Review: Music Vault Diamond Transport


Category: Digital

I recently purchased Neal van Berg’s Music Vault Diamond, a music server designed to output files at any available resolution up to and including 24/192. I had set a number of criteria that were essential, and a few other ‘nice to have’ features. The essentials:

1) Capable of handling high resolution files
2) AES/EBU output
3) Automatic backup
4) Highest quality sound card, preferably Lynx AES 16
5) Quiet

The only feature that I would like to have had – and which the Music Vault lacks – is a touch screen of the quality of Sooloos or Qsonix. This, of course, would have added quite a lot to the cost, and in any event Neal argues that a large screen is a potential sound reflector and should be avoided. Instead, control is via a netbook running either Media Monkey or iTunes at the customer’s discretion. An internet connection must be provided. In my case, I had no such connection available, but a Netgear Powerline adaptor proved to be an easy, reliable, and comparatively inexpensive solution. As for the netbook itself, I’m quite happy with the screen quality, but am less enamored with the touch pad. Let me make it clear that I’m one of those who finds any laptop touch pad to be a real pain, so this is a personal issue. Those of you who are more comfortable with these will likely be quite happy with it. Meanwhile, I’ve tried a conventional mouse (needs a flat surface with some space, obviously), a graphics tablet (initially very nice, but ultimately lacking), and finally a wireless trackball (the best solution by far).

The Music Vault itself is a compact, stylish-looking cube. The Diamond is provided with an output cable bundle that seems to be able to handle any type of connector, including of course AES/EBU. Setup is extremely easy – put the unit in place, connect to the Powerline, run the digital cable to the DAC, and attach the power cable. Power up, wait 2-3 minutes, and turn on the netbook. That’s all there is. It has worked flawlessly from day one. As Neal advertises, it is very quiet, with one exception. The fan tends to run at high speed while ripping a CD. If you are simultaneously doing so and listening to low level music, it can be a bit bothersome. However, I stress that this is the only time you can hear the fan in operation.

Although I am a confirmed Mac user when it comes to my (non-audio) computers, I chose Media Monkey as the primary interface due to its capability for automatic resolution switching. Any iTunes user will need no more than 5 minutes to get used to Media Monkey.

The Sound

In order to provide points of reference, I’ll describe my recent digital gear. But first, let me say that I have been – and to a certain degree remain – a vinyl junkie. Over the years, I’ve probably averaged about 80% LP and 20% CD/SACD, and the digital was there largely for music unavailable on vinyl.

I owned an Ayre C-5xe universal player for nearly 3 years and was generally quite satisfied with it. For the most part, SACD was and is a significant step towards eliminating the digital nasties that typically caused me to fire up the turntable after 30 minutes or so. Redbook CD was as good as I’ve heard from any player, meaning not great.

After reading the rave reviews on the Berkeley Audio Alpha, I placed an order for one with the provision from the dealer that I could return it if it didn’t work out. After a two month wait, the DAC arrived, and it became clear after a very short listening session that a whole new world of digital music reproduction was available. I paired the Alpha with a high quality transport (Accustic Arts Drive), connected by a Purist Audio Aqueous AES/EBU. The immediate reaction was ‘where has the upper mid and high end grain gone?’.

The emergence of functional music servers and the persistent claims from well respected ears that music coming off a hard drive sounds superior to the same disk playing on a transport led to a search for an extremely high quality solution at a reasonable price. As I stated previously, I’m a fan of Macs, so this was an obvious potential route. However, my personal insistence on the Lynx sound card would have required a Mac Pro, plus at least one additional hard drive for backup, plus the backup software, plus either a monitor, or an iPhone or similar for control. In other words, the costs were adding up to the point where I wasn’t feeling great about the DIY solution. There were other options too numerous to mention, and to which I’ll not devote space. Then I read about the Music Vault products. In the Diamond, I apparently had a fully designed and tested unit that met all of the essential criteria. I spoke to Neal van Berg on the telephone and exchanged several emails, and of course ended up ordering a Diamond.

As I still had the transport, I was able to do a direct comparison of playback from it and from the server. I can confirm that there is a significant difference in sound between the two, with the superior sonics invariably coming from the server. I’ll get into the details in a moment, but will first offer a couple of sweeping generalizations.

1) Redbook CD (i.e. 16 bit, 44.1 kHz) reproduction through the Diamond is at least as good as, if not better than, SACD was through the Ayre C-5xe. This includes, of course, the CD layers of hybrid disks. I have many SACD recordings with which I am intimately familiar, and can state this without reservation. I can also say with certainty that a great deal of the improvement is due to the Berkeley DAC, but that this is most certainly not the whole story, because the same CD layer played from the transport vs. that reproduced from the Diamond shows a clear improvement in favor of the latter.

2) High resolution files, such as those from Reference Recordings, provide absolutely the most natural music reproduction I have ever experienced, bar none.

Not being a engineer, it’s unclear to me why music played back from a hard drive should be so much better than that from a high quality transport. Yet, my ears say that it is so, so I’ll avoid the theory and simply describe what I hear.

