December 1, 2006
Slim Devices Transporter Network Music Player
Youd have been hard-pressed to have a conversation with me about audio or video components in the last few months and not hear me talk about Slim Devices Squeezebox and Transporter network music players. Now, some might think that much of what Im about to say here has to do with the fact that, in October, the Swiss company Logitech scooped up California-based Slim Devices. Yes, that comes up, but only to say that the folks at Logitech probably knew that Slim Devices is on to something good. I think I know what that something is.
I cant talk about the Transporter without bringing up its predecessor, the Squeezebox, which now can be thought of as, more or less, the Transporter Lite. They work very similarly -- each is billed as a "network music player," which means it can stream music files from a computer network and output a digital or analog signal for your audio system to use. Theyll handle anything from lo-rez MP3 files to full-resolution WAV, PCM, Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, and other formats. You can connect them to your computer network via an Ethernet cable or, niftiest of all, with an 802.11g wireless connection, which many people already have running in their homes. (According to the folks at Slim Devices, you can use the Transporter with a slower 801.11b connection, but it probably wont have the necessary bandwidth for flawless CD-quality streaming.)
Neither the Squeezebox nor the Transporter contains a hard drive or other storage device, but both can be considered full-fledged music servers when coupled to a computer running Slim Devices SlimServer software, which is free and runs on the Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD, and Solaris operating systems. SlimServer works seamlessly with the Squeezebox and Transporter, and, when the whole kit and caboodle is enabled, sends music files from your computers hard drive to wherever in your home a Squeezebox or Transporter is located.
Furthermore, one SlimServer application can control multiple Squeezeboxes and/or Transporters. You can also sync up any combination of Squeezeboxes and/or Transporters that might be scattered around your house, or you can have them work independently. And if that isnt impressive enough, via SlimServer you can control any Squeezeboxes and Transporters the program is talking to from your computer: Clicking Play on your computer screen in SlimServer is just like pushing Play on your Transporter.
The biggest differences between the Squeezebox and the Transporter are in build quality, features, and, without question, price. The Transporter costs $1999 USD, while a WiFi-enabled Squeezebox is just $299 (a non-WiFi, Ethernet-only Squeezebox is available for $249). Slim Devices is aiming the Transporter at the upscale, audiophile market, which is why they call it "the first audiophile network music player." What theyre trying to get across with that tagline is that the Transporter is more of a cost-no-object product thats been designed for the audiophile crowd, something they dont claim for the budget-priced Squeezebox.
I suspect that some companies will take issue with this and argue that their network-capable products are audiophile-grade as well. After all, Slim Devices products arent the only such components on the market. However, I take Slim Devices side on this one. Im an audiophile, and until the Transporter came along, I hadnt seen any network product that I would have considered using with a high-end digital front-end. Im the kind of person the Transporter was designed for.
To appeal to audiophiles, Slim Devices has crammed the Transporter full of goodies that the Squeezebox just doesnt have: an AKM AK4396 DAC (which, the company says, attains a signal/noise ratio of 120dB), a fully balanced analog stage, single-ended and balanced analog outputs, four digital inputs and outputs (TosLink, XLR, and S/PDIF RCA and BNC), and an RS-232 connector for integrating the Transporter into a home-automation system. The supplied power cord is detachable, so you can use a third-party cord, which many philes like to do.
Theres no such thing as a nonwireless Transporter; it can be connected to your computer network with an Ethernet cable, or wirelessly using the 802.11g standard (as I said, you can try 801.11b, but hope for the best and expect the worst). The Transporter comes equipped with two antennas for the best possible transmission.
While the Squeezebox is encased in a small, plastic box, the Transporters chassis measures 17"W x 3"H x 12.25"D, is made of aircraft-grade aluminum, and comes in a black or clear anodized finish. It looks sharp. However, its lighter than it looks -- Id guess about seven pounds. Audiophiles who weigh value by the pound might be put off by this, but Im not one of them.
The designers have rounded the Transporters edges, which makes it look less boxy, and have put small rack-mount handles on the front panel. Theyve also placed a big knob (which Ill explain below) in the center of the front panel, and a row of 14 little buttons along the bottom. All of this gives the Transporter a modern look with a hint of retro. I like its appearance, but I admit that its not quite the more industrial look of many high-end components that audiophiles are used to.
