SOtM sMS 200 Neo Network Player Review

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Behold, the missing piece of many a modern music system

by Ed Selley Aug 2, 2019 at 8:53 AM

  • Hi-Fi review

    5

    Recommended
    SOtM sMS 200 Neo Network Player Review
    SRP: £449.00

    What is the sMS-200 Neo?

    The SOtM sMS-200 Neo is a compact streaming head unit. Even within that short opening sentence, there’s a lot to unpick here so be prepared for a reasonably hefty Spec and Design box on this one - ironic really because, when it boils down to it, it doesn’t do very much. Depending on how you package up the entire process of network audio, the sMS-200 Neo is somewhere between one third and one half of a network streamer.

    Even by the gloriously diverse standards of Hi-Fi, this sounds like the bicycle that your fish has always wanted. There is, however, a very good reason for this product to exist. Not too long ago, I wrote an article on how two channel equipment was doing more as roles and functions blurred. Demonstrating that I am in fact the spiritual successor to Mystic Meg, in it I wrote the following;

    The next question is whether the move to accepting products that offer more functionality is, slightly counter-intuitively, going to create some niches for some extremely specialist products to help them fulfill this role.

    Lo and behold, what you see here is a product that is in effect a bolt on streamer. Not only is it designed to work with connectivity you already have to deliver its functionality, it does so in an extraordinarily open ended way. By the end of this review, you’ll either consider it to be a genuinely innovative piece of kit that warrants mainstream attention or something a little too ‘out there’ to be worthy of your cash. It looks like I’ve got some explaining to do.

    Specification and Design

    SOtM sMS-200 NEO Specification and Design
    SOtM (Soul Of the Music) is a Korean company who have been around for a little over a decade. They occupy a niche of network audio that is specific and almost entirely different to any other company out there. Their products are at once quite simple and really very complicated indeed. Effectively, the company is centred on the rendering of network audio and the issues it perceives in doing so. Further up the product ladder, you can spend nearly £3,000 on a three box streamer that consists of a streaming head unit, power supply and USB regenerator - in other words, still only between 33 and 50% of the whole process.

    Knowing that the good burghers of AVForums are… sceptical… of such things, what you see here is the smallest, simplest and most affordable implementation of this thinking. The sMS-200 Neo is a one box device that does the same things in miniature. It takes a wired Ethernet signal from a router or NAS drive, ensures it is clocked and rendered correctly, before making it available to an adaptive USB output which can connect to a DAC or the USB input of an amplifier. This is your friendly reminder that there is no shortage of those - the Cyrus One HD, Exposure XM5, Micromega M150 and Primare I15 Prisma all are specced as such. While you can, of course, connect a PC to do the same thing, it places a different dynamic to your system that many people (myself included) would be keen to avoid.
    SOtM sMS-200 NEO Specification and Design
    So far, so good but the next part of the SOtM design philosophy is just as much of a radical leap. If you go looking for a SOtM control app to have a look at what sort of interface it uses, you’ll very quickly draw a blank. This is because the sMS-200 Neo has no interface of its own. The summation of SOtM’s own interface is an IP address based landing page that lets you select what sort of interface you want to use. Having selected it, you then choose an app to suit. As such, if you go with the venerable but effective Logitech Media Server, you’d go for (on an iPad at least) iPeng to control it, it is additionally compatible with Minimserver, standard UPnP and indeed a number of more specific options. Rather than make an app that tries to work with the countless options available, SOtM has inverted the process and created a product that will work in the manner that you want it to.

    There’s a party piece here too and it involves the best interface of the lot. If you have splashed the cash and have a Roon Core up and running, the SOtM will become a Roon endpoint that benefits from all the control functionality that the interface enjoys. What’s really very clever about this is that depending on your DAC, Roon either sees the SOtM or sees through it. Connect a non-Roon ready product and it’s the sMS-200 Neo that it uses settings for. If you connect something like a Chord Hugo2 that has its own Roon profile, the sMS-200 becomes invisible and Roon settings for the Hugo2 are applied. As was discussed at length in the review, Roon is currently the best interface going and this is a cost effective way of applying it to non-Roon ready products.

    The most obvious point to make about this is that if you are looking to start your network audio journey, this is not the product for you. You’ll need to have a basic understanding of what you’re doing and, just as importantly, what you want from the end result. The second is that some passing familiarity with apps available to you in each case won’t hurt either. If you do know what you want, the SOtM effectively becomes a mimic for that platform. Due to the negative connotations, I hesitate to use the phrase ‘parasite server’ but that’s effectively what it is.

    SOtM sMS-200 NEO
    The connectivity of the sMS-200 Neo is fairly sparse. There’s an input for the wall wart power supply, an RJ45 connection and a pair of USB connections. These have specific functions in that you can attach a hard drive to two of them and let the SOtM be both a renderer and server and use the specific digital out for connection to a USB DAC. It’s extremely straightforward and there isn’t much scope for it to do anything you don’t expect.

    It’s well made too. The casework is substantial and feels like it has been carefully made. It’s not the most visually dramatic device going but it isn’t something you’ll feel you have to hide away. Like a number of modern streamers, the sMS-200 is affected by two issues, although one not as severely as some more conventional rivals. The first is that a pair of green LEDs cannot by their very nature tell you much about any issues you might be having on your network, so if you do encounter issues, the SOtM won’t be much help.