First and foremost, I admit to a strong bias towards audio gear that provides a great 3D soundstage with rock stable spatial cues. Unlike every other digital source I’ve ever experienced, the Diamond has this in spades. In this regard, it is very LP-like. I would argue that a proper soundstage (assuming that it’s been correctly recorded and engineered) is a fundamental requirement for creating the illusion of audio reality. The Diamond is capable of telling you exactly what sort of venue in which a recording was made. Unfortunately, it will also tell you the difference between a natural soundspace with correctly recorded ambience, and artificially added echo. I have more than a few recordings where I had previously thought the former was the case, but the server/DAC clearly reveals engineering shenanigans. Regardless, I’ll take the honest reproduction any day.

The utter lack of upper midrange and high frequency grain is the other great triumph of the Diamond/Alpha combination. I have literally hundreds of CDs which I had written off as unlistenable. These are largely from the 80s and early 90s, and, while it’s clear that they do have some very fundamental problems, most are quite tolerable now. The apparent harshness and glare that made these disks so unpleasant has been reduced considerably. More recent disks, on the other hand, are now allowed to shine. I find myself saying repeatedly “wow, where did that come from?”. Suffice it to say that I’m enjoying all of my digital music far more these days.

One of the real acid tests for digital is the violin, particularly massed violins in an orchestral setting. The inability of conventional CD players to reproduce these in anything like a fluid, glare-free manner was the single greatest reason for my personal propensity towards running over and pulling out the nearest LP. The Diamond/Berkeley has changed all of that. Apart from a few disks, those same violins are now heard ranging from “quite pleasant” to “stunningly gorgeous”. Color me extremely impressed.

I won’t go into the detail of examining each section of the musical spectrum. All of the traditional strengths of digital are present, and all of the traditional weaknesses are essentially eliminated. What more could one ask?

A primary reason for going the music server route was the ability to play back high resolution files. There seems to be a movement towards providing downloadable music in at least 24/96 format, while Reference Recordings’ HRX copies are available by physical disk only. I have now acquired four of these, and each and every one is at least an order of magnitude above its HDCD counterpart. One must pick and choose carefully, as they are definitely expensive at $45 each. We can only hope that the trend towards selling high selling resolution music in one form or another will continue.

Finally, I’ll touch on one very obvious selling point for the music server, namely the convenience factor. I hate searching through shelves of CDs to find a particular title. Those days are over. Media Monkey provides a decent, though slightly clunky, interface which makes that search vastly easier. True, the automatic information download from freedb.org will occasionally come up with missing track information or cover art, but it’s comparatively rare. Of course, this is not the Diamond’s fault, but is a consideration for anyone contemplating a move to a music server. Other than that, it’s all quite functional.

To summarize, the Music Vault Diamond, along with the Berkeley Alpha, has elevated my digital listening experience far beyond expectations. I stated early in this review that perhaps 20% of my listening time was devoted to digital reproduction. I would estimate that this figure is closer to 60% now. This, from a long time vinyl fan, is the highest possible recommendation.

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System
curriemt11
Dob,

I'll let Neal answer your technical questions if he cares to do so. I'll only say that there are no hints of either graininess or jitter in this latest version of the Diamond. The operating system loads much more quickly, presumably due to the solid state drive. As for heat dissipation, I can state that the unit is slightly warm to the touch in operation, but that's it. So, theory notwithstanding, the Diamond as it stands is all I could ask for and more.

Mike
Hi Dob,

Thank you for the nice compliment about my contributions to Audio.

Clearly the sound of the Music Vault Diamond or any of my Music Vaults is not grainy. I don't have any other comment on that but to remind all the observers of this forum that a power supply should look like it has infinite current at its specified voltages. In the Case of a PC based music server like the Music Vault those voltages are 12 and 3.3 volts. Now while 400 watts ins't close to infinite it can produce around 30 Amps at 12 volts which is way more than is necessary hence to the Music Vault it is close to infinite.
For those of you who are not electrical engineers or physicists the voltage acts like a pressure forcing electrons through a circuit, the higher the voltage the greater the force. The advantages of a switching supply are:
smaller size, smaller transformer and if designed correctly operates at a lower temperature than a linear supply.
Certainly the switchers can produce electrical noise if designed incorrectly but that is not the case with the Seasonic supply in the Music Vaults.

Perhaps the problem You had with your Seasonic, or if you are repeating something you read the person with the problem and his Seasonic was really due to his supply voltage and choice of power cable. I have found that using the same manufacturers power cable with the Music Vault and the DAC provide the best sound. I strongly endorse the Kaplan Cable
HE Mk II, (at around $500 for a 3 foot power cable) gets the best out of the Music Vault with the Zodiac DACs.
http://www.kaplancable.com/he-mk2-power-cords.html,
I sell the Kaplan cables as they are the best I have ever experienced in my system.

No matter what combination of cords, I have never heard a grainy sounding Music Vault.

I am very careful to set all the buffers to their correct values in the music playback chain, insufficient buffering can cause many problems including jitter and a grainy sound.

