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romaz

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  1. I thought I'd provide an update. I apologize for another War and Peace length post but it's been awhile since I last posted and since I don't know when I'll post again, I figured I'd leave it all on the table. Like always, the following represents my opinions based on personal observations and so YMMV. Full disclosure, I have no financial motivations. Some may recall that a year and a half ago, I transitioned to a pair of Wilson Alexia Series 2 speakers. The good news is that these are as good as I hoped they would be. The bad news is that they are also as bad as I feared they could be. These speakers aren't that difficult to drive but are so much more revealing of the qualities of the driving amplifier than what I previously had that with the wrong amplification, they can sound lifeless and dull. I ran the gamut of amplifiers, basically whatever I could get my hands on from friends, dealers, and directly from manufacturers and just when I thought the Alexias had shown me all they could, an amplifier would come along and I'd realize the Alexias had more to give. As I went through this exhaustive exercise, I found that the best amplifiers shared 2 very important traits: control and immediacy. Without control, complex instrument lines blur into one another. Transients are smeared. Resolution and transparency are compromised. As for immediacy, here is a view of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco that I hope to never see again while at a performance there. It is from high up in the 2nd tier and I have fallen asleep from seats like this. I might as well have stayed home: The following is a stock photo but is an actual view from my preferred seats -- the very front row. These are actually not elite seats as it turns out this vantage point is too close and too low for some tastes and so to my good fortune, I find these seats frequently available and affordable. The point is they provide the immediacy that I crave and even on days when I arrive to these seats after an exhausting day, my engagement is always there. I can hear the performers' subtlest expressions. I can hear them take their breaths. I can more easily discern the timbral variations between the 1st and 2nd violinist and better glean the space between them. The soundstage is wider and deeper. There is simply better localization of everything and while it's easier to hear mistakes from this close up, when perfection happens, you appreciate it better. For someone like me who craves presence, being this close up is enthralling. Music servers are the same way. To my ears, they provide the exact same qualities that a good amplifier provides and the very best music servers I have heard amount to the equivalent of a serious amplifier upgrade. Given the large price tag of some of the very best amplifiers, this is saying a lot. Power It has been said that when listening to a really good amplifier, what you are really listening to is a really good power supply. This is just as true for music servers. It starts at the power supply and to date, I have yet to personally use a power supply in a DIY build that performs as well as a DR (double regulated) SR7 from Paul Hynes. My latest SR7 arrived earlier this year in a large Streacom FC10 chassis and this thing must weigh at least 50 lbs. It includes the Teflon board and Vishay Foil resistor upgrades for all 3 rails and if you zoom in, you can see what the off-white colored Teflon PCBs look like. Like Teflon coated frying pans, they are very smooth and slippery to the touch. They also have a low dielectric constant leading to a smoother presentation with less smearing, especially in the treble. Compared against my standard DR-SR7, the presentation also sounds a bit faster. While not as impactful as going from SR to DR, it squeezes out the last bit of performance from the SR7 that Paul is capable of and I have found it to be worthwhile. With this SR7 as a foundation, I have found my servers to be competitive with anything I have put them up against. Here are photos of Streacom's FC9 chassis against Aurender's latest W20SE. The Aurender is a very attractive unit and is solidly built as it should be for $20k. While it's presentation is very refined and is an obvious improvement over the outgoing W20, in comparison to my server, the transients sound too soft and smeared. There is an obvious downgrade in resolution and the immediacy is not the same as it lacks that startling quality that my server is capable of when called for. It's as if I'm sitting high up in the 2nd tier at the Davies Symphony Hall. In isolation and if money is not a concern, I doubt its buyer will complain but in comparison, the W20SE is a disappointment given its mediocre performance and high asking price. While there are probably a multitude of factors, I believe the transient softness and lack of immediacy I am hearing is largely due to its hybrid battery power supply. For those who have been patiently waiting for their bespoke SR7s, the most encouraging thing I can say is "hang in there." This is my 4th SR7 and so I know your pain but the wait has been worth it. It will probably outlast every other component you own because you'll likely never outgrow its capabilities. For those not in the hunt for their own custom spec'd DR SR7 or are biding their time until their's arrives, there is hope in the form of the HDPlex 800W DC-ATX Converter ($248): This has been discussed by others already and so I won't go into it too much. It's been out for awhile and when I first noticed it, what caught my attention is the low voltage variance of only 0.1-0.6% for the ATX rails that matter and so I felt it was worth the gamble to try it. In comparison, the 400W DC-ATX converter I was previously using had reported voltage variances of about 1% and for the all important 12V rail which has a reported variance of only 0.1%, this represents a 10-fold improvement! If a power supply can't maintain voltage (i.e. if voltage sags) which can happen when a PSU is pressed, then based on Ohm's Law, the power supply's capacity to deliver current is compromised. This ability to maintain voltage is one of the things that makes a DR SR7 sound more controlled and more dynamic and this is exactly what I hear with this converter. While a 19V DR SR7 rail powering this converter sounds otherworldly, I am finding even the 400W HDPlex ATX LPSU powering this converter via its 19V rail to sound very good and much better sounding than the HDPlex directly powering the motherboard via its ATX connector. So good that you can use this converter to power both the ATX portion of the motherboard AND the CPU and get surprisingly good results without having to devote a 2nd precious rail to the CPU. All you would need from your 19V rail is adequate headroom and so for those looking for simplicity, high performance for the dollar, and more ready availability, a single 19V/8-10A rail from Paul Hynes Design LTD, Farad, or Keces could work out well. In a pinch, the HDPlex's 19V/5A rail is proving to be very satisfying. It should come as no surprise given my experience with my SR7s that I would have a bias towards Paul's supplies but what is further appealing to me with the fairly affordable, off-the-shelf single rail SR7s from Paul Hynes Design LTD is the Streacom FC-9 chassis that's used as this chassis is presently my preferred chassis