Digital audio technology has become so convenient and so versatile that even the most diehard vinyl-record fan can no longer ignore it. Still, it’s unlikely that fan would be embracing digital if it weren’t for the advent of a relatively new product category: the digital music server.
There are many varieties of music servers, but, in general, a music server packs the audio capabilities of a computer into a device that resembles a conventional audio component and fits into an equipment rack. It lets the listener access digital music files stored on computers, hard drives or USB sticks without having to use a computer. No one who owns a computer really needs a music server, because any computer can be connected to a stereo system with a $5 cable. But many computers have loud fans and cheap audio circuitry that don’t result in high-quality sound, and are far more cool and comfortable when placed on a desk instead of in your lap. If you want to relax after a hard day by kicking back in your recliner and wandering through your Monk collection for a couple of hours, a music server beats a computer every time.
Music servers first emerged around 2005. Back then, they usually had built-in CD-ROM drives and hard drives that let you rip your CDs and play them on your stereo. In the years since, we’ve seen the advent of smartphones and tablets, the growth of WiFi multiroom audio and Internet streaming services, and the decline of the CD. The latest servers reflect some or all of these trends.
If you’re having trouble getting a grasp on exactly what these devices do, it’ll help to examine the different capabilities built into various servers and streamers. These include:
Access music files stored on networked computers and hard drives
A music server, once connected to your home network, can automatically scan the computers and drives on your network, find all compatible music files and browse and play them through an onscreen interface—typically on a smartphone or tablet.
Access Internet streaming services
Most servers now have access to at least a few streaming services, such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Pandora, TuneIn and iHeartRadio. Some servers access dozens of services, while others access as few as three or four.
Interface with multiroom audio systems
Many servers work as part of a multiroom audio system. They can tap into a network of compatible audio products and synchronize the sound with other rooms. Many use proprietary technologies, such as Sonos, Apple AirPlay or DTS Play-Fi.
There are still a few servers on the market that include CD drives and hard drives, making it easy to copy your CDs onto the hard drive and access them through an onscreen interface.
Roon is an information-packed, ultra-user-friendly music interface we’ve covered previously. Roon capability is available on many of the latest music servers and streamers. The full service costs $119 per year or $499 for a lifetime membership.
One server that offers a huge range of capabilities is ELAC’s $1,099 Discovery Series DS-S101-G. It’s Roon-ready, accesses Tidal, pulls audio from USB sticks and drives as well as networked drives, and can tap into audio from phones, tablets and computers through AirPlay. You can use its digital output to feed a high-quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC) into your main stereo system, and its two analog outputs can feed independent music streams to two other rooms. Select your tunes through the Roon Essentials iOS/Android app, which DS-S101-G owners can use at no charge.
Arcam’s $599 rPlay uses DTS Play-Fi technology to pull music files from networked drives and to stream 15 different online music and Internet radio services. You can also use it in a multiroom system with other Play-Fi devices, including more rPlays or speakers from such companies as Klipsch, Paradigm and Polk. Apple AirPlay is included, too, along with digital and analog outputs.
The $349 Sonos Connect can play audio from net streaming services, and it works in a multiroom audio system with Sonos speakers. It can even take audio from one source, such as a turntable or radio, and send it out to other Sonos components.
Those who still haven’t converted their CDs to digital files should consider the $1,199 Bluesound Vault 2. With an internal CD drive and 2 terabytes of internal storage, it can store around 6,000 CDs in full resolution. It can also stream audio files from hard drives in up to 24/192 high resolution, and access 14 different streaming services, all controlled through an iOS/Android app.
While there are certainly many issues to sort out when choosing a music server, there’s no question that any server will be much more convenient than connecting a computer to your hi-fi system, and they’ll likely give you better sound quality, too. And the best part? Spending hours playing your favorite Sonny Rollins cuts without ever getting up from your La-Z-Boy.