The SOtM sMB-Q370 motherboard is something altogether new for the HiFi market. It's an Intel based motherboard that those of us crazy enough to build our own music servers can use as the heart of our systems. It's the first of its kind for a very good reason. Motherboards are hard and expensive to design, produce, and support. Not only that, but the traditionally low number of units sold into the HiFi market for any product, make the release of a product like the SOtM sMB-Q370 even miraculous.
Why not just buy a motherboard from ASUS and call it a day? That's certainly an option, but given that you're reading Audiophile Style, it isn't likely your preferred route. Many of us use add-on USB cards, Ethernet cards, isolators, external clocks, etc... Call us crazy, but we believe these make a difference and we enjoy taking our own music servers to new heights, leaving no stone unturned. Those looking for a double blind test of this motherboard vs a more traditional motherboard, will need to go through the time and expense to set one up.
I've been talking to SOtM for about a year, trying to figure out the best way for me to review the sMB-Q370 motherboard and a couple other products. I received some external clocks and cards, but I won't thrilled with interrupting what I have in my CAPS Twenty server. We decided that the best option was to send me a preconfigured machine that I'll call the SOtM server. This machine has an sMB-Q370 motherboard, sNI-1G Ethernet card, tX-USBexp USB card, internal sCLK-EX clock for the cards, Intel i7-9700 CPU, 16GB DDR4-3200 memory, and 2 sPS-500 for the sCLK-OCX10(12V) and add-on cards.
The overall system isn't what many would consider a "looker," form the outside. External power supplies with power cables, connected to a black box with spinning fans. That's totally fine for my testing. If the SOtM sMB-Q370 was being used in a CAPS server, I'd have put it in a nice looking finless chassis, etc... But, that isn't the point of this review.
If you read the above system component list and said, count me out, that's totally fine. There are plenty of other "canned" options available. When I started this site in 2007, the exact opposite was true. Audiophiles had to build music servers from scratch, or just go with a standard Mac or PC, that may cause audio to skip when the keyboard is used (I had one of those MacBook Pros). If you read the above and said, that's fairly pedestrian, then I kindly direct you to the forums where some incredibly skilled and dedicated members of the Audiophile Style community have been digging into all this stuff much more heavily than I can, in a front page review.
One of the most commonly discussed benefits of components such as an add-on USB card, clock, or now motherboard, is thought to be reduced noise. Because of this, I wanted to give the SOtM server with SOtM sMB-Q370 motherboard every opportunity to produce a lot of noise, or on the other hand, show me that it doesn't produce any noise. To that end, I bypassed the installed Windows installation, and booted the machine from a USB stick loaded with Jussi Laako's (@Miska) HQPlayer Embedded operating system. The server booted up perfectly, most importantly the SOtM Ethernet card was seen by the OS and pulled an IP address from my router. Once HQPlayer was running, I set it up to upsample all audio to DSD256, ASDM7ECv2, poly-sync-gauss-long, and enabled my 65,000 tap convolution filters. All this, and I connected the server to a T+A DAC 200 via USB. I figured Usb would give me the best chance of noise getting into audio system, rather than my usual NAA running on a Sonore signatureRendu SE Optical.
Because I asked SOtM to go all-in on this one, the company included its power cables and Ethernet cables. The Ethernet cables were too short for my setup, but I used the power cables for everything SOtM in the system. The system continued with USB to a T+A DAC 200, then to a Constellation Audio Inspiration Preamp and monoblock amps, and finally my new Wilson Audio Alexia V loudspeakers.
Let's dig into how it sounded with real music.
My Subjective Take, In Three Songs
I recently saw a new deluxe edition of Janet Jackson's album The Velvet Rope released on Qobuz, and had to listen to to through the SOtM server. My favorite Janet song is Got 'Til It's Gone (Qobuz), recorded right here at Flyte Tyme studios in Minneapolis, MN with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The track contains a sample of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi and features hip-hop artist Q-Tip throughout. It' a great juxtaposition, hearing Joni and Q-Tip, with a great bassline and beat.
There are many parts of this song that I love, but one that came through beautifully on the SOtM server was Janet's vocal performance. I think she sounds incredibly similar to her brother Michael on the track, with a delicacy often not present in pop music. Her sweet sounding voice really stands out, above a background with a scratchy vinyl-esque effect, and an incredible beat. At roughly 0:38 into the track, when Janet starts singing, it's impossible to not be sucked in by her soft and seductive voice, when listening on an audio system capable or reproducing each element in its own space despite several competing effects and what some may consider distractions.
Another part of this song that requires a great source components and commensurate audio system to really hear all the details, is the bassline. On lesser systems this sounds like one-note bass. Whenever I listen to this track in my car, I always miss the different bottom end notes played in the background, as they sound like a single string bass. Through the SOtM server, T+A DAC 200, Constellation Audio pre and amps, and my new Wilson Audio Alexia V speakers, I could hear every note from the top of the bass range all the way down to the bottom of the bottom end.
In this situation, I definitely have to tip my cap to Mitch Barnett (@mitchco) and his convolution filters, which make the bass in my system as accurate as possible. Without room correction, I'm willing to bet that many audio systems will be incapable of reproducing the intricacies of the bass on this track. The SOtM server running HQPlayer Embedded, handled the upsampling to DSD256 (ASDM7ECv2 / poly-sinc-gauss-long) and my two channel convolution filters, without an issue.