    The second is something we’ve encountered before and at rather higher price points. The SOtM is completely dependent on an app for control, which can be an irritant depending on what else you happen to be running on that controlling device at the time. In this case, the specific nature of the sMS-200 Neo comes to its aid here because if you are running it into an amp with a USB input, you do at least have the option of muting the amp.

    SOtM sMS-200 NEO
    There’s a party piece here too and it involves the best interface of the lot. If you have splashed the cash and have a Roon Core up and running, the SOtM will become a Roon endpoint that benefits from all the control functionality that the interface enjoys.

    How was the sMS-200 Neo tested?

    The SOtM has been used in a variety of roles. With mains power from an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius, it’s been connected to a Melco N1A and Innuos Zenith Mk3 for content. It has then been used in UPnP and Roon modes connected to a Chord Electronics Mojo and Hugo2 as well as the Micromega M150 and Primare I15. Control has been via an Essential PH-1 and iPad Pro running a selection of apps. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF and DSD with TIDAL and Qobuz also featuring via Roon.

    Sound Quality

    SOtM sMS-200 NEO Sound Quality
    This section might be realistically titled ‘Performance’ because to a great (but intriguingly, not entirely - as we shall come to) extent, the sound quality of the SOtM is defined by what it is connected to. The good news is that this is a stable and reliable device in use. Simply go to the SOtM landing page, select what you want it to be and the sMS-200 Neo will assume that function until told otherwise (that is to say, even removing the power won’t change it). I’d come within a hair’s breadth of saying the SOtM is unconditionally stable save for a habit every now and again of not checking in on its home page until I reboot my laptop (in other words, it could be the laptop).

    Connections to the various USB inputs I’ve tried it with have been entirely reliable and leave the DAC in question to get on with doing what it does. Connected to a Chord Mojo, the resulting duo is under a £1,000 and for pure sound quality, I don’t know of another device that can touch it. It’s telling that with the sMS-200 Neo set to UPnP and using Linn’s ancient Kinsky app it is still a more rewarding experience than controlling many brand new one box streamers. If you want streaming service support, Bubble UPnP on Android allows for TIDAL and Qobuz integration and also works pretty well too. I don’t habitually use Logitech Media Server but a quick test with the Innuos running in this configuration and with iPeng as the app was another stable and engaging proposition.
    SOtM sMS-200 NEO Sound Quality
    As you might expect though, it’s with Roon that the SOtM really struts its stuff. Being able to turn almost anything into a Roon compatible device by the simple expedient of bolting a small box to it is hugely satisfying. With something like the Exposure XM-5, for example, this is something of a game changer. Now, I might be doing Exposure a disservice here but as a small and fairly trad company, I can’t see them developing their own UPnP platform or getting Roon ready any time soon but thanks to the sMS-200, this doesn’t need to be the dealbreaker that it could be. The only point of contention I am obligated to point out for people whose idea of sonic nirvana is to select the highest DSD multiple they can, is that the SOtM ‘only’ does DSD265 rather than 512.

    And now, the contentious bit. My considered position on unboxing the SOtM is that I did not believe there would be any difference between the SOtM connected to a DAC and my laptop. They’re both USB sources and digital is digital. After lengthy testing, including roping someone else in to make changes blind between the laptop, the SOtM and a control device, there is a tiny one. Using the SMS-200 Neo seems to drop the noise floor by a tiny but perceivable amount - there, I’ve said it. The only reason I believe this happens is because the sMS-200 has less additional hardware in it than the laptop and is inducing less noise on the USB signal. To be completely and absolutely clear, any argument I’m going to make for the SOtM stems from what it is and does, rather than this but… it does suggest that SOtM’s approach to making these things - while unquestionably a bit weird - might not be completely without foundation.

    SOtM sMS-200 NEO
    It’s telling that with the sMS-200 Neo set to UPnP and using Linn’s ancient Kinsky app it is still a more rewarding experience than controlling many brand new one box streamers.

    Conclusion

    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    Pros

    • Outstandingly flexible
    • Very well made
    • Can offer some benefits over a laptop or PC as source

    Cons

    • Needs additional decoding hardware
    • Setup more involved than rivals
    • No wireless
    You own this Total 0
    You want this Total 0
    You had this Total 0

    SOtM sMS 200 Neo Network Player Review

    So there you have it. As I said at the beginning of the review, you’ll either have reached this point and gone back to looking at ‘normal’ streamers or you’re now wondering if you might make this little box of tricks work for you. The SOtM is not a mainstream device and it certainly isn’t one for beginners but it is a hugely valuable addition to ranks of network audio hardware. It changes the nature of what a streamer ‘should’ and can be and the scope it offers for turning the current crop of ‘smart’ integrated amps into something genuinely clever is too good to ignore. This is a niche product - and we’ll be heading back into more mainstream waters for future streamer reviews - but it’s also a great one and it comes enthusiastically Recommended.


    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £449.00

    The Rundown

    Build Quality

    9

    Connectivity

    7

    Sound Quality

    8

    Ease of Use

    8

    Features

    8

    Verdict

    8

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