We are in the midst of a dramatic growth
in the publishing and acceptance of high-resolution audio formats and streaming media while physical digital media declines. Audio 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. Most 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. And from 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 we see in the use of the term “server” in the IT and audio realms, there are also big differences with big implications in the stereo room.
Whether they’re called a “streamer”, “media player” or “server,” there are a number of products out there that all play music 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 these products, but aren’t.
Buying music, researching artists and looking at images of artists and albums is dependent on the one thing that modern audio components just don’t offer: a web browser. They can connect to the web and your home network so that you can move your music onto the device, but no true direct web access from the device itself is a pretty large hole in the features of what they attempt to call a server.
It takes a true, dedicated music server like a Wolf, running a real Operating System to give you the power and versatility to do the things that you would think come naturally for a modern 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 our local 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 and play it on the Red Wolf server. (Being a YouTube clip, the sound was lacking but we were able to find the track in seconds.) Using the 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 – all from the comfort of the stereo room. 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 is best described as more, much 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 audio component that sits at the head of some of the best and most beautiful stereo rooms.
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 to keep it sounding good. 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 functions it is able to provide to the component. Add a slightly modified version of Linux and an output stage and you have modern audio streamers and players – 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 HiFi technology sector. 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 that a true, dedicated audio server comes with natively.
Our focus is on audio performance, we will never abandon that all important goal. But Wolf servers are powerful systems, and all the R&D we have done to create the best audio server on the market yielded impressive results in other areas. We saw significant improvements in the quality of multichannel audio and video, so much so that we decided it was worth dedicating some development time to getting our video dialed in. We used the Oppo 105 series as our benchmark and tuned and tweaked until we couldn’t tell the difference. We aren’t exactly new to computer based video either. Among our ranks are a professional documentarian, and an engineer who hasn’t had cable, only servers since the early 2000’s. Our servers not only support video, but have grown to function as the heart of home theater systems in our and many customers homes, playing Blu-ray, DVD, downloaded video, Streaming video, home movies and more. This also means that you can play Blu-ray Audio discs like Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day or Sweet Summer Sun, the Rolling Stones return to Hyde Park – 44 years after their first show there. It is an amazingly shot concert, and definitely impressive in its sound recording quality… we typically show at least ten minutes of it when we demo our systems to friends and family. We love to see the stunned looks on their faces. It is that impressive a show. And add to these capabilities all the DVD-Audio titles out there, the mid-2000’s answer to the emerging Hi-Res Audio market. We love these titles because they allowed artists and bands to go a little bit further with multimedia, to use their imagination and creativity to give a bit more to their listeners than just the music. There is neat art to be found on those DVD-A discs, some notes, Rough Mixes, etc. If you own a receiver, you can use one of two HDMI ports on the Wolf to deliver bit-streamed audio like DTS HD-Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD and Atmos to your system. Multichannel audio itself can be really exciting, and we enthusiastically support it. When done properly, hearing your favorite album reworked in a 5 or 7 channel mode can be an amazing experience. Die-hard two channel enthusiasts have been shocked at just how much detail and realism can be extracted from the track – those small elusive details that you had to really listen for are now front and center. Originally envisioned for film and theater reproduction almost 80 years ago, multichannel audio has seen minor commercial success in Quadraphony, but technology is now advancing to the point where a musician can create 11.2 channel mixes, and beyond. The results can be astounding, and we really recommend trying it out.
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 adding video capabilities into the Wolf is a major step up over the streamers and players out there, it still takes more to make a server. One of our favorite functions of the Wolf systems happens outside of the stereo room: we can distribute music and video anywhere in the home – while you are listening to music. And, it has no effect on sound quality, your music won’t suffer wherever you watch or listen – even if streaming Hi-Res Audio to multiple rooms.
We also store our children’s 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 simply 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 becomes a very compelling product to everyone from audiophiles who want a component that will “just play the music”, 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 doubled 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, SHN 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 to create 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 the device, and then having to manage it all through a tablet – no keyboard, no mouse, the way they wanted you to do it, not the way you were already comfortable doing things. 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, it might be called a server, but it isn’t. We’re confident you’ll find our servers to be truly special components that meet your most demanding standards – as much as they meet ours. If you’ve finished reading this article, mention it and we’ll give you a free upgrade when you purchase.