to build with. For those who are space constrained and need or prefer to stack the server on top of the PSU or are looking for the aesthetic of a matching server and PSU chassis (like the innuOS Statement), then this SR7 is all the more appealing. For those looking to power other peripherals such as Chord's M-Scaler, a JCAT card, tX-USBultra, or network switch, consider one of these: https://www.ldovr.com/product-p/dxp-1a5s.htm Credit to @seeteeyou for bringing this to my attention and I now have one on order. Combine one of these DXP-1A5S ($99) single stage regulation power supplies with a 19V SR4 and you now have a Hynes DR rail capable of up to 1.5A output between 3.3-15V. For those on a tight budget, then consider the DXP-1A5DSC ($149) dual stage regulation model as you can combine it with an inexpensive PowerAdd battery and using that battery's 20V/4.5A output, you now get linear DR output. I have one of these on order also. Chassis This component is more important than some people may realize. With certain servers like the SGM Extreme, the chassis can be the single most expensive part. Yes, a good chassis is important for aesthetics and can make an audible difference with respect to minimizing unwanted resonances but there is another important practical consideration. No one wants spinning fans inside their server based on the acoustic and electrical noise that fans create and so a passively cooled server is what most audiophiles strive for. At the present time, for DIY, this means fanless cases from Streacom, HDPlex, or Akasa. Soon, JCAT will be introducing their own fanless chassis that will be able to accommodate a full-sized ATX motherboard and so this is very welcome news. The ability of these chassis to effectively dissipate heat is crucial as it limits what CPU you can use. For example, Streacom claims its FC-9 Alpha's passive cooling design can accommodate a CPU with up to a 95w TDP but recommends a CPU with only a 65w TDP. I have found this to be true. With a recent build utilizing an AMD 12-core 3900X (TDP of 105w), I am unable to run this CPU without de-throttling it significantly (down to 2.4GHz) because this chassis can't handle this CPU's heat output. While CPU temps of 80 degrees C are considered tolerable in gaming rigs and 3D modeling workstations, I find CPU temps this high to result in fatiguing harshness and so with this build, I shot for temps of <50 degrees C. The SGM Extreme, which utilizes a chassis and a fanless cooling system specifically designed for the dual Xeons housed within has average CPU temps of only 40 degrees C and chassis temps of only 35 degrees C during even prolonged use according to Emile Bok. This is quite remarkable as this should have not only SQ benefits but also longevity benefits. Vibration Control A few months ago, I was introduced to the CenterStage2 footers (starting at $320 each) from Critical Mass Systems based in my hometown of Chicago. My first thought was "Oh no, not another footer." I already own a variety of footers and had settled on a certain combination that was working well for me. With my heaviest gear such as amplifiers, I liked the very even-handed noise reduction I got from the HRS Vortex footers. Because of their small footprint, I had been using Stillpoints Ultra SS footers under my power supplies. I used to be a much bigger fan of Stillpoints but I have had to be careful with them under certain gear because they have a tendency to "oversharpen" resulting in a presentation that doesn't sound natural to me but under my power supplies, I generally liked what they did. Under everything else, including my DAC, server, and even my Wilson Alexia 2s, I had been using high grade G5 Titanium footers ($35-$50 each) that were custom made for me by an audiophile friend from Taiwan who owns a titanium factory. Titanium resonates at a frequency well outside the range of audibility and so I have found these footers to be quite effective without adding any unnatural coloration. They are especially effective under my Wilson Alexia 2s. When I first tried the CS2 footers under my DAC and music server, I was warned they would sound horrible during the first 2-3 days, so bad that I would want to take them out. I was intrigued by this statement because if a product like a footer can result in that large of a delta of bad sound that I would want to take them out, then this tells me just how negatively impactful vibration can be. More importantly, once this footer settled, could it then result in a similarly large delta in the positive direction? This, in fact, has been the case. So much so that I have been slowly replacing my other footers with these. As you might expect, good vibration control results in improved clarity and focus but these footers do something else I have never before experienced with vibration control devices. I hesitate to call it a coloration because the tonal color is neither warmer nor cooler yet the signature is "creamier" and more immersive without smearing detail. It's hard to explain but these are the most musical footers I have yet heard and improve resolution quite dramatically. What is especially nice about the CS2s is that if there is desire to stack one component on top of another, while this is generally not something I like to do, these footers allow you to do so without apparent detriment, at least none that I can hear. If there is a downside to the CS2 footers, they are quite expensive and for those looking for a less expensive solution, there are the Daiza platforms by Taiko Audio. I saw these first hand during my visit to the Taiko Audio factory in Hengelo in The Netherlands and they are attractive with an earthy look to them but also relatively inexpensive (starting at 400 Euros for a platform). They also come with a money-back guarantee. They are made of German Panzerholz wood and are designed to couple with your component resulting in a significant dampening of vibrations. I have not had a chance to evaluate these yet in my system but they were used exclusively in Taiko Audio's listening room and I was quite impressed by the overall presentation and so I feel these deserve further exploration. For those who are curious, the footers built into in the SGM Extreme's chassis are a hybrid design that include this Panzerholz wood and so I know that Emile fully believes in the vibration dampening qualities of this wood. CPU If you recall my last long post, it was quite surprising just how impactful I found the CPU to be to the overall presentation and all things considered, probably the 2nd largest difference maker behind only the quality of the power supply. How could a stock Celeron NUC sound better than devices like an sMS-200 or ultraRendu that use low power/low noise ARM CPUs and are designed specifically for high quality audio playback with low phase noise clocks and linear regulation? If you recall, the initial thought was this improvement in SQ was due to a better OS (AudioLinux running resident in RAM) and yet SQ improved further as I transitioned from a Celeron NUC to a more powerful i7 NUC. While no doubt the OS plays a large role, in my mind, the CPU plays the bigger role. From the i7 NUC to an 8700T (35w TDP) to an 8700K (95w TDP), dynamics improved but if I wasn't careful, so did harshness. Fortunately, with effective CPU heat dissipation and higher quality PSUs (HDPlex --> SR7), this harshness went away and what was left was a fuller bodied presentation with superior