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Slim Devices Transporter High End Music Server Review

The sub-$10k digital front-end that wins Jack Roberts over

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Slim Devices Transporter High End Music Server

The phone just rang, and it was my editor again, he wants to know if I’ve written a review on the Slim Devices Transporter yet. “Well no, but I turned in reviews on …” (I have to remember who’s got what. -Ed)

OK, to be honest I have no idea why I have taken so long to write this review. Maybe it’s because there have been some really good reviews already written about this high-tech audiophile wonder, or maybe it’s because I’m still not sure I have learned to use all of its features. Then maybe it’s because my wireless setup has been a little quirky lately, though that seems to be taken care of for the time being. Maybe, gulp! Maybe it’s because I don’t want to give it up. No, on second thought that couldn’t be it, because right now I want to learn all I can on playing digital this way.

Regardless, in some form it has been my main source for digital music for several months now, and I love it. I do have to admit though that I listen to vinyl about 80% of the time. So the question is: Would I love it as much if I listened mostly to digital? I think so, but if digital was my primary source I’m sure I would try it with a better DAC or give a good listen to the modified version by ModWright. I have to admit, their mod with the big tubes sticking up out of the Transporter’s modern-looking chassis made out of hard-anodized “aircraft-grade aluminum” is intriguing. Man oh man, wouldn’t it look great in the same system with a deHavilland preamp.

Well, I’m getting way ahead of myself, so let me see if I can make our dear editor happy and get this review written and turned in.

The First Question I want to ask is if the term “high-end music server” is a oxymoron. There was a time when I surely would have thought so, but just a little over two years ago, to my shock, I discovered that a correctly burned disc sounded better than the original CDs they were burned from. In fact, the more research I did on it, the more it seemed to me that the process of mass producing CDs might have a lot to do with what irritates me over time when I am listening to digital music on CDs. So, I thought it might stand to reason that getting rid of those little silver discs altogether might be a good thing. So yes, I was ready to try a music server and even hope one could truly be called high-end.

Description

In their literature, Slim Devices says the Transporter “streams digital music with sound quality that surpasses even the most exotic compact disc players.” That’s quite a claim, but it was their goal. In fact, they ask me to compare it to CD players that cost up to five times as much.

They set out to design the Transporter to tempt audiophiles into trying a music server. I have to say if you start with the looks they certainly succeeded, though I could have done without those little handles on the front. It has a first-rate looking hard-anodized chassis of “aircraft-grade aluminum” that comes in silver or black. There is a nice big knob in the center that gives it an old analogue feel. The knob is accompanied by almost invisible buttons across the bottom, allowing you to control everything with ease from the front panel. Above them are two large display areas that you can set to display all kinds of information.

Inside, the Transporter has its own high quality DAC that uses an AKM AK4396 multi-bit/Sigma-Delta DAC. It is a true 192kHz, 24-bit 2-channel DSD-capable D/A converter with AKM’s advanced multi-bit architecture to achieve a virtually flat noise floor up to 80kHz. It also uses dedicated super voltage regulators designed by Walt Jung. You usually find these only on the most high-end CD players or DACs. So again, inside, it looks like a real piece of high-end equipment.

Another aspect that they went high-end on is keeping the analog and digital signal totally separate, and having the balanced output’s level fixed. If you need a variable output, then the single-ended outputs allow you to control the volume by a combination of digital attenuation and a set of resistors mounted on the circuit board.

Truth is, the Transporter is more a digital player that uses a hard drive in lieu of CDs than it is a transport. The Transporter, of course, can serve as a wonderful transport when used with a high quality DAC, but you’ve got to go some distance to better the internal DAC. Then of course, you don’t have to just use a hard drive as a source. The Transporter has regular digital inputs so you can use a CD player, DVD player, XM Radio or any other digital source with the Transporter serving as the DAC. The Transporter has single-ended and balanced analog outputs, as well as coaxial, TosLink, BNC S/PDIF, and AES/EBU digital outputs. It also has ethernet and RS-232 inputs.

The two displays that are on the front are nice and big. I can read them across the room with the text size set to normal; you can set the text to a larger size that is easier to read, or the opposite so as to display more information. These two displays can be configured in more ways than I have configured so far, and they are very useful. I keep the left side setup to show me what’s playing when the unit is on. When it is off it makes a nice clock. The right side I leave set either with faux-analog VU meters to monitor the output, kind of like those on McIntosh gear. Other times I let the right side scroll RSS feeds of college football or baseball scores.

First Impressions

This is a nice looking piece of equipment. It kind of reminds me of a good looking digital tuner; heck it even has two antennas. Then I looked at the back panel and thought I need some HELP! It made me feel kind of old, but there has to be some benefits to having a 24-year-old son. Michael came to the rescue of his old dad and we went through the simple set up and installed the Slimserver software on a computer. Then, we ripped some CDs in WAV to a hard-drive and we were ready to listen to some tunes. Truth is, if I had ever used iTunes or any of the other music server software, I probably wouldn’t even have needed to read the directions to use the Transporter. I was impressed as Michael and I set it up by just how intuitively it worked.