The Music Vaults today are built around a Dual Core Amd processor which are more than powerful enough to play music without problems.

The Music Vault is an engineered device that works, I can easily believe that home builders can have problems but I have over many iterations ended up with what clearly is one of the worlds best sounding digital sources.

I don't get very many complaints about the Music Vaults and when I do it is never because of the sound. It is usually issues people have with the playback software or Logmein.

It is true that I don't have external heat sinks on the Music Vaults, that is because the enclosures I use now are well ventilated and the Microprocessor has a passive heat sink. What is important here is that the hot air coming off of the microprocessor heat sink must rise and escape the cabinet and it does.

I have recently added a case fan that works at 9 Hz so is inaudible and this has helped greatly keep the inside temperature at a very good level. The fan is not needed but is there as safety mechanism.

If any of you want to own a Music Vault but are unsure if you will like the sound in your system, you may purchase a Demo unit for a week or two and if you don't love it return it for a money back guarantee. You will only be out shipping costs.
I hand build each Music Vault and they are often customized for an individuals personal requirements. I don't offer refunds on new units but a demonstration unit is available with a money back guarantee.

I don't monitor this forum on a regular basis but if anyone wishes to contact me I am at neal@soundsciencecat.com and my website is www.soundsciencecat.com
Hello Neal,

Thank you kindly for your reply. Its always very nice when manufacturers participate in audio forums and we can learn a lot from their contributions. Thank you.

I think your idea of adding fan at 9 Hz is great (I have similar two fans) and if you will make them temperature triggered it will be even (slightly) better for most AMD processors.

Regarding Seasonic... you are absolutely right in that you want to produce highest possible current but if that would be sole purpose for the power supplies, pwoplw would use not 400 watts ones but 4,000 watts... Nobody does it and for the reason. Despite Seasonic been accepted as one of the best switching power suppies on audio forums, the fact remain that it is switching.....power supply and as such has high-frequency noise (albeit less then other switching PSU)... this noise cause graininess.

I apologize by using absolute ategory as "grainy sound" as there is "grainless sound". All electronically reproduced music has "grain" some more...some less...some much, much less. So when I said that Seasonic produce "grainy sound" I had to say "more grainy" or even "much more grainy" as compared to high quality linear power supply. There are number of such e.g. by Red Wine, Teddy Pardo, King Rex, Empirical Audio, Spectron Audio etc. Of course they cost substantially more then $130 Seasonic so may be to match inexpensive AMD processor Seasonic is the best...

I would strongly suggest to all users of Seasonic or other switching power supply (e.g. in regular computer) who utilize USB output to get outboard inexpensive plug-in "USB power regenerator" so your USB signal will carry minimum noise. They cost about $200 and are great investment to improve performance of your server and one can hear or do not hear it.

Thank you again Neal - I deeply appreciate your post where I can see confirmation of where I was right or wrong - it is great help.
Interesting to me is the manufacturer's suggestion to use a $500 power cable to feed a $100 power supply.

I have had the opportunity to listen to many (too many) variations of power supplies and other computer parts assembled into music servers. As far as switching supplies go, I did like the Seasonics I auditioned. As far as power supplies go, I do not like switching supplies. In absence of a clean alternative to use for comparison, a switching supply sounds clean. The grain become painfully apparant when compared to an ultra-clean linear supply.

Please, keep in mind, this is not an attempt to start a theoretical debate. Although, IEEE now has ample evidence (theoretical and empirical) about low-end power supplies and erroneous data transfers. (Trust me, a $120 PSU is low-end.)

What this is, actually, is a call to action. Educate yourselves on the underlying physics of computer audio if you like - digital signals are ultimately electrical currents that are derived from the power supply that feeds the circuits. Dirty supply = dirty playback signal.

Even better than that, though: LISTEN. Get yourself a high quality linear PSU installed into your digital system and let your ears decide.

As a veteran programmer, I was the biggest skeptic that the PSU in the digital domain could affect the sonics of my system. I listened, and I must say, I am a changed man.

I loved my Teddy Pardo running an ATOM based system, but it didn't hold up in my high end rig. Core Audio's unit sounded quite nice (forget the model) for a short while until it "burnt up" and they wouldn;t refund my money. I tried 4 different "industrial" style linear supplies with varying results. It's difficult to find a high quality linear supply with sufficient current for a high-end digital system. I do not know if the supply is publicly available (I had to ask) but the Musica Pristina unit with a Bybee Labs Music Rails filer is out of this world.

.
Dear Dob,

Your grain(y) sound definition doesn't really hold any water for me and I know you haven't heard a Music Vault Diamond just like Kdubious hasn't heard the Kaplan cables.

There must be other forums on Audiogon that discuss the virtues or lack of them on cables.

No one hates it more than I do that I can hear the differences in power cables.

In my previous corporate life I was trained by the HP Agilent Power Supply Engineers for 2 weeks in New Jersey. These guys design some of the finest purest power supplies available. They would be very entertained by what passes as power supply gospel around here.