The Transporter at 48 hours (long)
This is a review summarizing my perceptions of the Slim Devices Transporter after two days of use. A lot of casual listening and several hours of very critical listening have been spent with a very wide range of music (see list below.)
First the system. I've got a modest, but I believe very musical, system. The speakers are Spendor S5e and the power amp is a Bel Canto S300. Both are highly regarded by both users and reviewers (and me.) Next the caveats. While I appreciate that various electronics can and do sound different, I am not a hypercritical audiophile. I often find the differences between two pieces of equipment somewhat analogous to difference between two seats in differing parts of a concert hall. Sit here and you're a shade closer and the orchestra sounds one way. Sit further away and you still have a wonderful listening experience, but it is just a bit different. One other item is I'm not a big cable or tweak person. I think well designed and property setup equipment works fine for me with fairly ordinary wiring when the basics have been attended to.
What I do look for are what I consider artificial qualities in reproduced music. Harshness, edginess, tizzy sounds, fuzziness, blur, muddiness and so on are all things that I do not hear when I listen to unamplified live music. While much of today's music is amplified, processed or even all-electronic, it too can sound better or worse in the hands of good or poor equipment.
A quick summary for those who don't know about Slim Devices products. These are computer network receivers that allow you to send music over your home network to your stereo that has been stored on your computer's hard drive. You can "rip" your CDs to the computer. This allows you immediate access to your entire collection without having to put a CD in a player. You can therefore build eclectic playlists that will provide hours and hours of non-stop music in whatever order you wish. Many people, like me, store their music in a "lossless" format that means the copy on your hard drive is an exact data duplicate of the info on the original CD.
The basic model is a Squeezebox 3 (SB3). These retail for about $300 and I've had one for some time (as well as a predecessor model.) They are an outstanding buy. The sound quality is equal to many quality CD players - it was easily the equal of my Nad C542 player which has a good reputation for the money. However, there were very slight traces of harshness in the upper end and just not quite as much "space" as I've heard in better systems. Many people address this issue by upgrading the power supply that comes with the SB3 and/or using an external DAC. The power supply fix is less than $100 and the DAC can range from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars.
Slim Device's fix for this is their all-out, $2,000 "Transporter" model. You can look up their specs and marketing info at http://www.slimdevices.com, but the simple explanation is this is their no-holds barred effort to make the best digital player they can. I decided to order one under their 30 day trial program and it arrived Thursday (2 days ago.) It dropped right into the spot where my SB3 was, using the same cables.
Here's a list of the music I've lent a critical ear to:
Beethoven - Pathetique; Tea Time Ensemble - Pussta Marchen, Tango Argentino; Anonymous Four - music from Montpellier Codex; Joaquin Turina - Fandanguillo, Soleares; Andrea Bocelli - Nessum dorma (Puccini); Bach - Toccata & Fugue in D minor (orchestral), Concerto for Oboe & Violin, Oboe Concerto in F major; Mozart - Voi che sapete (La Nozze di Figaro); Pachebel - Canon & Gigue in D; Jean Rameau - Phillippe; Julianna Raye - Heaven Is In Your Eyes; Lucinda Williams - Metal Firecracker, 2 Kook 2 Be 4 Gotten, Lake Charles; Beth Nielsen Chapman - Adoramus Te, Will & Liz, Free, Touch My Heart; Waifs - London Still, Since I've Been Around, Flesh & Blood; Bel Airs - Poor Man Rich Man; Alison Krause - Doesn't Have To Be This Way; Big Time Sarah - Thrill Is Gone; Carl Wilson - Heaven; Diana Krall - Temptation; Cheryl Porter - Ain't I Good To You (Nagra digital master); Randall Chowning - Banjo Rag, Sunny Side of the Mountain (from master open reel); Blind Boys of AL - Jesus Gonna Be Here (incredible string bass); Carrie Newcomer - Gathering of Spirits, Hold On; Jennifer Warnes - True Emotion, Lights of Louisianne; Mark Knopfler - You Don't Know You're Born, Baloney Again; Sam Cooke - Little Red Rooster; Chris Rea - Just Wanna Be With You; Morells - Nadine; Thea Gilmore - Sittin' In Limbo, Josef's Train; Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong - Cheek to Cheek; Ella Fitzgerald - Reach for Tomorrow (voice/piano only); Jimmy Spheeris - All In The Game; Tish Hinojosa - Saying You Will.