dynamics and with transients that were more fully and powerfully expressed. I won't name names but anytime I hear a server today that runs Roon and is powered by weak Celeron or Pentium, the presentation I hear can sound clean but also sounds thin and sterile. For me, there's just no going back and I suspect in time, once these companies do their own testing, they'll start to incorporate higher power CPUs. I find that even streamers or endpoints that run RoonBridge benefit from high power CPUs and so it makes sense that someone like Pink Faun would market a server/streamer combo that use equivalent high-power CPUs. The questions for me now are Intel vs AMD (which is better?) and cores vs CPU frequency (which is more important?). If you ask the companies building high-power servers, Jord at Pink Faun prefers AMD and Emile at Taiko Audio prefers Intel. Both have told me they believe cores to be more important than CPU frequency in a non-upsampling Roon server although in my testing of Intel's 8700T, turning Turbo off which effectively caps CPU frequency to 2.4GHz didn't sound as dynamic as leaving Turbo turned on so probably, in a perfect world, if heat isn't an issue and the power supply is solid, it would be ideal to have both a large number of cores and high CPU frequency. I know with HQP upsampling to DSD, higher CPU frequency begins to take on greater importance. As I dipped my feet into AMD waters, I've been able to test 2 different Ryzen CPUs including an older 2600 (65w TDP) with 6-cores/12-threads and a max CPU frequency of 3.9GHz and a newer 3900X (105w TDP) with 12-cores/24-threads and a max CPU frequency of 4.6GHz. As stated above, because of heat issues, I was forced to throttle the 3900X's CPU frequency down to 2.4GHz to keep CPU temps down to acceptable limits but even with this de-throttling, the more core-rich 3900X sounded more dynamic, better controlled, and more expansive. This would support that cores are more important than CPU frequency if forced to choose. As for AMD vs Intel, this one is more difficult for me. With the AMD 3900X (12-cores) vs the Intel 8700K (6-cores) and outputting via USB, the AMD 3900X sounds once again more dynamic, better controlled and more expansive but there is also a mechanical character to the sound that is less natural and more clinical sounding to my ears. The Intel 8700K, in contrast, sounds more liquid, tonally richer, and more intimate and so there is no definitive winner based on what I'm hearing. Is this due to the CPUs themselves or are the motherboards/chipset/RAM/etc. playing just as big of a role and is it possible to get the best of all worlds? Motherboard The chassis plays a big role in the decision for which motherboard to use as most fanless cases cannot accommodate anything larger than a mini-ITX sized board although the new HDPlex H3 V3 ($258) and the Streacom FC9 Alpha ($300) are both capable of uATX boards. As far as I am aware, the only fanless cases that can accommodate a full sized ATX motherboard are the HDPlex H5 V2 ($298) and the Streacom FC10 Alpha (approx $400). The problem with both of these chassis is that you are forced to use PCIe extender cables which is less than ideal. Hopefully, the upcoming JCAT chassis will not have this limitation. As previously posted, the gaming motherboards I tested seem to have an edge over non-gaming motherboards presumably due to better VRMs and use of multi-layer PCBs with more copper in the trace paths resulting in better isolation, grounding, and power delivery. Because VRMs require real-estate, the ideal sized board would be a full sized ATX motherboard. If limited to mini-ITX, for Intel, the best board I have found is the Asrock Z390 Phantom Gaming-ITX/AC. For AMD, thanks to @Nenon, it is the ASUS ROG Strix-X470-I. Between the two, the Asrock Intel board has the superior VRM. I have already discussed the high quality VRM used in the Asrock board in a previous post. Unfortunately, the large CPU cooler mounts used by AMD CPUs takes up precious real estate on the already cramped mini-ITX motherboard and so it is the VRM that is compromised. This may account for perceived sound quality differences between the two. This also suggests that for AMD CPUs, it would be better to use a full sized ATX motherboard which would likely have a higher quality VRM. The block diagram supplied by ASUS suggests, however, that the ASUS AMD board probably has the better architecture where the PCIe slot, M.2 slots, and 4 of the USB slots all bypass the bandwidth limited chipset (PCH). With Asrock's Intel board, the M.2 slots and USB slots all have to go through the PCH. To my ears, with the AMD board, the 4 blue USB ports on the back (which connect directly to the CPU) do indeed sound slightly better than the 2 red ones (which connect through the chipset). Here is the block diagram for the ASUS ROG Strix B450-I which I am told is equivalent to the ASUS ROG Strix X470-I: Good quality uATX-sized boards are not so easy to find. I had purchased the Asrock X470D4U and had high hopes for this board based on the block diagram provided by Asrock. Fortunately, before I could open the box, I read @Nenon's unfavorable review of this board which was quite timely as I was able to return it without having to go through the aggravation. The best uATX board may well be the ASUS ROG Maximus XI Gene which is designed for Intel CPUs and used by @StreamFidelity in his build below although I have not yet personally tried this board. Unfortunately, I know of no good uATX board for AMD. I have to compliment @StreamFidelity as this is a masterclass build -- very clean with excellent attention to detail. I don't think I could do it any better and I especially like the CPU cooling enhancements. RAM I won't really go into this except to give kudos to both @Nenon and @Marcin_gps for bringing to our consciousness the Apacer brand. I bought Apacer ECC DDR3 memory and an SLC compact flash card back in 2017 based on Marcin's recommendations for a build that only momentarily saw the light of day. Having purchased Apacer's ECC DDR4 memory for a recent AMD build based on Nenon's findings, there is definitely a nice uptick in SQ. JCAT JCAT deserves its own subheading here as 2 of their products single-handedly salvaged a somewhat unnatural and mechanical sounding AMD build, even with the Apacer RAM. Those who read my last lengthy post know that I found the Femto Net card to sound incredible with my Intel build and it is just as incredible with this AMD build. This ASUS board's stock Ethernet port pales in comparison. This time around, I compared it against a 10Gtek SFP+ PCIe card with the Startech SFP transceiver that Emile at Taiko Audio likes. This fiber network card immediately brought forth a lower noise floor, a greater sense of resolution with very well defined bass and extended treble but the presentation was bright and thin and didn't sound natural and so I much prefer the JCAT Femto Net card. It turns out that I misinterpreted Emile as he not only prefers the Startech SFP transceiver but also the Startech SFP PCIe card and so this will require exploration as the greater perceived resolution brought about by the fiber card is desirable. If Marcin is able to somehow marry the benefits of SFP with his current Femto Net card, this could be worthwhile. This was my first experience with JCAT's Femto USB card. The card that shipped to me had the older firmware and I was quite surprised by how much difference in