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ELAC Discovery Series DS‑S101-G music server

ELAC Discovery Series DS‑S101-G music server

People always want to pigeonhole brands. ELAC steadfastly defies such pigeonholing. It was a company that made turntables for the longest time, then it turned to loudspeakers, and now it makes turntables (again) and some excellent audio electronics… as well as loudspeakers. ELAC’s DS-S101-G – from its currently one-product strong Discovery Series – might not have the most trip-off-the-tongue name in audio, but it’s one of those very clever products that does more than you ever thought you need, but ends up showing that you need more than you ever thought possible.

ELAC gives the Discovery the tag line, ”Discover the world of computer audio without the computer” and that’s probably about as accurate as it gets. Well, sort of. In fact, a more honest depiction of Discovery would be “Discover the world of computer audio with a small, dedicated computer in a domestically-friendly box”, but it doesn’t trip off the tongue as easily. You see, the DS-S101-G has a 1.2GHz Quad Core ARM A9 processor, with its own operating system running on 512MB of memory, and a further 8GB of flash memory acting as storage for metadata. That doesn’t make it the kind of computer you could use to send email or compose your next symphony while watching YouTube videos of cats, but it does make it about as powerful as a typical smartphone or tablet. Put another way, the computing power inside the Discovery DS-S101-G is about a couple of hundred million times greater than NASA had during the Apollo 11 mission! This is coupled to a pair of on-board Cirrus Logic CS4398 DACs for internal digital conversion.

Discovery is basically a Roon-friendly digital hub, taking streaming and networked audio (from the Ethernet, and if you want from a local USB drive, as well as Apple AirPlay) and converting them into good old analogue audio and digital datastreams that traditional audio systems can access (Toslink, coaxial, and stereo RCA connectors). It comes with a Roon Essentials license as a backbone, which means a free Essentials app controls your music without relying on the full-strength Roon license. 

Set up is ludicrously easy as a result. Plug the Discovery into your Ethernet (wired only, and it needs to be the same Ethernet connection that is used by your Network Attached Storage, and the tablet or smartphone that is running Essentials, natch). Download and fire up the Roon Essentials Control app, maybe enter your TIDAL password (if applicable, and in this context you would be seriously hobbling the system if it isn’t applicable) and let it rummage through your NAS box’s contents for a while, and it’s done. Plug the Discovery into your existing hi-fi system and you just jumped into the here and now.

That’s only the start. Add more Discovery devices around the home, and you have additional groups or zones. Add in other AirPlay or Roon Endpoints and you have extra zones too. You can even run a second Roon Server/Core system simultaneously now (thanks to the latest 1.3 firmware update), as Roon and Roon Essentials can operate at same time. In addition Discovery ‘1.3’ can also receive streams directly from Roon. Roon Essentials limits you to knowing your way around 30,000 tracks, which is a lot but includes both your local and TIDAL content. If you have more than 30,000 tracks in your collection, you either need to start pruning, or chose another box. ELAC touted a Discovery Q device at this year’s CES that works with the full-thickness version of Roon, but that has not materialised as yet.

ELAC’s Discovery DS-S101-G is defined not only what it is, but what it isn’t. It isn’t Bluetooth compatible. It isn’t a DLNA or UPnP compatible network device, AirPlay aside, it doesn’t have any kind of Wi-Fi connectivity, or full internet radio access, or even digital audio inputs. And, if you have already explored MQA on TIDAL and add those tracks to your playlist, you won’t be listening to MQA. It’s quasi-academic on local or internet network streaming, but DSD is not included, either. Ultimately, the Discovery DS-S101-G is just a black box (well, black and silvery-pink box, with a nice little white LED on the front panel), designed to do one thing and one thing well. 

That one thing is to make you enjoy your music. Setting aside the sound quality for a moment, ELAC Discovery’s intrinsic link to Roon Essentials imposes some limits on the system because you must have a relatively recent iDevice or Android device, and because of its wired-only Ethernet system, this might pose problems for those only relying on a home WiFi network. Yet, these seem more like objections than obstacles. 

