Pareto Audio Custom Streaming Server Review
Jun 11, 2021 at 6:37 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 8

littlej0e

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Howdy,

I recently upgraded from a Windows PC to a custom streaming server built by Pareto Audio and thought I would share my impressions as well as some of the lessons I learned along the way. For the record, I am not a professional reviewer. I can barely spell (I mean, my screen name contains the number "0" instead of the letter "O") and I don't really have a clue what the hell I'm talking about. Though, to be fair, neither do most of the "professional" reviewers I've seen. I hope this helps someone regardless. Enjoy...

General Server Specs and Information
  • Server: Pareto Audio Custom (https://paretoaudio.com)
  • Price: Pareto offers three "good, better, best" base options for pricing and subsequent performance. I chose not to disclose pricing as a courtesy. For reference, I chose the "best" base option and expanded from there.
  • Operating System: AudioLinux
  • Software/User Interface: Roon Core & HQPlayer (Linux embedded)
  • Processor: Intel(R) Core(TM) i9-10900X CPU @ 3.70GHz (10 Core)
  • RAM: 64 GB
  • Storage: 4TB
  • Power Supply: HDPLEX 500W ATX Linear Power Supply (external)
  • Network Connectivity: wireless (external). I will upgrade to a on-board 10gb fiber card in the near future.
  • DAC connectivity: USB 2.0 (external)
  • Cooling: Active (Noctua 120mm x 4)
  • Primary Audio Chain: Raal Requisite SR1a Ear Speakers > Raal SR1028 Silver cable (3m) > Raal HSA-1b Amplifier/AudioQuest Firebird Power Cable (1m) > AudioQuest Fire XLR Cables (.75m) > WA33 EE JPS Amplifier (in preamp mode)/AudioQuest Firebird Power Cable (1m)> AudioQuest Fire XLR Cables (1m) > Holo May KTE Edition Digital-to-Analog Converter/AudioQuest Firebird Power Cable (1m) > AudioQuest Diamond USB > Pareto Audio Custom Server/HDPLEX 500W External Power Supply/AudioQuest Firebird Power Cable (2m) > Roon > Qobuz/Locally Stored Music
  • Other Listening Devices: Dan Clark Ether C Flow 1.1, Audeze Penrose X, Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max + Ultimate Ears FITS earbuds (Bluetooth), OnePlus 7T Pro Mclaren Android Phone + JBL Reflect Mini earbuds (Bluetooth), MacBook Pro 2019, Windows Desktop (ASLA and WASAPI) and Linux Desktop (ASLA on Solus, Pop_OS!, and Manjaro).
Process
  • Contact - I reached out to Pareto audio via email and received a call shortly thereafter. I can't remember exactly how long it to them to respond, but it couldn't have been more than a couple of hours.
  • Consultation - -I spent approx. an hour on the phone with Pareto answering questions about my needs, wants, goals, and other components in my system. We covered many wide-ranging topics including upscaling, vibration dampening, life, the hifi industry, general nerdery, etc. Larry was kind enough to share some of his considerable knowledge and experience with me throughout the process, but the end goal was pretty clear from the beginning: he wanted to ensure the server would perfectly fit my use case, work seamlessly with the other components in my system, and that I would get the absolute most out it.
  • Finalization - Pareto scheduled another short call a couple of days after the initial consultation to discuss some advanced options and finalize the BoM (bill of materials).
  • Quoting & Invoicing - Pareto emailed over the BoM along with a quote for the materials and services. I did a final review of the BoM, digitally signed the quote, and emailed it back. I received a PayPal invoice shortly thereafter that I paid at my earliest convenience.
  • Building - Pareto began ordering the parts and building the server. They also gave me additional options for some low-cost upgrades along the way, which I both really appreciated and gladly accepted.
  • Updates - They provided frequent updates (some including pictures) throughout the build process. They did run into some problems with part availability due to COVID-19 like every other company. But the key thing I really appreciated was constant and open communication. I never had to wonder about the status of my build or guess when I was going to hear from them again. It was a master class in how to treat and communicate with a customer.