As you can see, a very eclectic list. Some are wonderful recordings, others rather ordinary. But only a small percentage of the recordings I love have top-of-the-line quality. The system has to work with the regular stuff, too.
The listening impressions give a firm nod to the Transporter. It is superior in every category. The decay at the end of songs and during soft passages, which is indicative of low level resolution, is simply outstanding. Silent passages are dead quiet. Overall, there is not as much temptation to turn up the volume, which is also indicative of the Transporter's ability to handle dynamic range without the analog electronics compressing things. The TP is no brighter sounding than the SB3, but there is a sense of air in the highs that the SB3 cannot match. Background vocals and minor instruments are clearly present in a way the SB3 cannot match. There were some unexpected surprises - it is just a real joy when you hear something you've never noticed before in a recording. I don't listen to a lot of large scale classical but this was definitely the best rendering of Bach's Toccata and Fugue that I've heard. As the orchestral swelled, there was simply no blurring or massing of the instruments.
These differences are most meaningful on music with significant acoustic component that have been naturally recorded with minimal processing. My personal opinion is that this extra clarity would be wasted for me if I primarily listened to heavier rock and roll.
However, this is an expensive unit. I am sorely tempted by the SB3 with an external DAC. However, I am not a super big Benchmark fan (a slight edge for my tastes) but there are many alternatives in the $500 to $1,000 range, both new and used. However, I do like the multiple and switchable inputs of the Transporter along with the remote volume control. The total package the Transporter offers does make it an enticing alternative.
I'm slightly frustrated as none of our local audio stores (St. Louis) sell an external DAC that I can audition. Any alternative companion for the SB3 is going to have to be bought on faith. The units that I sonically lean toward from past exposure (Bel Canto DAC2, Channel Island) also have no volume control and the inputs/controls and design aren't as convenient. Those can be addressed by extra components, but that's at odds with my simplification effort.
That's the status as of this point. I'm giving myself another week or so for further evaluation and to simply let the options and budget issues settle in my head. I'll keep you posted.
I totally understand where you are re the TP versus the SB+DAC. My choice was simplified only because I settled on the SB+DAC before the TP came out.
But if I was starting anew, I don't know which I'd choose. I think it's the SB+DAC, but for one reason only:
With the SB+DAC, I can do room correction entirely in the digital domain (meaning I put a digital EQ in between the SB and the DAC, and do the processing on the digital signal without having to convert to analog.)
Now, the TP has digital ins and outs, so hypothetically, you could do this, effectively using them like a tape loop. But I've tried to get the Slim Devices guys to confirm this, and they won't say whether it's possible or not. Some people have hinted that it's in a future firmware upgrade, but no promises.
Given that room correction (and EQ for that matter) is extremely important to me, I've held off on switching over.
Otherwise, I'm guessing the TP has slightly better (if unnoticeable to me) sound quality than something like the Benchmark -- not because I've been able to compare them, but because of the bench tests I posted in the other thread.
Plus, it *looks* a heckuva lot cooler than the SB+DAC!
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In my case, digital room correction is not a big item. In fact, I've just sold my Behringer DEQ2496. I had a lot of fun playing with the RTA (using their ECM8000 calibration mike) but in the end I liked it better without the EQ than with. That was mostly due to the variability of source material. The speakers and my room seem to do a dang fine job of shooting the middle by themselves and that's just where they need to be.
I'll also admit that while the TP is pretty neat looking, they actually shot past the mark for me. I think the right meter display is ever so slightly on the cheesy side. I don't like rack mount handles on things that really aren't rack mount. And, for purely selfish reasons, I kinda wish the unit were only 15" wide as I have a spot where I'd like to put it but it won't go without rearranging things. Nothing incurable, but it does help nudge it out of the slam-dunk decision category.
