Product: Slim Devices Transporter audio streaming device
Manufacturer: Slim Devices - USA
Cost: 1999 USD (price quoted on Slim Devices site).
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: October, 2007
Having finally been convinced by the Attunes SB+ that PC-based audio can actually sound very good, I purchased a Slim Devices SB3, modified the digital output section and have been happily using it with an external DAC for some time. That means that I have now heard the standard Squeezebox (SB3), my modified version, and the Attunes version. Now Patrick Dixon of Attunes has also been kind enough to lend me his Slim Devices Transporter, so that I could compare it against the other Slim Devices based streaming devices, particularly the SB+.
The Transporter is Slim Devices' audiophile streaming device. While the standard SB3 isn't bad, I certainly wouldn't rate it as true hi-fi, and I don't think that SD have ever touted it as such. As I have found with my modified SB3, it can do a very good job as a digital source. And my review of the SB+ showed just how good it can get when you go to the lengths that Attunes do to completely rebuild it. So accepting that the SB3 isn't an audiophile item, Slim Devices set about designing their own up-market audio streaming device, and came up with the Transporter.
It should be obvious from the appearance of the Transporter that sound quality is not the only goal of the design. A large number of features have been added to the specification, making this much more than an up-market SB3! Unlike the SB3, the Transporter is an 'all-in-one' design with the power supply built into the same case. To accommodate all the extra features, and the PSU, the Transporter has a full-width case. The case is, to my eyes, quite attractive with its pseudo 'rack-mount meets hi-fi' looks. The well rounded corners and the 'fake' (removable) handles at the front give it a very individual look while retaining an obvious family likeness to the styling of the SB3.
The front panel carries not one, but two displays. I have found the display of the SB3 to be adequate 90% of the time. In fact I have often thought how useful it is compared to the display on my CDP! However, there have been times when having some extra information would have been useful so the second screen is a useful addition. Or at least it would be if it offered a few more options. I need the text full-size to see it clearly but I can't have say the track name on the left display and the elapsed time on the right unless I select the smaller text size and then I can't see it clearly! So, for most of the time I used the Transporter, the 'second' display was used for nothing more than showing off the rather sexy digital VU meters! Also on the front panel are no less than 14 push -buttons and a large knob. So all the features and functions of the Transporter can be controlled from the front panel, as well as from the remote control. Personally, I only see this as being useful while initially setting up the Transporter, unless you lose the remote control unit of course! The remote control unit looks like the one that comes with the SB3 but it has the very useful addition of back-lit keys. I wish mine did!
The rear of the Transporter sports just about every type of socket even the most geekish of audiophiles could want! There are coax, optical, BNC S/PDIF, and balanced AES/EBU digital outputs. Coax, optical and BNC S/PDIF, and balanced AES/EBU inputs can be used to feed the internal DAC. All these are in addition to the usual phono sockets for analogue output, the ethernet socket and the RS-232 socket for connection to a PC, and a word clock in socket that allows synchronization to an external clock source, ie when using the internal DAC with a CDP or transport. Despite the vast array of features included in the Transporter, it seems to weigh very little, not reassuring if you equate weight to value, but also not that unusual these days as manufacturers use more modern construction techniques instead of the older style sheet metal enclosures.
Inside the Transporter, Slim Devices have also been lavish with their specification. For instance, the power supply uses discrete regulators (the Walt Jung type). There is an AKM AK4396 Multi-bit Sigma-Delta DAC, and communication with the server PC can be wired or wireless.
I was lucky enough to be able to listen to the SB+ and then swap in the Transporter for a comparison. And I'm fairly sure that I could tell these two apart, even if the interval between auditions was longer! From the outset, the Transporter is impressive. Well defined deep bass and plenty of top end too. Overall presentation is strong and powerful. It digs out plenty of detail too! It's certainly improved on the stock SB3 but then given the price difference, I would expect no less.
Initially I got the impression that the Transporter wasn't quite as appealing as the SB+, or dare I say it, my modified SB3 with a separate DAC! The sound was what I can best describe as a good 'hi-fi', rather than the more musical presentation of the SB+. Side by side, the SB+ wasn't so impressive but did better convey the emotion in the music. I said to a friend that the Transporter sounds like it has good potential for tweaking. Yes, came the reply, but should you really have to tweak a piece of hi-fi that costs that much?
I had originally placed the Transporter on the shelf of my hi-fi rack, resting on its own feet. I took the support system that I use under my SB3 and placed it under the Transporter. The improvement was immense! The Transporter case is light-weight, and one reviewer even commented a little flimsy. He suggested that it could do with some bitumen panels to damp the resonance. The system I use 'drains' vibration from the unit, and in the case of the Transporter produced a big improvement. Incidentally, I got an improvement using the same system under my SB3, so perhaps this type of lightweight equipment benefits particularly well from being properly situated.
While the sound of the Transporter was very good, I still found it a frustrating component to listen to. On some music it was immense but too often I felt that the music wasn't communicating with me. In fact after four of five weeks, I tried my Scott Nixon DacKit with the Transporter, and the sound quality was clearly much better. By better, I mean that the music was much more engaging. For that reason, given the choice of an SB+ or Transporter, I would choose the SB+. Slim Devices have obviously gone to a lot of trouble in designing and producing the Transporter, and like I said, the sound is impressive. But the SB+, and the DacKit when used with the Transporter communicate with me more. I did try my best with different cables to help the Transporter, but it never achieved the enjoyment factor of the SB+. Having said all that, if you are considering buying something like the SB+, you should really try and audition the Transporter as well and decide for yourself which you prefer. And remember that my comments assume that the Transporter is set up correctly. I found the SB+ was less influenced by the support system, perhaps because it is in a heavier, more rigid casing.
If you are comparing the Transporter and SB+, you should also give some consideration to the extra facilities offered with the former, the SB+ having only the same display, remote, etc as the standard SB3. And of course, the higher price of the Transporter will be a factor also, but less so if you are purchasing the SB+ from outside of the UK!
© Copyright 2007 Nick Whetstone - www.tnt-audio.com