  • Testing - After the build was complete, Pareto thoroughly tested the server for operation, stability, integration (with similar components to those in my system), and thermal tolerance (I specifically chose active cooling so I can do DSD and PCM upsampling), then scheduled another short call to present the results.
  • Final Invoicing & Shipping - Soon after testing was complete, they sent me the final PayPal invoice for the additional low-cost upgrades along with shipping costs, which I again paid at my earliest convenience.
  • Installation - My server arrived approx. 1 week later in two separate boxes, one containing the server and the other containing some random odds and ends along with the original packaging for all of the individual components. All told, everything was packed quite well and arrived completely undamaged. Larry worked with me over the phone and remotely via screen sharing from my PC to install, troubleshoot, and upgrade the server. I initially had a few problems with Roon (all of which I caused, because...nerd) and Larry patiently and repeatedly worked with me, sometimes after hours, until they were resolved. He did it all without cringing or calling me an idiot, which is probably the most impressive part of this entire experience.
  • Operation - After turning up the server, Larry continued to check in with me periodically to ensure everything was continuing to run smoothly. For reference, I run this server on a home Comcast/Xfinity (*shudder*) wifi network with a wireless router provided by the ISP. I haven't had any problems streaming music to/from any device that I've tried. Overall, the server has been rock solid.
  • Time - From start to finish, the entire process took approximately two months. This is mostly due to part shortages and my personal insistence on waiting until the rest of my hifi components arrived (FYI, the Raal SR1a + WA33 EE JPS + this server = tiny bits of brain matter everywhere :))
Pros
  • Sound - The sound quality from this server is stunning. Clarity, resoluteness, and holographic presentation are the most prevalent characteristics. It's akin to sipping an extra smooth, top-shelf whiskey while watching a beautiful sunset from an empty 747 airplane hanger. The clarity, separation, and space are just awesome. The single best word I could use to describe the sound is peaceful. The sound quality on the Pareto eclipses every other source I've heard.
  • Modularity - Pareto servers can be configured in so many different ways (horizontal or vertical chassis, storage, processors, connectivity, active or passive cooling, etc., etc.) I could easily waste a page on options alone. If you can dream it, Pareto can probably build it in one form or another. I'll just leave it at that.
  • Flexibility - Almost every component is swappable and/or upgradable. This is a very big deal for me personally as I want to be able to upgrade components as time goes on and technology progresses.
  • Nerd Knobs - If you are an IT nerd, Linux fanboy, tinkerer, or otherwise technically inclined, a Pareto is definitely for you. If you aren't, it still could be...just know and respect your limits!
  • Fan Control - This might sound trivial, but I love the fact I can control the case fans, along with subsequent noise and heat levels, from a simple "set it and forget it" dial on the external HDPLEX power supply. No annoying variable fan noise kicking on and off while I'm trying to listen to the Spice Girls (fight me...). On the second-to-lowest voltage setting, the server fans are inaudible to my ears while the server remains cool and well within operational temperatures.
  • Horsepower - The amount of processing power and throughput packed into this server borders on ridiculous (as you probably guessed from the specs above). It can simultaneously handle numerous 192k hi-res music streams, mid-level DSD upsampling or max level PCM upsampling with HQPlayer, and convolution filter processing in Roon all without flinching, let alone overheating or clipping. Good luck finding a "mainstream" server that can do all of that without adversely affecting SQ or flat out puking on itself.
  • Price-to-performance - The value here is off the charts. If you are looking for champagne sound on a beer (or perhaps even grocery store wine) budget, a Pareto is for you.
  • Support - The owner of Pareto Audio, Larry, has a real passion for what he does and goes way, WAY (did I mention WAY?!?), above and beyond to help install, troubleshoot, upgrade, and maintain your rig. This was easily and -by far- the best support I have ever received from any company in the hi fi industry.
