Only a few years ago, the conventional audiophile wisdom was that the best sound from computer audio could be had for the price of a Mac computer and downloaded aftermarket music-player software from the likes of Amarra or Decibel. There wasn’t much else you could do to improve that setup, except maybe a few tweaks to make the computer run its best: RAM upgrades, better USB cables, and so on.
But computer audio continued to evolve: Enter the standalone music server, built not for the masses -- that is, not for convenience and for simultaneously performing a multitude of tasks -- but for the hardcore audiophile for whom high sound quality is paramount. It’s the audiophile way: The quest for better sound required a rethinking of the computer as music server, and a number of companies have taken up the challenge.
An ever-increasing proportion of audiophiles now seem to be fully committed to music servers as high-end sources. And where a need is perceived, someone will be ready to fill it, which is why standalone music-servers from various companies are popping up like weeds in fertile ground.
One engineering creed about a music server designed for audiophiles is that it should be a stripped-down version of the do-everything computers we’re used to using. Today’s top-performing music server should be dedicated to the one task it’s designed to do: feed the DAC while protecting the integrity of the signal.
The Sonore music server from Simple Design is built for just that purpose. It can’t handle your word-processing duties or surf the Internet, and it won’t sit in your lap on that long airplane ride (unless you’re carrying it to your vacation home). It’s a computer whose sole purpose is to feed a high-end digital-to-analog converter a perfect digital signal. In that sense, the Sonore is a hi-fi component like any other, and belongs on the rack between your preamp and DAC. (Sonore is based in Miami Lakes, Florida, and was founded by Jesus Rodriguez, who manages it with his business partner, Adrian Lebena.)
A Sonore can be built in several different ways, configurable at time of order. There are a number of output options: via USB digital using an internal SOtM tX-USB soundcard, like my review sample ($1899 USD with Cardas USB cable); i2S via HDMI ($1999 with Cardas HDMI cable); AES/EBU digital via an internal Lynx AES16 soundcard ($2399 with Cardas AES/EBU cable); or analog via an internal Lynx L22 soundcard ($2439 with Cardas analog cables). The Sonore is compatible with almost all formats of music file you might put through it, including AIFF, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, and MP3, but is not compatible with formats encoded with Digital Rights Management (DRM). Control of music playback in your system comes via a free subscription app that you can use with Android devices and iPod Touches, iPhones, and iPads. You can also use a Web-enabled interface that uses Logitech Squeezebox Server, which is what I used with my Apple MacBook laptop.
The Sonore connects to a home network via an Ethernet cable in a process that’s a snap, assuming you have any experience at all with routers. The folks from Simple Design can also remotely log in to your network to ensure that all your settings are correct, or even help with installation if you run into snags. (They did this with me to check my setup; all was fine.) The Sonore can automatically rip and tag your CDs, the latter with cover-art finder (which is why it needs access to the Internet), via its front-loading slot drive. It's also interesting to note that the hard drive assembly is mass loaded and floats between the top and bottom cover, separated by special rubber isolation tabs. It will also rip your DVDs to the MKV format. My review sample included an SATA power-line noise filter from SOtM Audio, for the rejection of radio-frequency interference (RFI) and “ripple reduction.” It also had an internal 2TB hard drive for music storage. (The size of hard drive can be specified at time of order.) Yes, the Sonore doesn’t need an external hard drive for data storage -- something you should factor in when comparing it with a laptop, which won’t have as much storage capacity.
The Sonore’s case is CNC-machined from aluminum. My review sample included an external power supply slightly larger than a typical laptop’s. Now available, however, is Simple Design’s Signature Series ultra-low-noise power-supply upgrade, which starts at $649 and can be bought for any Sonore unit already in the field. Heatsinks run the length of the sides, obviating the need of a cooling fan and resulting in absolutely silent operation. A front-mounted USB port is included, for charging your mobile devices and for backing up files stored on the Sonore’s internal drive.
The Sonore runs VortexBox, a free, open-source (see http://vortexbox.org; Simple Design is actually on the VortexBox development team), Linux-based software that manages automatic CD and DVD ripping to the internal hard drive, searches for metadata and cover art for ripped discs, controls content mirrors, and starts all services related to audio playback and the network sharing of files. VortexBox also manages special features that control Logitech and Sonos devices, and enables the onboard Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) and Digital Audio Access Protocol (DAAP) servers. This may sound complicated, but don’t worry -- to start ripping, all you need do is press the Power button and insert discs.
I loaded a CD full of 16-bit/44.1kHz demo tracks that I know extremely well on the Sonore, as well as on my Apple MacBook, which runs the Audirvana music-player software. I also loaded two tracks at 24/192 resolution: the Basso ostinato from Shchedrin’s Polyphonic Pieces for Piano, performed by Norwegian pianist Joachim Kjelsaas Kwetzinsky (24/192 FLAC, 2L); and a selection from Bellezza Crudel, a chamber cantata by Vivaldi that is performed by soprano Tone Wik accompanied by Barokkanerne, a Norwegian ensemble that specializes in Baroque music (24/192 FLAC, 2L). Although my dCS Debussy DAC has only one USB input, I was able to fairly quickly swap out the Sonore and Mac for A/B comparisons. I spent several afternoons doing just that, until I was confident of what I heard.
