“Music has Charms to soothe a savage Breast” William Congreve
‘The Beast’. An extraordinary name! It rolls off the tongue with a plosiveness, it summons images of Beowulf and other epic poems, and conjures up an image of substantial might. Shakespeare refers to a beast with two backs. But does the bite live up to the bark?
The Beast was conceived when Gerhardt Schneider, the Swiss manufacturer of Acustic Lab speakers, approached US company ReQuest (which builds Linux-based music servers) with the idea to build the ultimate high‑end server. Following the financial input of a private investor, ReQuest Switzerland AG was founded, which then bought its US partner. MSB joined the party and the Beast was born. It was designed in Bellach, near Bern with the express purpose of producing a best-of-breed animal, where money is no object.
The Belly of the Beast
The Beast is beautifully constructed. The case is aluminium, hewn from solid, there is a high-quality seven-inch touch-screen window that displays images of the ripped CD covers in miniature, and allows a useful amount of the server’s functionality to be accessed without using an iPad or PC as an interface. It is really convenient to have a touchscreen as a usable option even in our iPadded world, as this is not always the case with servers I have known. There is a slot at the front for easy CD ripping. Ripping takes around four minutes, and utilises the Gracenote database via a wired network connection at the back. While Gracenote is not entirely comprehensive for album artwork, its other metadata parameters seem to be nearly always correct. To activate the player from an iPad requires the server to be connected to a network. The iPad uses a web browser to access the player and not, as with most servers, an App. So after typing in an IP address, which can found through the touchscreen settings, you simply make an icon on the iPad of the web address to access the Beast remotely. The iPad interface gives the user most of the important functionality required to use the player for everyday use.
You can search by using the usual suspects, including ‘recently added’ and in fact the data have been organised to meet the hardest of asks, that is classical: search by artists, conductors, orchestra. A greater slice of functionality comes by using a PC to log on to the same IP address, whereupon you have the ability to do things like change artwork, and load files stored on a non‑NAS drive. This is in effect transferring files over your network, and is a great deal slower than uploading via USB. It took a couple of overnight sessions to upload some of my own high-resolution material to the player.
The Beast uses solid‑state hard drives; it comes with 0.96 TB or 1.92TB of on‑board storage and can cope with additional NAS drives. However, there is a claimed sonic advantage to using the internal drives, and ReQuest recommends these drives be used for high quality files, and the NAS additions for the lower quality material. The machine is virtually totally silent in operation as there are no moving parts contained within, save a small but silent fan. The Linux operating system has been written in‑house and works with quite a rapid boot‑up, and never once crashed on my watch.
The rear panel, as expected, has digital outputs in the form RCA, AES/EBU, BNC, Pro i2s, (a standard used by MSB), balanced and single-ended analogue outputs, and – perhaps surprisingly – analogue inputs, which may be useful to connect a turntable and a CD player. Equally surprisingly, the server doesn’t have any digital inputs, on the grounds of sound degradation rather than oversight. This makes life a bit more complicated if you don’t possess a high quality DAC, and you wish to play a digital source without transferring files.
There is scope for the addition of a high-quality clock, although as there are different versions of the Beast, the need for aftermarket reclocking becomes a touch academic. The ‘entry-level’ Beast requires the use of an external DAC, while the full package includes an MSB DAC and Galaxy Clock which has noise performance with a guaranteed jitter measurement (at the worse case) of less than 77 femtoseconds (0.077 picoseconds). Anyone who has played around with clocks and CD players, will know about the dramatic difference a good clock can make to the bass performance, soundstage and overall timing of the sound and this is no exception.
ReQuest has gone to enormous lengths to sort out the Beast’s power supplies. Power is re‑generated and is completely reconstructed. For the digital board, there are also temperature-stabilised supplies.
The Beast will play WAV or FLAC files up to 384KHz, and up to 32 bit, and all the current four formats of DSD. It will even stream video with the addition of an optional module, having the ability to rip and store DVD and Blu‑ray formats. It can be integrated into a home automation system, such as Crestron, AMX, Control4 etc, and has the ability to synchronise multiple iTunes accounts, as well as the ability to exchange information with other like-minded Beasts around the world over the Internet. Put simply, if it’s digital entertainment, The Beast takes it in its stride.
In case of difficulties, ReQuest offers an online support system called Arq‑Link, whereby a technician can sort out a problem remotely. This level of service is incredibly useful, particularly at the early stages of Beasthood, and is what I’d expect from a product at this price range.
