Cary MS-1 Digital Music Server/Player Review 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Friday, 22 October 2010

A few years ago I asked my woodworking brother to build a cabinet to house my collection of compact discs. The result was a striking, wall-sized unit replete with gorgeous wood grain and a welcome addition to an otherwise drab basement. Here I could store more than one thousand discs, catalog them alphabetically by artist for easy retrieval and show off my collection for anyone who cared to investigate. But as the months went on and more CDs came into possession, the once-hulking shelf drew full to capacity and stacks of discs began to “decorate” various rooms in my house. I again struggled to keep my music organized and accessible. There had to be a better way.

Always a latecomer to technology, I stayed away from computer-related audio and things such as digital music servers until 2009. I was content keeping my CD collection archived on a couple external hard drives and occasionally calling up the files to play through iTunes or Songbird. Otherwise, I was too busy playing discs on a stand-alone player or spinning vinyl, but the sprawl of plastic cases and respective contents desperately needed reorganizing.

I liked the idea of a dedicated music server, particularly one that put sonics top priority, but I also wasn't ready to compromise for hard drive space. While 100 or 250 gigabytes once seemed as boundless as the pre-settled prairies, it wasn't enough to contain the kraken-like beast of my CD library. Five hundred gigs wouldn't even get it done; 750 gigs was getting close but like police chief Brody exclaimed, upon first seeing the giant Great White shark he and the crew of the Orca were out to find, “You're gonna need a bigger boat.” I needed a bigger drive; a 1 terabyte drive. And, I wanted great sound. Enter the MS-1 Music Server from Cary Audio Design.

Design

The MS-1 ($2,500) is Cary's first entry into the digital server market. This isn't just a spiffed-up hard drive, but an audiophile-grade digital server with a 1 terabyte SATA hard drive capable of storing music data from approximately 2,800 compact discs in lossless FLAC format. It also can output high-resolution audio, up to 24-bit/96 kHz over USB, and comes ready to tap into SHOUTcast Internet Radio and its network of more than 40,000 stations. Cary designed the MS-1 to work with an Apple iPhone/iPod Touch or iPad Touch; any of the three devices can serve as the system's remote control and display.  

MS1 Front View
The MS-1 sports a silver aluminum faceplate backed with a brushed black chassis. It weighs 8 pounds and is slightly deeper than wide, measuring 3.5 inches high, 11 inches wide and 12.5 inches deep. Four hard rubber feet anchor the server. The minimalist front features a single blue LED light, indicating power on, a single 24x slot-loading drive that accepts discs and a button to eject discs just beneath the CD slot. The rear panel has two USB 2.0 outputs, one Ethernet 10/100/1000 port and AC IN for power.

The MS-1 behaves like any other audio component: It turns on via a power button on the rear panel, which activates the server and a blue LED light signaling game time. Press the power button once more and the unit shuts down. It worked perfectly for me.

Set Up

Setting up the MS-1 requires two additional pieces of gear: the aforementioned Apple “remote” and a USB-compatible digital-to-analog converter. Cary recommends pairing the MS-1 with its own Xciter Series USB DAC. I've read good things about Cary's DAC (retailing for $1,499), and I'm confident it would take this unit to another sonic level, but for this review I paired the MS-1 with HRT's Music Streamer II, a USB DAC that sells for just under $150. More about the sound later. One last component to complete the kit is the MS-1 Remote App, available for free through iTunes. Cary's Billy Wright was kind enough to include a loaner iPod already loaded with the app for this review. Otherwise, a simple search for Cary Audio in the iTunes App Store will get you going.

The MS-1 requires wireless and wired access to a network. This is a simple matter of connecting the server to a router, whereby the MS-1 retrieves an IP address and connects to the network. Wireless access allows control via an iPod, etc. An Internet connection is necessary for accessing SHOUTcast; no connection is needed to play music from the MS-1 itself. For the final “audio” connection, I ran a USB 2.0 cable from the MS-1 to the HRT. Lastly, I connected the Streamer to my amplifier using standard RCA interconnects.