If like me, you have been slack in keeping up with the times and are a little worried by the computer aspects of setting up this system, don’t be. It’s really pretty simple. First, you need a computer, desktop or laptop. Then you need a router. (Router is for wireless laptop usage. –Ed) It would be nice if it is wireless, but it’s not a necessity. I actually ended up with a hard-wired setup from the 750GB hard drive to the Transporter. I did use the wireless features of the Transporter for internet radio and other things. All that is left is to rip your CDs to the hard drive on your computer or an external hard drive. You will also need to download the Slim Devices’ software to your computer. When all this is completed, you can now access your entire music library that’s on the hard drive with the Transporter’s remote and play it on your system. You can also see everything you need on the front panel of the Transporter so that there is no need for a computer, except for when you want to rip more music to the hard drive.

I have to admit I was hooked right from the start. No it wasn’t quite as good as the VSEI Level 5+ SACD player I used for so many years in various mods. It was better though than several three- to six-thousand-dollar CD players I had come through here, not only that but it was incredibly convenient to use. I put my CD collection on a 750GB hard drive, then it was only a few clicks on the remote control and I could search by ARTIST, ALBUM, or GENRE.

After listening to the Slim Devices Transporter for over a month; I’d had a chance to listen to it with almost every kind of music. I did a lot of serious listening to it. I listened to it as I work. I listen to it with others. It had then been in the system long enough for others in the house to comment on it. So, I felt it was time to see how I could improve it.

First, I tried using it with the Audio Note DAC 1x Signature I had on hand, and then I tried the Shindo CD transformer. They both helped. The Audio Note DAC added a little more brilliance, shimmer, and air in the top-end. It was also a little warmer everywhere. The Shindo CD transformer gave the Transporter more body and a little more analogue-like sound without the added warmth. Yes, there was an improvement with both the Audio Note and the Shindo. What really amazed me though as time went on and it finished breaking in was just how good music from the Transporter sounded all by itself.

Listening To Music From The Transporter

The Transporter has a pleasant, silky, smooth sound that is very musical. Still, it is never so smooth as to be boring. It is also very extended and nicely airy for digital. The midrange of the Transporter isn’t just good for a music server; it is just plain good. Voices, strings, and horns all sound very clear and you can hear the air and nuances that make them sound so real. The Transporter is nearly as good in the midrange as the VESI modded SACD player I used for so long, not as good, but close.

The treble is not as sweet, extended, and natural sounding as a good SACD or vinyl, but they are on par with some of the best Redbook players I have heard. It also has better dynamics and scale than any digital I have heard for less than $5,000. While the dynamics of the system is very good, the micro-dynamics are even better. These incredibly natural micro-dynamics allow voices and instruments to sound very natural and alive.

Bass

The bass goes as deep as I have heard in my room, and can have real impact if your speakers are up to it. Not only does it go deep but it is fast, and tight from the deepest notes all away into the lower midrange. In the many months I have listened to it, I have never noticed it to have any tendency toward being overly warm or slow at all. I think most would describe the bass as deep, fast, and quick. I would say it is in the top echelon of red book digital, but it still sounds like red book digital bass, by that I mean it has a little bit of a one-note bass sound compared to vinyl or SACDs.

Soundstage and Imaging

This is an area where the Transporter is very good by any standards. In fact, it actually has a better soundstage by itself than it did with the Audio Note DAC. The stage is both wider and deeper than it was with the DAC. The imaging is very precise and very palpable.

I happened to have the Lowther DX55 drivers mounted in the Lowther America’s Alerion cabinets in for review. They may be the best imaging floor standing speakers I have ever heard. Truth is I can’t remember even hearing a monitor that provided such a three-dimensional soundstage. I have never heard any floor standing speaker disappear like these can. The combination of the Transporter and the Alerions created instruments and people that were so solid they were simply realistic.

Is it perfect? It definitely is not. I have enjoyed it very much, and I plan to purchase it. Still, it does sound like Redbook digital to me. The Slim Devices can sound quite impressive and even musical, but it seldom sounds like music the way vinyl does, or even SACD for that matter. When I was using SACD for my main source, I would often notice that a particular recording would sound more precise and clearer on Redbook, and I would think I had finally found a recording where Redbook was better. In every case though, it was just that the Redbook rendition lacked nuances and air.

In Conclusion

The Slim Devices Transporter is a joy to use. It make finding music and listening to it very easy. It will spoil you both with convenience and its musical sound.

I want to finish by saying this is one of the best digital players I have ever heard. There seem to be very few digital players under $10K that don’t scream out “I’m digital”, and instead let you enjoy music. The good news is that the Slim Device Transporter is one of them and costs only $2K. If you are in the market for a digital source, you should listen to it.

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