The display wont be what some are used to either. When you fire up the Transporter straight out of the box, the right side of the display defaults to digital facsimiles of two analog VU meters that bob along to the music signal -- something some will like and others will doubtless hate. Press the Visual button on the front bottom right, though, and you can switch that part of the display to show digital VU meters (I prefer the analog ones), a stereo spectrum analyzer (didnt like that at all), or, least blingy of all, simply the title of the song the Transporter is currently playing. The left side of the display mostly shows the title of the selection; if youre listening to one of the digital inputs, it shows which input youve selected. Like the Squeezebox, the Transporter comes with a remote control, but this one is backlit, which is handy in dark rooms.
That big, centrally mounted knob I mentioned earlier is something unique to the Transporter. Slim Devices calls it the TransNav. According to their literature, it uses "tactile feedback" -- basically, it senses what your hand is doing, or wants to do -- to efficiently scroll through large catalogs of music. I didnt use it very much; until the Transporter arrived, my computer-based catalog was next to nil. Even now, I have only a modest number of titles.
The Transporters volume control is accessible from the front panel and the remote control, but I didnt use it much either, because I couldnt determine from Slim Devices whether the volume control operates in the digital or the analog domain. I suspect that it operates in the digital domain, because the spec sheet I read on the AKM AK4396 DAC says that its equipped with a volume control. However, my experience has been that digital volume controls can negatively affect playback resolution, and because my goal with this review was to compare the Transporters sound with those of some other very good DACs, I didnt want to put the Transporter at an unnecessary disadvantage. So, I pegged the Transporters volume to the top for my critical listening, because there should be no loss of resolution up there. Anyway, the integrated amp that I used with the Transporter has an outstanding volume control of its own.
The Transporter includes many other functions and features, mostly relating to the ways you can search, browse, or scroll through your computer-based music files, and create things like playlists, but I wont go into more detail on those here. I simply mention them so that people who know the Transporter (or Squeezebox) well dont think Ive inadvertently left stuff out. The Transporter has too many features to discuss in a single review; instead, I want to focus mostly on the network servers audiophile strengths, and the features that most audiophiles will most use.
Surprisingly simple setup
My background in computer systems has made me fairly savvy with computer-based products such as the Slim Devices Transporter. Its also made me skeptical about how easy it is to get these sorts of products up and running. In that previous career, I often spent days, weeks, even months trying to make things work that, as Id often find out, werent designed well enough from the beginning to work right at all. In the more than 20 years Ive spent fiddling with computers, Ive seen far more problems than solutions. So when I received my review sample of the Transporter, I simply didnt believe that it would work as advertised: flawlessly.
I was wrong. In fact, setting up the Transporter was surprisingly simple, and the problems were few. Even someone with limited computer knowledge should be able to get it working easily and quickly.
The first thing I did was remove the Transporter from its shipping box and hook it up to the home-theater system in our family room, which adjoins the room in which my 802.11g router is located. I connected the Transporter to my A/V receiver with some generic interconnects, plugged in the power cord, and pressed Power. I was greeted with a large, brightly lit display on the Transporters front panel that informed me we were about to set up the Transporter to connect to my network. The next two steps were to simply input my network name, followed by the necessary password. (I have security enabled on my network, and you should too; if you dont, the Transporter will likely just find your network and connect right away -- as can your neighbors.) After that, the setup was basically complete and the Transporter was online.
But not yet quite ready to use. As soon as the Transporter was successfully connected to my network, the front panel let me know that it couldnt find SlimServer running anywhere. No wonder -- I hadnt yet installed SlimServer on any of my computers.
I went to my wifes computer, which is network-connected and chock-full of digitally encoded music (MP3s, mind you), and installed SlimServer from Slim Devices website. Within minutes, that was running too. The only hiccup in that installation was that the McAfee firewall installed on her computer interfered with SlimServer. A quick fix was to momentarily disable the firewall, let SlimServer start, then re-enable the firewall.
With SlimServer running, I could see on her computer screen that the software had automatically "picked up" all her music (during the SlimServer installation process, you tell the program where your music files live) and seemed ready to go. Little did I then know that I could have just chosen a music selection at that point and pushed Play -- as I mentioned earlier, SlimServer will control all Transporters and Squeezeboxes that are on the same network.