Cons
  • Aesthetic Convenience - Pareto made some astonishingly good and well thought out engineering choices with this rig. Namely, USB, Wireless, and power are all purposefully moved outside of the server chassis (cool, huh?!?). This is a very clever solution to isolate and minimize EMI, electrical noise, and wireless signals inside the chassis. But the gear required to accomplish this could be an eyesore for some. This is an admittedly minor nit-pick as the fiber cables, converters, etc. are well hidden in my rack and don't bother me in the slightest. But having more cables, converters, and power supplies laying around could annoy some.
  • Nerd Knobs - If you have enough Linux, IT, and PC building knowledge to be dangerous, you can easily end up shooting your own d&#k off. This isn't so much of a con as it is an indictment of my own Linux skills and repeated bungling of the server configuration. Be warned :)
  • Custom Software - No quality-of-life or custom software such as innuOS, or Aurender Conductor. It's Roon, Audirvana, etc. or nothing.
  • Integrated Hardware - There is no integrated CD player/ripper/writer. Though I assume Pareto could somehow integrate one if desired.
  • UPnP/DLNA - There is no option for integrated UPnP/DLNA functionality (does Roon have a work-around for this yet?!?).
  • Remote Control - There is no physical remote control. This doesn't bother me personally as I prefer to control playback and volume via Roon/DSP on whatever device I'm using, but this may be a deal-breaker for those who prefer a dedicated remote in their hand.
  • Display & On-board Configuration - There are no display or on-board configuration options physically built into the server. It must be configured externally from another device through the Roon/HQPlayer GUIs, or Linux command line and all three options require local area network connectivity to be accessible.
  • Warranty - Only comes with a 1 year warranty compared to 2 and 3 year warranties with the other streamers I auditioned.
Notes:
  • Aesthetics - I purposefully omitted aesthetics from the pro and con sections above. I chose this chassis based on my specific functional requirements for horizontal rack installation, active cooling, and raw performance -not aesthetics (black color was legitimately my only aesthetic requirement). I'm a function over form guy, but I'm quite certain you could pick a chassis that is a bit more aesthetically pleasing if you so desired.
  • Roon vs HQPlayer - I did some rudimentary blind A/B testing between Roon at 44.1k and HQPlayer PCM upsampling at 705k-768k. I thought I could hear slightly better holographics from Roon and slightly better clarity from HQP, but I failed multiple blind A/B tests in spectacular fashion. The key takeaway here is the difference in SQ between Roon at 44.1k and HQP upscaled to 705k-768k PCM on this server is indistinguishable to my ears. That's pretty nuts when you think about it and is a complete 180 from my previous experience using HQP to upsample on my desktop PC where HQP yielded vastly superior SQ. So if you do decide to go the custom server route through Pareto, you could ditch HQPlayer and save a little money. The folks at Pareto tried telling me this, but I stubbornly didn't listen. I probably should have. Options are always a good thing to have I suppose.
  • Overall Satisfaction - I am an incredibly satisfied customer and it was shockingly difficult not to be stupidly effusive in this review. As you can see above, both the product and service I received were flat out exceptional. If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely go the custom server route. For reference, I auditioned the Antipodes K50, Innuos Statement, and Aurender N20. The Pareto has much better SQ than the Statement and N20, slightly better SQ than the K50, far more horsepower and was significantly cheaper than all three. Boom. There you have it.
Key Takeaways & Lessons Learned