All that's left to do is establish remote control:

1.    Select the Cary Audio App on the Apple device
2.    Press “Settings” button
3.    Select “Discover Servers”
4.    Select server, wait for a checkmark to appear next to the server name
5.    Press “Done”

Now, via the respective remote device, the music library is accessible and at your command.

 

In Action

The first thing to do is load the MS-1 with some music. Simply insert a compact disc into the CD slot and the server will begin copying. When complete, the MS-1 automatically ejects the disc and searches the Internet to retrieve album and artist name, along with song names and album art. 

By default, the MS-1 copies all music data as FLAC files. I like that the MS-1 makes FLAC its native file format, as it protects the fidelity of original recordings while preserving drive space. The server is also designed to play MP3, OGG, AAC, WAV, M4A and WV files, and I also discovered it will play AIF files, too, though sometimes with a slight hiccup between songs. All the discs I fed the machine were copied perfectly, but the unit isn't particularly speedy transferring audio, even with its 24x slot-loading drive.  For example, The Band's self-titled 1969 release (with bonus track) contains roughly 48 minutes of audio. Via the MS-1, the disc took 8 minutes and 20 seconds to copy. Through iTunes, as uncompressed AIFF, the same disc took 2 minutes 55 seconds. Using MAX, a program that converts WAV files to FLAC, took 3 minutes. Ripping music from an outside source may be faster initially, but you still have to get the files onto the MS-1 before playback so by the time you transfer outside files into the server the score mostly evens out. 


The MS-1 relies on two metadata services – FreeDB and MusicBrainz – to obtain album information. I was less than impressed with the retrieval, as many albums were tagged as “Unknown”; others, such as The Flower Kings' Stardust We Are and the previously mentioned album from The Band displayed incorrect album art. The former showed cover art from The Rod Stewart  Sessions 1971-1998 box set, the latter displayed The Band Perry's 2010 self-titled release. Across the board, it was hit or miss regarding album info and artwork. Rather obscure releases including Miller Anderson's Bright City, Quicksand's Home Is Where I Belong and Kayak's Merlin were tagged accurately including album art. Thus, I found it strange when Van Morrison's Beautiful Vision and ELO's On The Third Day were relegated to the land of unknown albums. If you want to edit and make corrections, it's necessary to first copy the album to your computer, manually tag the album and then copy it back to the MS-1. That may not sound like a big deal, but if you're suddenly faced with a dozen or more “Unknown” albums it becomes a hassle. The last thing you want to face is a sea of unlabeled albums and tracks, unless you like guessing. My advice: deal with any Unknowns immediately; tag the tunes and drop 'em back into the server and be done with it.

Managing the files on the MS-1 can done either through a Web interface or FTP. Both are accessed using the IP address from the Settings menu on the respective remote control device. Cary supplies username and password to login. Once connected to the interface, it's simple to highlight folders and files to delete any unwanted data.

Manually transferring and/or backing up music is accomplished via FTP and/or USB. Though the owner's manual includes a screenshot of the local file system and MS-1 file system, it doesn't completely explain the upload process. If, for example, you select a file (album) from the Local Site and add it to the upload queue, the music ends up in the File System Source folder. It's not a big deal, but albums in that realm don't display album art – they're treated as if untagged. The artist/album/tracks will still be identified, though. One other note regarding tagging: WAV files can't be tagged as such, so any such music by default can be accessed only via the SOURCES/FILE SYSTEM menu.

If you have a hard drive already full of music, the MS-1 can automatically sync with an external USB drive to import it. Likewise, the MS-1 can sync to backup its contents to an external drive. Cary recommends leaving the server and USB drive connected overnight to ensure complete file transfer.

The Sound

Before discussing the sound of the music, I'll mention what you'll hear from the server itself. Overall operation is very quiet. If you press your ear to the MS-1, you can hear a low level hum. I never found it loud enough to detract or distract from listening. Sometimes, it will make a sound that I can only describe as “computer-ish,” like a PC that's processing information.

