Music in the Round #95: Wolf & NAD

Although I no longer attend the audio pageant that was once the annual Consumer Electronics Show, I now seem to be traveling more, in hopes of recapturing the excitement CES had once provided. Last May I attended High End, in Munich, and found that while it was entirely as advertised, there was, alas, not enough emphasis on the playback of high-resolution files, and hardly any attention paid to multichannel music.

So when Andy Quint of The Abso!ute Sound invited me to join him and Brian Moura, technical advisor to NativeDSD and Channel Classics, for a seminar, "Multichannel Music: The Promise and the Problems," at last October's 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I figured we could do something to promote multichannel playback—and I would also be able to attend RMAF for the first time. I said yes.

I enjoyed the venue, the vibe, and all the enthusiasm —but again, other than our seminar (footnote 1), there was almost nothing at RMAF 2018 about multichannel. Still, I was gratified by the genuine interest in and/or commitment to multichannel of our audience of a couple dozen—it was the highlight of my trip.

Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3 HFAS+ Apex
I've reviewed a long string of capable music servers in this column over the years, but few have been able to meet the demands of the three-headed serpent: 1) multichannel playback of 2) hi-rez files with 3) digital signal processing (DSP) for format conversions and/or equalization (EQ). Yes, many can do any two of these well, but I need all three to be done very well, and simultaneously. Signs of marginal inadequacy are occasional ticks, like scratches on a damaged LP; gross inadequacy is indicated by audible signal interruptions.

Chief Brody, from Jaws, had it right: "You're going to need a bigger boat": bigger, faster computers. They're getting cheaper all the time, and yet market pressures have dictated the use of CPUs and RAM that are capable of no more than two-channel music playback, because that's what the audio public demands. To spend more for the niche market of multichannel sound makes little sense. On the other hand, computer technology developed for the gaming and home theater PC market suits the multichannel server market to a T—there are now high-powered but silent computers that meet the demands I've enumerated, as well as those needed as video servers.

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One provider of such is Wolf Audio Systems, a Florida-based company that offers a wide range of silent servers. What particularly appealed to me was their use of an eighth-generation, six-core i7 processor that in theory should be an advance over earlier CPUs. Because they offer their products in so many combinations and permutations, I studied Wolf's website to see how I might want the server configured, and spent a lot of time exchanging e-mails and phone calls with the company's Joe Parvey. In the end, we settled on an Alpha 3 HFAS+ Apex for $7195. (HFAS stands for High-Fidelity Audio Server.) It included the i7-8700 CPU, 32GB RAM, a 256GB SSD for system drive, a 2TB SSD for internal storage, a TEAC Blu-ray transport, and standard shielding and isolation internals. To that we added the Flux Capacitor USB I/O with a 24MHz, OXCO-controlled clock for isolated and stable flow of stereo and multichannel data ($750). The Alpha 3 HFAS+ Apex also supports native 4K, 60p video as well as 4K and HDR output. It runs on Windows 10 and supports the JRiver Media Center, Roon, and Audirvana+ music players, as well as utilities for ripping, storing, and playing CDs, DVDs, and BDs. I used both JRiver and Roon, as the Audirvana option was not yet included when the review sample was sent.

All of this is packed into a silvery case. The disc slot and Eject button are at the upper right front of the faceplate, the power switch and LED at lower left, Wolf's logo at lower right. The rear panel shows the inputs and outputs of the GigaByte motherboard, whose two Ethernet jacks can support a household LAN as well as an independent audio LAN. In addition to the motherboard's six USB ports are two PCi boards providing four more USB ports. Of these four, two are on the optional Flux Capacitor card.

Inside, all is very neat, with absolutely no fans or moving parts other than the optical drive. The Alpha 3 was totally silent in operation, and ran cool enough that, even after long listening sessions, it was never more than slightly warmer than room temperature.

After connecting the Alpha 3 to keyboard, mouse, monitor, AC power, and Ethernet LAN, I booted it up. To run JRiver, I fiddled with the system's video setup to optimize my 27" screen, connected my DACs, uploaded and installed the ASIO drivers for the DACs, and pointed JRiver to the NAS where my music files are stored. I could have then let JRiver do its thing and create a new library that organized all content; it doesn't take that long. Instead, I just copied over the backup library from my regular server, to be certain that I wouldn't have to re-create any of my custom tagging information. Finally, I set up a JRiver zone for each DAC, and configured them accordingly. The Wolf played music.

I exited JRiver and opened Roon. This time, I directed the program to my NAS music directory and let it do its library/setup thing. That took a couple of hours—it was 20TB of music files—after which I told Roon about my DACs and how they were to be configured. Easy for me, but not everyone can or is willing to do this.

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Fortunately, Wolf includes a semi-customized and detailed user manual, as well as, via telephone and VPN, tech support in setting up the server to meet the user's needs. I tackled it all myself—I've done this many times—but ended up wrestling unnecessarily with a number of minor annoyances that could have been handled more easily had I been willing to ask for help. I strongly recommend that any purchaser take advantage of Wolf's tech support—configuring the hardware and software of the Alpha 3, or any PC-based music-server system, is a complex task, especially if you haven't done it before.

Because I was using my own music files, library, metadata, and monitor, it was no surprise that I felt at home, and listened for fun and for critical evaluation the same as always. Whether I was using an exaSound e38 multichannel DAC or the miniDSP U-DIO8 USB-to-S/PDIF converter with three Benchmark DAC3 HGC DACs, it was pretty glorious with JRiver and Roon. The Alpha 3 never blinked, blanked, or unceremoniously rebooted itself; it worked silently and reliably.

I wasn't very surprised—as long as it's quiet enough and fast enough, a computer properly configured for audio should make no difference in sound or operation. After all, the CPU does only math. The things that might make an audible difference in file playback are the player software, the DAC, and possibly the I/O connections. The Alpha 3 contained two components that deserve our attention. First is the i7-8700 Coffee Lake processor, which, while it might not change the sound, could determine how the Alpha 3 handles the difficult tasks of handling hi-rez, multichannel, and DSP without stumbling. Second is the Flux Capacitor USB output card, which could affect the sound.



Footnote: 1 The seminar was recorded in full and can be found here. Stereophile's coverage of the RMAF can be found here.

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