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Audio Servers and Wolf Audio

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Customer email newsletter dated: September 15, 2017.


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9/15/17

Audio Servers and Wolf Audio

 

The Audio Server, High-End Audio, and Wolf Audio
Long time readers of our Newsletters may be wondering why it’s taken us so long to jump on the audio server bandwagon. They’ve reached mainstream acceptance, there are dozens of brands out there to choose from, and they all seem to get great reviews, so why have we been so quiet? To be perfectly honest it’s because every experience we’ve had has left us flat. Most audio servers are quite competent performers, offering decent sound quality and varying degrees of user experience. But as dedicated audiophiles, we want high-end products that keep us up deep into the night. “Just one more track, then off to bed. Ok, just one more. Oooh, I’d forgotten about this song!” We want tingles up our spines, the hairs on our arms to rise; we want to be “there,” we want to time travel to the studio or concert venue, sucked into the performance. For years, we’ve been watching and listening, but we just hadn’t found anything aside from, perhaps, the $35k “Beast” from Swiss manufacturer ReQuest, that actually “moved” us. Until now.
 
 
Wolf Audio dishes up the finest audio servers to ever grace our sound rooms and our main system. Each server is built to order by a team of dedicated audiophiles. Based in Jacksonville, FL, Wolf Audio is a family company with a multigenerational background in computers, IT, and high-end audio. Unable to find a music server they deemed worthy of their hard-earned cash, they built their own. From scratch! They were building a machine for their own enjoyment, so no expense was spared, no corners were trimmed, they just wanted the very best server they could possibly make. Since cost was no object, they did what no R&D department would likely attempt by listening to dozens and dozens of different motherboards, myriad combinations of RAM and CPU, a bewildering array of storage devices, and when all that was done, they went to work on the power supply to make it vanishingly quiet and superbly robust. Remember, they were building this player for themselves, just as we would do, if we only had the time and the know-how. To make sure the whole family could use it, they burned the midnight oil for two years, creating a user interface easy enough to be intuitive for a non-computer user, but flexible and “deep” enough to satisfy a power user. Finally, after countless hours of listening and in-depth testing, they believed that had nailed it!

Showing it off to audiophile friends, the requests started pouring in, “Build one for me?” Soon, word of mouth far outstripped their circle of friends, and they had customers clamoring to buy a unit of their own. To satisfy this demand, Wolf Audio was born. These are audiophile components and we are proud to be able to offer them to you, anywhere in the high-end audio world. Wolf Audio products are multi-region and multi-voltage, a testament to their commitment to bringing great sound to every corner of the globe.

To say these servers are special does not give them proper credit. From the very first note, Wolf Audio Servers distinguish themselves as extraordinary. Music “breathes” and comes alive in a way we’ve never experienced with any other server. This is because Wolf Audio has left nothing to chance. Every single element built into a Wolf Audio Server was chosen for its sonic capabilities, precision measured to ensure consistency, then tested to its limits to ensure reliability. Once assembled, every Wolf Audio Server is tested at 100% operating capacity for 48Hrs to ensure thermal stability and to suss out any previously undetected weaknesses.

As Wolf Audio started to grow and units started shipping farther and farther away from their Florida base, one basic concern kept cropping up: “Ok, so how do I set this thing up?” The answer was obvious to this company with decades of IT experience, the customer needn’t set up the unit at all! Other than making the physical connections to the network, audio system and power, all configuration could be done remotely! Every Wolf Audio Server comes with the TeamViewer app pre-installed. Originally designed for tech departments to quickly diagnose misbehaving computers at a distance, TeamViewer allows a remote user to access a computer as if they were sitting in front of it, which makes TeamViewer an ideal tool for remote setup. During your setup appointment, you’ll be asked to launch TeamViewer, which creates a one-time code for remote access. The Wolf Audio tech can then log in and proceed to setup the server to your requirements bases on your components. For privacy, once the session ends, so does Wolf’s access to your Server. All TeamViewer requires is internet access, either via WiFi or Wired Ethernet.

