TESTED: Sound Science Music Vault II Network Attached Storage Device

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Sound Science Music Vault II
TESTED: Sound Science Music Vault II Network Attached Storage Device

The words Music Vault conjure up the image of a stainless-steel safe full of CDs. That’s what the Music Vault is—almost. Except that the CDs are virtual and the vault is made of silicon. The Music Vault II is a custom-configured NAS (network-attached storage) hard drive/network server that has been designed to work seamlessly with any Logitech Squeezebox, Sonos, Denon, or other networked music server. But wait, as they say on all those late-night infomercials, there’s more. The Music Vault II also allows you to connect a Squeezebox to your music library without having to keep your computer constantly on.

While this may not sound like a big deal, being able to turn your computer off while still maintaining access to all your music files is difficult to do with a Logitech Squeezebox system. Setting up a NAS drive so you can access your music library while your computer is off requires at least a network administrator’s level of computer skill. Even if you do have “the skills,” only a few NAS drives have the right interior topology to support all the software and hardware needed to host Logitech’s SqueezeCenter software and ancillary programs.

What the Music Vault promises is a pain-free way to liberate your Logitech Squeezebox music system from the tyranny of an always-running computer. Does it deliver the goods? Yes, it does.

Installing the Music Vault

Sound Science’s Neal Van Berg lives about 40 miles away from me in Castle Rock, Colorado. So instead of shipping a unit he delivered it in person. But to demonstrate how easy it is to set up a Music Vault he unboxed the unit and said, “Now you install it.”

Installation proved to be almost glitch-free. All I had to do was hook up the Music Vault to my home network via an Ethernet cable, attach its AC cable, turn it on, and wait for the Music Vault to appear on my main computer desktop as a network hard drive. Everything went almost as planned.

This is a good time to explain that the Music Vault is really nothing more than a dedicated PC/server with a big honking hard drive. It runs a version of Windows called “Windows Home Server” that hosts Logitech’s SqueezeCenter software. If you have a PC-based home network, the Music Vault will appear in your networked workgroup as another PC.

But if you are an Apple guy like I am, setting up the Music Vault will be a bit more involved. While it appears on a home network as a hard drive once you click on your Mac’s network globe, you will not have access to any of the Windows-based .exe programs (including SqueezeCenter). This makes configuring Squeeze Center from your Mac difficult. You can load a special Microsoft program that’s supposed to let you run a PC remotely, but many Mac users will balk at adding it to their system. A better solution is to access the Music Vault via Safari’s Web browser, since the Music Vault has its own HTTP address. But the address information in the Music Vault’s instruction book didn’t work on my review sample, so I had to play detective to find its address. Eventually I was able to access it from my Mac. For immediate gratification I resorted to another way to configure SqueezeCenter. I simply hooked up a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to the Music Vault. As long as you have an extra monitor with an RGB input, a USB mouse, and a USB keyboard, this solution works fine.

The next step when setting up the Music Vault, regardless of whether you’re a PC or Mac person, is to transfer all your music files onto it. My library, which is approximately 80GB, took almost four hours to move via an Ethernet hardwired connection. A wireless connection would have taken even longer, though a USB 2.0 connection would have been slightly quicker. Regardless of what kind of connection you use to do the file transfer, the bigger your music library is, the longer it will take to transfer it to the Music Vault.

Once your library has been placed into the Music Vault you must run SqueezeCenter’s music scan to update its database. This initial scan can take several minutes, but subsequent scans are very rapid—usually under a minute. After the library is scanned you can turn off the monitor and disconnect the keyboard and mouse, because you shouldn’t need them any more except when you want to make some changes to your SqueezeCenter settings.

The final step to completing a wireless music server system is to link it to your Logitech units. With the Duet you merely look in the remote’s menu for the Music Vault under “music sources,” select it, and you’re done. With Logitech’s Transporter you have to go through a few more steps, but the Transporter’s built-in expert system leads you quickly through the process. If you have a Sonos system you can also access the Music Vault. It will appear in the Sonos’ list of available music libraries. Select “MusicVault,” and the Sonos is connected.

The Music Vault has its own CD drive, so you can add new music directly rather than sending music files by way of an Ethernet connection. Sound Science can configure the Music Vault’s internal ripper for either iTunes or Windows Media Server. Windows Media Server encodes files in MP3, WMA, or WMA lossless. This last format is not compatible with iTunes, so files ripped in WMA lossless can’t be shared by iTunes. Also, if you rip your music in WMA lossless format, Sonos players will not be able to play these files since they don’t currently support WMA lossless files. Therefore if you use Sonos or iTunes, I recommend using iTunes and Apple Lossless format for your Music Vault ripping chores.

