The raging debate du jour these days for both the music industry and audiophiles is the future of physical media. The compact disc is 25 plus years old, but is still the primary format for physical music purchases. There is also a tiny sliver of music buyers who opt for SACD, DVD-A, or Vinyl LP. The formidable and rapidly growing population of music buyers, who purchase music downloads, prefers to be free spirits in their relationships to any physical medium. The trade off is these consumers are willing to accept much lower sound quality. It should be noted that there a handful of websites that also sell high resolution, lossless music files as well, but at a premium, and usually by lesser known artists.
Music servers systems are at the vanguard of the new landscape. Truth be told, the iPod and early MP3 players were the original music severs, allowing owners to theoretically access their entire music collections on demand and on the go, or have it interface with home audio systems via docks and special cables. But early on it was a trade off of convenience over quality. Certainly, one was able to rip their own cd in WAV format for use with an iPod, but good luck getting more than a handful of albums on the relatively small internal drive.
Fast forward, and many high end audio designers have brought to market very sophisticated, audiophile approved, hard drive based music servers that allow for an on-demand, cd quality, graphical interface set up that would more than satisfy even audiophile purists. Many have internet connections to download art work, sophisticaated organizing software, and what many consider to be several huge advantages over CD players. First, hard drives are now considered by many to be a superior way of delivering digital audio over optical disc spinners like CD and DVD players, even state of the art models. One of the main reasons is the reduction of jitter. Adding in the convenience of not collecting jewel case frees up space for those music lovers with large collections, effectively allowing those CDs to be stored away in the garage, so to speak.
NuForce, of Milipitas, California is the newest manufacturer to throw their hat in the ring with a digital music server. NuForce is well known for their Class D “switching” amplifiers, and a host of other products, including cables. They have a reputation of being on the cutting edge. Their new MSR-1 Music Server is the subject of this review. It is a very interesting and flexible machine that offers an enormous amount of options for the prospective music collector.
The NuForce MSR-1 is slim and rectangular, with a front slot for loading compact discs. It is essentially a standalone personal computer, running Windows XP Home Edition with custom software, and utilizes a 500GB internal hard drive. There are connections on the back panel for a keyboard, a mouse, an LCD monitor, a touch screen monitor, and a jack for a LAN cable. There are several USB ports, plus VGA, and Serial connections. There is a fully functional remote with a tracking ball and every conceivable command available to the unit, with several buttons approximating a PC mouse. The MSR-1 can also connect via WiFi.
Regarding audio connections, there is a coaxial / digital output, and two sets of analog RCA outputs. There are two sets as the MSR-1 can out put to two different “zones”. There is no Optical output, as NuForce believes this is an inferior digital connection. I would have like to have seen one as an option. If you have more music than the 500GB hard drive can accommodate, this was an option included. You can connect multiple external USB hard drives and import the files into the library.
The MSR-1 must be connected to a monitor. In my case, I ran a VGA cable to my HDTV. What is really quite impressive is that the server can be set up with a touch screen monitor, and there four brands NuForce recommends on their website. Once can place commands, browse the collection, and perform any function from the touch screen. Optional software is available to allow for an Apple iPod Touch to be used as a display and remote control. As I noted, the flexibility of this machine is second to none.
To complete the setup, I ran interconnects from the RCA jacks to my preamp, plugged in my LAN cable, the remote control communication module, plugged in the power cord, and I was ready to go. I loaded about 10 CD’s to get started. You simply insert the disc in the front slot, the sever downloads the artwork and track information from an online database, and begins to rip the disc in FLAC format (Free Lossless Audio Codec) which compresses the file about roughly 25%, with absolutely no loss of audio quality. Once the cd is ripped, it is added to the library. It would take pages to detail the library, playlist, genre, and other filing options available. Suffice it to say the most obsessive music fan would have no complaints. I do have one issue with the process. While a CD is being ripped into FLAC, there is no status indicator to tell you where you are in the process. I found that to be a bit inconvenient. Don’t get me wrong, the process was seamless, but I would have like to have had some feedback during the ripping process.
