Categories of differences

Comparing products like the Wax Box is complicated. Sound quality is important, as is the case for all audio components, but there is much more to the user experience than just sound quality. Here are a few categories that might help you structure your deliberations and many issues that you might want to consider.

Convenience

Ripping

If the product does not support ripping then you will have to rip CDs using your desktop system and then transfer the sound files over the network or with a flash drive.

Editing metadata and cover art

How easy is it to correct or edit the cover art or metadata after ripping your files? Can you edit directly on the system, or do you have to transfer the sound files to your desktop, edit them there, and then transfer them back? With Wax, you can edit at any time. To fully appreciate the advantage, consider this scenario: While playing a selection, you notice an error in the metadata or you decide that you want to add metadata. In Wax, you simply switch to Edit mode and make the change. When you return to Play mode, the change is immediately visible. Simple changes take mere seconds to complete.

Converting to analog

There must be a DAC somewhere in your system. You should include the cost of the DAC when you compare the costs of various options. Also consider that the external DAC takes space in your rack or cabinet, and that you have to wire it to your system.

Protecting and future-proofing your sound archive

You must back up your system. A few systems provide automatic backup to an internal HDD. With other systems, you have to perform the back up over the network either manually or automatically using a tool that you configure. You will have to back up to your desktop system or to a NAS. You have to assure that your backup device has sufficient storage capacity for your entire sound archive. Forget to perform this chore at your peril!

Some products save your music and metadata in encrypted files. If you ever want to replace your system or just listen to recordings on another platform (e.g., a portable media player), encrypted files make it impossible.

Some products back up only files ripped using the product’s software, not imported files.

Updating the system

To keep your system up to date, most manufacturers make software updates available. Naim does not. Meridian does, but you have to take your system to your dealer to have the updates installed. Most systems permit you to download updates over the Internet, but several require that you run a program to install the update. Others have a built-in update procedure, but you have to actuate it manually. Only one has a fully automatic, built-in updating procedure.

Controlling the system remotely

It is far more convenient to operate the system using a tablet, so having an IR remote to interact with a small display on the front of the box that you squint at from across the room probably does not add much value. Some products provide a remote-control application that works only on the iPad tablet. Others support iOS and Android. Very few support all platforms (3beez does). You might also care that some products permit only one remote device. With Wax, you can have several, which makes it possible for you to move smoothly from your tablet to your desktop and even to a smart phone.

Exporting

Many people want to be able to transfer sound files from their music management system to a portable media player (or smart phone). How does the product handle the problem of incompatible formats (e.g., you ripped to FLAC, but the portable player only plays MP3)?

Using a NAS

Many people use a NAS to store their music. A NAS connects to a digital music system over the network, so it can be located anywhere in a home that provides access to the network. A NAS usually contains at least two HDDs, and HDDs produce acoustic noise when they are operating. Thus, a significant virtue of a NAS is that it can be placed somewhere away from the listening space to isolate the noise of the HDDs. A NAS is usually configured to idle the HDDs after a period of inactivity. The Synology NAS that I own was configured at the factory to idle the HDDs after 20 minutes of inactivity. If the HDDs are idle, I have to wait about half a minute before I can access files. If you use a NAS for your sound archive, remember that you will experience this delay if you want to play music at a time when the HDDs are idle. Increasing the timeout delay will keep the HDDs ready to play, but doing so will also increase wear.

Sound quality

Maximizing sound quality

We believe that the correct architecture for best sound quality uses an external DAC. It is possible to achieve audiophile sound quality with a DAC inside the box, but only through careful design. Manufacturers who take this approach typically have shielded compartments in their cases for the DAC, a special power supply, and a special clock generator. These special features add a lot to the cost. The upgrade path is unclear if another codec becomes important in the future (e.g., DSD or MQA) or if technology becomes available offering superior sound quality (e.g., DACs with lower noise levels). With an external DAC, you can always replace it.

It is possible for a digital sound source to affect sound quality even when using an external DAC because the DAC might not protect itself adequately from broadband noise transmitted on the interconnect. The best interfaces (least bad, actually) for connecting the DAC are S/PDIF or AES-3id. You can read more about how 3beez implements these interfaces in the Wax Box 4 Special Edition with a custom digital interface board (BitScrubber board).

