Mu­sic on Tap

Elac Dis­cov­ery DS-S101-G Mu­sic Server

Sound & Vision - - TEST REPORT - By Al Grif­fin

PRICE $1,100

BE­FORE DIV­ING INTO A RE­VIEW of Elac’s Dis­cov­ery DS-S101-G mu­sic server, it seems apt to ask: What is a mu­sic server? In the past, it was a stand­alone au­dio com­po­nent with a built-in hard disk that stored and played a ripped CD col­lec­tion while con­nect­ing to the in­ter­net to fetch meta­data. While prod­ucts that fit this de­scrip­tion still ex­ist, a mu­sic server can also be some­thing as ba­sic as a soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tion run­ning on a com­puter or on a net­work-at­tached stor­age (NAS) ap­pli­ance. The server ap­pli­ca­tion, wher­ever it may re­side, acts as a li­brar­ian for your dig­i­tal au­dio files, sort­ing and re­triev­ing them, and then rout­ing the data to a USB DAC or a net­worked au­dio com­po­nent that trans­lates the ones and ze­ros into mu­sic.

With no built-in stor­age, Elac’s Dis­cov­ery is a com­pact com­po­nent that links to ei­ther ex­ter­nal USB stor­age or a NAS de­vice, pro­vides ana­log and dig­i­tal out­puts to con­nect to your au­dio sys­tem, and is con­trolled by an app. In this case, how­ever, the soft­ware that runs the show is from Roon Labs, a mu­sic li­brary and dis­cov­ery plat­form that has earned ac­claim for its ad­vanced user in­ter­face and so­phis­ti­cated han­dling of meta­data. Reg­u­lar users of Roon pay $119 per year (or $499 life­time) for a sub­scrip­tion. With the Elac Dis­cov­ery, you get a scaled­down ver­sion called Roon Es­sen­tials—in­cluded at no ex­tra charge. The main dif­fer­ence is that, with Es­sen­tials, your mu­sic li­brary is lim­ited to a still sub­stan­tial 30,000 tracks.

Be­sides main­tain­ing a mu­sic li­brary ripped from discs, Roon Es­sen­tials pro­vides soft­ware in­te­gra­tion with the CD- or bet­ter-qual­ity Tidal stream­ing ser­vice (sub­scrip­tion re­quired). This means that when you use the Dis­cov­ery, al­bums, tracks, and playlists in your Tidal li­brary will show up as part of your larger mu­sic col­lec­tion, along­side the ripped CDS and stan­dard- and high-res­o­lu­tion down­loads. The Dis­cov­ery’s built-in DAC sup­ports un­com­pressed WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and ALAC files with up to 192-kilo­hertz/24-bit res­o­lu­tion, along with the com­pressed MP3, AAC, and OGG for­mats.

An unas­sum­ing piece of hard­ware that mea­sures about 8 x 5 inches (WXD), the Dis­cov­ery has a case that’s crafted from solid alu­minum, and there’s a rub­ber pad on the bot­tom that keeps it snugly set on top of a re­ceiver, an in­te­grated amp, or any other com­po­nent you use it with. (Just don’t block any cool­ing vents! (An LED in­di­ca­tor on the front panel glows white when the server is in use. Au­dio con­nec­tions on the back in­clude two pair of stereo ana­log RCA out­puts and both coax­ial and op­ti­cal dig­i­tal outs. Data con­nec­tions in­clude a gi­ga­bit Eth­er­net port for link­ing to a wired net­work (a re­quire­ment for us­ing the Dis­cov­ery) and a USB port to plug in USB stor­age.

Along with sin­gle-zone op­er­a­tion, the Dis­cov­ery can be con­fig­ured for syn­chro­nized mul­ti­room play­back via its dual ana­log out­puts. Wire­less mul­ti­room stream­ing is also pos­si­ble when us­ing Air­play speak­ers, Roon­ready Wi-fi speak­ers from Blue­sound and Elac (specif­i­cally, the com­pany’s forth­com­ing Dis­cov­ery Z3), and Sonos prod­ucts. How­ever, wire­less speak­ers that use dif­fer­ent pro­to­cols (e.g., Air­play and Sonos) can’t be grouped to­gether for syn­chro­nized mul­ti­room play­back.

Setup

Set­ting up the Dis­cov­ery in my sys­tem in­volved first run­ning an Eth­er­net ca­ble from a pow­er­line adapter to link it to my home net­work. I next made ana­log and coax­ial dig­i­tal con­nec­tions to an Out­law Au­dio RR2160 stereo re­ceiver ( Sound & Vi­sion, Novem­ber 2017) pow­er­ing a pair of Gold­e­n­ear Tech­nol­ogy Tri­ton Five tower speak­ers ( Sound & Vi­sion, May 2015). Af­ter I down­loaded the Roon Es­sen­tials app to my iphone (An­droid, OS X, and Win­dows 10 ver­sions are also avail­able), the Dis­cov­ery was de­tected as the “Roon Core” on my net­work. The fi­nal steps were to en­ter my Tidal lo­gin cre­den­tials and to con­fig­ure a USB drive loaded with ripped and down­loaded mu­sic files and plugged into the Dis­cov­ery’s back panel as the main mu­sic “folder.”