The Nature of the Beast
To begin listening – the Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem, as conducted by the late Sir Colin Davis, [ Hyperion, 24bit/48kHz ]. The first thing that hits you is the ability of the Beast to recreate that massive sea of voices of the choir, without any harshness, and with a weightiness worthy of the biggest of big beasts. The timpani which does battle with the orchestral shrieks has immense authority, the sound for that brief second is taut, precise and vicious: no overhang. The soundstage is huge and the ire of the music is gripping. Tonally the sound is quite mellow, closer to the palette I get from great analogue and not typical for digital fare. There is deathly-black silence as a backdrop, and although the sound is incredibly vivid, it is not in the slightest fatiguing. This seems a far cry from the ‘Mac’n’DAC’ systems I have heard. It is altogether much more sophisticated, and is maximising the potential of the (slightly) higher resolution format. It doesn’t sound like any other of the computer audio I have heard recently, and really shows what solving the various audio conundra can achieve. There is no doubt for me what the stability of a clock source is doing in combination with a first-rate DAC. What is impressive though is that the streaming engine sounds so good. On cheaper less skilfully designed streamers, there is often a lack of definition to the soundstage. It presents like blancmange, smudged and uninteresting. The Beast is the polar opposite. The soundstage is finely etched, and there is texture to the sound. I find that a mediocre steamer makes me lose the will to listen. It does so little to convey nuances in the music, and I find it hard to stay with the narrative of the music. A great live concert has that ability to draw you into the sound and emotional world of a composer, you appreciate the palette of colours and textures of the instruments and voices. This server has many characteristics of that live experience to my mind and ears.
Turning to a CD ripped to the player, Bryn Terfel in the ‘Tutto Mozart’ album [ DG ] singing Bei Männern, a charming duet from the Magic Flute, I am astonished by the sheer naturalness of Terfel’s voice. It has a reality to it that is revelatory. Every tiny nuance in his expression comes across. The accompanying Scottish Chamber orchestra breathes colour into every phrase. I have the sense of the space of a large hall, with a vast quantity of air between the players and singers. It isn’t music whose demands are going to push a system to its limits, but it is just effortlessly beautiful. The server is just doing things right. The timing between the orchestra and singers is impeccable, and there is a spring to every phrase. The player helps with its ability to do micro phrasing, to suck the listener into the heart of the aria.
A favourite recording of mine is Mozart’s 18th Piano Concerto, as played by live by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic [Teldec, CD]. For some reason, Mozart Piano Concerti are very difficult to record, as you have a soloist in front, who often spars with woodwind players sitting a fair distance behind. To get everything to sound organic presents the recording engineer with a number of challenges.
The Beast turns into something of a pussycat for this, of the best audio kind. Mozart’s long and beautiful phrases are constructed so that they need the tiniest of inflexions to make the narrative work. The human ear can pick up the smallest of volume changes, which then creates the emphasis and hence the meaning of a phrase. I have heard numerous pieces of digital equipment that can do the broad brushstrokes well, but miss out on the subtleties of the musical line, and fail to engage me. The Beast has superb micro control of the phrasing, and dynamics, whilst presenting the orchestra in a gently persuasive way, which, in this concerto is highly seductive. The presentation is lithe and witty, just as I think Mozart intended it. Due to the tightness of the Beast’s bass control, there is good attack at the beginning of bass notes. Chords start as convincingly at the top as the bottom, and as a result, the harmony speaks with one impulse, not a smudged version of many impulses. This is what people call ‘timing well’, and the Beast really does this superbly. When it’s not quite right, the music sounds as if it lacks conviction, and coherence. The Beast’s presentation is highly coherent, and for these reasons I would call it ‘musical’.
Ravel’s ‘Tombeau de Couperin’ is a re‑scoring of some piano pieces dedicated to a couple of the composer’s friends that died during the First World War. On the Decca/Solti recording, the Rigaudon is beautifully crisp, and the orchestral space massive with plenty of air between instruments. The double basses grunt with complete control, the woodwind colours are crystalline, and there is tremendous dynamic energy to the playing. I have the feeling that the Beast is ‘allowing’ this sophisticated ensemble playing to happen effortlessly. There seem to be no obstacles in the way, and this is amongst the best renditions I have heard of this work, CD or not.
I have waited a long time to find a way of removing the huge quantities of smashed CD jewel cases from my shelves, with a server that could punch like a good CD player, but to date my search has been fruitless. ReQuest’s The Beast changes that: it can better my Esoteric K‑05 CD player without an external atomic clock, albeit with one, the fight is much closer: but the Beast certainly justifies its sobriquet for its gravitas and the sheer awe it inspires. It has an alter ego: lithe, quick footed, and an intelligence, which is always present. It is eye-wateringly, but reassuringly, expensive, but The Beast is the first vision of a post‑CD world that offers hope to even the most demanding of music lovers. I never imagined myself coveting a beast, and am preparing to deal with a turn of audio separation anxiety!
“No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none,
and therefore am no beast.” William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act I, Scene 2
Type: Solid-state music server with built‑in storage optional DAC and Clock
Storage: 0.96 TB or 1.92TB SSD
Analogue Inputs: Balanced XLR Input (pass through or controllable) over the optional analogue Diamond Volume control.
Digital Inputs: None
DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats: DSD all 4 different formats, WAVE / FLAC 44.1 / 88.2 / 96 / 174.4 / 192 / 384 and 16bit / 24bit / 32 bit
Analogue Outputs: One stereo balanced (via XLR connectors), one stereo unbalanced (via RCA jacks)
Digital Outputs: coaxial S/PDIF (via RCA jack), TOSLink, PRO i2S, BNC
User Interface: 7‑inch display (on main unit), Apple iPad, iPhone, Android, PC or Mac
Other Features: UPnP server
Dimensions (HxWxD): 19cm×44cm×46cm
Weight: weight depends upon configuration
Price: from £29,900
Manufacturer: ReQuest Audio Switzerland AG
Distributor: Absolute Sounds
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8971 3909
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