SQ a firmware upgrade could make. While the 4 blue USB 3.1 ports on the back of the ASUS motherboard sound better than the 2 red ones, it isn't saying much because the stock USB ports on the back of my Intel 8700K server still sound more natural. If it wasn't for the Femto USB card, I don't think I could recommend this AMD build at all and so in this sense, just like the Femto Net Card, this card is a game changer. Directly compared against my tX-USBultra with the EVOX cap + Ref10 master clock, the tX yields slightly better detail resolution with a greater sense of air and space. Powered by a DR SR7 rail, it is very dynamic sounding. Those that know my situation, however, know that I have had a love/hate relationship with the tX-USBultra. I have pulled it out several times because it can sound thin and so perhaps I would prefer it with copper rather than silver DC cabling. This is where the Femto USB card, to my ears, is better. While it doesn't have that last bit of detail resolution and air that the tX has, what it brings to the table is rich, glorious tone and body. Timbres are expressed beautifully and naturally and it is eminently a more listenable presentation to me. But there is a caveat. This beautiful presentation that is so captivating ONLY occurs when I power the Femto USB card with a DR SR7 rail. The results are not the same with an HDPlex, LPS-1.2, SR4, or even SR SR7. What about bus power with a DR SR7 19V rail + HDPlex 800w DC-ATX converter providing that bus power? With the Femto Net card, this provides excellent results. If you purely bus power the Femto USB card, it will work but the Femto USB card will fail to pass 5V VBUS to your DAC and my DAC requires 5V VBUS power. I found a workaround by using an iFI iDefender 3.0. With this device, I was then able to send my DAC clean 5V VBUS power using an LPS-1.2 and so I was hopeful but unfortunately, this still didn't come close to what I got by externally powering this card with a DR SR7 rail. Operating System + Playback software I placed this close to the bottom of my post but it deserves to be at the top. Along with the power supply and the CPU, the OS and software player have tremendous ability to affect the sound presentation even with bit-perfect playback. Many already know my preference for the combination of Euphony + Stylus and this preference has not changed. Željko at Euphony has been using Rajiv and me (and perhaps others) to vet Euphony and Stylus updates to make sure his coding changes haven't somehow negatively altered SQ and it has been amazing to witness how even subtle changes did indeed negatively impact SQ. On more than one occasion, we have been left scratching our heads and so credit to Željko for not being rash and careless with these updates. As for Stylus vs Roon, I don't know what to say. I spent $500 for a lifetime Roon subscription and given Roon's superior library management capabilities, I would like nothing better than to use Roon but every time I move back from Stylus to Roon for playback, there is a massive loss of engagement. With complex orchestral music, Roon just sounds horribly controlled to me. The latest 1.7 update has led to improvements but to my ears, not enough. If I specifically allocate 12 of the 24 available cores (both real and virtual) that the 3900X offers, control improves but not enough. StylusEP improves it but once again, not enough. For my tastes, Stylus remains the best playback software I have heard at home. What is interesting is that the SGM Extreme uses Roon and during my brief time with the Extreme, I heard none of the control issues that I hear at home. Somehow, Emile has figured out how to tame Roon in ways that I have not. Some are aware that I have placed an order for my own Extreme and so no doubt, once I receive it, I will load Euphony and Stylus (via USB stick) and see how it compares. SGM Extreme Given the knowledge accumulated through so many hours of testing and comparing, the natural question arises why I would buy an SGM Extreme? The bottom line is as much as I would like to, I cannot build a server of the caliber of the Extreme. I don't think anyone but Emile can. Having communicated with Emile at length over a span of months, it became evident that Emile has spent many more hours than I have with his testing and comparing. He even quit his day job as a university level IT professional so he can test and compare all day long. Unlike me, he has access to measuring equipment and has spent tens of thousands of Euros measuring the noise spectra of motherboards, CPUs, chipsets, clocks, memory, storage media, and power supplies to guide his path whereas I am left to random guesses as to which CPU and motherboard might sound best. I also do not have the gifts that Emile has with respect to hardware and software optimization capability including network allocation. I don't think most other IT professionals do either based on the fact that no one else has come up with a server like the Extreme. Here is an example of one of Emile's e-mails to me and I think you'll quickly get the picture as to how Emile views music server design. I had asked Emile why he felt he needed to use 48GB of RAM in the Extreme when this seemed like overkill and would potentially be a significant source of noise: "Well RAM is a topic on its own, to start with, the 2 cpu’s are split into domains (NUMA / SNC), so you really have 2 x 6 dimms, 6 for each CPU, they are not shared. Music services have their own cpu/dimms and the OS has its own cpu/dims. So its sort of a core and endpoint into a single machine going beyond just core allocations for individual processes. These Ram modules are a custom order type, similar to the Apacer types popular in the Jplay forums, but taking it just a bit further. They do create less noise and draw less current then other offerings. If more dimms reduce performance, it typically means your power supply is negatively impacted by the increased current draw. As occupying more memory channels increases bandwidth and reduces wait states, you do get better individual process performance." "What you really want to do is reduce your hardware active processing times as much as possible. The net effect is much like a class A amplifier, you have a higher baseline power consumption, but power draw does not vary much, and this is very good for a more “natural/relaxed” sound. I hope this makes sense 🙂 But you do need a power supply which is very comfortable supplying the load. You really want the least possible variation in load, and higher cpu power / bandwidth systems are better at that with very low load music playback processes." As for the Extreme being a core and endpoint in a single chassis, this was interesting for me as well. You basically have 2 CPUs with each CPU having its own dedicated RAM bank (24GB each) and so there is a genuine distribution of tasks between 2 machines just like dual Pink Faun 2.16Xs. While I very much like what I heard in the Aries Cerat room at Munich this past May where dual 2.16Xs were playing, this configuration costs north of $30k, has fewer cores, uses a noisy SSD, consumes more than 200 watts, and capably functions as a room heater. I find the Extreme to be a more elegant and practical solution and at least on paper, I believe it is the most technologically advanced music server at this time. My brief listening experience in Taiko Audio's listening room did nothing to dissuade me from this opinion. Happy holidays.
