List Price: From $720 depending on amount of storage selected
$821 as tested with 64 Gigabye Solid State Storage.
Dr. John Richardson
Ok you Stereomojo Cheap Bastards, here's one right in your wheelhouse! There are plenty of music servers out there with more appearing almost every day, it seems. They are certainly the hottest products on the market today with sales of CD players plummeting like gooney birds. The problem is that such servers are pretty pricey with prices running in the multiple thousands. Here's one that will only set you back $720 for starters. But, cheap isn't always the best choice or we'd all be driving Yugo's, right? So, let's see if this SFCB entry is worth even that paltry entrance fee.
1982 Yugo - Worst car ever made
I’d like to think that I was early to the computer audio game. I first became aware of the trend five or so years ago and have since then dealt with my fair share of usb DACs, firewire DACs, hard drive storage systems, computers, audio playback engines, and operating systems. I also own and use a music streamer, the Logitech Squeezebox, and I no longer have a compact disc player. However, like any new technology, the direction of things seems to change with the wind, and new, more advanced gadgets come available every week. When technology moves at such a rapid pace, keeping up can be hard to do.
One aspect of computer audio that I hadn’t yet explored was the one-box music server. While these have been on the market in some flavor or another for some time now, I’ve been more than content to go the “build it myself” route, piecing components together helter-skelter to get to a particular end. All that ended, however, a couple of months ago when the Pacific Valve Cyberserver was delivered to my doorstep.
Admittedly, I was a bit slow getting around to dealing with this newfangled black box. I was making my way through the pile of gear that had been sent to me for review post-RMAF, the holidays were at hand, and frankly, the new technology scared me a bit. When so frightened, what does one do? If you are like me, you start reading. I tried to find out all I could about this company, Pacific Valve, and its unique music server. From what I could determine, Pacific Valve imports, sometimes modifies, and then distributes audiophile gear of all types. Most of their stock appears to be sourced from the Far East, and they seem to specialize in digital playback gear. They even have a nice picture of a dog on their website who sports the name “Mr. Vic Trola.” You can Facebook with Mr. Vic and check out his blog. Cute.
So what’s the dope on this Cyberserver thing? A bit of research, along with viewing some u-tube videos provided by Pacific Valve brought me up to speed. What Pacific Valve has done here is to take a media entertainment console, the Netgear EVA 9100 Digital Entertainer Express, and modify it into a full-fledged audiophile quality music server. But why go to the trouble when there are so many other media server options out there? The folks at Pacific Valve liked the idea of computer audio and saw its promise, but they just couldn’t get their stock usb DACs to sound as good as their better compact disc players. They also wanted to work to a reasonable price point.
To get a bit more of an historical perspective, let me turn it over to Joe Kline, one of the principles at Pacific Valve, who let me in on the following. “We were quite dismayed by the sound of USB: the mid bass is nearly gone; there is a loss of bass definition, attack and decay… an over active upper midrange arc that is pronounced and causes fatigue. Something was definitely up with USB that we did not care for (besides) its limit to 16 bits, its lack of 96K capability and more importantly, its sound.”
“In 2007, Musiland produced something called the "Lilo" that was a USB converter with their own set of USB drivers. It was essentially a DSP unit with a console/equalizer where you could manage tone as well as bandwidth, dynamics, etc. The best thing about the LILO, was that it could manage 96K…from USB and promised better sound. Low and behold, it delivered. Then came the Monitor 01 and the HiTech products, which promised 192K. While these products sound great, they are really not ultra high end. We were listening through some SET amplifiers and electrostatic speakers and it still did not sound as good as some CD players. We did not give up faith; we were ripping bit perfect music… and if it was indeed bit perfect, then it should sound better than a CD player.”
“We took pen to paper and began to design our music server… With USB block I/O there was a pre-fetch of blocks containing music being placed into computer memory, where it is clobbered to death by the CPU board and graphics cards before it makes its way to the I/0 device. This is why a majority of USB streamers sound OK, but not great.”
“From our background in Unix / Linux, there is the concept of streaming I/O that simply reads a byte and writes a byte and never makes its way into computer memory. While primitive, it makes for great streaming music because it is fast and there is no transfer of music to any other computer board.”
In other words, the key (at least from the computer standpoint) is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Computers aren’t designed to do just one thing: they (and their operating systems) by necessity have to multitask… a lot. But give the computer only one main job, to stream music quickly and efficiently, and latency (which causes jitter) decreases dramatically. However, according to Joe, the computer wasn’t the only culprit.