As noted earlier, the MSR-1 can also be used as a CD player with files not being ripped into the library. There is also an internal volume control, menu items for how the library and current selected playlists are displayed, and tagging.
Ok, so how does it sound? In a word, terrific. Played back files sound full bodied, dimensional, and utterly not digital. I would challenge any mortal to hear a difference between the ripped FLAC files, and the same tracks played back on a quality CD player. One of the cd’s I ripped was Frank Sinatra’s “Nice n Easy” (cd, Capital Records, 2002). Frank’s voice was as smooth and clear as I had ever heard it, and the Nelson Riddle arrangements really sparkle. The MSR-1 brings to life the excellent 24 bit remastering. Next up was the 1963 Joan Baez album “In Concert” (cd, Vanguard Records, 2002), and her amazing vocal range is dazzling through the Nuforce. Not a hint of digititis on this classic old analog recording. I’ve used a couple of examples that highlight vocals and non amplified instruments to see if I could trip up the MSR-1. No such thing happened. Instrumental textures were totally believable, vocal timbres were lovely, with superb resolution that was true to the original performance.
I further tried to challenge the MSR-1 with hipster alternative (Tindersticks), neo classic singer songwriter (Paolo Nutini), grandiose pop (Sarah Brightman, Celine Dion), and a load of other genres. Not a chance of a slip up. This is one excellent sounding machine; and that’s coming from a die hard compact disc spinning music lover. It must be noted that the MSR-1 offers an incredible amount of love for classical music fans, with a built in database to help organize and often hard to define collections. This is a very nice touch indeed.
Getting back to the organizational capabilities, I had to keep reminding myself of the myriad of options available to categorize the music by genre, artist, themes, tempo, style, or any custom tag. Plus, one can search the entire collection by any of the categories above, or a number of other parameters. I would have loved to have had a touch screen monitor on hand to let my fingers scroll through my ripped cd collection. Talk about interactive.
I should mention that the remote is very well designed and lets the user with out a touch screen monitor feel in full command of the MSR-1. As noted, it includes a tracking ball, mouse like right click, left click buttons, and typical compact disc player commands such as play, stop, pause, skip, and fast forward or reverse. There are so many buttons on the remote control that the typical user may need to consult the manual for the first few days of use. The manual is extremely comprehensive, and offers answers to just about every operational question. There are some gaps, and the NuForce website has plenty additional information in the form of FAQ’s, forums, and technical information. NuForce offers a limited mount of technical support, and offers an extended support plan.
What could be improved?
Of course nothing is perfect. As well thought out and user friendly as the MSR-1 is, it could use a few tweaks, in my humble opinion. It should be noted, that I was able to get it up and running in less than 10 minutes after plugging in, which speaks to its clean, intuitive design. However, I feel the interface could be improved slightly to provide more feedback to the user. This is custom software, so I can’t imagine NuForce won’t be updating it periodically, and since it will be perpetually connected to the internet, updating should be a cinch.
Secondly, sometimes the software seems to respond a bit slowly at times, but I must admit I did cause a few freeze ups by overloading the unit with too many commands from the remote control. In general, I have found that hard drives respond a bit slower than disc players. When my own Squeezebox accesses files off my PC through my home network, it definitely takes its time.
My only real complaint, as noted before, is the lack of status given to the user while a CD is being ripped. This is an annoying over sight. When I rip a cd to the hard drive on my PC, using a variety of software, I get status on how many tracks have been ripped, and what percentage of the whole disc is completed.
This is a well designed, well made, excellent solution for those who want to access their music collections instantly without having to run around looking for specific discs, store jewel cases, or burn cd mixes of favorite songs. It’s all here in one place. One can now reclaim living room space taken up by media storage. All this would be for naught if the MSR-1 did not sound great. And it does that extremely well.
It should also be noted that NuForce makes some very well made digital cables, as part of their new full audio cable line. The NuForce Precision 75-Ohm Digital Coaxial Cable in is extremely well made, and offers very high quality connectors in BNC or RCA termination. They have also added Toslink and HDMI cables to the line. More information is available on the NuForce web site.