preamplifier; VAC Renaissance Signature Preamplifier MkII; Cambridge Audio 840E Amps: Red Dragon S500; VAC Phi 200; First Watt J2 (two) Speakers: Kings Audio Kingsound King III; Legacy Audio DSW Clarity Edition; Kings Audio King Tower omnidirectional; Vapor Audio Joule White 3 Subwoofers: Legacy Audio XTREME HD (2) IC’s: TEO Liquid Splash-Rs and Splash-Rc; TEO Liquid Standard MkII; Clarity Cable Organic RCA/XLR; Snake River Audio Signature Series Interconnects; Silent Source “The Music Reference” Speaker Cables: TEO Cable Standard Speaker; Clarity Cable Organic Speaker; Snake River Audio Signature Series Speaker Cables; Silent Source “The Music Reference” Digital Cables: Clarity Cable Organic Digital; Snake River Audio Boomslang; Silent Source “The Music Reference” USB: Verastarr Nemesis; Clarity Organic Power Cables: Verastarr Grand Illusion; Clarity Cable Vortex; MIT Oracle ZIII; Xindak PF-Gold; Snake River Audio Signature Series; Silent Source “The Music Reference” Power Conditioning: Wireworld Matrix Power Cord Extender; Tice Audio Solo
Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden
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