Instead, I hopped back into the other room, picked up the remote control, and encountered one of the easiest menu-navigation systems Ive ever used. The menu does what I call "rolling and scrolling" -- when you transition from the main menu to submenus, and from submenus to sub-submenus, the menu items scroll on and off the screen, as opposed to disappearing and reappearing -- this makes it very easy to tell where youre going in the menu structure and not get lost. Once Id found the selection I wanted, I simply pressed Play and the music soared. From start to finish -- unboxing, connecting, downloading, and installing -- I was up and running within 15 minutes. With setup that simple, I went from cringing from thinking about what problems Id encounter to getting downright excited about this fascinating products capabilities.
Next, I disconnected the Transporter, carried the lightweight unit up two flights of stairs, and set it down in my reference listening room -- all in all, about 60 away from my wireless router. I hooked it up to a system comprising a Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated amplifier driving Focus Audio Master 2.5 loudspeakers via Analysis Plus Silver Oval speaker cables. Also in this system are my Theta Data Basic CD transport, which I connected to the Transporter with an i2Digital X-60 digital interconnect. A Nordost Valkyrja interconnect connected the Transporter to the Moon i-7. All told, this was about $30,000 worth of gear -- enough to put the Transporter through a vigorous audiophile workout.
After the initial setup had gone so well and Id recognized the potential of a device such as the Transporter for revolutionizing audiophiles digital front-ends, a new concern shot through my mind: This wouldnt be an ordinary review. There were a couple of major additional areas that I knew I had to test.
For example, $1999 isnt pocket change, even for something as feature-rich as the Transporter. And although its far more than just a DAC with networking capabilities, much of the justification for the Transporters price does depend on exactly how well its internal DAC works: If it doesnt perform to a high standard, it will be enough of a bottleneck that the rest of the Transporters features will be basically useless. After all, you could consider a far cheaper Band-Aid approach by using a Squeezebox, its digital output (S/PDIF RCA), and your favorite DAC, as Ive seen some successfully do.
In short, Slim Devices had to get everything about this product right, and the Transporters digital-to-analog performance had to at least match that of the best reasonably priced DACs on the market. The very best DACs I know of come from Stello, and I had them on hand: the original DA220 ($1195, when available) and its upgrade, the DA220 Mk.II ($1495). Stellos DACs blow away DACs many times their price -- in fact, their performance comes strikingly close to that of the cost-no-object crowd. So thats what the Transporter went up against.
Worrying, however, proved fruitless. It didnt take long to figure out that the Transporters D/A performance was outstanding, and every bit the equal of the Stellos, even if all three performances were not quite identical. But, basically, theyre all superb, and close to as good as it gets -- as youll see.
Ive been playing Willie Nelsons new album, Songbird [CD, Lost Highway B000693902], on constant repeat since I bought it, and the sound, from my CD transport hardwired to the Transporter, was exceedingly clean, clear, highly detailed, and, for the most part, hard to fault -- the Stello DA220s were no better and no worse. The bass was tight and controlled, the highs clean and infinitely extended, and the mids beautifully detailed, without any emphasis or recession. And the soundstaging, from left to right and from front to back, had excellent depth specificity that was easy to discern. For the sort of sound I like -- i.e., exceedingly accurate -- the Transporter was without fault, and could be compared with the very best and priciest DACs out there.
CD playback is a mature technology, and I believe that in the last few years the performance of CD players and DACs has been perfected. The last great CD player to emerge was the Aurum Integris CDP, a combination player and preamplifier that I reviewed in September and that retails for $12,000. To my ears, the Integris CDP is as good as it gets -- but only a touch better than the Stello DA220, to which I compared it at length. The Integris has just a touch more refinement in the highs, and the ability to squeeze out microscopic details that make recordings with "space" explode into the room. However, in this case theres not much difference between the very best (the Aurum Integris CDP) and the next best -- things like the Stello DACs and Transporter. With any one of these models, I basically hear everything there is to hear from silver discs. As I said, with the Transporter or with any of the other products mentioned, accuracy is not the issue.
What will be an issue is the opposite of the clinical accuracy and pristine detail that I like, and that the Transporter portrays. There are audiophiles out there who dont really like that sort of sound. Instead, they prefer colorations -- perhaps some warmth and bloom in the midrange, a softer top end to tame down bright recordings, or emphasized bass heft to give an exaggerated impression of weight. And some audiophile-type front-ends do just that.