With the Windows Media Server, the ripping process takes about five minutes per disc and you must have an Internet connection to obtain a CD’s meta-data. The default meta-data database is very good for most popular music, but does have problems finding info on classical music, especially older or specialist labels. This is a universal problem with the Gracenote database and not a shortcoming specific to Music Vault.

When and if you need or want to add more storage to the Music Vault, you can easily add a USB drive. You can also hook up a USB drive to back up your music files. The Music Vault’s instruction book supplies detailed instructions, and Sound Science customer support is only an e-mail or phone call away.

Sound Off

I spent close to a month listening to and comparing music files from the Music Vault with the exact same files coming directly from my computer. My verdict: The Music Vault doesn’t introduce any audible effects. I also compared music files coming from the Music Vault via SqueezeCenter with the same files played by iTunes connected to a Logitech Transporter via the Mac Pro’s optical digital connection. Once more the differences between these two connections were so slight that I could not reliably tell any differences. With a different computer, such as an entry-level Mac Portable, Mac Mini, or Windows portable, the machines’ own digital conversion abilities may introduce some sonic degradations (I see complaints from owners of entry-level portables regularly on Internet forums), but the Mac Pro appears to be the Music Vault’s sonic equal in its ability to not audibly degrade digital music files.

As with most digital-music-file storage systems, the primary fidelity-limiting factor will probably not be the Music Vault itself, but your D/A’s ability to receive and accurately decode digital music files. The Music Vault uses a built-in, proprietary, closed wireless network to connect with Logitech Squeezeboxes. So if your home is populated by teens playing Xbox Live or streaming U-Tube videos, the Music Vault’s separate wireless network should ensure that your music won’t develop a terminal case of the stutters during moments of heavy traffic. Music Vault’s robust dedicated wireless connection should also substantially reduce other causes of transmission errors such as distance from transmitter to receiver, but if you want to make sure that a wireless connection won’t degrade your music, you can bypass it by using an Ethernet hardwired connection between the Music Vault and your Squeezebox or Sonos devices. Of course, if you do hardwire connections they will no longer be wireless devices.

Regardless of what format your music files are stored in—WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, or MP3—SqueezeCenter either sends them directly to a Squeezebox or, in the case of the unprotected ACC and Apple Lossless formats, decodes them into FLAC files before it sends them out to a Logitech unit. Sonos units work differently; they access music files directly from the Music Vault, bypassing the SqueezeCenter program. The native format of your music files is directly transmitted to the Sonos. Neither system is inherently superior to the other, merely different. The Music Vault is designed to work seamlessly with either one.

Value On

If you peruse the Internet you will discover that NAS hard drives can be had for as little as $100 for a 500GB unit. If you buy the right one (which may well cost substantially more than $100) and have the skills, you can conceivably cobble together a device that has nearly all the capabilities of a Music Vault II. But regardless of your skill level, one thing your home-brew unit will not have is the same degree of customer service and ease of use as the Music Vault. Sound Science configures every Music Vault specifically for each customer. If you’re a Mac guy, it will be Mac-and-iTunes-friendly. If you use a Windows system, it will be set up to integrate smoothly with Windows. Sound Science also supplies as much after-sale assistance as needed to make the Music Vault work smoothly and integrate seamlessly with your existing wireless music system. Since Sound Science is a Logitech dealer, it often bundles Music Vaults with complete multi-room Squeezebox systems. Naturally, when Sound Science creates the entire system, it can troubleshoot to make sure the installation is bulletproof. So while a Music Vault is certainly not the least expensive NAS solution you’ll find, it may well be the best value. It’s the missing link for Logitech Squeezebox systems, unfettering them from your computer and making any Squeezebox system more robust and reliable, and far more enjoyable.

SPECS & PRICING

Sound Science Music Vault II

Capacity: MusicVault 500, 1600 CDs; MusicVault 1000, 3200 CDs (or 1600 with backup); MusicVault 1500, 4800 CDs (or 2400 with backup); MusicVault 2000, 6400 CDs (or 3200 with backup)
Warranty: One year parts and labor
Price: MusicVault 500, $1485; MusicVault 1000, $1585; MusicVault 1500, $1685; MusicVault 2000, $1785

Sound Science
1767 Rose Petal Lane
Castle Rock, CO 80109

(720) 308-4000
www.soundsciencecat.com

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