Reading on: “The next barrier to latency was the hard drive itself and the magnetic field generated by its motor. Most rotating SATA drives are slow. You can purchase a fast (magnetic) drive… but it’s doing a forward fetch into memory and the motor is noisy. A solid-state drive is still 30% faster and has no motor. But, alas, you pay for this - SSDs are still expensive.”
“So we had our three ingredients: Streaming I/O, low OS overhead and a solid state drive. It was then that we saw this box from Netgear that streamed video and had a bay for a hard drive. Already familiar with Netgear products… we decided to give it a go… And CyberServer was born.”
As Joe went on to tell me, it wasn’t as easy as that. Several important modifications had to be made to the Netgear box to bring it up to Pacific Valve’s standards, including installation of a military grade solid-state hard drive, and all new firmware to accommodate, among other things, FLAC files and 192 kHz streaming. So what we have here is a highly modified and re-badged Netgear media distribution device that can be purchased in several configurations ranging in cost from $720 to $1402, depending on options such as hard drive size. I got the $821 option, which came with a 64 GB solid-state drive installed, a remote control, and a very nice Xindac DC-01 digital coaxial cable.
Looking at the CyberServer itself, we have a low profile black box of standard component width. The front panel is nondescript, sporting only a re-set switch and a single usb port. The rear of the box, however, is much busier; here we find video outputs (S-video, composite, component video, and HDMI) and both optical and coaxial S/PDIF digital audio outs. For interface with your computer, wherever that may be, CyberServer sports both Ethernet and wireless connectivity. I chose to use Ethernet, as my house is so wired. Why the video connectivity? Well, the original Netgear box was designed primarily as a multimedia server/streamer, so the emphasis was on video. This also means that the user must connect the box to an appropriate video monitor in order to access the menu required to navigate the system, even if it is being used only as an audio storage/playback device.
I spent a good bit of time looking over the enclosed owner’s manual to get a feel for what would be involved in setting the CyberServer up. I’m an Apple guy, and the manual was obviously aimed at Windows folks, so much of what was there meant little or nothing to me. It was as if I were reading a dead language… Sorry, just had to throw that in there! For me, instructions such as “Enable UPnP media sharing,” or “Obtain your router WEP key or passphrase” meant nothing. So I decided, in typical Apple fashion, to just throw in the installation disk and go for it! Fortunately, the installation seemed straightforward and seamless. I had initially hooked the CyberServer up to my downstairs multimedia system since a television monitor was conveniently there; the CyberServer essentially took over music playback duties from my Squeezbox. With very little ado, I was quickly moving files over from my main storage hard drives via Ethernet onto the solid-state drive on the Cyberserver and setting up my own playlists. All in all, I was up and running in less than a half hour…. Much less painful than I had originally anticipated! I think it took me longer to figure out how to best use the universal remote that was supplied to navigate the system. With the CyberServer feeding my Lavry DA-10 DAC, the music poured forth, filling my living room with big, glorious sound.
It is important to note here that the CyberServer is different from devices such as the Logitech Squeezebox. While the Squeezebox is a music streamer that routs bits real-time from a remote computer/hard drive system, the CyberServer is a self-contained processor/storage device. Its primary job is to store your music files on its own solid state hard drive and then pass them off to your DAC as quickly and efficiently as possible, thus minimizing latency-based jitter and presumably making your music sound better. All well and good in theory, but how did the CyberServer stand up in practice? Well, like any other audio component, I was able to fairly quickly come up with a list of pros and cons…. So here goes:
-The CyberServer is quiet… Dead quiet. I didn’t realize how much background noise a traditional magnetic hard drive makes until I experienced the solid-state drive on the CyberServer. Solid state drives are just that – no spinning disk, no jitter, fast as lightening. Yummy!
-As I mentioned above, given CyberServer’s hi-resolution video legacy, it is designed to stream data fast; part of this comes from the firmware, but part comes from the solid state drive that has no moving parts to muck data transfer up. Further, the bits aren’t affected by stray electromagnetic fields that lurk around regular spinning magnetic hard drives.
-CyberServer can handle data streams up to 192 kHz in a wide variety of different file formats, including FLAC, WAV, AIFF, WIMA, AAC, and LPCM, just to name a few.
-Setup was fast and easy, at least with my MAC Mini.
-Sounds great (more about this later)!
-You will need an external monitor with HDMI, S-video, or composite video capability to access CyberServer’s operating menu. In my case, this meant borrowing the small flat-panel television from our bedroom. My wife was not happy. For the owner, this means an added expense, unless you are tying into an existing multimedia system or you happen to have one sitting around.