We’ve had the pleasure of extensively auditioning all three Wolf models in our main system, and have been wholly impressed with each one. In fact, we would go so far as to say that each one represents a “category killer” at its price point. The Cub (starting at $2k) offers impressive Pace, Rhythm and Timing in a compact, rounded aluminum chassis. The Alpha 2 (Starting at $4k) delivers staggering sonic performance, throwing a huge soundstage with pinpoint imaging and profoundly black backgrounds. The Red Wolf (Starting at $8k) is a two-chassis masterpiece, with prodigious sonic capabilities. Thoroughly resolving with incredibly textured and finely grained delivery, this ranks with the finest digital delivery we’ve ever heard. Read on for more on each of these and welcome to the audiophile world of audio servers!
The Basics: Why you should consider an Audio Server

There are three compelling reasons why every audiophile should consider an Audio Server. First and foremost is sound quality; Audio Servers can offer performance to rival the best CD players with none of the limitations of physical media. There’s no laser to slowly fade over time, no spinning mechanism to eventually come out of tolerance and start making whirring noises, and there’s no bullying error-control circuit to decide the disc isn’t perfect so it’s going to “guess” what the music should sound like. Second, Audio Servers allow you to have your entire collection in one place and instantly accessible. Imagine having 2,000 albums spread out across your room and without having to get up from your chair, you see all of them and pick and choose what you want to listen to next. Maybe even make a list of songs or albums you want to hear. Third, unlike physical media, which can become damaged or worn, Audio Servers have no such limitations. Once a song is “ripped” to an audio server, the sound quality will never deteriorate. You’ll never get a scratch in the middle of your favorite song because someone wasn’t careful with the disc. Also, you can back up your entire collection for safe keeping, usually pretty painlessly.
In the early days of computer audio an Audio Server was essentially a stand-alone computer dedicated to storing and serving up music to an audio system from its onboard hard drive(s). Sound quality was marginal and the interfaces were awkward, ugly and prone to glitchiness, much like the computers of the day. Nonetheless, the notion of having all your music in one place and every recording on the machine available at the touch of a finger was very appealing. Fast forward to the present and the speed, reliability and connectivity improvements seen in home computers have migrated over to Audio Servers. Today’s Audio Servers still support internal music storage; but their capabilities have increased exponentially. Adding network capabilities has enabled a broad set of features which would have been unimaginable to those early Audio Server pioneers: the ability to find and seamlessly compile music stored on devices throughout the home network, the capacity to stream millions of songs from a wide variety of providers, complete control via a smartphone or tablet, and the ability to send music anywhere in the house with an internet connection.

Sound quality has greatly improved over early designs. Hard drive space was so expensive back then, and audio files were (comparatively) so large, there was much hand-wringing debate (not among audiophiles!) over whether to use “lossy” compression schemes (e.g. MP3) so that many albums could be stored, or using “full” resolution files (e.g. WAV) and only having a few albums available. Fortunately, modern Audio Servers can have enormous storage capacity and are usually easily expanded by simply adding internal and/or external storage. Readily available, inexpensive and vastly improved storage options have also opened the door to high-resolution audio capabilities. These sonically superior formats eat up storage space, so up until just a few years ago it wasn’t really feasible to store hi-rez music on an Audio Server. Now, unless you have a giant collection of hi-rez music, space is rarely an issue.

Virtually all Audio Servers on the market today are network-enabled, which has exponentially increased their capabilities. “Streaming” capability has allowed Audio Servers to find and play music from every computer attached to the home network, and also allows them to connect to streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify and Tidal. Most Audio Servers also include the ability to stream any radio station which “broadcasts” online; literally, you can listen to radio stations from all over the world. The sound quality of most internet radio stations is pretty poor (~64kBps), comparable to a radio, but there do exist some higher bitrate stations that can sound surprisingly good.

Most modern Audio Servers incorporate ROON, a powerful and ultra-connected program which consolidates all your digital music into a single interface and then… well, we’ll let ROON tell you -from the ROON website: “{ROON} looks at your music and finds photos, bios, reviews, lyrics, and concert dates, and makes connections between artists, composers, performers, conductors, and producers. What you get is a searchable, surfable magazine about your music.” ROON delivers the music “entanglement” experience analog lovers expect and digital users have been suffering without!

There exists a broad array of Audio Servers on the market and they all feature digital outputs. This is because building a proper digital to analog conversion stage (DAC) into an Audio Server is not only a major expense, it’s also an R&D nightmare. Although some Audio Servers do include analog outputs, these are rarely intended for primary use. If you’re looking at getting into an Audio Server, be sure to budget for a DAC. Most Audio Servers have a Toslink optical digital output, some offer an additional Coax SPDIF output, and the high-rez ones all include USB. Although we’re certainly not going to dive into a Toslink vs Coax debate (we feel both have their merits), USB output might come as a surprise. Isn’t USB just for computer audio? NO! USB is capable of vastly higher data rates than either Toslink (24/192) or Coax (24/192), which means it’s one of the only ways to stream ultra hi-rez formats. Also, neither Toslink nor Coax support transmission of DSD files, whereas USB is more agnostic. So, if you want to stream everything from MP3s to Quad DSD, USB is really the only choice.

