Actually, to save time, here's the full text of my Gramophone review from earlier this year:
Music server makes mass storage simple - and sounds good
unit from the States isn't perfect - but Andrew Everard finds much to like
You know you're
on to something when the boss of a company tells you his new product is 'really
amazing - I've got one at home and it's just incredible'. OK, so it could be
slick marketing, but when you've known the person in question for some time,
and the enthusiasm in his voice is obviously genuine, two thoughts spring to
mind: one is 'maybe this is something worth trying' and the other is 'how
refreshing to find someone working for an audio company who's excited enough to
take the product home and try it' - the two don't always go hand in hand..
The product in
question is by no means unique - it's a music server, designed to swallow an
entire library of CDs onto a hard drive, then make them available for instant
playback. To that end, it has a CD/CD-R/CD-RW drive, which can be used to copy
discs onto the hard drive, or indeed burn off copies of music stored onto blank
discs, the aforementioned hard drive, and an internet connection to allow it to
access the Gracenote CDDB database and store information about the discs you
It also has
analogue and digital audio outputs, and video outputs to allow its menus to be
viewed on a TV screen - in fact, if you are using the server as a standalone
unit you'll need a TV screen to access its menus.
So far so normal,
and the Fireball SE-500i looks much like any other music server. But what sets
this £1200 unit apart is the size of the hard-drive fitted - it's 500GB - and
the absolute simplicity of the operating software..
That big hard
disk makes it possible to store huge amounts of music - almost 800 CDs of music
at full 'WAV' resolution, or over 1400 hours in FLAC recording, almost 3400
hours of 320kbps MP3, or 8432 hours in the frankly not to be recommended
128kbps MP3 mode.
internet connection it can also access radio stations streaming online, and can
be used with a variety of client components for remote access over a home
For the purposes
of this review Escient's UK distributor supplied the FP-1 client unit, a £399
box combining remote access to the server over a home network, an interface for
your TV and the inevitable and ubiquitous iPod dock..
There's a very
good reason for using a client such as this, and hiding the main server away -
we'll come to that in a moment - but while I can see the appeal of the remote
client, as an iPod agnostic it seems a rather expensive add-on to the system,
when there are other ways to get to your music and control the server, some of
which will cost you precisely nothing.
Setting up the
Fireball isn't any harder than connecting a CD player - or more correctly a DVD
player, since it also has video outputs on composite, S-video and component
connections. The only essential extra connection is to the internet - you can
just about use the unit without it, but you'll have to do a lot of typing in of
disc and track titles without the automatic Gracenote database look-up..
And you really
don't want to do any more with the slightly cramped and confused remote handset
than you need to - it's the least appealing aspect of this unit.
is that the networking here is only via wired Ethernet connection, and needs
either a cabled link to your router or the addition of a wireless Ethernet
bridge to make the connection. An alternative would be one of the
mains-connected Ethernet systems, carrying data on the ring-main..
Having access to
none of these, and with the audio rack in a different room to the router, meant
a late evening trip to Maplin (aka the reviewer's salvation), and a 20m Cat5
cable snaking across the floor. We only tripped over it a few times during the
You'll remember I
mentioned a good reason for hiding the server away? That's to do with sudden
and very obvious bursts of noise from the onboard cooling fan. Admittedly they
tend to occur more while ripping discs, but they're mighty distracting when
they happen during listening sessions. With the server shut away, they don't
And that's perfectly possible given that you
can access the server remotely with devices such as the FP-1, or indeed from
any computer on the same network. You just type the name of the server into
your browser - http://fireball--00123 was the default for 'mine' - and up comes
a complete menu screen, from which you can play music, and change all the
settings of the unit. That's very neat indeed, and adds greatly to the pleasure
of using the device.
there are no qualms about the sound of the Escient: I copied a variety of music
to the hard disk in a range of formats, from CD-quality WAV and lossless FLAC
to MP3 right down to 128kps, and while the results were highly impressive with
the highest-quality transfers, the unit is also more than revealing enough to
show just how bad low-bitrate MP3 can be.
The server had a
fine rich warmth with Linn Records' 2007 Gramophone Award-winning Messiah, with fine detail revealing the individual vocal and
instrumental parts, and a superb sense of air to bring out the recorded
It was just as
impressive with a Naxos historical disc of Elgar's cello concerto, conducted by
the composer, revealing not just the slightly wiry original sound but also the
cracking pace and playing of soloist Beatrice Harrison in this late 1920s
recording, nicely transferred to CD.
And after typing
that sentence I just called up the browser window and accessed an online
classical music station, playing a close-miked solo guitar piece. It's only
running at 96kpbs, but it sounds more than acceptable even via a high-quality
system including the Linn Majik-I amplifier - to be reviewed next month - and
more than good enough for all-day background 'music while you work'.
That's the beauty
of this server - loaded with an entire record collection, it offers a range of
ways of accessing your music and playing it out through one or more zones of
listening. With the FP-1 unit connected to your network but in another room,
you have the ability to access music remotely and play it through a second
system, or the server itself could be integrated into a much more comprehensive
And the FP-1 can
also allow you to access the music on a docked iPod from anywhere on your
network, or stream music stored on PCs or Apple computers on that network,
thanks to Fireball-PC software supplied, making it rather more than just a
rather expensive iPod dock.
The slogan you
see a lot when you investigate the world of Escient is 'we make technology
behave', and leaving aside the few foibles I've highlighted, that's just what
this server does. It's simple to set-up and use, and increasingly flexible the
deeper you dig into its abilities.
Not that much
digging is needed - this fine-sounding unit is one of the most intuitive
mass-storage systems I've encountered, and I'm told versions are coming later
this year complete with video storage, which will take Escient into a whole new