  • Source - Source matters far more than I ever thought possible and way more than I think most people realize. Personally, I would consider it to be the single most important audio device in a hifi system and easily one of the top two or three most important devices to upgrade when you get the chance (depending on your specific situation, setup, and use case, of course). My reasoning for this is simple -the source directly affects literally every listening device and hifi component: headphones, DAC, amplifier, mobile phone, desktop, laptop, home theater system, smart speakers, etc., etc. No other component affects this many devices or reaches this far into your home and the subsequent increase in SQ is felt across every device (to varying degrees, obviously). For example, I listened to music streamed from the Pareto over a crappy wifi connection to my iPhone using semi-crappy $175 Ultimate Ears FITS via Bluetooth and the SQ improvement was jaw-dropping. So much so that I temporarily switched back to using my desktop just to validate what I was hearing from the server. In my opinion, the source is the foundation on which your hifi system is built and should be given a commensurate level of importance. It has the power to make or break the sound of every other component in your system and in your home. It is the singularity of your hifi system. That's why it is called "the source"...
  • Value - Consider going the custom server route from a company like Pareto or learn how to build your own. You'll save thousands (if not more) and you'll likely end up with better SQ and more satisfaction. The same seems to be true of other hifi components, but I don't have any direct experience to validate this. As with any piece of gear or audio manufacturer, YMMV.
  • Interdependencies & Upgrading- I learned that the SQ of high-end audio components are directly affected by whatever is around them. Some more so than others. I understood this concept notionally, but never dreamed it would have this big of an impact. For example, back when I was using Dan Clark Ether C Flows, I replaced my RME ADI-2 DAC with the Holo May KTE and thought, "ok, the May has clearer and noticeably smoother sound with more echo-y space around stuff...cool". But then it hit me: why did my Ether C's sound so much better with the May DAC?!? Was the RME ADI-2 really that bad? Did I lack the skills or knowledge to pull the most out of the RME? Was the amplifier somehow "synergizing" better with the Holo May? Did I stroke out and get abducted by audiophile aliens?!? DID THEY PROBE MY EAR CANALS?!? As you can see, I drove myself to the brink of insanity contemplating such things. The key takeaway is that audio components can have a dramatic affect on one another and a patient, steady-handed scalpel is usually the correct tool for upgrading or otherwise altering a system - not an impatient shot gun.
  • Self Awareness - Try to be as honest as possible with yourself and what you really want before purchasing audio gear. If you are buying something but you already know you are likely going to upgrade to another component in the future, you may want to consider saving up for the better component in the first place. It will likely give you more satisfaction and be significantly easier on your wallet in the long run.
  • Auditions - Auditions, auditions, auditions (insert Steve Balmer meme here). I highly recommend finding a local dealer to audition systems and components that are as close as possible to what you are looking to build. Doing so will give you a idea of what each component sounds like and give you and idea of the level of performance you can expect. Also, if you have never heard what "summit-fi" actually sounds like, this should give you a pretty good idea.
  • End-Game - I learned that both "end-game" and "summit-fi" are illusions. If you honestly think you've reached either, you are quite simply deluding yourself. There are always "better" components and "better" sound. Pick a realistic budget that isn't going to financially cripple you and stick to it. You'll be very glad you did.
  • Measurements - Measurements are great and can be very helpful when making purchasing decisions, but they should not be the sole (or even the primary) arbiter of said purchasing decisions. "Better" measuring components won't necessarily yield "better" SQ. Find what sounds best to your ears and your ears alone. Don't ignore components because they measure poorly, because some random idiot on the internet (or an army of them) says so, has a low price, or anything else. Keep an open mind, trust your ears and little else - that's what they are there for.
Hope you enjoyed the diatribe. Special thanks to @koven for putting me on to custom servers and Pareto Audio in the first place. Going the custom server route was probably the best decision I made throughout my eyeballs-first jump into hifi.
 