One last thing about Audio Servers; as audiophiles, we tend to think of a source as having a 1:1 relationship with an audio system, e.g. one CD player serves music to one audio system. However, with an Audio Server this is no longer the case. The network capabilities of today’s Audio Servers are such that many of them can serve different songs to different rooms, simultaneously. You could be listening to DSD files on the main system while your spouse is listening to the Beatles in the home office and the kids are listening to Zappa in the basement… all from the same Audio Server. Some Audio Servers are limited to a handful of “zones”, better ones can support up to several dozen! This opens worlds of possibilities, like putting music in every room of your home, maybe even outdoors!
Wolf Audio Systems Overview
Bespoke Media Servers for the Discerning Audiophile

Wolf Audio is a small company based in Florida specializing in incredibly high-performance audio servers. Founded by a family of audiophiles disappointed by the sonic performance of the audio servers available on the market. Despite excellent reviews and solid online feedback, every server they auditioned fell flat in the same place; musical involvement. Out of frustration, they mined their considerable IT and fabrication skills and soon built their own Audio Server from scratch. An audiophile friend came over to hear it, was blown away, and begged for one. Then a couple more friends asked. Soon, word of mouth brought clients, and before long what had started as a passionate quest turned into a business. Wolf Audio has been successful because of three factors: First, an unwavering dedication to high performance audio; Second, an uncompromising determination to use the finest parts available and Third, an unshakable belief that audio equipment exists not only in service of the music, but in service to the listener - it has to work well and reliably.

Each Wolf Audio Server is built by hand, with carefully selected, precision-matched components, all subjected to a complex battery of testing before leaving the factory. Every part from capacitors to CPU has been selected for its sonic benefits through extensive listening tests and rigorous electrical testing. No other audio server on the market is subjected to the same rigorous quality control, and frankly no other audio company matches the level of sound quality achieved by these units. Wolf Audio’s impressive sound quality is a testament to their commitment to perfection. Powerful, flexible and upgradeable, every Wolf server is backed by a 3-Year warranty and includes their 5-year upgrade path guarantee.

Wolf Audio Servers are designed to be flexible as well as great sounding. To that end, all Wolf Audio servers support virtually all formats, resolutions and thanks to ROON can integrate a large number of services. Every Wolf Audio server offers substantial on-board storage for your music collection and optional storage upgrades are available. Connect to your network via wired Gigabit Ethernet or via 802.11.N/AC wireless. Every Wolf Audio Server is optimized for use with an audiophile-grade DAC, specifically via USB connection. The operating system is a robust and stable platform, the user interface is familiar and welcoming. Plug it in, turn it on and it’s ready to use*. Simple.

If there is one sonic characteristic which defines all Wolf Audio Servers it is purity. Every single aspect of a Wolf server has been engineered to preserve and ensure signal integrity. As such, high quality power supplies are used throughout, vibration within the chassis is virtually eliminated and shielding is abundant. The result of these extraordinary measures is unmatched purity of tone, heard from the first note to the last chord decaying slowly into the black. No other audio server in our experience matches the sheer sonic capabilities of Wolf Audio Servers.

Starting with a blank slate and building a purpose driven device, Wolf Audio was free to follow their own path. Mass production does not guarantee an individual part’s performance. Wolf auditioned over 50 different models of motherboards before finally selecting a series which met their sonic expectations. Every single motherboard is tested to meet highly specific noise and performance criteria; RAM sticks are individually selected then tested in matched pairs, checking for polarity, timing and overall compatibility. The CPU is given a thorough workout; under-clocked, over-clocked, then tested at normal speed, ensuring all performance criteria are within spec regardless of use. Once approved the computing structure is assembled then torture-tested. Wolf tests each structure at 100% capacity for a full 48Hrs to ensure thermal stability and to expose any underlying weakness. Only after passing every test is the computing structure ready for installation into a Wolf Audio Server.
Cub Audio Server Starting at $2000 (Black or Silver)
Compact, powerful and incredibly good sounding, Wolf Audio’s Cub Music Server is in a class of its own. Inside the modest, rounded aluminum chassis is a purpose-built audio server with great musical chops. Built to the same exacting standards as its big brothers, the Cub offers sonic performance very few music servers at any price can deliver. The best part is that Wolf Audio has taken the sting out of integrating a music server into your audio system. As part of the Cub’s purchase price, Wolf Audio will configure the server in your system; just plug in your Cub, connect it to your audio system and connect it to your home network. Wolf Audio does the rest.*