Acoustic noise

Some products have a fan for cooling, but even products without fans have HDDs which produce noise. Manufacturers take pains to minimize the noise emitted into the listening room. Most listeners will find the noise level acceptably low a reasonable distance away from the device. However, listeners who are still concerned should notice that the Wax Box offers completely silent operation by spinning down the sound drive after copying sound files to a cache in SSD.

DSD compatibility

Many audiophiles are interested in DSD compatibility. It is not legal to rip the DSD layer of SACD, but you can purchase DSD downloads from a few web sites. Many of these recordings sound good even though DSD has fundamental technical flaws. If DSD compatibility is important to you, a few systems offer it. For more information about DSD, see comments on DSD.

Supported ripping formats

Aside from DSD, all systems can play all formats that matter, as far as we know. However, not all permit you to rip to any format. Some products always rip to FLAC. Others give you a choice only of WAV or FLAC. FLAC is a good choice for an encoder, but you might prefer a different one for compatibility with a portable player or for more compact storage.

Gapless playback

Gapless playback is essential for playing classical works that segue from one movement to the next and even in pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and The Dark Side of the Moon. Although most devices seem to support gapless playback these days, be sure to check – especially if you plan to use UPnP – as support has been spotty in the past.

User interface

Ease of use

Is the user interface intuitive in its operation? How many clicks (or taps) does it take to perform common operations? How easy is it to find your music? How easy is it to set up a play list? If you want to use a keyboard and mouse for ripping, does the system allow you to connect them, or do you have to do the ripping on your desktop system and transfer the results over your network?

If your music library includes thousands of CDs, are you content to scroll through page after page of covers to find the music you seek? Textual information is less flashy, but conveys more information in a given space. Partitioning your collection into genres makes it easier to locate specific recordings without having to perform searches.

Appearance

Is the user interface attractive? You are going to be staring at it a lot, so it better not be repugnant. Do you want to be able to fiddle with skins? Foobar and JRiver support them.

Effectiveness on a range of platforms

If you want to be able to operate your system from a broad range of platforms, is the user interface effective even on a display the size of the one on your smart phone? Displaying information on a small screen is particularly challenging. Does the system truncate or use a ticker-tape display to cram metadata into a small space? Do you have to peer across the room at a small display on the front of a box?

Presenting metadata the way you want

Does the system provide the information you want to enhance your enjoyment of the music in your collection? To what extent does it force you to deviate from the way you would like to organize your collection? If pre-set tags aren't to your liking, is it easy to change them or add new ones? To do so, do you need to learn a scripting language? Do you need additional software running on top of the software that came with the product so that you can organize and edit your music easily? If the software provided with the product was developed by a third party or by the open-source community, whom do you contact for support?

Many CDs (esp. classical CDs) are “compilations” that include several works on a single CD, e.g., a CD with four Mozart symphonies each consisting of four movements. As you shop, consider whether the software that comes with the product allows you to split separate works into separate recordings. Can you split works on a single CD to separate genres? How about the reverse: Can you combine multiple CDs (e.g, The White Album) into one recording?

Conclusions

Most likely, you will find differences in hardware features that are significant to you. However, the biggest differences are in the software. Here are a few that you might want to consider. Most people enjoy looking at cover art, but scrolling through thousands of covers to find a specific recording is tedious and it doesn't allow you to survey multiple versions of the same work to make your selection. By grouping recordings into genres and subgenres, Wax reduces the number you need to survey to find the one you want. By providing a unique set of metadata keys for each genre, Wax permits you to describe recordings in the way that makes the most sense to you, without cluttering the display with keys that are not relevant. Our “infinite metadata” feature allows you to store as much information as you want: the members of a jazz combo, the cast of an opera, or the accompanist for a recital, for example. Despite this power, it is still possible to use Wax effectively on a screen as small as the one on your smart phone, and the functionality is exactly the same regardless of control platform. Only the Wax software has all these characteristics.