-CyberServer’s hard drive has a relatively small capacity, with only 64 GB of storage in this model - the stadard seven hundred buck model has only 32 gigs. While this may seem like a lot, if you are dealing with hi-resolution media, you will use this up fast. I imagine that if I owned CyberServer, I’d treat this as a temporary storage vault for music that is in heavy rotation. In other words, if something is to be added, something else must go. Kind of like my brain these days. Pacific Valve is quick to counter that you can add more remote storage in the form of a NAS (network-attached storage) device. This option is costly: to add 512 GB of extra storage will set you back $2,243. Yep, you read that right, but again, that is solid state. You can also use a regular SATA USB hard drive that you can buy as cheap as $60 for over one TERRABYTE.
-While easy to comprehend and navigate, I found the user interface to be a bit buggy. For example, it would occasionally freeze up, not play music, and have to be restarted. Further, after a week or two in the downstairs system, I could no longer add music to the hard drive. No, it wasn’t anywhere near full; I checked using the disk utility. I could apparently write the file to the solid-state drive, but then not be able to find it! I checked with Joe Kline about this, and he mentioned that there had been a bug of that sort reported. I tried several of the methods he suggested for clearing this up, but to no avail. To Pacific Valve’s credit, Joe offered to send me an updated version of the firmware to hopefully correct the problem, but I declined as I felt that I already had enough music on the drive to move forward with the review.
-The user is limited to Pacific Valve’s built-in playback engine. If you happen to be wedded to a third-party engine such as Amarra or Pure Music, you are out of luck. Not that I’m really complaining here, as the built-in engine sounded just fine.
The Cyberserver does not include a DAC so you’ll have to buy one if you don’t already have one or a disk player that has a digital input like SP/DIF.
Finally- Sonic Impressions!
I was curious to find out if the Cyberserver really would be able to make my music sound better. The folks at Pacific Valve tell me that listening with CyberServer is like hearing your DAC for the first time. That’s a pretty tall claim. As I said before, my first foray with CyberServer was in my downstairs system, where it stayed for a couple of weeks playing background music while everyone in my family got on with life. My impressions were positive: the music was smooth and very pretty; in short, very easy and nice to listen to.
Would CyberServer hold up in my main system? How would it perform against my tweaked out computer audio storage/playback system? I couldn’t wait to find out. Once I got to the point of focusing in on this particular box, I decided that a shootout was in order.
Here’s what I did. I used my Eastern Electric DAC to decode bits for both the CyberServer and my house digital storage/playback system. My house system is comprised of a 500 GB Western Digital external hard drive, Mac Mini computer, Metric Halo ULN-2 (used as a firewire to S/PDIF converter), and whatever DAC I happen to have on hand at the moment (in this case, the Eastern Electric Minimax). I fed the S/PDIF out from my ULN-2 to the Eastern Electric DAC using the AES/EBU option, with Channel D’s Pure Music as my playback engine. For the CyberServer, the digital output was fed to the Eastern Electric DAC using the supplied Xindac coaxial cable, directly from the S/PDIF output on the Pacific Valve box. To compare the two systems, all I had to do was match levels and use the selector on the DAC to switch between sources. I was ready to let the games begin!
In all honesty, I really wasn’t expecting to hear much of a difference. I’m not saying that I thought Pacific Valve’s claims amounted to snake oil, I just didn’t think that the things that they emphasized would add up to that big a deal. But let me be clear: I did hear a difference, and a bigger one than I expected.
Specifically, the smoothness of presentation that I heard on the downstairs system carried up to the main system, but it was that much more pronounced, presumably due to the main system’s greater resolution. Here, smooth equates to effortless presentation, with no sense of edginess or smear. I almost hate to say it, but music through the Cyberserver/Minimax combo sounded a lot like really good analog… Yes, I did say that! At first I was concerned about the presentation being just a tad too polite, as if there were some detail not getting through at the expense of harmonic richness and apparent rounding of the edges of the notes. Further listening told me, however, that the detail was still there, but just not so much in my face. In other words, not forced on me in such a way that I got tired of listening quickly.
I was really quite shocked. I had never thought of the Eastern Electric DAC having any sense of edge or glare. Yet when I compared the two digital playback systems using that same DAC, I could hear the glare, and then not hear it. It was like I was turning a light switch on and off. Now don’t get me wrong, we are not talking nasty unlistenable sound here from my house system. In fact, it was very good; I’m just saying that there was an audible difference between my system and the CyberServer. If my system were to have had a bit of an advantage, it would be that I found it to sound a bit faster and more exciting. However, I’d say that the CyberServer won out overall, providing a bit more palpable, organic, and realistic listening experience.
