|Escient Fireball Audio Server|
|Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Wednesday, 01 January 2003|
Page 2 of 3
A major benefit of the Fireball is that it provides the ability to you get your own music into the system. The simplest way is to pop a CD into the internal drive and ripping it to the hard drive. This drive is also a CD-RW drive and you can also use it to burn CD compilations of your favorite music, which is very sweet. The system stores audio in MP3 (MPEG 1, layer 3) format, the commonest music data compression format on the Net. You can decide what data rate to use in the creation of the MP3, from 96 to 320 Kbits/sec, and the tracks to convert. In a couple of button pushes, the system is ripping your disc to the hard drive, having looked up the album, the artwork and track listing, all at around 10 times real time: an average CD takes six to seven minutes. You can’t do anything else while it’s carrying out this process. Switch the unit off while it is ripping and it will continue to do so, flashing all three of the main blue front-panel LEDs until it’s finished, which can take a while – aaaargh. These LEDs are enormously bright and if you’re trying to sleep in the next room, you’ll think you’ve suddenly woken up in a strange motel on tour with some band or other. Larger-value resistors (like those of Sunfire, for instance) would have been nice to calm them down a bit.
The other possibility for getting audio into the system, which is rather more major, is to rip your entire collection from a mega CD changer. Here you simply hook up a supported changer, load it with discs, press the button and walk away. It will spend the next however-long-period-of-time copying the discs from the changer, encoding them to MP3 and storing them and their track data. This process, however, happens in real time, so it can take a while.
The Fireball does not rip the tracks directly to MP3. It copies them to the hard drive immediately and then rips them at its own pace, which can take some time. In the meantime, you can still play back the tracks without the disc being present. In fact, the temporary storage is at full resolution, without compression.
I discovered this in a rather interesting way. I put my copy of Alan Parsons’ DTS CD On Air into the on-board drive, and the system not only successfully found it and its cover in the CDDB, it also started playing it – in surround. The Fireball doesn’t have a DTS decoder, of course, but my Sunfire was able to decode the digital output. Interesting. I ripped the CD to the hard drive and removed the disc – it could still play the music back in surround. I noticed that when I looked at the disc’s entry in the Guide, I was informed that it was still encoding.
I came back in the morning and tried to play the disc. The entry now told me its data rate. It had finished encoding – now, instead of surround audio, it played back only noise. The lossy MP3 encoding process had lost the data that made surround decoding possible.
This is a real drag. You can choose the data rate of the encoding, but one thing you can’t do is to choose “no compression.” Of course, using compression dramatically increases the playing time the hard drive will provide – up to 1200 CDs or 700 MP3 albums. But not being able to store without lossy encoding means that the Fireball’s ability to play – and find in the online database – DTS surround discs is completely lost if you try to store them.
There’s another problem too: the system’s basic element is a song. It cannot deal with CDs, where one song runs into another. Rip Sergeant Pepper, for example, play it back, and you will get nasty two-second default pauses between the tracks on replay, rather than the zero-second pauses the album demands and originally had. Of course, this is fine if you are building playlists of your favorite tracks, but not if you are just sitting listening to the album.
I noticed that the CDDB was pretty good at recovering artist and track data online. Escient uses its own version of the CDDB database, called GraceNote, and it contains a lot of stuff, although like all these things, the contributors, who are ordinary listeners like you and me, can’t spell to save their lives. This means that you often have to edit the returned data to fix errors. The related album cover art database, however, is a lot less extensive. I have a really weird collection of albums and I was a) surprised at how many were in the CDDB and b) how few had artwork available. If the art isn’t available online, the system places a generic image there, which is pretty horrible and indicates only the nominal genre (though I guess it’s better than nothing).
I was tempted, and succumbed, to ripping the weirdest albums in my collection to see if the online databases could find them. It found the titles for Sergei Kuryokhin’s incredible Sparrow Oratorium, but it didn’t have the cover and more than one track was misspelled (okay, it’s Russian, but they are correctly spelled in English in the CD liner notes). The same was the case with Huub de Lange’s Life And Death In a Street Organ and a few other amazing albums that you will only hear if you listen to “Late Junction” on BBC Radio 3. Benjamin Biolay’s Rose Kennedy was the same too: artist and title but no cover. I also noticed at this point that the system could not handle accents in the listings: Novembre Toute L’Année came out with two question marks instead of an e-acute. Kevin Gilbert’s Shaming of the True had a listing but no picture. What was interesting was that brilliant local San Diego artist Eve Selis was well-represented with both information and cover pics. So was Mr Scruff’s Keep It Unreal, Rabbit Songs by Hem, No More Sad Refrains by Sandy Denny, Silly Sisters by Maddy Prior and June Tabor from zillions of years ago, Five Leaves Left from Nick Drake, and Songs of Sanctuary by Adiemus (aka Karl Jenkins, formerly of Soft Machine). I warned you, I have a weird collection.
Now, nothing is more frustrating than having one of those generic icons onscreen when listening to a favorite album. Luckily, there is now a piece of software that comes with the Fireball (I downloaded it from Escient’s site), which enables you to fix this and manage a houseful of Fireballs into the bargain. The Pipeline software is for Windows only – grrr. Although it will work on a Mac with Virtual PC, the real way of doing this is to equip the Fireball with a web server, which Escient is working on, that would make it compatible with anything. At present, it enables you to organize and create playlists, name and label things, and most fun of all, throw cover art (or whatever) at the unit to replace those generic icons (you can even create your own generic icons). About the only thing I couldn’t find was a way to send updates to the online database. And incidentally, though the Fireball’s onscreen display can’t cope with accents, Pipeline can.
You may not want to do strict listening tests with this box. It’s an MP3 system and will remain so until they take up my suggestion of letting you rip things without compression, which means that even at the highest data rate, it is not CD quality. It’s close, especially on rock music, but on a classical recording for example, you can clearly tell the difference. I listened to the Decca recording of Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Richard Addinsell’s classic Rachmaninov-esque “Warsaw Concerto” from the 1941 movie “Dangerous Moonlight” (aka “Suicide Squadron,” the film’s much more prosaic title in the U.S.) and switched between the CD in the unit’s internal drive and the MP3 version ripped previously. (The Gracenote entry was interesting, with the title in the wrong field and no cover art.) The difference was obvious, with the MP3 sounding flatter and less dynamic than the original on the default bit rate. Setting the data rate at maximum improved matters a touch – you would not have known you weren’t listening to the CD unless you did a direct A/B, but I did have the CD and did do a direct A/B, and I could hear the difference. Trying the system with rock music, such as Benjamin Biolay’s aforementioned album Rose Kennedy (I suppose this counts as rock music) still showed a difference, with the strings sounding less present and the drums attacks a little less crisp and clean when listening to the MP3.
When people say that MP3 is “near-CD quality,” what they mean is that it sounds worse than one of those first generation CDs from 1983 -- the type that made vinylphiles tell you that digital audio (aka CD) would never catch on. People further tell me that the GenX and Yers don’t care about sound quality as much as the flexibility, portability and convenience of MP3. Bullshit is all I can say to that. Non-audiophile Baby Boomers and GenXers alike can hear and appreciate the difference between good and bad sound.
Talking of portability, you can hook your MP3 player up to the Fireball and download songs via USB. It recognizes your player when you plug it in, and off you go. Er… well, it does if it’s one of the couple of players that are supported, neither of which I own. It doesn’t support an iPod (no 1394 port), which rather deflates the cool factor a bit, and it doesn’t support my NetMD MiniDisc recorder either (which is a mini MD recorder that pretends to be an MP3 player and does a good job of it, too).