There was a time, not too long ago, when wireless music servers were essentially the province of computer geeks. While the inner workings of most music servers are still complex environments that only a computer nerd could love, the products have gotten much more user-friendly and affordable. Nowadays, a consumer has options ranging from under-$50 streamers to ultra-high-end units costing up into five figures. But how much do you need to spend to get a high-performance player that's robust, easy to use, and does not require a degree in computer science to set up?
The answer, according to ELAC, is $1,099--that's the MSRP of the DS-S101-G Discovery Music Server. This digital music streamer supports playback of files stored on both NAS and USB drives; AirPlay is built in, as are TIDAL and Internet radio streaming. It supports analog and digital output, with the option to send the same or different streams to multiple zones.
ELAC has partnered with Roon to supply the user interface. What is Roon? It's a software app for music playback that has a far richer and more complex tagging, identification, and interface than other playback applications. It also allows user to access multiple libraries, both online and on their network attached storage devices, and play them back over Roon Ready devices. Roon is a two-part system. Part one is called Roon Core, which manages your music collection from many sources and builds an interconnected digital library using enhanced information from Roon. The core can be your Mac or Windows PC or a server like the DS-S101-G. The second part is the Control App, which can run on Windows, OS X, Android, and Apple iOS devices. Roon developed the control software for all platforms out of a single code-base. The control infrastructure is designed to work identically whether you are sitting in front of a computer running a Roon Core or you are using another device on your network.
A growing number of audio players are now Roon Ready, meaning that the software can be added so that you can use Roon as your primary interface. Roon carries its own subscription cost ($119 per year or $499 lifetime). In this case, however, the DS-S101-G includes a subscription to Roon Essentials, a slightly less featured version of Roon.
So, is this diminutive rectangular box the future of high-performance digital and streaming audio? Let's see.
The DS-S101-G supports two separate and independent analog outputs that can play different program sources. It also has two digital outputs (Toslink and SPDIF) that support up to 24/192 PCM. Inputs consist of an Ethernet port and a USB connection for an external storage device. Digital formats supported include WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, OGG, MP3, and AAC--with 24/192 support for WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and ALAC files. DSD playback is not supported (that's one of the limitations of the less-featured Roon Essentials).
There's no control surface or user interface located on the server itself. You must control all functions using the Roon Essentials Control App for Android (4.4 or higher), iOS (iPhone 5s and later), OSX (10.8 or higher), or Windows (7, 8, or 10). When I received the product, I quickly realized that my iPhone 5 would not download the app because it was not 64-bit capable. My Android-based Fire HD 8 pad wouldn't load the app for the same reason. I was able to run the app using a loaner iPad and a Sony Experia tablet with no serious issues (regularly upon activation, the iPad would flash the error message of "no connection found" for several seconds before connecting successfully). I could also control the ELAC server using the Roon app on my MacBook Pro desktop and MacBook Pro laptop, but these were not as convenient as using a tablet or phone since they are located in different parts of the house.
After getting the Roon Essentials Control App up and running, I had several options to populate the ELAC server with music. I added my TIDAL subscription information, and the ELAC found my account quickly without incident. I also added the primary music folders on my QNAP NAS drive (you will need to have Twonky Media app active on your NAS). When I added new files to either my TIDAL favorite albums or my NAS, the Roon Essentials Control App showed them, up to a point. The ELAC/Roon configuration supports 30,000 individual music files in its database. After a few weeks, I had loaded more than 30,000 files, so the system could not add new music unless I deleted other files. (The 30,000-file limit is another limitation of Roon Essentials.)
Unfortunately, among the new files I wanted to add were many new MQA Mastered TIDAL releases, so I have no way of telling if the ELAC server will support MQA Mastered TIDAL files. Also, the current version of the Roon app does not show MQA masters among the album selection options, as does the just-released desktop TIDAL app--so, even if I had space to add the files to the ELAC's library, I could not do it through the ELAC's Roon Essentials Control App as currently configured. Hopefully a future firmware update will eliminate this issue.
The ELAC server also has options for adding Internet radio stations, although the current software is at "beta" level--it has no listings of its own but requires you to manually add the URL for the stations you want. This is not as convenient as other apps that include station lists, like iHeartRadio.
One feature I found especially useful was the pair of analog outputs that can be used in parallel (where they will send the identical signal to both) or as separate individual music streams. For those prospective buyers who would like to have three identical synchronized streams by using both analog and digital outputs, the digital stream will not be exactly synched with the analog. I used the second analog feed to supply a headphone amplifier, which increased my listening options. So, while you can't add rooms ad infinitum, such as with a Sonos or Muzo player, you can do three rooms if you don't need them all synched, or two if you do. Also for audiophiles who like to run A/B comparisons, the dual analog feeds afford an opportunity to hook up different amps and compare them.
The ELAC server supports multiple playback modes, including gapless, crossfade, random shuffle, and repeat.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...