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QAT RS3 music server/player

QAT RS3 music server/player

QAT Audio’s new RS3 music server/player shows just how far computer audio has come in a short time. It’s as perfectly comfortable in a domestic environment as it would be in the home automation world. That last sentence is also reversible, and is something that simply would have been impossible to say even a year ago.

The thing about home automation is robustness. Products need to work, without fuss or bother, without even being powered down, for years. Maintenance is expensive (site maintenance in a plant room means call out fees and a lot of scrabbling round), which means shaky operating systems and hokey interfaces are the kiss of death. You need to be able to access your music as and when you want to, and if the system decides to crash on Christmas Day, the person who installed it isn’t going to get a happy phone call on December 26. QAT got close when last we tested the MS5, but the whole package has taken on a more professional, more bomb-proof air now. And yet, for all that, the RS3 looks pretty good out in the open, with its brushed aluminium black or silver finish.

Part of the RS3’s appeal (to both conventional and home automation users) is its flexibility. There’s no CD-ROM device on board, because QAT claims that many who have a CD collection to rip have already ripped it, and the RS3 will play, import, and export music collections to and from external NAS or HDD units. However, if you have not already migrated your collection across, the supplied USB-based external Samsung DVD-ROM drive can step into the breach. Similarly, if you store your music on an external USB or NAS drive, it can access that, too. If you store music on the RS3 itself, use the swappable 1TB 2.5” drive. And there’s a RS232 port and remote connection for the home automation installer. The slim cabinet is fan cooled, but the RS3 doesn’t run hot, and you can turn the fans off with a flick of a switch.

In terms of audio outputs, you are limited to balanced XLR and single-ended RCA outputs, and a lone S/PDIF connection, which is why it’s as more of a player than a media server. You are less likely to use the RS3 as a standalone server that connects to a separate streamer, in part because UPnP is not a strong suit of the QAT. Instead, the RS3 is more a ‘one stop shop’ of computer-based audio, converting its digital output through an AKM AK4396 DAC device. While this chip supports DSD replay, and the QAT system can store DSD, at the present DSD is downsampled to 24/192 precision: the RS3’s current highest resolution. However, given QAT has a good reputation for keeping its products up-to-date with firmware and app enhancements, full DSD support may be unlocked at a later date.

 

The RS3 we received came without a manual, because it’s in the late stages of being translated into English, but it’s fairly straightforward in set-up. At least, it’s fairly easy to set up if you are computer savvy. My recommendation is to use the supplied Wi-Fi dongle to your own internet router, and then use the Android/iDevice app to control the device. Populating its menu with an external hard drive is relatively simple (it supports most formats, although Apple Lossless seems a notable omission at this time), and you can easily rip CDs to high quality, either to the internal or external hard drives.

I think computer audio has generally been a case of services improving to meet (and, occasionally, exceed) the demands of the client. That is a never-ending quest; the closer the hardware and software get to meeting all the expectations of the end users, the sooner something new comes along to push those expectations still further. This scenario is fairly common when a new technology comes along, and computer audio echoes a lot of disciplines and interests (such as digital photography). However, of late, most of those demands have settled down, as people are finally content with the systems they are getting. So it is with QAT’s RS3. Expectations from any computer audio system are high now, but the products the manufacturers supply are mostly meeting them.

Not having a manual to hand, I was reluctant to test whether the supplied 1TB removable 2.5” disc was hot-swappable, but I’d assume the answer was ‘definitely not’ when dealing with a spinning drive, and ‘probably not’ when dealing with a solid-state drive. Hot swapping (removing the drive while still playing) is not a good idea in general, because of the potential for lost data, and in traditional hard disk drives, irreparable disc head crashes. A modern 2.5” drive – destined for laptop use – is extremely robust, but disconnecting a spinning drive while it’s still spinning moves out from ‘testing’ and into ‘attempted digital murder’. Until and unless the manual says expressly otherwise, power down the RS3 before swapping out a front mounted disc drive.

Devices at this price have to improve on the basic performance of a computer, yet do so without the cost-no-object approach of ReQuest’s The Beast. That’s a difficult balancing act, but one the QAT RS3 pulls off well. In fact, it pulls this off three ways over; as a ripper, as a media server (through its S/PDIF output) and as a player in its own right.

Ripped CDs, using the Samsung external drive into the QAT, sound very close to the original. There is a strong case to say that one ripped file is very much like any other ripped file, especially in lossless or uncompressed formats, but in very close listening, the ripped WAV files of a Naim UnitiServe sounded more dynamic than those of the RS3. But both sound better than the sound from a USB DAC playing straight from a MacBook Pro, and the rips from the QAT sounded mid-way between the Mac and the Naim. This also highlighted the development that has gone into the RS3 and app, because it populated even difficult metadata extremely well. The Discs That Metadata Forgot (such as a ‘questionable’ Italian version of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Phil playing Beethoven’s Eroica symphony [Naitse Sound, CD]) were populated quickly and accurately, even if the covers were not quite so forthcoming. The rare missed metadata is not a deal-breaker, as all this information can be easily edited from the app.

 

Playing music routed through the RS3 was good too. Once again, it was markedly better than the Mac, but not up to the standard of a Melco N1Z (more on that soon) when feeding into the outgoing Nagra HD DAC. What the QAT had in its favour was the fact it made music sound less ‘file-based’, as those who still prefer CD are wont to say against computer audio sounds. Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ [Highway 61 Revisited, Columbia] managed to pull some bass depth out of a rather thin transfer and His Bobness’ voice manages to have some more timbral ‘shape’ than the simple nasality found on many computer audio rips, while the interplay between some of the best jazz musicians ever is kept fresh, taut, and very much ‘in the pocket’ on the title track of Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else’ [Blue Note]. This last gets so much play in audiophile circles it’s almost worn out musically, but the RS3 manages to wind back the clock to when it wasn’t just cliché.

Finally, as a player in its own right, this is where the RS3 really comes into its own. It’s a great all-rounder, with a DAC that’s cool, calm, and collected, with a pounding sense of rhythm, and a dry, sophisticated tonal balance. These qualities came into their own when playing ‘Chameleon’ by Trentemøller [The Last Resort, Poker Flat], where the speed of the attack and precision and depth of the bass really bring the track alive. This isn’t the first choice for those wanting rich and mellifluous computer audio sound, or perhaps those wanting the widest, broadest, deepest soundstage around, but for those wanting a sound that’s precise and tight, the RS3 is bang on the money!

The days of putting a PC in a box and calling it a ‘music server’ are slowly coming to a close, and brands like QAT are the reason. The RS3 is a dedicated audio device for supporting the transition into next-generation audio, a perfect example of the company’s increasing maturity, and as such deserves high praise.

Technical Specifications

  • Digital inputs: USB (2× rear mount, 1× front mount), RJ45, Home Control System connection through RS232 port
  • Analogue outputs: 2× RCA single-ended, 2× XLR balanced
  • Digital output: S/PDIF RCA, USB
  • HDD: removable front-mounted 2.5” HDD (1TB supplied)
  • Formats supported: Support PCM, WAV, APE, FLAC, AIFF, WMA, M4A, MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, DSD etc. (Feature formats will be supported via software updates)
  • Data rates supported: 16bit, 44.1kHz to 24bit, 192kHz
  • Signal/Noise Ratio: 100dB
  • Frequency Response: Not Specified
  • App for iOS and Android
  • Colour: Black/ Silver
  • Dimensions (W×D×H): 435×262×45mm
  • Weight: 4kg
  • Price: €1,790

Manufactured by: QAT Audio

URL: www.qat-audio.com

email: [email protected]

Tags: FEATURED

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