  2. An excellent write up, Danny. You also own my ultimate speaker, the Wilson Alexx, and so I read your review with great interest. I happen to belong to the camp that finds the Macs to be "mid-fi." Like speakers, amplifiers are a very personal thing and so take my comments with a grain of salt. They are the opinion of one person. If you love how the MC611s perform in your setup, that's what's important. I've taken an exhaustive look (and listen) at a number of amps over the past 2 years. I looked at Macs very seriously when I first got my Martin Logan Renaissance 15As because at various trade shows, I noticed they were often paired together. I got to demo the MC611s when I traded my Martin Logans in for a pair of Wilson Alexia 2s and no question, they can drive the Alexias fine (the Alexias are not that difficult to drive) and they produce a lovely tone but what I found missing were speed and control. Directly compared against a Burmester 911 Mk3, the unanimous consensus in our group of audiophiles was that the MC611s sounded slow, bass sounded bloated, and transients were too rounded and it's not something you realize until you do a direct A/B. Another fantastic amp that pairs well with Wilsons that I have listened to are the VTL Siegfried monoblocks. VTLs were the personal preference of Dave Wilson and VTL uses Wilsons when voicing their amps. If you prefer the holographic qualities that only tubes can provide, I don't think you'll find a better match for your Alexxes. For solid state, it's tough to beat D'Agostino, especially the Momentum line. This amp has the smoothness and rich textural qualities of tubes but also the punch and immediacy of the very best SS. Soulution, CH Precision, Constellation, Spectral, T+A, and Burmester -- I've heard them with my Wilsons and they're all in the conversation for what is truly SOTA but as far as synergy goes, it's tough to beat D'Agostino with a pair of Wilson speakers. Request a demo from a D'Agostino dealer of a Momentum Integrated for your Alexx (yes, a lowly integrated amp that outputs only 200W into 8 ohms) and directly compare it against your MC611 and you'll understand what is meant by "resolution." Where McIntosh excels is with value. No, I would absolutely never pay $40k for the MC611s even if they were rebadged with a Boulder or Nagra logo (since they don't perform at that level) but for $15k, they are a compelling option and at that price, they're almost impossible to beat (the only other amp that I would consider at that price range would be the Luxman M-900U). Just to be clear, I do not (yet) own a D'Agostino or VTL amp for my Wilson Alexias and so I don't have the bias of someone who owns these brands but my journey thus far has led me to these 2 amps. Also to be clear, when I had a pair of Magico M3s in house for audition, my preferred amp for these speakers by a large margin was a Soulution 711. Synergy is incredibly important and while a good amp will always be a good amp, what works best for one speaker isn't always an ideal fit for another speaker.
  3. It sounds like you have tuned your setup perfectly to your liking and so that's what's important. As for my post, it had nothing to do with a single-box configuration being better than a dual-box configuration, it had to do with my preference for Stylus over Roon and it just so happens that Stylus only works in a single-box configuration. I completely agree with this statement. I now belong in the camp that believes that the best dual-box configuration is 2 identical boxes meaning that the server and endpoint use the same powerful hardware and both boxes are equivalently powered to a very high standard. Unfortunately, this means 2X the cost. At Munich, Pink Faun was demonstrating a dual 2.16X setup at a cost of $32k and this setup was not doing any upsampling at all (Jord prefers no upsampling with his DAC). There is definitely an elegance and economy with a single box setup that I am very pleased with. I agree with you as I have moved on from a NUC as an endpoint for the reasons I already stated. Also, it appears you are hearing the strengths and weaknesses of a NUC exactly the opposite from how I am hearing them. My i7 NUC had 4 clocks replaced and was being powered very well by a 19V rail from my SR7 and so this NUC presented much better detail than a powerful PC with dedicated interfaces unless that PC was also being powered by an SR7. Also, this NUC exerted excellent control of not just the bass but also the midrange and treble manifesting as tremendous agility and again, this has everything to do with a low impedance power supply. Where the NUC lacked was in dynamics and soundstage and this is what a powerful CPU that is independently powered gives you. If you cannot properly power a big PC, I cannot guarantee that it will sound better than a NUC. Once again, I agree. I think both server and endpoint in a dual-box setup should be identical. Even identical CPUs. When I was running a dual box setup, my server was using a JCAT Femto NET card and this JCAT card was being powered by an SR7 rail. My endpoint had all 4 clocks (including the LAN and system clocks) replaced by a REF10 and was connected to my DAC with a tX-USBultra which was also connected to the REF10. Both the endpoint and tX-USBultra were being powered by SR7 rails. In between the server and endpoint were 2 SOtM sNH-10G switches in a serial configuration and I can confirm that the 2nd switch had almost the same impact as the 1st switch. Furthermore, both switches were being powered by SR7 rails and both switches were connected to the REF10. And so my preference for a single-box Stylus setup over a dual-box Roon setup had nothing to do with inadequate hardware. I am inclined to agree with you and the key word is "might." I compared 2 Asrock boards side by side and the board with the better VRM sounded better to me. Whether this is specifically because of the VRM or some other variable is not entirely clear but it would make sense that the quality of the VRM "might" impact SQ since the VRM is responsible for the stability of the power that the CPU sees. As to whether more power phases also results in better power stability, this is not always true since the quality of the power phases matter just as the number of power phases. Your Extreme4 board is actually a 10+2 design meaning 10 power phases are dedicated to the CPU while 2 power phases are dedicated to the integrated GPU and so only 10 of your power phases