Last edited by mlsstl; 01-14-2007 at 08:46 PM.
I may have a particularly problematic room -- the bass frequencies are all over the place.
The other thing is that my rig (Benchmark -> kw500 -> 3.6R) can be pretty bright at high volume. When I do room correction, I set the target curve to take off about 3-4db on the high ened, and it comes out just perfect.
There's an audiophile born every minute. Congratulations; you're right on time.
FREE RADICAL RADIO:
Hours of free, radical MP3s!
OK, it's final. The Transporter has it's RMA and is headed back to sunny California tomorrow. It is a wonderful piece of equipment but I just can't justify the $2,000 price tag. Further listening continued to confirm all the comments made above but for a $1,700 differential compared to the SB3, we need to be in jaw-dropping territory. Sure, the SB3 can be improved on, but the Transporter is using a gold-plated hammer to fix the problem.
One thing I did this evening before boxing up the Transporter was to connect the SB3 to my network and run the digital out into the Transporter's DAC. The result? Can't tell the difference between the TP alone and the SB/TP combo. (One minor annoyance is it takes quite a bit of clicking through the menu screens to switch from the network player mode to the DAC inputs.)
I'm listening to the straight SB3 as I type this. While amazingly good for $300, there is just that bit of harshness in the highs that is immediately noticeable. The other lesser abilities are still present, too, but a bit more subtle.
What this process has confirmed is that I am going to get an external DAC. It looks like the Lavry DA-10 is first on the list after much consideration. It is about half the price of the Transporter, but still offers switchable inputs and some volume control and has an outstanding reputation for sound quality.
It is a pity that Slim Devices doesn't have a "Transporter Lite" version for about half or so the cost of the TP. Had that been the case, keeping it would have been a slam-dunk decision.
I'll give an update here in a week or two when the other DAC arrives.
The Lavry DA-10 DAC arrived today. It took me 30 or 40 minutes to build the XLR cables to run from the DAC to the power amp, but with that taken care of, I now have about 30 minutes of listening to the SB3 run through the Lavry. Certainly need to do some more test driving, but this looks like a beautiful solution for half the price of a Transporter.
At first blush the Lavry is easily the equal of the Transporter (though I have no way to compare them back to back since the Transporter departed earlier this week.) The Lavry is very smooth and extended. No trace of harshness and it seems to be as revealing as the Transporter was for low level and background detail, and not losing any grace as passages grow in complexity and volume.
The Lavry is certainly a plain-jane in comparison to the Transporter (though I thought the Transporter a bit confused in it's cosmetics) but the DA-10 is actually a bit better looking in person than the photos make it appear. However, the sound is more important than the appearance for me and so far it seems to be the perfect solution.
I'll keep all informed as I settle into the system.
good info Mlsstl, I agree totally on the cost vs. performance..If the TP was in the $500 range it would sell out like bottled water in Hell.
Slim Device Transporter
Pioneer Cassette CTM66R,
Pioneer Elite BDP 95FD
Vizio VF550M 1080p
Mits VCR U746
I doubt that you'll see the current Transporter drop in price. My impression is that they are selling as many or more than they expected. What may be an interesting possibility is if they bring out a "Transporter Lite" to try and capture the middle ground as there is a pretty wide gap in between the two ends of the spectrum right now. However, I'd be surprised if any middle product were much less than $1,000.
As for my adventure, the Lavry DA-10 has a permanent home. It is simply a fantastic sounding DAC. While I'll admit there may be a bias component now, I believe the Lavry is a better sounding unit than the Transporter.
My current project is moving my music to a dedicated computer. I just installed Fedora Core 6 (a Linux OS version) on the PC I'll be using. I've got the new AC outlet in place (the server will be in the basement) and the ethernet cabling ready to go. Just have to rearrange a few things to clear out the spot where it'll go. I don't believe this will make any difference in sound quality but I just like the idea of having a dedicated unit for the music.
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