The main difference I heard between the Sonore and the Mac was an increase in tonal density with the Simple Design: Notes seemed much more solid and stable. These weren’t tonal aberrations -- the basic tonal neutrality of all the music I played was basically unchanged from what I heard through the Mac. But this difference was nonetheless stirring -- though hard to describe, it was easy to hear. It was like the difference between a child’s crayon drawing vs. the same drawing filled in with a felt-tipped marker. The crayon leaves tiny spaces of white in the colored areas; the marker fills the entire area with color. The density of tonal color was greater through the Sonore, which made musical events sound more substantial; the Mac produced less complete renderings. Magico’s Q3 loudspeakers, also in for review, let me hear this difference quite easily, their own high resolution making the differences between the Sonore and my MacBook quite obvious.
The left-hand piano notes in “Lovin’ You Is Easy,” from Sarah McLachlan’s Laws of Illusion (16/44.1 FLAC, AMG), had more continuous, even reverberation, while her voice was more fully rendered within the soundstage, making McLachlan more tangibly present in my room. I heard this characteristic of the Sonore’s sound most easily in the lower and mid-frequencies than in the highs, but I could still make out differences in the sound of the soprano in the Vivaldi recording. In fact, once I heard Tone Wik through the Sonore, I had a greater appreciation for how she delivered this music. The Sonore’s greater tonal density made her voice sound more vibrant and confident, which added a punch to the music that increased my enjoyment of it. This more tangible, more dense and solid sound wasn’t a matter of greater extension at the frequency extremes, such as you might get from a better tweeter, or the extension of bass that occurs when you switch from a moderately powered amplifier to a huge class-A beast from a company like Gryphon or Vitus. Rather, the improvements I heard with the Sonore were all within the same audible range. Instead of extending the extremes of the high and low frequencies, the Sonore improved what was already there.
The most pressing question here is how much of a difference I was actually hearing. Well, when I listened intently to Shchedrin’s Basso ostinato, the sound was a step beyond what I’m used to hearing in terms of willingly suspending my disbelief. The extra gravitas in the sound of the piano made the performance quite amazing. The added weight of the notes and increased solidity of the images made the music sound that much more real. I wouldn’t say the difference was as dramatic as that between a speaker like the B&W 803 Diamond and the Magico Q3 -- a huge gulf in performance -- but it was similar to what I’ve heard by switching from a good amplifier to a really great one, such as Gryphon’s Colosseum.
As I sat there listening to the Sonore, I pondered the implications. I guess that in some ways I’d hoped that my MacBook would sound just as good, and that there would be no reason for any of us who have laptop-based music servers to upgrade our electronics. After all, what counts is what happens after the DAC gets the signal, right?
I wish it were that simple. The Sonore continued to impress me over the weeks that I listened to it, but never more than when I ran head-to-head comparisons with my Mac. Yes, there were many areas in which the Sonore’s sound did not exceed the Mac’s . . . but that tonal-density thing kept reminding me that the Sonore was doing something better that made my listening experience more complete. I enjoyed listening to music more through the Sonore. That was the kicker.
There are some further considerations for those of you who might consider buying a Sonore. Since I received my review sample, Simple Design has made available the optional Signature Series ultra-low-noise external power supply ($649). Being an audiophile, and knowing how a better power supply almost always improves the performance of an electronic component, I’m aware that the Signature could raise the Sonore’s level of performance even more. Which means that the only caveat I have about recommending the Sonore as a no-brainer purchase is that I’m not sure its design is entirely finished yet. Then again, given that it’s a computer, and computers are always in a state of technical improvement, I’m not sure that’s a good reason not to make your next music server a Sonore. When I think back to The World’s Best Audio System 2009, when I used the Blue Smoke Black Box music server, which cost $6995, the Sonore at $1899 seems an altogether sane buy. What I can tell you is that the Sonore sounded unquestionably better than my MacBook. Apple MacBooks cost not much less than the Sonore, and we all know that those things get superseded at least once a year, like clockwork.
We’ve crossed a bridge: Laptop and desktop computers are no longer the only thing to get if you seek the best sound from your music server. And audiophile-oriented companies are still doing what they’ve been doing for decades: taking something that reproduces sound and making it sound better. Simple Design is a company to watch, and their Sonore is a really good-sounding machine. I guess there’s no looking back now: Out goes the computer, in comes the music server.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Magico Q3, Tidal Piano Cera
- Amplifier -- Gryphon Colosseum
- Preamplifier -- Gryphon Mirage
- Sources -- Apple MacBook running OS X Snow Leopard, iTunes, Audirvana; dCS Debussy DAC
- Cables -- Nordost Valhalla, AudioQuest
Simple Design Sonore Music Server
Price: $1899 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
Simple Design, LLC
Miami Lakes, FL