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Audio Ramblings - The Small Green Computer sonicTransporter i5 Music Server and the ultraRendu and ultraDigital Units from Sonore

01-13-2019 | By Dave Clark | Issue 101

The Small Green Computer's sonicTransporter i5 fills a niche for those looking to add a simple and affordable music server to their system—one that runs with, say Roon (you will need a license for Roon), though the sonicTransporter i5 can also run with Samba and other software options. I say affordable as it is $795 (base unit with standard wall-wart PS and 64GB solid-state drive) and that gets you quite a lot in terms of features, specifications, and performance. The i5 nomenclature reflects the i5 processor and the unit runs their own OS; sonicOrbiter. Better than perhaps a NUC? No idea, though it is a bit more in terms of price. Better than say Roon's own Nucleus? No idea, but it is a bit less in terms of price. And it is purpose built to just play your music, and that by itself suggests that it should be better than a NUC, and perhaps rather competitive with the Nucleus.

Optional drives are available as well as a better LPS. Both, of course, will drive up the cost. Mine came with the standard 64GB drive (all my music lies on an external NAS) and the $160 LPS option. A nice upgrade over the standard wall-wart. Go for it.

Small Green Computer's sonicTransporter i5 Music Server

The sonicTransporter i5 with separate power supply.

The sonicTransporter i5 is smaller than the image on their site suggests. I thought it was more full-size, but no, the unit is quite small. Fit in your hand small (2.25 x 5.25 x 6.75 inches and only 2.4lbs).

The backside offers two USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports (only one can be used for a USB drive at a time) and an Ethernet port (the HDMI/VGA ports are only for video setup). Note, the sonicTransporter i5 does not have a USB digital out, meaning you will need to use something like the Sonore microRendu or the ultraRendu for USB digital. When the sonicTransporter i5 is connected to the network, Roon Server will find any Roon endpoint to "point" the music towards…  either a network DAC (like my PS Audio DirectStream DAC with its Network Bridge that is a Roon endpoint—in this situation, the sonicTransporter i5 is acting as both a server and renderer) or the microRendu or the ultraRendu which then act as the renderer/player with the sonicTransporter i5 acting as the server. Which is what I did with the ultraRendu. Well, that and then adding the ultraDigital (a USB digital converter with S/PDIF output via BNC and a LVDS i2s output via HDMI) to take the USB from the ultraRendu and then out to PS Audio DAC via HDMI. Both Rendu units came with the better $159 LPS units—one for each Rendu.

The power supplies for the two Rendu units.

Small Green Computer? Small for sure. Green? Green as it will not cost a whole lot of green. And yeah, it is a computer. Only 6 watts consumption… that is really green!

Meaning for the money, well… the combo, or latter trio, is really damn good. And separating the renderer and streamer allows less for resources in the sonicTransporter i5 to tax things out… spread the load across two units and you get more. More music.

Alright, but before I get into that, the sonicTransporter i5 is pretty much plug and play. I mean literally. I like this, especially with it being the end of 2018. No special computer or network skills are needed to get the unit up and running. If I can do it, then anyone can do it… well, I do have a fair amount experience with other network streamers/renderers/players and the like, but yeah, even so anyone should have this up and running in under 10 mins. Directions are clear and simple. A web browser interface is a nice touch too, making setup a breeze. A few steps and within 10 minutes I had my music playing with zero a hitch. Way cool. Well, not the sonicTransporter i5 which rends to run rather warm to the touch, but I was told that this is not an issue. But for sure, glitch free after a good number of weeks.

Simple and elegant. Clean and nice. Just like what I heard of our music when using the sonicTransporter/ultraRendu i5 via USB to the PS Audio DAC, our music came across as clean, articulate, detailed… wonderful extension at either end as well. Solid bottom-end, clean and airy highs when there and not, when not there. Bright and thin when the music is bright and thin, full and rich when the music is full and rich. Of course, I am not just listening to the sonicTransporter i5, but to it and Roon as the playback software… so how much is Roon and how much is the sonicTransporter i5? Good question and one I can answer, but give a minute or two with my Roon experience before I go down that path.