The real “sound” - the sound of music – is excellent. The MS-1 performs comparably to like-priced CD players, with a natural and neutral tone that's easy to listen to for hours and hours. Former Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones released a dazzling album in 2002 called The Thunderthief. It's a smorgasbord of heavy rock, bone-crunching bass and keyboard riffs and wildly imaginative arrangements. The opening track, “Leafy Meadows,” features a monster bass groove that thumps beneath the dervish-like guitar lines of King Crimson's Robert Fripp. The MS-1 delivered the right combination of power and finesse, allowing the head-spinning music to flow with controlled fury.

Stan Getz's Jazz 'Round Midnight is a collection of the saxophonist at his mellow best, swaying with a bossa nova groove that would have Frank Sinatra snapping his fingers and Jackie Gleason pouring another martini. The last thing this music deserves is harsh treatment, abraded by digital tizz. No worries here. Getz's breath through his horn comes out during accents in tunes such as “When The Sun Comes Out” while the creamy richness of his tone never gets lost.

Rear View

I've sung the praises of HDtracks and the company's high-resolution FLAC downloads. And it's here that the MS-1 clearly separates itself from conventional compact disc players. I love being able to have 24/96 audio files at my ready, and The Kinks' Misfits is one of the sparkling offerings from HDtracks that I was able to enjoy via the MS-1. The fidelity is superb, and the MS-1 responds in kind. Other outfits, such as Bowers & Wilkins and Linn Records, are making high-res downloads available, and the MS-1 eliminates the need to burn these tracks to DVD for archiving or playback.

My “wow” moment with the MS-1 fully came when listening to Wishbone Ash's Argus. I've heard this album hundreds of time; still, I was shocked to hear the opening guitar lines of “Time Was” come through with such pristine and immediate presence. There was a sense that I was no longer listening to a recording, but Andy Powell and Ted Turner's individual guitar amps. Just when I thought I knew every nuance and accent, the doors opened for more. For me, that's what it's all about.

The MS-1 can even make MP3s sound better. I avoid these tinny and compressed files whenever possible, but as an experiment I converted a few CDs to MP3 files and handed them over to the MS-1. First up, from the depths of my disc archives, was the Norwegian folk-rock band Folque. The group's 1977 release, Vardoger, is a superb effort featuring the stirring vocals of Lisa Helljesen and the swift string work of fiddler Trond Villa. The songs may be sung in Norwegian, but the music echoes early '70's Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Heard via the MS-1, I didn't feel cheated sonically like I often do with so many lossy files. In reality, the MS-1 deserves better but it's nice knowing it can get down in the trenches and still deliver the goods.

Not to gloss over the almost unlimited music options via SHOUTcast. If you tire of listening to your own collection or just want to investigate other artists, the MS-1 makes it easy. Where else but Internet Radio will you hear “Amazing Grace” sung in Cherokee on a Celtic station? That's just one of the many delights I found, when I stumbled upon Talitha MacKenzie's stunning take on a well-worn hymn. That and hundreds of stations spanning every musical style are at your fingertips.

Final Thoughts


Can the MS-1 replace a CD player? In some ways, it can replace 2,799 single-disc CD players. A common theme among reviewers of digital music servers is that of “rediscovery.” When an overflowing music library becomes organized and accessible at the touch of a screen, such rediscovery is not only inevitable, it's justification for building and keeping a collection. Fill up the MS-1, sit back and enjoy the music. But remember to give your CD player an occasional wave. It's likely to get lonely.



System Setup

  • Cary Audio MS-1 Music Server
  • Belkin Pro Series USB 2.0 Cable
  • HRT Music Streamer II
  • Grant Fidelity A-348 Integrated Tube Amplifier
  • Snell Acoustics Type K Loudspeakers
  • Better Cables Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables  
  • Better Cables Silver Serpent Anniversary Edition Interconnects 
  • Apple iPod Touch
  • A huge stack of CDs





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