Staying in the pop music realm, I listened to Taylor Swift's track Exile (Qobuz), heavily featuring Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, through the SOtM server. I like this entire album, Folklore, but this specific track is my favorite. The song writing on this one is just so good. The track was recorded in both Los Angeles and Bon Iver's Fall Creek Wisconsin studio, with Swift and Vernon remaining in separate locations for the entirety of its recording.
Vernon's opening lines, "I can see you standing, honey, With his arms around your body, Laughin', but the joke's not funny at all" are both powerful and show his storyteller's voice in a great light. Through there SOtM server there's terrific texture of Vernon's vocals. Listening to this track, I can almost feel his voice, as it's reminds me of some early mornings, right after I have a cup of tea. My voice is terrible, but once a warm tea loosens up my vocal cords, my voice can get fairly low and resonate my entire chest cavity, when my daughter and I are messing around singing along to numerous enjoyable songs. The SOtM / HQPlayer combination really presents this track in a way that enables me to feel it. It's realistic and full of emotion.
Of course Taylor Swift has a glossy pop voice on this track. The SOtM sMB-Q370 doesn't change that, by making it sound more authentic or realistic like Justin Vernon's vocal performance. It shouldn't change anything, and it doesn't. But, another song point of this system is on display when both Swift and Vernon are singing together, or should I say their voices were put together in Pro Tools. There is clarity and delineation in both singer's voices. They can be heard separately or together, to make the whole better than the sum of its parts. On a lesser systems the voices would be jumbled, leading to one singer's voice being audible over the others, depending on who is singing louder or specific frequencies. Through my system, Swift had her space, Vernon had his, and the two came together gracefully.
Perhaps my favorite song of late is called Living Proof (Qobuz), featured on the album I Don't Live Here Anymore, by the band the War on Drugs. There is so much to love about this band, this album, and this track. I've listened to this album in the car, every day for the last couple weeks. It always disappoints on that system because the subtleties are totally missing. Through the SOtM server on my main system, they are present in all their glory.
The track's lyrics start with the phrase, "Banging on a drum," followed by a subtle single bang on a drum. It's quite literal. However, this drum, on the right system, has serious spaciousness. It emanates from the center-left and somehow decays to the rear right, on my two channel system. There are spacial queues on the drum hit, that present a three dimensional space, but only on a capable audio system.
Adam Granofsky's lyrics, on the rest of the track, are full of emotion and and tell a story that sucks me in, even though I'm not totally sure I understand it all. Adam Granduciel's voice is also perfect for this track. It's by no means a textbook audiophile performance, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As he delivers the lyrics, there is an authenticity and a little bit of an indie feel, that makes him seem more trustworthy. The sound of his vocals on this album is very organic and unprocessed. Technically, I'm sure there is processing on his voice, but it just has this natural feel to it and the SOtM server reproduces it wonderfully.
Toward the end of the track, Adam Granduciel elegantly bends the strings of his electric guitar while playing a solo, to produce a lush and distinct War On Drugs sonic signature. I've cranked this up on my system countless times lately, because the sound is like an itch I have to scratch, in the best way possible. It's smooth, yet breaks out from the ethereal sound of the track up to this point, vacillating between vibrato and tremolo. Listening carefully at about the four minute mark, it's glorious to hear Granduciel hold on to notes for as long as he can, while they decay into noise floor. Through the SOtM server, I could hear Granduciel continue to bend the strings on the neck with his left hand, producing a vibrato effect, long after he'd strummed the six string with the pick in his right hand. It's absolutely beautiful and something listeners don't want to miss.
The SOtM server, with sMB-Q370 motherboard at its heart, is a much welcomed product to the computer audiophile market. It's the first Intel based motherboard with all the audiophile bells and whistles, around which listeners can craft their own computers. Other manufacturers have certainly created their own boards for their own music servers (usually much less powerful), but nobody other than SOtM has released a product like this to the general public.
It's also not lost on me that this area of our wonderful hobby is a skosh controversial. Chances are high that if you select products based on a totem pole of objective testing results, the SOtM sMB-Q370 isn't for you. That said, I put the motherboard, and entire SOtM server, through what I consider everyday use and I also tried to break it. I like to find a new product's limits, that aren't in any specification sheet or manual. I found that running HQPlayer Embedded on the server worked perfectly, as it had all the needed drivers. I was unsure if the sMB-Q370's support for Intel 8th & 9th gen Core processors was going to enable enough processing power, so I set HQPe to upsample to DSD256 with ASDMEC7v2 and used 65,000 tap convolution filters. The server worked flawless the entire time. I ran into thermal throttling issues going to higher rates than DSD256, as playback worked for a bit then suffered dropouts. I'm willing to bet the included 65 watt TDP fanless CPU cooler could be improved a bit and could take this server to an even higher level.
If you're the type of audiophile who likes to get his/her hands on every facet of a system's performance and likes to try different configurations that just aren't possible with a canned music server, the SOtM sMB-Q370 may be perfect for you. One aspect that shouldn't be overlooked is system support. If you've tried getting motherboard support from conglomerates such as ASUS, MSI, or Gigabyte, I needn't finish this sentence. You know the endless volley of support emails leads to further frustration. Fortunately, SOtM has been providing good support for its HiFi products for many years, and completely understands the level of service us crazy audiophiles expect. I'd much rather work with SOtM on an issue, should one arise, than any of the aforementioned tech companies. Period. Based on these factors, and the performance of my system with the SOtM server as the source, I highly recommend the sMB-Q370 motherboard and any of the supplemental components one doesn't have already.
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