- July 31, 2017
With the growth of high-resolution audio formats and streaming audio and the move away from physical media, audio/video servers are a hot topic these days. But just what is a “server,” and why are ours different?
A server is defined by Wikipedia as “a computer or computer program that manages access to a centralized resource or service in a network.” That’s tech-speak for a computer doing something that accomplishes a task as part of a greater activity. In our world, that activity is organizing and playing audio.
The term “server” is being tossed around the audio world with increasing frequency and we’d like to clear up some misconceptions. Some of us at Wolf Audio Systems came from the IT server world, where we designed and managed thousands of enterprise-level systems that worked together to deliver resources and services of all types. As a result of this experience, we know about cutting edge technology and innovation. We also know the importance of reliability and customer service. We’ve lived it for years. And while there are some basic similarities of function we see in the use of the term “server” in both the IT and audio realms, there are also some big differences that have big implications in the audio world.
Whether they’re called a “streamer”, “media player” or “server,” there are a number of products out there that all play music (and sometimes video) and offer some management tools for the user’s audio library. They let you connect a tablet and control music from your chair. But beyond that, you’d be hard-pressed to find some really common-sense features that should be in some of these products, but aren’t.
Buying music, researching artists and looking at images of artists and albums is dependent on the one thing that products that are more like appliances than audio components just don’t offer: a web browser. Such products can connect to the web and your home network so that you can move your music onto the device, but not having true direct web access right from the device itself is a pretty large hole in the features of such a product.
It takes a true, dedicated music server that is designed like an audio/video component to give you the versatility to do the things that should come naturally with a device designed for use in a stereo or home entertainment system. Having the ability to easily buy music, browse the web, use the streaming platform of your choice, install third party software, deliver high-resolution sound quality and use the system in a way that is right for you is what makes Wolf Audio Systems music servers true audio/video components
Here is a case in point of the functionality that you can only get with a true dedicated music server: The other day we were in a stereo shop and Bill, the owner, mentioned that he wanted to hear a track he loved, but didn’t have. We didn’t have it either, but we were able to find it on YouTube by browsing the web and downloading it onto our Alpha 2 Red Wolf music server installed in his system. (Being a YouTube clip, the sound was lacking but we were able to find the track in seconds.) Using the Alpha 2 Red Wolf, we found out about and were able to listen to a new band – and didn’t have to leave the room, pass around a laptop or find some other inconvenient workaround to do it.
Bill was impressed. Like many audiophiles, he had previously only concerned himself with the sound quality of the server and didn’t think much about how a server could make finding and enjoying music easier. But with this simple demonstration, he started to realize just how much more was built into his main playback component.
And while our systems offer a ton of features, Wolf Audio Systems has always put sound first. We’ve earned the distinction from our customers and industry counterparts as a company that makes true audio components, not hardware that happens to play music. But as we’ve learned from our participation in audio shows and in visiting dealers, calling systems like our Alpha 2 lineup “servers” can give people pause. They know what streamers and players are, but for many, a “music server” is still a wholly new concept.
The features and functions of a product like the Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 2 or Alpha 2 Red Wolf, compared to most of the streamers and players included in integrated amplifiers or as separates can be best described as more. In many minds, a server belongs in a closet, along with storage devices or media management platforms, not as the centerpiece of a high-end audio system. However, in our case that is simply not true. We have built a server, a storage device and media management platform, but we have incorporated all of those disciplines into a single dedicated audi/video component that can sit at the head of some of the best stereo setups.
We have meticulously crafted the hardware and feature sets of the Alpha 2 and its variants to squeeze out every bit of performance possible. When we perfected the sonic performance of one model, the Alpha 2, we didn’t stop there – we went back to the drawing board to create the step-up model, the Alpha 2 Red Wolf. Both systems have people amazed at the importance the delivery device – the music server – can have on the overall sound of their system. It matters. When it comes to digital audio, a solid sonic foundation – starting with your playback device – is very important.
Developing a system with the power to accomplish all of these functions and capabilities and still have room to grow is not a simple feat. The more computing power you give a system, the more engineering, power regulation and software configuration is required. That is why typical streamers and “appliances” are so popular and prevalent in the audio world. They are typically systems with a simple, very basic power supply with inherent compromises in the power it is able to provide to the component, and a slightly modified version of a Linux operating system coupled with an output stage – easy to build, easy to support. Hardware makers love products like these because with just a little research and development, they are able to develop a product and enter the technology market. These systems check the boxes of features that “work” in a digital audio system – Hi-Res PCM and DSD audio, streaming capabilities and tablet control – but deprive the listener of a lot of other important aspects and benefits of a true, dedicated audio/video server.