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Jul 21, 2021 at 5:46 PM Post #2 of 8

koven

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Great breakdown and impressions of your experience! I definitely urge more people to explore the custom route rather than paying big bucks for an 'off-the-shelf' server like Innuos, Antipodes, Aurender, etc. It can be surprising how similar, or even better, the sound can be for much less $. It's also more flexible as you have total control over the system for tweaks, upgrades, etc - no proprietary barriers.

Hope you don't mind me tagging onto your thread w/ my own experience, didn't see any other suitable threads to share in. I recently finished building my own music server, not as strongly spec'd as yours but enough processing/overhead for my needs. I originally engaged w/ Pareto as well but ultimately pivoted to doing it myself. It took a couple months of research and piecing together all the parts, but it's finally up and running. I'm using Euphony OS instead of AudioLinux. Conceptually I think they're similar in the sense that they're both lightweight Linux-based and optimized for SQ. It operates as a Roon server and HQP processor/upscaler in one box, both streaming music and pulling FLAC from my NAS. Overall I'm extremely happy with how it sounds - I definitely think it surpasses my Innuos Zenith Mk3, at half the cost to boot. It is fanless/passive-cooled so dead silent in use. Lastly it's also pretty satisfying to insert a component that I built myself, into my audio chain.

Here is a part list in case it's helpful to anyone in the future:
Case: HDPlex H5 v2
CPU: i9-9900K
Motherboard: Gigabyte Designare Z390
RAM: 2x8GB Apacer
Boot Drive: 32GB Intel Optane NVMe
Power: HDPlex 400W DC-ATX + Keces P8 19/20v 8A
Cables: Ghent Audio
Software: Euphony + HQPe
Approximate cost: +/- 2500 USD

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Jul 22, 2021 at 3:32 AM Post #3 of 8

Roasty

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@koven that looks really clean.

Can it do dsd 256 asdm7ec upsampling without issue?
Decided on no gfx card?
What does the keces p8 power?
Intending to add the Sotm ethernet card or an audio card like jcat/pf?
 
Jul 22, 2021 at 3:45 PM Post #4 of 8

UWOTM888

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Thanks for this great review... As a AudioLinux-only user for portable, transportable and desktop, I was always curious about the Pareto products. I H8 Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, etc. for Audio so only Arch Linux realtime low latency all-around will do. I get some amazing audiophile quick tight layered bass on my CIEMs that only a low latency setup can provide. It's like moving into a Pro Audio not consumer space.

Nice Anaco USB SFP BTW. It's rare to see out in the wild.

Yeah, dealing with "professional" reviewers is like dealing with Best Buy Sales. Big pinch / grain of salt.
 
Jul 23, 2021 at 3:35 AM Post #5 of 8

koven

15 Hz + 150 dB = poopy pants
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@koven that looks really clean.

Can it do dsd 256 asdm7ec upsampling without issue?
Decided on no gfx card?
What does the keces p8 power?
Intending to add the Sotm ethernet card or an audio card like jcat/pf?

I actually made quite a mess applying the thermal paste, but the end result hides it well. :p

1) 9900K can do most filters at DSD256 7EC. Some are too intensive though and need GPU offload, like the new gauss-xla. I typically use ext2 w/ DSD.

2) Yeah a GPU to help accommodate the top 1% of filters didn't seem worthwhile to me. I also listen to PCM more often than DSD, and 9900K alone breezes thru PCM.

3) The P8 is powering the entire system. It outputs into the HDPlex DC-ATX converter, then HDPlex into motherboard/CPU.

4) Definitely have those in mind. There's some buzz around Fiber adapters too, rather than the typical RJ45 card. The relatively new Taiko DC-ATX is on my radar too. I wanted to start 'small' so I can appreciate any SQ change from deeper rabbit hole tweaks later on.
 
Jul 23, 2021 at 4:15 AM Post #6 of 8

Roasty

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3) The P8 is powering the entire system. It outputs into the HDPlex DC-ATX converter, then HDPlex into motherboard/CPU.

4) Definitely have those in mind. There's some buzz around Fiber adapters too, rather than the typical RJ45 card. The relatively new Taiko DC-ATX is on my radar too. I wanted to start 'small' so I can appreciate any SQ change from deeper rabbit hole tweaks later on.

Thanks for the info!
Do u need to use both the 19 and 20v outputs from the keces to power the pc?

I didn't know of the fiber adaptors. Will do some reading up. I'm thinking a pc with the adaptor you linked, with fiber line from the Sotm snh10g or sonore optical module would be great!
 
Jul 23, 2021 at 5:01 PM Post #7 of 8

UWOTM888

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Oh, nice. The Taiko DC-ATX finally released. I hope it's not limited.


DC-DC-ATX2-e1621497285236.png



It's beautiful, makes my eyes water. :heart_decoration:Custom solutions. So glad Taiko was kind enough to release this without having to dish out 3 stacks of high society to lock you in their proprietary solution. I like eventually re-purposing parts once they serve their purpose, so don't like being locked in and maintain max flexibility.
 
Jul 25, 2021 at 6:37 PM Post #8 of 8

koven

15 Hz + 150 dB = poopy pants
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Thanks for the info!
Do u need to use both the 19 and 20v outputs from the keces to power the pc?

I didn't know of the fiber adaptors. Will do some reading up. I'm thinking a pc with the adaptor you linked, with fiber line from the Sotm snh10g or sonore optical module would be great!

It's the single output Keces P8 which has 8A OCP instead of 4A on the dual output version. Had to get the single because DSD will hit +/- 4A with this CPU so it'd be cutting it too close.
 

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