01-16-2022 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 119
Ye Olde Editor in contemplation, pipe in hand, Happy Valley (portrait by John Robinson; image processing by David W. Robinson)
Wolf Audio's Alpha 3SX with its iPhone-based control interface
Time to say it again: we are in the golden age of high-end audio. I cannot think of a single category of "performance audio" that isn't much better now than it has been in past years (or decades). Turntables, loudspeakers, LPs, RTR tape machines, phono cartridges, SACD/DSD, cable technology, power conditioning/distribution technologies, streaming audio, portable audio/personal hi-fi, headphones, isolation racks/components, amps/preamps/phono amps, integrateds, system enhancements/tweaks…even the lowly CD player…all are the best they've ever been. Only perhaps in tube technology has there been a loss of alternatives, but the replacement/new models do seem to be providing new options for designers.
Among the products that are exploding in number and quality during the past 5-10 years have been digital music servers. I have been increasingly impressed by the growing excellence of these components, especially over the last 4-5 years. And during that time, major streaming alternatives like Qobuz (higher resolution .FLAC PCM) and TIDAL (MQA PCM) have come along to feed the streaming beast that has exploded all over the audio scene. (Not to mention Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube Premium, and others like Spotify, in various settings.)
Nearer at hand, there is a growing need to handle and playback the local digital resources of downloaded-and-stored DSD and PCM music on internal hard drives, external USB 3.0 hard drives, Solid-State Drives (SSD), and Network Attached Storage (NAS). Which is to say, the world of high-end audio is no longer a simple place. To handle these possibilities, audio designers have developed a number of products to process the playback of digital music files, involving a range of frameworks for getting the task done.
One of them is the subject of this revisitation essay: the Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3SX Music Server. I gave it one of my 2020 Brutus Awards, based upon my initial very positive experiences with it.
But since then? Is the Alpha 3SX still good, or has it faded over time?
Let's dig in…how has it done over the past year of extended use?
The Alpha 3SX is a complex beastie. This is reflected in Joe Parvey's extended spec sheet.
- Ultra-Low Noise USB 2.0 supporting USB Audio Class 1, USB Audio Class 2 and DSD (Native & DoP).
- Flux Capacitor 24MHz OCXO USB Card – 2 & 8 Channel Audio Clocking (Optional Upgrade).
- HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort 1.4. TOSLink Optical
- Ethernet & WiFi: 1x RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet – Network (Data & Audio) 802.11ac 1.73Gb/s WiFi
- USB: 2x USB 3.0/2.0 (DAC), 6x USB 3.0 (Mass Storage) 1x USB Type C – (Mass Storage & Future Module Connectivity)
- Video: 1x HDMI 2.0a – HDCP 2.2 and HDR, DisplayPort 1.4
- Physical Disc Formats: Red Book, DVD-A, DVD-V, BD-A, BD-V
- Disc Compatibility: CD, CD-R, CD-RW
- Audio format for stored CDs: FLAC, WAV, ALAC, OGG, APE, MP3, MPC,
- Streaming and Playing Formats: WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, AAC, MP3
- Sample Rates: PCM 44.1kHz – 1536KHz; bit depths 16-bit, 24-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit. DSD DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, DSD512, DSD1024
User Control Interfaces
- Web Interface: Web Browsers from iOS, Android, Windows and OS X browsers
- Mobile: App for iPhone/iPad, Android and Windows 10
- CD/DVD drive: TEAC Slot-load Blu-Ray drive
- System Drive: 1TB M.2 NVMe SSD – System
- Audio Drive: 2TB M.2 NVMe SSD – Audio Storage (expandable to 12TB)
- CPU: Intel Core i7-9700 Six-Core 3GHz
- Memory: 32GB DDR4 – (16GB Audio dedicated)
Streaming and CD Storage
- UPnP/DLNA: UPnP Server and DLNA Renderer
- USB: 2 Channel USB up to 32/384KHz DACs (USB Audio Class 1 and Class 2, DoP)
- Average CD Import Time: 5 minutes
- CD Metadata: Multiple CD metadata sources
Compatible Music Systems
- USB DAC
- SPDIF DAC (TOSLink)
- DLNA/UPnP compatible devices
- Network Players – Sonos, Denon HEOS, Oppo, etc
- Connected Receivers: Arcam, Anthem, Yamaha, Denon, Marantz, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, Datasat, Trinnov, and more.