As the junior member of the Wolf Audio family, the Cub has some big shoes to fill, and it does so exceedingly well. Imaging is deep and wide, the soundstage is well-formed and expansive, voices and instruments emerge from a deep black background, and are revealed with outstanding purity. Rhythm and pacing are stellar. Cub propels the music along with toe-tapping glee.

Cub’s performance has been engineered to minimize distortion and protect the delicate signals it’s entrusted with. Just one example: take the cooling fan for the processor. A high-performance engine in a small chassis requires forced-air cooling, which means a fan on top of the CPU. Wolf Audio selected a high-performance fan from a well-known manufacturer, however it just wasn’t silent enough…so they rebuilt it! They replaced the standard bearings with ceramic balls and used a proprietary lubrication which minimizes motor noise. Then Wolf engineered an inline noise dampener to minimize induced noise. The results are a fan which keeps the processor operating at optimal temperature with virtually no mechanical noise, vibration or wind noise.

Built around a powerful processor, loads of RAM and a super-fast 256Gb M.2 hard drive, the Cub tackles any format or music service with equal skill. Tidal? Of course. MQA? Certified. Roon? Ready. DoP? Easy. DSD256? No problem. 32Bit/384kHz? Yup, plays that too and sounds amazing doing it! The Wolf Audio Cub is the first affordable audio server to offer truly high-end sound quality. The user interface is a customized JRiver platform, familiar to many and easy to use. Wolf Audio has even made setup easy, as Cub comes pre-configured for in-home setup via TeamViewer. Both Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11N/AC Wi-Fi are included.
* Every Wolf Audio Server comes with the TeamViewer app pre-installed. Originally designed for tech departments to quickly diagnose misbehaving computers at a distance, TeamViewer allows a remote user to access a computer as if they were sitting in front of it, which makes TeamViewer an ideal tool for remote setup. During your setup appointment, you’ll be asked to launch TeamViewer, which creates a one-time code for remote access. The tech can then log in and proceed to setup the server to your requirements. For privacy, once the session ends, so does Wolf’s access to your Server. TeamViewer requires internet access, either via WiFi or Wired Ethernet. Without it, there’s no way for TeamViewer or Wolf Audio to access your server.
Alpha 2 Audio Server Starting at $4000 (Black or Silver)
Listening to an Alpha 2 is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced from computer-based audio.The music sounds so real, so vibrant, it’s hard to believe it’s not coming from a spinning disc. Transparency is superb, resolution is holographic, vocals and instruments have a realism we’re just not accustomed to hearing from any digital sources in this price range. Seems fitting that this is the product which launched Wolf Audio. Unimpressed with the other audio server solutions on the market, Wolf Audio decided to build their own. With a cost-no-object approach, and heavily steeped in technical know-how, Wolf Audio has created what we feel is one of the most lust-worthy audio components so far this century. One listen and we think you’ll agree, the Alpha 2 is extraordinary.

Wolf Audio makes it easy to integrate an Alpha 2 into your existing system. With three years spent customizing the user interface - based on a customized JRiver platform - the experience is familiar and the learning curve is gentle. Best of all Wolf Audio helps with the network setup. Plug your Alpha 2 into the wall, your network and your audio system, and Wolf Audio will remotely set up your server, see * below for more details. Whether you’re streaming audio from the storage built into your Alpha 2, from another computer on the network or via a music streaming service, Wolf Audio is committed to the ultimate in performance. Gigabit Ethernet & 802.11N/AC Wi-Fi (dual antenna) are built into every Alpha 2 for ultra-fast access and setup.