All right, I suppose it is time for some specifics. An album that I got transferred to the CyberServer’s hard drive is Sir Lennox Berkeley conducting his chamber works with the London Philharmonic (24/96 vinyl transcription, Lyrita SRCS 74). While the entire album sounded just wonderful via the CyberServer, I focused in on a short piece, the fourth movement of the Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra. Here, I found the oboe to be a bit tonally richer, and the accompanying strings had a more realistic presence than I heard through my house system. It was as if the instruments, especially the oboe, sounded a little less electronic, mechanical, or angular. Again, that’s what happens when there is less of a digital fingerprint in the playback.
I heard similar improvements while enjoying the Lyrita recording of Imogen Holst conducting her father’s chamber works (24/96 vinyl transcription, Lyrita SRCS 34). All of the beauty of my early Decca stereo pressing came through in spades, except for the absence of tics and pops. On Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite for Strings, I reveled in the velvety sweetness of the solo violin, but I equally indulged myself in the crystal clear majesty of the massed lower string instruments. I felt that the CyberServer did an especially outstanding job of cleaning up digital artifacts at the frequency extremes; the string basses and cellos sounded absolutely real, and the violins had that velvety texture and natural extension that one hears in real life, or when listening to really well recorded music on a top-tier vinyl rig. What I really want to emphasize here is that the CyberServer managed to strip an audible layer of vestigal “digititis” from my otherwise excellent digital playback system.
After spending time with Pacific Valve’s CyberServer, I have mixed feelings. CyberServer is indeed sonically excellent. It is a more than viable way to store and play back one’s digital recordings, in a wide array of possible formats, at an exceptionally high level of refinement. However, I remain somewhat bothered by the interface and its glitches, as well as the limited size of the hard drive. Maybe a Windows OS would be a better fit, as it seems from Pacific Valve’s literature that the product is really aimed more at the PC market. I think that the real customer for the CyberServer, at least from my perspective, would be the person who wants to interface audiophile-quality music playback into an existing multimedia system. Given the CyberServer’s ability to also do hi-resolution video streaming, that one seems like a no-brainer. Plus, you would already have a high quality video monitor at your disposal.
Going back to some of the advertising on Pacific Valve’s website, one leaves with the idea that CyberServer is the only real option out there for the best quality digital playback. What do I think? Well, it terms of pure sound quality, it’s got to be right up there. However, I don’t think it’s the only viable game in town. I get the feeling that a lot of the advertising was written back when consumer computer audio was still a very young field. Compared to early usb DACS that lacked today’s sophisticated firmware, not to mention usb 2.0, CyberServer most certainly would have been a big step forward. However, as I said early on in the review, things change fast in this field, and the technology is constantly improving. Usb interfaces have been getting better and better with each passing year (or is it month?). When properly implemented, I believe that usb (or firewire) can be every bit as good or better than the best traditional digital transports. If I didn’t believe this, I’d still own a compact disc player. My feeling here is that the consumer needs to look at everything out there in his or her price range, listen to as many options as possible, and make the best choice based on what they hear.
I’m closing this review quite intrigued with the possibilities demonstrated by the CyberServer. What makes it sound so good? I’m guessing it’s the sum of the parts to make the whole. Even so, could I make my existing system sound incrementally better by storing my music (or even my OS) on a solid-state hard drive? Computer audio gurus such as Gordon Rankin (Wavelength Audio) and Steve Nugent (Empirical Audio) seem to think so based on their own findings and experimentation. And you can’t argue with Pacific Valve’s “less is more” philosophy when it comes to focusing the processor onto a single task. So if the CyberServer seems right for you in terms of its options and features, then I’d say “go for it!”
The Pacific Valve CyberServer music server is an intriguing device. It’s a single-box digital music storage/streaming device that feeds your favorite DAC via its coaxial S/PDIF interface. While the CyberServer sounded great in my system, offering lush, clean, analog-like sound, I found it to be a bit buggy in its user interface. Further, it is hobbled by the high cost and small capacity of its key component, the solid-state hard drive, but you can easily use other cheaper storage devices, but performance will most likely take a hit. But youhave to take into account the amazing speed of the deive on the first place.
Even so, within these limitations, I think the CyberServer (when coupled with a high quality DAC) gives us a taste of how state-of-the-art digital playback can sound at a very affordable, Cheap Bastards price!
Pacific Valve, it might be important to note, has been around for a long time and has a sterling reputation, dealing exclusively in imports from China and doing their own modifications to amps, DACs and the like. We have worked with them before on a review of their Doge 8 Preamp.They provide good customer service and do a good job of answering questions. They do have a rather restricted 30-day return policy with an 11% restocking fee, but they also have a 30 day "swap" deal that gets around that. Read their policies before you buy.
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