Great audio performance is something we pride ourselves on, but at this point some of you must be asking – what about video? The ability to browse the web, watch YouTube or Netflix, or stream Tidal, Spotify or whatever will come next…those options are also essential features if a device can be considered a server.
We’ve focused on the audio side until now, but – Wolf servers also support video! Our servers not only support video, but also function as the heart of a home theater system, playing Blu-ray, DVD, downloaded video, home movies and more. This also means that you can play Blu-ray Audio discs like Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day and all the DVD-Audio titles out there. If you own a receiver, you can use HDMI to deliver bit-streamed audio like DTS HD-Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD to your system. If you use a passive preamp (like we do), you can let the Wolf down-mix multichannel audio to a two-channel stream, run that through a D/A converter and then on to your stereo system. In fact, Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily multichannel DVD-A album down-mixed to stereo is one of the most astounding listening experiences we’ve had.
And while we admit to having more of a focus on audio quality than video, we didn’t neglect video quality by any means. Quite the opposite – whether it’s 1080P, 4K Bluray or another video format [OK TO SAY THAT?] Wolf Audio Systems handles movie night as well. When we watch Netflix, movies and so on we do it on the Wolf! To add to our growing list of features, here is one of our favorite functions of the Alpha 2 and Alpha 2 Red Wolf: They can distribute music and video elsewhere in the home while you are listening to music in your main room, and it has no effect on the sound quality wherever you watch or listen – even if streaming Hi-Res Audio to multiple rooms.
We also store our childrens’ shows on the Wolf, because physical discs just don’t last long in the hands of our little ones! When they want to watch a movie in the living room, I find the film they want, and just click “Play to Living Room” on the touchscreen display. The video is streamed over the network and plays on the TV as easily as if the disc were in a drive in the living room. We can send media to any DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance)-enabled device including receivers, Sonos products, video players, smart TVs and more – the fact of the matter is that the utility of the Wolf is vast, and it is a very compelling product to everyone from audiophiles who want a component that simply plays music with great sound quality, to people who want a great music player that also offers a lot more when they need it, to people who are as enthusiastic about video as they are about music and want a component that can handle all their home entertainment needs.
Who We Are
For a bit of personal background and company history, my name is Joe Parvey and I am one of the founders of Wolf Audio Systems. I was born in an audiophile household and grew up playing with both turntables and computers. We were audio, video and home network system builders long before computer hardware was worthy of true hi-fi status. Instead of cable boxes, I used computers to drive our TV and movie watching, and big TV screens served as monitors for our computing.
We kept trying to bring everything together, with sound cards and converters and software. We tried to make the most out of MP3 and the early FLAC and other lossless audio formats, but it all just wasn’t ready for prime time. Our hi-fi, video and computer systems were always kept separate from each other. Even when we thought we were getting close, Dad would nix the audition based on quality concerns before even getting through the opening bars of a song. When Hi-Res Audio started to emerge, we still hadn’t lost sight of our goal, and realized the time was right to start doing some R&D on manufacturing a new breed of audio server.
A few years ago, when my father asked me to take a look at the commercially available high-end all-in-one systems (with music storage and tablet management) that he had been lusting after, we knew something fundamental had changed. Here was a guy who was derisive of MP3 and dismissive of lossless FLAC files – now actively interested in buying a product or system. So I looked into it. However, I knew the proposition of my father buying a $10,000-plus system like this could spell trouble for us, especially considering that operating the system he was interested in involved using your own computer to purchase music, then moving it over to an appliance-like piece of hardware, and then having to manage it all through a tablet. It was a tech support nightmare in the making.
I started to look closer at this particular product he was interested in. Aside from having a great output stage, (where this company really excels) this was a machine built with parts more appropriate for use in a cell phone than in a high-end audio device. I knew that this device was not built to last, and it also cost about as much as my first car! It was then I realized that my father and others needed a machine that could do it all, simply and reliably. And to do it all, it needed power and performance. As a result we started building Wolf Audio Systems components, first, to satisfy ourselves – and the systems started selling.
Our customers range from the quality-conscious music lover just starting out to the seasoned audiophile whose listening room we’d love to take home for ourselves! Wolf Audio Systems audio servers offer exceptional music storage and streaming audio capability, combined with the power and versatility to do many more things – all without compromising sound quality. Things like buying and storing music on the same device that will play it. Having the ability to consolidate your entire existing music collection (including ripping CDs to disk) onto a Wolf product. Connecting touchscreens, TVs, external hard drives and tablets to organize and access your music. And even sending music to other devices in the home or to your phone for listening on the go. In addition, all Wolf Audio Systems products are upgradeable, able to handle future formats and technologies not yet available, making every Wolf product a long-term investment. Without all those features and capabilities, we’re confident you’ll find our audio/video servers to be truly special components that meet your most demanding standards as much as they meet ours.