I have been using, for the majority of my file play back, the AUALiC Aries G2 with its Lightening DS software. Why? Well it simply serves our time better in that the G2 is USB out and the PS Audio DirectStream DAC is USB in (the DAC does offer other digital ins: USB, S/PDIF, HDMI, and its own network option via the Network Bridge), but I am rather lazy. Swapping USB inputs results in me having to reboot the G2 every time, and so I just leave it connected as is. I mean, file playback is supposed to be easy and who wants to be turning things off and on every time, I needed to change devices (the G2 and the Antipodes Edge/Core combo). So, I sort of set Roon and all off to the side and time passed by. In comes the sonicTransporter i5 with Roon and well… yeah, time to refresh myself with that! Roon that is. Well Roon is pretty slick and I do like using it with whatever device is running Roon, and, well …it has a sound of its own, though I am not sure if I can put my finger on it as I am listening to two different units… each using different software. I mean I loved the Edge/Core combo with Roon and I love the G2 running DS… but then I do have a few issues with Roon and how it swipes left, is missing many of the artists' images (my music is a bit obscure), and so on. But then I also find many of its options to be so cool and fun to use (though I do admit to not using all of Roon's capabilities). Anyhow the issues are all minor and really of no consequence as the combo of Antipodes and Roon sounded really damn good—I kept the review pair. Meaning Roon works wonderfully and is a great way to access one's music and well… yeah, it is highly recommended. But then it does cost you either a yearly fee, or a lifetime one and Lightning DS is free. And like I said, I am lazy, so either I hook up the Antipodes pair or the G2 and leave things as they are… too much to do!

Anyhow… so, where am I? Yeah, but the sonicTransporter i5/ultraRendu via USB with Roon sounded killer. Really, really good.

Uh… yeah. But not wanting to swap out the USB I can use the sonicTransporter i5 solo via the network to the Bridge option on the PS Audio (selectable via Roon). Nice but clearly not quite as good (different?) as via the ultraRendu and certainly not as good (other differences?) with ultraDigital in the chain. While I have spent considerable time to make sure my network (for audio) is as good as I can get it at the moment (Cardas, Sablon Audio, or Wireworld Ethernet cables and the network switch from AQVOX reviewed HERE), well, yeah going through that to the Bridge was good, really good… but I preferred the USB with the ultraRendu as it sounded more there. More there in terms of the resolution and air… more excitement and presence. The Bridge was perhaps a tad laid-back compared to the USB input, and while perhaps it presented our music with a bit more refinement and ease (calmness and clearly a robustness that was rather engaging), there was less of that visceral thereness that I like to hear with our music. Of course, this is all a matter of preference and the music we tossed its way; other people will react differently based on what they like and what they want from their music. I could certainly live with the Bridge connection as it sounds really damn good, but after hearing the USB via the ultraRendu… yeah, no. Except, the really cool thing with Roon is that I can select either the Bridge or the ultraRendu to play my files back. A quick "select this" in Roon on the iPad and the PS Audio DAC's remote and I can toggle between the two as my mood changes… make that reference based on my current mood and music. Way cool.

Are these differences an issue of the Ethernet out on the sonicTransporter i5? Maybe. Perhaps. Possibly. Differences in cables? USB cables from Sablon Audio or Purist Audio Diamond vs Ethernet cables from Wireworld Starlight or Cardas Clear? Maybe. Possibly. My take is that the ultraRendu is really that good. Which is what I came to realize by swapping things back and forth. If one is going the sonicTransporter i5 route, spring for the ultraRendu or at least the microRendu ($625) along with the better LPS. Spring for everything, as everything improved with them in the chain. Sonically and musically. I just wanted to listen and listen… but… damn the need to swap in and out USB cables with G2 and its need to be rebooted (turned off, swap USB cable, then turn on and wait). Actually, the G2 requires this for any digital cable swap and sadly USB sounds the best as AURALiC spent a whole lot of time and research into getting the USB out to be one of the better things out there for streaming music. And as such, no hot-swapping with the G2. It is not a fault of the unit, but how the digital out locks onto the input on the DAC. And I mean "lock." Disconnect a cable on the G2 and it sort of goes into confusion of where the DAC went, "Please reboot me so I can sort this out. I had you and then you disappeared! We had such a solid connection before and now you are gone."

ultraRendu digitalRendu

The ultraRendu and ultraDigital sitting on the Antipodes CX.

Oh, wait…. The ultraDigital! There you go. Network in (from the switch) to the ultraRendu, then USB out of the ultraRendu to the ultraDigital then out from there via HDMI to the PS Audio DAC (Audioquest Carbon HDMI). The ultraDigital comes with a sheet showing which internal dip-switch goes where for the HDMI of whatever one is connecting it to—in my case, the unit had already been configured for the PS Audio DirectStream DAC. Way cool. Plug and play!

ultraRendu digitalRendu

The backside of the ultraDigital sitting on the Anitpodes CX.