have significance. Your particular board uses SinoPower SM7431EH MOSFETS which are rated at 25A each. The Asrock Z390 Phantom 9 is a gaming ATX board that uses the same 10+2 design but uses the higher-end Texas Instruments NexFETs which are rated at 40A. The motherboard I have decided to focus on for now is the Asrock Z390 Phantom Gaming ITX/ac which is a mini-ITX board and because of its smaller size, it incorporates only a 5+2 design but this is where things get deceiving because this board utilizes higher quality power phases comprised of the Intersil Smart Power ISL99227 which many consider to be among the best and are rated at 60A each, more than 2X the current capacity of those used in your board. Regardless, each of these boards should be able to easily handle something like an i9-9900K that isn't being overclocked. This illustrates the advantage of boards designed for gaming as they generally use better parts, especially with regards to power delivery. Another example, your board is only a 4-layer design while my board uses 8-layers which in theory, provides better isolation. Also, my board, even though it is smaller than your board uses a total of 8oz of copper in the traces resulting in better conductivity. If someone is building a server from scratch, it would be worthwhile to investigate the gaming boards. They don't cost that much more. Ultimately, I chose the board that I did because of its size. I would have loved to have gone with a full sized ATX board with multiple PCIe 3.0x16 slots, however, it has been challenging to find a fanless chassis that can house a full sized ATX board that can accommodate multiple PCIe cards without having to use riser cables (ie HDPlex, Streacom). The problem with riser cables is they are generally of poor quality as they use cheap, thin gauge conductors and so I would prefer to be able to plug cards directly into the PCIe slot but perhaps my paranoia here is unjustified. If you know of a good full ATX fanless chassis that can accommodate at least 2 PCIe cards without having to use riser cables, I would like to know. As I already stated, in my signal path between server and endpoint, I was using dual sNH-10G switches that were being clocked by a REF10 and cabling throughout consisted of either SOtM's dCBL-CAT7 or Ghent's double-shielded CAT6A along with with a SOtM iSO-CAT6 LAN isolator (essentially, an isolation transformer) and so I feel my signal path was pretty well taken care of. I even introduced optical cabling between the 2 switches but ultimately preferred the SQ of copper cabling better. What is surprising is that all of this stuff is just as important with a single-box setup even though Stylus buffers files fully into RAM before playback. People will view this comment skeptically but I am convinced no one fully understands how a network impacts SQ. It's definitely not just about RF noise in the line or leakage current. I actually own 2 full Euphony licenses since the less expensive Endpoint license wasn't available when I bought mine. Also, I was not successful in running RoonBridge on the endpoint and so I used RoonServer on both machines just like you are. While I cannot claim that 2 instances of RoonServer sounds better than RoonServer + RoonBridge, I know I prefer the SQ of Stylus. Having said that, as I own Roon, I continue to use Roon for library management because there is nothing better and then flip to Stylus for playback. Fortunately, it's not hard to do. I presume you mean RoonServer since you already stated you don't like RoonBridge. Personally, I find StylusEP sounds better than either SL or RoonBridge but fortunately, Euphony offers you the choice of either one and it's fairly easy to switch. In the end, my preference for Stylus has more to do with the balance of qualities it offers than any one property and it's obvious that what works for me may not work for someone else.
  4. I fully get what you're saying. Both the 8700K and 9900K are based on a 14nm die and yet a 9900K with 2 more cores and 300MHz of greater headroom is supposed to generate the same heat? However, issues you are reading about don't have to apply for audio. I realize that with the Pink Faun 2.16, based on how this machine can be configured as an upsampling machine using HQP and AL and based on what others have posted, I have read claims that this machine consumes 100 watts at a minimum and functions as a space heater. In my case, I do no upsampling since I have a separate Chord M Scaler that does this for me. With Euphony + Stylus and with the 8700K CPU unrestrained, as I look at my Euphony meter, CPU load across 6-cores and 12-threads is consistently <1-2% during music playback and CPU frequency peaks as high as 4.63GHz for a given core. The CPU cores run between 38-47 degrees C even though I have been playing music continuously for the past 3 hours. During boot up, my Kill-A-Watt meter climbs as high as 92 watts of consumption for about a split second but once in a steady state, while playing music, this machine consumes no more than about 50 watts and as little as 38 watts. The HDPlex chassis handles all of this well (it barely feels warm to the touch even with the machine kept on 24/7 for most of the past week) in my enclosed but ventilated cabinet. I would be shocked if my setup can't handle the 9900K. The AMD 1800X also has a rated TDP of 95 watts and while it has 8-cores, it has a max frequency of only 4GHz and so this is not the best case scenario for Stylus. If rumors prove true, the upcoming AMD 3000 series CPUs with a die of only 7nm may be the ultimate CPU. The rumored 3800X is purported to have 12-cores and a max CPU frequency of 5GHz while sporting a TDP of only 105 watts. This TDP may be a big deal for a Pink Faun machine running AL and HQP but I suspect it won't be a big deal for Euphony + Stylus. As for motherboards, this matters and I'm hoping the new crop of mini-ITX AMD X570-based motherboards will be better than what's available. Because of the unnecessarily large fan mounting posts that AMD CPUs use, they use up precious space on the small mini-ITX motherboards making it challenging for the motherboard manufacturers to incorporate high level VRMs. In this sense, if one is looking for a mini-ITX board, Intel boards are far superior than any of the AMD boards that are presently available and the best board I have so far found is the Asrock Z390 Phantom Gaming ITX-ac. For a solid AMD board, it seems you really have to go full ATX.