- Smart Televisions: Sony, LG, Samsung, TCL, Sharp, HiSense, etc.
- HDMI Capable Devices (i2s, Multi-channel Audio, DTS-HD Master, Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD)
- HDMI DACs
- Network: Download artist and album metadata when ripping CDs, Internet Radio, Streaming Services and software updates. Network router with at least one available Ethernet port. Premium subscription required for some streaming services: Spotify, Qobuz and Tidal, etc.
- Music Controller: Remote control tablet app iPad, Android (Free and Paid versions available) or Web Browser – Most modern web browsers and platforms are supported
- DAC / Converter: DAC with USB input supporting USB Audio Class 1, USB Audio Class 2 or DoP protocols
- Mains Supply: 100V, 110V, 220V AC – Internal Power Supply with noise regulation
- Power Consumption: 6W when idle, 150W peak
- Dimensions: Metric: 435 x 319 x 100mm (W x D x H, 109mm including feet) Imperial: 17.1" x 12.5" x 4.2" (W x D X H)
- Weight: 13 Kg, 23 Lbs
- In the box: Wolf Audio Systems Server. IEC (US), Mains Cable. 2m Ethernet Cable. WiFi Antenna
The Alpha 3SX is not only complex due to its capabilities, but also because of the fact that it is so highly configurable. Check the Wolf Audio Systems site and you'll see a number of options that can be added to the 3SX, to enhance its performance/connectivity.
After consulting with Joe Parvey, this is the setup that we settled upon for this evaluation back in 2020:
- i7-9700 CPU (a potent CPU…)
- 32GB 3000MHz RAM (…with lots of RAM!)
- 1TB System Drive
- 2TB Audio Drive (4TB Audio Standard on Pure Digital Edition) – Expandable to 48TB
- Power Portals for AC Filtration
- Stillpoints Isolators under critical componentry
- Constrained Layer Damping
- EMF/RFI Rejection Materials
- FluX Capacitor USB Clock Card
I opted to try the 22" external touchscreen monitor and keyboard/touch pad, just to get into an interface that was different from so many that use iPads/iPhones. (Change of pace and all that.) As configured above, the sample 3SX would retail at $12,295. Since prices vary according to the configuration you choose, and since there was a price increase last August, you'll have to check with Wolf Audio to see where your desired build would take your wallet.
My main go-to during my listening was my longtime music-serving audiobud, JRiver's Media Center, which I've been using quite successfully for many years now. Joe Parvey favors MC 24 for the 3SX, although my Dell Precision Workstation is using the latest stable release, version 28. The system also supports the Roon and Audirvana+ systems. DSD is right up front, with handling up to DSD1024 (assuming that your DAC can handle DSD512 and DSD1024). MQA support is also included.
Unlike many of the Linux-based music servers, the OS is Windows 10, installed internally on a 1TB system drive, and optimized for audio playback. Media Center 24 runs on top as an application without a problem. In fact, upon bootup with the external monitor (see the photograph above; the 3SX has the 22" monitor on it), the 3SX brings up the familiar Windows 10 desktop, but then auto-opens Media Center so that you can go directly to your music files. This is where I camped out while listening over the past many moons in 2021.
Since I have terabytes of DSD (mainly) and PCM (some) on our local area network (LAN), plus the QNAP 1273U NAS (96TB of storage, less the recovery overhead for RAID 5, dropping effective capacity to 84TB), configured for me by Wolf Audio Systems (yes, they can do that for you too), I spent my time listening to LAN-based DSD recordings. I was particularly interested in how well the QNAP NAS storage would work with the Alpha 3SX.
Joe Parvey was able to remotely assist in bringing up the NAS RAID 5 array and creating a DSD share file point in Linux, so that I could have a single point of origin for the megatons of DSD music that we have here. Once that was done, I spent several days copying files from various stand-alone hard disks that we have here in our PF archives. All went smoothly via our Cisco managed Ethernet switch stack, and I was able to start listening immediately thereafter.
One of the big advantages of Internet-based Ethernet music servers is that they can be remotely accessed in a secure fashion, and configuration/tech support assistance rendered. The combination of a Windows 10 platform with remote software allows help directly from Wolf Audio Systems in minutes. I've spent many years wearing an Information Technology hat, and have done this sort of thing professionally myself. Therefore, I can tell you that the Wolf Audio team is highly skilled, and handled some final squaring away of our new NAS very effectively. Nice work, Joe Parvey!