ELAC DS-S101-G Discovery Music Server Reviewed

Not too long ago, when wireless music servers were essentially the province of computer geeks. Most music servers’ inner working 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?

According to ELAC, the answer is 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 Hookup
There are two separate and independent analog outputs that the DS-S101-G support, which 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.)

ELAC DS-S101-G Discovery Music Server Reviewed

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.

ELAC DS-S101-G Discovery Music Server Reviewed

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.

ELAC DS-S101-G Discovery Music Server Reviewed

Sonically the DS-S101-G has two slightly different personalities, depending on whether you use the analog or digital output. Obviously, the digital output’s final sonic character will be determined by the DAC to which you connect the ELAC server. A majority of the time, I connected the ELAC’s SPDIF output to a PS Audio DSD Jr. DAC. With 16/44.1 music, I found very little difference between the ELAC server’s feed and what I got from my Mac Mini’s USB connection to the PS Audio. On some tracks that I know well, I did notice slight differences between the ELAC’s analog output and the PS Audio DSD Jr receiving a digital signal–the PS Audio DAC retained some additional low-level information that translated primarily into slightly more specific imaging and better dynamic contrasts.

During my listening sessions with the ELAC, I was struck by its overall sonic quality. With some new streaming devices, after a couple of weeks of listening I grow bored with the sound due to my lack of emotional involvement with the music. I did not find this to be the case with the ELAC server. Instead of being aware of any sonic shortcomings or an overall “grayness” to the sound, I was far more aware of the shortcomings of many of the recordings. The ELAC delivers, even through its analog outputs, a level of sonic sophistication that should keep any music lover enthralled with the amount of resolution and detail delivered to their ears. With Wild Beast’s “Big Cat,” I was impressed by the micro-dynamics and punchy and tuneful bass line.

Another pop guilty pleasure, Bea Miller’s “Dracula,” is populated by big synth drum hits that came through with great clarity and impact. If you compare the YouTube video with the same cut from TIDAL, you can hear how much more dynamic the TIDAL version is. The ELAC server allows this expanded dynamic palette to pass through without dilution.

Overall I found little to fault with the ELAC’s sonic presentation when compared with the other streaming sources I had available. I do look forward to the update that delivers a newer version of Roon that promises to support MQA for anyone with a TIDAL Hi-Fi subscription.

The Downside
The main downsides of the ELAC server are a result of its reliance on the Roon Essentials Control App and this app’s current limitations. For one, I found the 30,000-file limit to be a problem because I could not add new music unless I deleted other files, which was not, for me, an option. When I asked an ELAC rep about increasing the file limit, he replied, “For customers who need a larger track count and full Roon features, we will offer a higher-end product called Discovery Q [which the company showed at CES 2017]. Final details of this product are not completed yet; however, the price will be around $2,000 and may require a separate Roon license.” So, if you’re interested in the Discovery Music Server but have a more robust library, be prepared to wait and pay more for the new product.

The second potential downside is the requirement of a 64-bit device for the app. If you do not already own a device that is 64-bit, you will need to purchase one in order to operate the ELAC server. This could add $300 to $700 (depending on what device you choose) to the price of the ELAC system. For those readers who already have a 64-bit device, this won’t be a problem. How can you tell without delving into “about this device” settings? Try downloading Roon Essentials. If it downloads successfully, you are all set.

Comparison and Competition
As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, nowadays we have a plethora of options when it comes to music servers. But when you look at servers priced within a couple hundred dollars of the ELAC’s $1,099 price, there are few components with a similar feature set and none with the built-in Roon option. The Sony HAP-S1 Hi-Res Music Player has a similar price, but it does not offer TIDAL or multi-library options like the ELAC.

If you only need Internet radio, access to your NAS drive, TIDAL HiFi (but no MQA Masters), no digital outputs, and a single analog output, you can do it for as little as $60 with the Muzo Cobblestone, but don’t expect much in the way of an elegant or adjustable user interface and certainly nothing as sophisticated or elegant as Roon. Also the sound, while decent, isn’t as involving or detailed as what you can get out of the ELAC.

The Sonos Connect ($349) offers similar features to the Muzo (minus 24/96 abilities) and the addition of a digital output. It also runs on older smartphones and pads. But I did not find the Sonos system’s overall fidelity up to the level of the ELAC.

After my time with the DS-S101-G Discovery Music Server, it is clear that ELAC has assembled an excellent piece of hardware that only needs a few tweaks and updates to its software/firmware and control interface to make it a very attractive streaming option. As is, even with its current OS, the ELAC server delivers excellent sound and provides access to all the important sources for music. And with the Roon software, you get an elegant control surface that is both flexible and powerful. As of right now, for the price, the ELAC server is a clear winner.