There is a Sonos-shaped elephant in the audio room. Sonos sets a standard for ridiculously easy interaction with the musical world. You need to be a special ‘actively-stupid’ class of person to be incapable of making Sonos happen at home. Unfortunately, all that ease of set-up and use doesn’t make up for the mediocre sound of the Sonos system, which is all the more noticeable when hooked to a system proper instead of a battery powered loudspeaker. In most cases, the audiophile solution takes the complete opposite approach; excellent sound, but an overly complex set-up and often dense operation. The ELAC Discovery is the rare exception that brings a sense of much-needed balance to the proceedings. ELAC’s offering has an ease of installation that even takes on Sonos at its own game, and yet has the kind of sound quality that works well for audiophiles.

 

The sound of the ELAC Discovery DS‑S101-G depends on whether you are using its on-board digital board, or connecting it to a DAC in its own right. The DS-S101-G on its own is actually extremely satisfying in and of itself. It delivers an easy-on-the-ear sound that’s never harsh or aggressive, although it could possibly do with a little bit of extra brightness and treble accent. However, where this shines is through intelligibility and articulation of speech: Sting’s narration of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf [Abbado, DG] is a great example of both good and bad narration, and both are clearly represented here. The cat (clarinet) is well portrayed here too, although the French horns of the wolf and the flute representing the bird seem not as present or as upfront as I’ve heard on other systems.

Let’s not overstate this; the performance of the ELAC Discovery DS‑S101-G is a fine sounding device in its own right, especially if you are into a more rich, mellow musical roast. It’s a smooth, creamy flat white instead of a sharp kick in the espressos. But if you are used to digital audio sounding more upfront, hook the DS-S101-G to an external DAC instead. Here, the sound of the system is passed more to the performance of the DAC, although that sense of richness and relaxed upper-registers never wholly goes away. In absolute terms, the sound of my Naim UnitiServe feeding my Naim SuperUniti eclipsed the Discovery DS-S101-G by being more musically coherent and focused, but I also realised soon after comparing the two that I’d trade at least some of that musical superiority for Roon’s flexibility and music-surfing mastery.

The simple looking, yet elegant ELAC box is a secret power-up to your system. Roon is fast becoming the thing for music lovers to access their music, but – it must be said – the cost of entry can be a little steep for the as yet unconvinced. By building on a Roon Essentials backbone, the ELAC Discovery truly lives up to its name: a product that at once allows the user to discover their music in a deeper way, discover just how Roon enhances that deep listening concept, and for those still on the spinning-disc side of things to discover the world beyond their collection. And it’s easy to operate, install, and navigate for anyone who has a modicum of web skills (I’m far from black belt web-savvy, but I was up and running inside of 10 minutes flat, and two of those minutes were spent finding and loading the Roon app). Roon isn’t the future of music replay, but it’s certainly a major part of the future of music replay, and the ELAC Discovery DS-S101-G is the best and easiest way to experience that right now. Unless you are likely to hit that 30,000 track limit, this little box comes strongly recommended.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Analogue outputs (independent zones): 2

Coaxial output (independent zone): 1 (192kHz 24-Bit Max)

Optical output: 1 (96kHz 24-Bit Max)

USB port (mass storage class): 1 USB 2.0

Ethernet port: 1 Gigabit Ethernet

End point support: Discovery, AirPlay, Roon End Point

ROON Essentials Control app: For iOS (64-bit Devices), Android (4.4 and higher), Windows (7, 8, and 10) and Apple OSX (10.8 and higher)

Track Limit: 30,000 Tracks 

Supported Audio Formats: WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, OGG, MP3, AAC

192kHz 24-Bit Audio Formats: WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC

External USB HDD file system support: EXT2, EXT3, EXT4, HFS+, NTFS, VFAT, and VFAT

Integrated streaming services: Tidal

Playback modes: Gapless, Crossfade, Shuffle, and Repeat

Multi-room support: Wired and Wireless

Dimensions (W×H×D): 21 × 4.8 × 11cm

Weight: 0.9kg

Price: £849

Manufactured by: ELAC GmbH

URL: elac.com

Distributed in the UK by: Hi-Fi Network

URL: hifi-network.com

Tel: +44 (0) 1285 643088

Tags: FEATURED

By Nicholas Ripley

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