The Alpha 2 is designed to be completely silent. There are no moving parts inside, except for the built-in disc drive, which is only active when ripping a disc. The 240W power supply is fan-less. SSDs are used instead of noisy hard drives. Even the CPU avoids fans and features an impressive custom-built cooling apparatus with massive copper “heat pipes” to transfer the heat between three stages of heat-sinking. To further reduce vibration and noise, the SSD(s) and disc drive are mounted to a separate sub-chassis frame. Galvanically isolated and shielded USB output to your DAC bypasses most of the standard “housekeeping” functions of the main board, providing a purer feed and a substantial sonic improvement. No stone was left unturned in the quest for an utterly silent server. This internal silence pays massive dividends as not one bit of the music is obscured by noise or distortion.
* Every Wolf Audio Server comes with the TeamViewer app pre-installed. Originally designed for tech departments to quickly diagnose misbehaving computers at a distance, TeamViewer allows a remote user to access a computer as if they were sitting in front of it, which makes TeamViewer an ideal tool for remote setup. During your setup appointment, you’ll be asked to launch TeamViewer, which creates a one-time code for remote access. The tech can then log in and proceed to setup the server to your requirements. For privacy, once the session ends, so does Wolf’s access to your Server. TeamViewer requires internet access, either via WiFi or Wired Ethernet. Without it, there’s no way for TeamViewer or Wolf Audio to access your server.
Red Wolf Audio Server Starting at $8000 (Black or Silver)
What started out as an attempt at a hot-rod variant of the Alpha 2 eventually morphed into Wolf Audio’s top design. Red Wolf may share some DNA with the Alpha 2, but that’s where the similarities end. This is a take-no-prisoners assault on the state of the art where every potential weakness has been engineered out, and every performance parameter has been taken to its logical extreme. Better processing, more RAM, greater onboard storage capacity, a massive outboard power supply, superior internal wiring, enhanced shielding and anti-vibration measures signal Red Wolf’s evolution from hunter to apex predator.

The most visibly distinctive feature of the Red Wolf is also one of its biggest assets: Red Wolf is split into a dual chassis design with the power supply kept physically separate from the delicate signal processing of the main unit. This reduces overall system noise, and the extra space allows for a physically larger power supply. Red Wolf uses a highly-tuned 275W linear power supply which provides an undistorted and near-limitless reservoir of energy for the hungry audio circuits above. Many of prodigious sonic capabilities stem from this power supply, specifically Red Wolf’s unparalleled ability to resolve fine detail, able to unravel even the most complex of recordings while never losing sight of the music.

During development of the Red Wolf concept, Wolf Audio was bothered by odd and inexplicable noise spuria which weren’t present in the Alpha 2 and weren’t reproducible in the individual circuits. Eventually these were traced down to distortions created by the “stock” internal wiring - Red Wolf was out-resolving its internal wiring! Reaching out to their friends at Audience for help, Audience’s cryogenically treated Ohno wiring was the answer. These high purity wires measurably reduced DC resistance in every circuit eliminating noise and vastly improved Red Wolf’s sonic prowess. Red Wolf is wired throughout with Audience Ohno cable, including the power umbilical.

As anyone who’s ever watched a cooking show knows, it’s not enough to have great ingredients, you must know how to spice them. Wolf Audio’s ingredients are fabulous, but what really sets Red Wolf apart are the little things; for example, the isolated 5V power rail specifically for the SSD drive, which is connected from the Power Chassis via a separate outboard cable which delivers an ultra-pure power stream to the SSDs. SilentCoat anti-vibration material is used under the motherboard, CD ROM and elsewhere to consume micro-vibrations which distort fine detail. As befits a top model, each Red Wolf server also undergoes increased quality assurance and an enhanced testing regimen. The user interface is a customized JRiver platform, familiar to many and incredibly easy to learn. Of course, every Red Wolf comes pre-configured for remote in-home setup* via TeamViewer. Simply plug your Red Wolf into the wall, your network and your audio system. When ready, Wolf Audio logs into your machine and remotely sets up your machine. Gigabit Ethernet & 802.11N/AC Wi-Fi are built-in.
* Every Wolf Audio Server comes with the TeamViewer app pre-installed. Originally designed for tech departments to quickly diagnose misbehaving computers at a distance, TeamViewer allows a remote user to access a computer as if they were sitting in front of it, which makes TeamViewer an ideal tool for remote setup. During your setup appointment, you’ll be asked to launch TeamViewer, which creates a one-time code for remote access. The tech can then log in and proceed to setup the server to your requirements. For privacy, once the session ends, so does Wolf’s access to your Server. TeamViewer requires internet access, either via WiFi or Wired Ethernet. Without it, there’s no way for TeamViewer or Wolf Audio to access your server.
We hope we have given you a lot to digest. For more information on Wolf Audio Servers, or for help in selecting the right one for your system, please contact us by email, phone, or via the contact us page on our website.
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