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Cary MS-1 Digital Music Server/Player Review Print E-mail
Friday, 22 October 2010
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Cary MS-1 Digital Music Server/Player Review
Testing and Conclusion

ImageA 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.


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. 


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