Oh, baby now we are talking… or cooking. Yeah, this is the option I have been wanting all along. This way I can use the G2 or say, the sonicTransporter i5 without having to disconnect or reboot anything. Simply select the digital in on the remote and hit play either via the app on my iPad. And musically, I prefer this pathway with the sonicTransporter i5 anyhow. Way fun, way musical, way engaging. And yet different than the G2. Not saying better or not as good as the G2, just different. A different different. Each with their own character (again Roon vs DS, well yeah, but no. Really Roon/sonicTransporter i5/ultraRendu USB/ultraDigital HDMI vs DS/G2/USB), but neither bettering each other in any way that would detract one from the music. For sure it is way different in terms of what is in the chain (the OS and everything else in terms of boxes, cables, etc.). But yeah both options are way good, though I do find the G2 to ever so slightly better fit our preferences, and our music. Preferences that are important to us… space, refinement, resolution, palpable presence. Not dramatically different for sure, but more of a difference in how these are all presented to us that fits better our preferences. As I said, more about character as opposed to being better. Differences that might be less or more important to you. And the G2 is simpler for sure. One box. One cord. Perhaps the complexity becomes an issue of this difference… more boxes, cables, power supplies changes things here and there? Maybe. Not sure it matters as the Roon/sonicTransporter i5/ultraRendu USB/ultraDigital HDMI competes rather well and if one wants Roon, well then it is the way to go. I could easily live with either one and clearly find both to be quite musical and recommended. I can see the Roon/sonicTransporter i5/ultraRendu USB/ultraDigital HDMI as my Roon chain and the G2 as, well, not my Roon chain (I bought the G2 at the end of my review, which can be found HERE). Wonderful tools for reviewing… wonderful music streamers.

ultraRendu digitalRendu

The ultraRednu and ultraDigital with brass weights to keep them in place.

And I will confess that trying to put what one hears with these streaming devices into words is rather difficult. I mean, our music sounds really great with either, though as I said somewhat different… but, and this is so important, WAY better than any Mac or whatever we have had in house running any software I could out there… and with way less hassle and headaches. They do not sound like our analog set-up but they do make our music sound really good to us. I mean, really good. Are they accurate? Are they true to the original? Hell if I know. All I know is that either is going to make your life and music quite engaging. Which one to go with is your preference. Your call. 30 days try to it, then to either buy it or return it. You would end up buying it.

How does the sonicTransporter i5 compare to other Roon devices? Such as the Roon Nucleus or the CX or EX from Antipodes? I do not have a Nucleus here to compare so no idea there, but I will say that for sure, the older and discontinued Antipodes Edge/Core combo running Roon does better the Roon/sonicTransporter i5/ultraRendu USB/ultraDigital HDMI chain (via USB put to the DAC), but then it is three times as much. Is it three times better? Sadly, audio does not work that way… all diminishing returns. Spend a lot more and you only gain a little more. Of course, this is all moot as Antipodes has replaced the Core and Edge with the CX and EX which are priced not that much more than the older Core and Edge. I have one of the new CX units here, but that is the next article. I will say that it is amazingly good and offers the option of going out via a second Ethernet port—that is direct out to the ultraRendu as opposed to going out through the same Ethernet cable that is coming in from the switch. Direct and perhaps better? Next time.

Small Green Computer's sonicTransporter i5 Music Server

Price-wise the Roon/sonicTransporter i5/ultraRendu USB/digitalRendu HDMI is going to be what? $795 for the sonicTransporter i5, $499 for Roon (lifetime, or $109 a year), $895 for the ultraRendu, $325 for the ultraDigital, $159 for each LPS (say $477 total) and you got what? $2991 plus whatever for an HDMI cable and three AC cords. A lot of boxes, connections/cables, and so on, but one can start small and go large. Build the chain as the need and/or money allows. And of course, you do not need the ultraDigital unless you really want to go HDMI and so that would save you a good $500 plus whatever you would spend on an HDMI cable and another AC cord. Or go with the microRendu and save even more. The sonicTransporter i5 with Roon and the microRendu would a great starting point (perhaps endpoint) and will set you back $1923 (with the basic wall-warts). Solid recommendation.

Quibbles? Uh, that light on the front is like a beacon. Possible to cut the brightness a bit? Also, as I said the unit does run rather warm. Am thinking is that because the case is the heatsink? No worries. Highly Recommended.

Small Green Computer