But the Transporter doesnt. Its exceedingly precise. Willie Nelsons voice, for example, is played back through this system with a ruthless precision that reveals the good and bad in the recording. Theres no sonic signature to butter things up, as some other front-ends have. The recording quality of Tom Cochranes newest disc, No Stranger [CD, Universal 0251706042], can be summed up in one word: crap. The midrange sounds sucked out, the highs are exceedingly bright, theres no dynamic range to speak of -- and the Slim Devices Transporter changed none of that. Its sound was accurate, uncolored, and transparent, making it every bit a sonic match for the high-priced stuff I partnered it with. This also makes it a good reviewers tool: it put out exactly what was put in.
But, even though the Transporters DAC section lived up to these standards of DAC performance, theres something that cant be forgotten: the Stello DACs do too, and theyre not nearly as expensive. I wont say they all sound the same, but theyre all of the same caliber, and just as good. On the one hand, this is good news for the Transporter, because it held its own against these giant-killers, which was what I set out to determine in the first part of my listening tests. On the other hand, in terms of DAC performance, you can get just as good sound from Stello for less money. However, the Transporter is much more than just a DAC -- much more.
Because one of the Transporters great strengths is its networking capabilities, particularly the WiFi access, I set up an interesting test. First, using Exact Audio Copy, I ripped full-resolution WAV files from two of my favorite discs: Johnny Cashs American V: A Hundred Highways [CD, American B000276902] and the soundtrack to the film The Mission [CD, EMI 811267]. These I stored on my computer downstairs; the Transporter accessed them wirelessly. Then, I cued up the same discs in my CD transport and, through some fast switching on the remote control, was able to toggle between the streamed music sourced from the computer, and my transport (playing the original CD) hardwired to the Transporter. Here, I wasnt so much evaluating the sound quality as I did above; instead, I was finding out if they sounded the same.
Youd think thered be a difference, right? I certainly thought Id hear one -- a real difference, given the disparity in setups and the fact that I was streaming wirelessly, something Id never done before. After all, audiophiles often wax poetic about the differences between digital interconnects, no matter how slight. But in this case I was comparing the sound of music streamed from computer files via no cable at all, and music from a hardwired transport playing an actual CD. My superstitious audiophile nature almost put me over the edge.
The results astonished me. I was flabbergasted at how hard I struggled and strained to hear any difference whatsoever between them. Then, when at last I thought I could hear something, I wasnt sure -- and I couldnt even tell which one was better, if at all. Basically, I had to call it a draw.
Which bowled me over; not just because the wireless access worked so well -- thats amazing in itself -- but also because of the notion that I could use the Transporter and a computer, or some other network-accessible storage device, to form the heart of an amazing-sounding digital front-end in my home and never use my CD transport again. Nor was it any sort of compromised ho-hum solution. The Transporters performance was worthy of a top-grade audiophile system.
If you think of the Slim Devices Transporter only as a DAC with WiFi capability, $1999 wont seem like all that great a deal. You can buy as good-sounding a DAC for less, and you can rig up a wireless device like Slim Devices own Squeezebox to duplicate what the Transporter does. Youd lose some features, sure, but it would work; in fact, Ive seen some people successfully do just that.
The Transporter, though, is much more than a WiFi DAC, and its no mere Band-Aid solution. The Transporter is a one-of-a-kind product thats uniquely styled, well built, rich in features, easy to use, and fine sounding. Theres nothing else like it -- at least for now -- and considering all that it offers, its not unreasonably priced. And when you use the Transporter with a computer running SlimServer, it becomes the first-rate front-end of a two-channel, music-serving solution. Its by far the most exciting and impressive product Ive reviewed in 2006, and one I just cant keep from saying too many good things about.
The Slim Devices Transporter marks a shift in the way we audiophiles play music, and I believe it signals the death of the CD transport. In fact, I think someone would be foolish to spend much money on a CD transport today. Have one, yes, but start thinking about other ways to store and stream your music -- such as Slim Devices Transporter-SlimServer solution. Its that good -- and its the way of the future. It just happens to be here today.
Slim Devices Transporter Network Music Player
Slim Devices, Inc.