  5. Your situation is becoming more the norm than the exception which is why Optane drives seem more viable today. Some motherboards have multiple M.2 slots as well.
  6. The original ATX spec called for a 12V rail for the CPU and 12V, -12V, 5V, -5V, 5VSB, and 3.3V for the motherboard and so lots of rails although most modern ATX motherboards no longer use the -12V and -5V rails (now considered legacy rails) and if you never go into standby mode, you can get by without a 5VSB rail. So, with any modern motherboard that accepts ATX power, you will generally see a multipin ATX connector (usually 20 or 24-pin) and a multipin CPU connector (usually 4-8 pins). It is this flexibility to power the CPU separately that is the difference maker and what disqualifies NUCs and any motherboard with an embedded CPU for any server I might build moving forward since these types of motherboards using take a single DC input. This was discussed at some length on the other thread back in 2017 and it is one of the big reasons the Innuos Zenith SE sounded better than my own 2017 server build. What is interesting is when I first tried the HDPlex DC-ATX converter back in 2017, I was not impressed by what I heard with this converter powered by a 19V rail from my SR7 although back then, I used this converter to power both the motherboard and a Xeon CPU. I think it was just too much to ask. This time around, I used this converter to power just the motherboard and with a special cable made for me by Ghent, I'm using a 12V rail from my SR7 to independently power the CPU and this has made all the difference. This is the HDPlex DC-ATX converter I am presently using: https://www.hdplex.com/hdplex-400w-hi-fi-dc-atx-power-supply-16v-24v-wide-range-voltage-input.html
  7. The concept of electrical noise generated by an SSD was first brought to public consciousness, I believe by Paul Pang, and he was also the first that I'm aware of to suggest using alternative lower noise media like USB flash drives and slower SATA II SLC SSDs to run the OS. Many, including myself, have found Paul's findings to be true in our own systems. Marcin's upcoming JCAT server looks like it will be based on SLC media. Keetakawee Punpeng, creator of Fidelizer and the Nimitra server will offer SLC media in his best custom builds also. While noise generated by the OS drive is an important consideration, so is performance, especially with Windows which engages in high amounts of disk I/O. This is where NVMe drives and their very low latencies have an advantage over slower drives including any drives connected to the motherboard via SATA. With Windows, these very low latency drives result in better immediacy although this is much less relevant with either AL or Euphony. The advantage of an Optane drive is that it runs on this very low latency NVMe bus while also being a very low noise drive and so it encompasses the best of both worlds. I have recently been educated that modern motherboards that have M.2 NVMe slots that aren't necessarily "Optane ready" (i.e. AMD boards) can still utilize an Optane card as a storage (or OS) drive but not as a cache drive, which is what Optane was originally designed for. This means that if your motherboard has an M.2 drive capable of NVMe, you are probably capable of using an Optane drive. It should be easy enough to try it. If Optane is not possible, a USB stick is still not a horrible way to go with Euphony and or Stylus. While not optimal, according to Euphony, there is no SQ hit with using a USB stick for the OS and I think this is because Euphony and many Linux-based OS's have small enough footprints that they reside mostly in RAM by default and so disk I/O is nowhere close to Windows. Sonically, I have confirmed this to be the case in my own server meaning that I don't detect a meaningful SQ difference between an Optane drive and a USB stick as an OS drive. Of course, if you have a large library and you are interested in keeping your files within your server's internal drive, then you have no choice but to use large capacity storage media like an SSD or hard drive. At that point, see what you get and if you aren't bothered by it, that's all that matters.
  8. I never thought I would leave Roon having paid for a lifetime membership a number of years back. It remains second to none with respect to library management and overall user experience but I have found the Stylus player to sound TOO GOOD to ignore and so I have made the switch. Roon by itself has a very good bloom and liquidity to it but it is at the expense of control resulting in considerable overhang and smearing of details, at least to my ears. For vocals, Roon sounds more than just acceptably good but for orchestral music, it really is a mess. Roon + SqueezeLite provides more of this control and much needed precision resulting in better damping and cleaner transients. It's easier to hear when notes start and stop giving you the perception that the noise floor is lower but it also has a tendency to sound dry and mechanical. While tolerable with orchestral music, with vocals and solo instruments, there is a sterility and thinness to SL (even with large buffers) that has always left me wanting. The brain tells me all is well but the heart tells me differently. Stylus is exceptional in it's ability to provide the bloom, liquidity, and tonal richness of Roon but also the the timing precision of SL. In fact, to my ears, Stylus actually does all of these qualities better. When I was doing my tests on AudioLinux, I found that ramping up CPU frequency resulted in better dynamics and an overall more muscular sound. On an i7-8700K, this meant CPU frequencies as high as 4.7GHz and while this improved dynamics was very pleasing, it also came at the expense of harshness and an inability to convey delicacy and nuance. As I set CPU frequency to the other end of the spectrum to a fixed 800MHz (and even 400MHz), delicacy and nuance was there in spades with no apparent harshness but the sound signature was thin and anemic sounding in comparison, similar to what I hear with an sMS-200ultra or ultraRendu. Somehow, with the right CPU, Euphony is capable of providing both the benefits of high and low CPU frequency where it can do dynamics and expansive sound stage but also subtlety and nuance while never sounding harsh. In hindsight, probably one of the worst features ever developed for AudioLinux is the Extreme2 mode because it forced you to a single frequency. I think it's best to allow the CPU the flexibility to scale to whatever frequency is called for by the track. While there is more to Stylus' magic than that, it is Stylus' ability to be both muscular and delicate that has forced me to rethink my digital front end once again. While in Munich, I had a discussion with Jord Groen of Pink Faun about his decision to go with an AMD 1800X CPU. It was his opinion based on listening tests that with his version of AL, CPU frequency was nowhere as important as the number of cores and so he never felt it necessary to move to a more powerful CPU with higher CPU frequency capability. My experience is that CPU frequency definitely adds something but ultimately, harshness was the biggest trade off and so I presume this is what Jord meant. With AudioLinux, I was forced to cap an 8700K at 3.8GHz because any speeds beyond this sounded harsh and so this supports Jord's comment. But with Euphony and Stylus, I let the 8700K run with no cap whatsoever and notice that CPU frequency will typically reach 4.4-4.5GHz consistently, however, I get no harshness at all. In fact, the higher the frequency a CPU is capable of, the better, and so I imagine the ultimate CPU at this time would be something like an i9-9900K that provides 8-cores and a max frequency of 5GHz and a TDP of only 95w. I hope to be able to test this soon but what I will say is that with Euphony + Stylus on a single box 8700K machine, my reclocked i7 NUC driven by a 19V SR7 sounds absolutely puny. Even with the 8700K server powered by an HDPlex 400W ATX LPSU and with no special clocking outside of my tX-USBultra, I prefer the big server to the i7 NUC but as I have figured out a way to independently power both the 8700K CPU and ATX motherboard (using a DC-ATX converter) with SR7 rails, the i7 NUC has now been officially retired. Do I think that a powerful single box server running Euphony + Stylus is better than a dual box machine running Roon + StylusEP? At this time, yes, no question. Stylus is that good. StylusEP contains a subset of Stylus but they aren't the same. To my ears, Stylus sounds smoother and richer and better textured. It is also ultra stable and Željko has done a wonderful job enhancing its feature set. In fact, expect further enhancements in the coming days.
