Deconstructing a music server

A few sweet arguments against salty overpriced 'audiophile' servers; for local files only. If you buy music to own and support its creators with more than fractional cloud-streaming cents, you don't need computer, smartphone or Internet to play it. You do need the cloud to buy and download said music in the first place. Worst case, that could be a computer at work or a friend's. Emancipating our playback from the floating worldwide web instantly shuts a door on noise interference and all the super-dweeby stuff of mass-paralleled network filters, switches and speciality cables. What actually do we need to play our digital music files back now?

1/ storage to host them
2/ software to access them and process all going file formats
3/ a graphic user interface to navigate them
4/ a digital output that supports our highest resolution. USB will serve both native DSD and PCM beyond 192kHz should we have any.

Behind it all we need a power supply to drive the lot. Everyone and their granny tells us that switching supplies are noisy, linear supplies superior and batteries possibly the ultimate. Noted. Ideally we also want a buffer/reclocker to output signal with very low jitter and make life easier on the downstream DAC. Noted. Some snazzy 'audiophile' servers include custom up/resampling algorithms capable of resampling all to hi-rate DSD or DXD for example. For today's purposes, we'll stop short of that. If we want upsampling, our DAC likely already does it. Two of my DACs can resample to DSD1'024 should that float my boat.

Given our list of four requirements, what's the minimum solution to give us maximum conformity with these whilst playing nice with our wallet?

Halfway there filling up my first SD card.

Something like Shanling's €469 M3 Ultra portable audio player which John Darko and I just podcast reviewed; then serving an affordable USB bridge like Singxer's €699 SU-6 or €460 SU-2. The costlier version serves my main system, the other my desktop. Having reviewed über servers up to €20K, I have first-hand experience with how they stack up against my fully loaded 27" iMac with Audirvana outputting to an SU-6. In short, I haven't found one that made me change my iMac religion. That's also because being WiFi allergic, I insist on hardwiring everything. Now headless servers can't default to a tablet remote. They still need Apple's 27" display equivalent to my iMac. Currently that's a €1'799 (!) expense. That's more than today's combined hardware; for a display. Given that I know just how well an iMac ⇒ Audirvana ⇒ SU-6 combo holds up to cost-no-object servers, today's recipe shrinks the iMac/Audirvana bits down to compact smartphone size yet sacrifices no sonics, just the iMac's 3TB FusionDrive.

Let's return to our four-square list and cross off what we just bought or still need.

1/ for storage, a 1TB SanDisc Extreme microSD memory card sold for €180 on Amazon the day I wrote this. An equivalent 128GB job wanted less than €20. It's what I currently use. Mine is 124GB full with 16/44.1, 24/44.1/48,  24/96 and a few DSD64 files across 197 folders. Two of those folders contain 200 carefully curated tracks each, another one 21 different albums by the same artist. That's a lot of music easily scaled up with a bigger card. Or, I could have multiple 128GB cards on hand to rotate. Or I could attach a NAS.

2/ software. Unlike Windows 11/MacOS, a DAP's operating system is far more basic. It's focused on music not massively paralleled computing where programs like Photoshop, Word, Outlook, Firefox, Qobuz, banking and many more could be simultaneously live each with many open windows of its own. So our DAP's OS doesn't need a specialist software player like Audirvana, J.River. PureMusic or Roon to disable redundant noisy background threads. Its operating system has already been audiophiled. And it plays Windows and Mac files to be format agnostic.

Native DSD via USB; DoP via AES/EBU.

3/ GUI. Shanling use Android 10 to be instantly familiar to many smartphone users. It offers multiple screen views, flips and pull-downs, extensive search parameters, full cover-art support and a smart-phone style keyboard for custom queries/searches. The display is full color and high resolution. One press on the volume knob extinguishes it to save power, a double-tap on the screen reawakens it. Certain behaviors can be customized. Think smartphone without the call-making function.

4/ USB-C can be set to volume bybass to feed our external DAC; or in our fully duded-out format, an external USB bridge whose AES/EBU or I²S over HDMI/RJ45 outputs can span far longer distances than USB's 5-meter limit. In my setup below, it's a 6m AES/EBU leash from USB bridge on the sidewall to DAC between the speakers.

5/ Clean power. Forget SMPS and fancy linear jobs. We've gone batty, the audiophile meow. Even my Singxer SU-6 and Soundaware use ultra capacitors for their circuity. Because our USB server employ is the lowest possible power draw for a DAP—we don't run its analog output stage to drive headphones or, in line-out mode, a preamp—the onboard battery is good for ~3 days of listening before it needs an overnight recharge. Big deal. WiFi allergics can easily defeat Shanling's Bluetooth and WiFi in the menu to kill another source of noise. For navigating locally hosted music, Shanling's chosen SnapDragon processor is plenty quick to populate a big library with cover art and cue up songs. Cloud surfing isn't on our menu so we don't care if there it's just a bit slower.

Reconstructing the music server. Fancy 'audiophile' music servers run pared-down operating systems optimized for music. So does our portable mini server. Fancy 'audiophile' music servers run purified linear power. Our mini server goes batteries. Fancy 'audiophile' music servers tend to be headless. Our frugal server is with head to need no external screen, mouse or keyboard. Fancy 'audiophile' music servers cache music to a memory buffer then reclock it. We do the same thing in our external USB bridge. Fancy 'audiophile' music servers are big, heavy, expensive and stationary. My budget solution travels from system to system with a 2m custom Forza Audiowork USB-C cable. That either jacks directly into a DAC as in the earlier photo; or as right above, into a Soundaware D300REF USB bridge. It can even hop into bed with me and, how kinky, drive Meze 109 Pro headphones to perfection; or go walkabout with HifiMan IEMs.

Why ever would I want an overpriced 'audiophile' music server instead? In our offline upstairs system, the unequivocal answer is, I wouldn't. Even this would be overkill since it's pretty much the same display rotated 90°, the exact same processor and OS. All the rest of the ~5 x higher cost goes to a beefier headfi section, extra socketry and a bigger heavier chassis with a linear power supply. My application needs none of that so no bigger beefier DAP neither. Once our Darko.podcast goes live, you'll hear John come around to this concept which he was perfectly prepared to poo-poo going in. It just takes a good hard look at how much fixed music memory we really need especially for a second system; and to stop making a fuss about having to first populate a microSD card. That does require deciding what to put on and what to leave off if one's main library is 3TB or bigger. First-world problems, huh?

PS: Naturally, there will come a point where a sufficiently extreme solution makes a more than super-marginal difference to matter sonically if we've got the shinola. My assertion simply remains that in the not exactly modest sandbox I play in, I've not heard that yet. Also, the above isn't in particular an endorsement of the Shanling. It simply represents a product category in which options are quite broad. Readers curious to explore them can thus also cull from the catalogues of Astell&Kern, Cayin, FiiO, Hiby, iBasso, Lotoo, Pioneer, Questyle and Sony. Aside from price and looks, what you're shopping for is a fast and responsive OS with all the nav conveniences you want; and a fixed USB output. As long as there's at least one microSD card slot, you're in control over how much storage to slot in. An extra-large battery is a bonus but really, as long as one charge gets us through a full day of play, a nightly recharge should be no bother. As we turn the rest of our kit off, we connect our mini server to a wall charger as part of the manual hifi ceremony. Done; purist hardwired digital serving for a relative song – and in the context of 'audiophile' servers, outright peanuts. Galleries, yet ye busy!