Since I was us­ing both the dig­i­tal and ana­log out­puts, I could set these up as sep­a­rate zones in the Au­dio Set­tings panel of the Roon Es­sen­tials app. This al­lowed me to com­pare the per­for­mance of the Dis­cov­ery’s built-in DAC with that of the Out­law re­ceiver. I also con­fig­ured a Naim

Mu-so Qb speaker in my bed­room as a wire­less Air­play zone, though I wasn’t able to group it for syn­chro­nized play­back with the Dis­cov­ery in the main sys­tem.

Per­for­mance

I started my lis­ten­ing ses­sion with the Dis­cov­ery con­nected to the Out­law re­ceiver’s ana­log in­put. When I played “My Valen­tine,” a 96/24 Hd­tracks down­load from the Brad Mehldau Trio’s Blues and Bal­lads, the pi­ano tone was smooth and cool, with just the right touch of crisp­ness to the high notes. The drums had a full pre­sen­ta­tion that eas­ily con­veyed the rich over­tones of the brushed cym­bals, and a dou­ble bass solo mid­way through dis­played a level of de­tail and fo­cus that con­jured up the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the in­stru­ment in the sound­stage. As I lis­tened, the meta­data in the Roon app (which taps its con­tent from All­mu­sic.com) in­formed me that “My Valen­tine” was com­posed by Paul Mc­cart­ney, and the em­bed­ded links in other tracks led me to learn more about the com­posers of those songs. And that’s just one small ex­am­ple of the magic of Roon, which re­ally does merit its own full re­view out­side the con­text of Elac’s server.

Next, I played a Tidal stream of

Van Mor­ri­son’s “Into the Mys­tic” from Moon­dance. The acous­tic gui­tar, pi­ano, and elec­tric bass in the back­ground had a warm, liq­uid qual­ity that con­trasted nicely with the sharper tone of Van’s vo­cals.

The sound­stage on this track came across as es­pe­cially wide, with a tam­bourine pushed for­ward in the mix serv­ing to cre­ate a re­al­is­tic sense of depth.

Switch­ing over to clas­si­cal mu­sic, I played a Max Richter com­po­si­tion, “War An­them,” from his Three Worlds: Mu­sic from Woolf Works. The Elac and Out­law com­bi­na­tion con­veyed a strong sense of spa­cious­ness and clear lay­er­ing be­tween the solo in­stru­ments and the or­ches­tra. Massed strings sounded full and textured, and the steady, low rum­ble of per­cus­sion in­stru­ments cre­ated a pow­er­ful foun­da­tion.

When I com­pared the same tracks us­ing a dig­i­tal in­put on the Out­law re­ceiver, the sound re­mained im­pres­sive, but there were in­stances when the Dis­cov­ery’s DAC showed a clear ad­van­tage. One ex­am­ple:

The pi­ano on “My Valen­tine” had a warmer over­all tone via the Dis­cov­ery, and the cym­bals dis­played bet­ter air and de­tail. Also, on the Moon­dance track, Mor­ri­son’s vo­cals were bet­ter in­te­grated in the mix, which re­sulted in a more seamless pre­sen­ta­tion. And when I lis­tened to the Richter piece, the strings were con­veyed with a finer sense of bloom and de­cay. When com­bined with a slightly bet­ter bass depth, the over­all sound with Elac’s DAC was more dy­namic and lively.

Con­clu­sion

Wrap­ping up my take on Elac’s Dis­cov­ery, I’m hard-pressed to find a good rea­son why some­one seek­ing to add a net­worked mu­sic server to their sys­tem wouldn’t want one. The Dis­cov­ery elim­i­nates any need to use a ded­i­cated com­puter to store mu­sic or op­er­ate your sys­tem (beyond your mo­bile de­vice to run the app), and it works with both in­ex­pen­sive USB and NAS stor­age op­tions. Its com­pact form and min­i­mal­ist de­sign al­low it to be in­te­grated un­ob­tru­sively with an ex­ist­ing hi-fi rig. Also, you’ll get great sound qual­ity from its built-in DAC, along with wired and wire­less mul­ti­room au­dio sup­port, in­clud­ing in­stal­la­tions that use Air­play or Sonos speak­ers.

Ul­ti­mately, the Dis­cov­ery’s strong­est sell­ing point is the bun­dled Roon Es­sen­tials app, which gives you a free pass to the world of Roon, a plat­form that’s widely re­garded as a su­pe­rior so­lu­tion for the brows­ing and play­back of dig­i­tal mu­sic. The Dis­cov­ery might not fit ev­ery­one’s con­cep­tion of a mu­sic server, but I’m con­fi­dent it will fit many lis­ten­ers’ needs as they evolve their sys­tems for net­worked au­dio play­back.

The com­pact Dis­cov­ery server mea­sures 8 inches wide by 5 inches in depth.

The Roon Es­sen­tials mu­sic li­brary plat­form (above) is built into the Elac Dis­cov­ery.

A rub­ber pad on the bot­tom side of the solid alu­minum unit helps the Dis­cov­ery stay where you place it.

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