  9. My experience is that the quality of the USB stick has no impact on SQ. I've tried an expensive SLC USB stick I had lying around and it resulted in no change in SQ that I could hear with Euphony compared against a cheap $5 Sandisk. Of course, if you are using AL ramrooted, for sure the USB stick won't matter. Just get a fast USB 3.0 or 3.1 USB stick to keep your wait times to a minimum during bootup. These devices have limited write cycles before they fail and so make sure you have a backup. Fortunately, these things are cheap. This will be my last post on AS for the foreseeable future. Please forgive me if I don't respond to queries that are addressed to me. Best wishes and I hope to meet up with some of you in Munich in May.
  10. My initial observations with the NUC were surprising for a couple of reasons. First, that a $120 Celeron-based NUC + AL could outperform (to my ears) products like a microRendu/ultraRendu/sMS-200ultra that were designed from the ground up for audio playback with high level clocking and ultra low noise voltage regulators. Second, that this same $120 NUC + AL when powered by a DR SR7 could outperform (to my ears) a $7k Innuos Zenith SE. This was my first inkling that low power CPUs like an ARM processor are probably not optimum for an endpoint. For a cheap unoptimized Celeron to outperform these highly regarded endpoints, I could offer no other explanation and this theory was only bolstered when I moved to an i7 NUC and found that the gap had widened further. It also suggested the OS matters and it matters a lot. While both my initial NUC and the Zenith SE utilize Celerons and with both powered by high quality PSUs, I believed that it was the OS that was the difference maker and I recall that Rajiv found this to be his observation also, that his SE when booted to AL resulted in improvement. Of course, optimizing the NUC by replacing its clocks has resulted in further significant improvements but the lesson that the unoptimized NUC taught me is that the performance that a CPU brings, the quality of the OS, and of course, the quality of the PSU matter just as much if not more. With respect to your server, these qualities have already been considered and so I'm not surprised that your unoptimized NUC powered by an sPS-500 isn't meeting your expectations. As for ROI, replacing clocks on your NUC is the last thing I would do. Figure out a way to better power your NUC. This would be my first priority. Second, because it's easy enough to do, go ahead and give Euphony a try just in case it's signature is more to your liking. The trial is free and it is easy to do. Or else, give WS 2016/AO a try on the NUC but of course, you won't be able to boot it from a USB stick and so you'll have to install either an SSD or preferably an Optane card. Ultimately, if you're already happy with your optimized server, your best ROI might be to sell your NUC and cut your losses.
  11. You may be right but it's best not to assume. More cores seem to matter even if you don't use HQP. In my Roon server machine where I employ no upsampling or DSP, as I go from a 4-core i7 to a 6-core i7 (a 50% jump in cores), the improvement is notable in terms of a bigger and more dynamic sound. No matter how high I crank up the 4-core i7's CPU frequency, I can't get it to match the 6-core i7's dynamics. The 4-core sounds thin and small in comparison even with the 4-core i7 powered by a 19V SR7 and with the 6-core powered by an HDPlex. At some point, adding more cores probably won't make a difference but until someone does the testing to find where that ceiling is, no one knows. The advantage of parallel processing through multiple cores is that with software that is written to take advantage of those cores, tasks can be performed more efficiently and often more effectively and so ultimately, what is important is not how many cores but whether the software was written to take advantage of those cores. A good example is Rob Watts' M-Scaler which utilizes a Xilinx XC7A200T FPGA and its 740 DSP cores. This FPGA can upsample to 1 million TAPS while consuming only 12 watts. There is no 12-watt X86 processor from either Intel or AMD that can achieve this level of performance.
  12. Brian said it perfectly. When you combine intelligence, experience, and most importantly passion, good things are bound to happen. Another thing I have noticed about Paul is humility. He doesn't claim to know it all or that his product is better than anyone else's, not even in private, and so Paul is always trying to get better rather than resting on his laurels and that is evident in the evolution of his product line. There are those who have tried to emulate Paul's designs, have even opened up an SR7 and automatically claimed superiority by virtue of using name brand parts that aren't used in the SR7 like Mundorf caps, etc. And yet, where it matters most, the SR7 always seems to prevail.
  13. Avoidance of a SSD is my chief goal since disk access isn't such a big deal with Linux. Even a USB stick which is very slow sounds as good as an Optane drive with either Euphony or AL. I think the performance of Optane is a bigger deal for Windows.
  14. Forced to choose, I would agree with you. Finding the perfect balance with just the right CPU is the goal and then from there, figuring out the best way to power it.
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