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Escient Fireball Audio Server  Print E-mail
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Written by Richard Elen   
Wednesday, 01 January 2003
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Escient Fireball Audio Server 
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The Downside
Okay, so the downside is a bit extensive on this occasion. But before we go there, it should be noted that this is a brand-new example of a brand-new genre of audio component. Let us not forget it is in its early days of development. Products like this are so software-based that the main limitation on the manufacturer is whether they think an idea is worth implementing or not. So… here’s some things I think are worth implementing, in order of preference:

You should be able to choose your own Internet radio stations. If you could do that, I would buy a Fireball straight away, even if a no-compression option were the only other change. Escient told me that they think their customers would be concerned if the stations provided were not rock-solid in terms of definite availability. Of course, the ability to find and store your own choices doesn’t mean that Escient shouldn’t provide them with known working examples as “factory presets.” In any case, a whole bunch of their fixed set of stations weren’t there anyway. This area of the product needs some work, and should do more than offer the equivalent of the CD-quality audio channels on your satellite TV system but at much lower quality.

The discerning music enthusiast wants the Fireball to include the ability to rip material without compression. This would mean that people who want actual CD quality, or surround sound, would be able to get it - and of course they would need to be made aware of the fact that the recording time would be significantly reduced. You wouldn’t want to do it with everything, but for some things it would be great. The unit already rips material to disc without compression: it just needs an option to make it stay like that. At 40 gig and a retail price of $2,000, I question the value of this in late 2002. The internal cost of a 200 gig internal drive, even when purchased in low quantities, is under $100.

Lack of Macintosh support is a significant problem for me. Escient says that they don’t think it’s worth the Pipeline software supporting a computer system that has only five percent of the market, but that figure is truly questionable. Reputable online sources report over 11.6 percent of computers in use in the market today run a version of the Mac OS (source: spymac.com), and many music people are Mac-based, as proven by recent prodigious sales of the Apple iPod. The real solution is to give the Fireball a web server, which Escient is considering, to solve the platform problem forever.

The Fireball needs to talk to some other portable players: the iPod most notably, although of course that would need a 1394 port, which isn’t currently provided.

I would have like to see an effective way of dealing with albums that have non-two-second pauses between tracks. The system knows which tracks on an album come one after the other. One way of dealing with this would be to store the pause value used on the CD in the file header, so that when a playlist juxtaposes tracks in their original order, the correct pause can be used.

Much like those on Jerry Del Colliano’s new Krell power amps, the Fireball’s blue LEDS are too bright. The Fireball needs a way to dim the blue LEDs, much like the Krell amps can be dimmed via one of Krell’s system remotes.

*It is important to note the Escient is working on solutions to some of these problems. Free upgrade software Should be available in January of 2003 providing:

• Full uncompresed (wav) selectable format
• Choice of compression or no compression
• Ability to choose your own Internet radio stations
• Ability to rip material without compression

Conclusion
Despite the longest list of downsides I have ever written, this is a really cool box. With a few changes, it could be such an exceptionally cool box that everyone will want one. Hey, they may all want one anyway -- with a few changes, I’d want one, too. For custom audio/video installers, the Escient Fireball can jump through hoops with a simplicity that is refreshing. A Pronto, Crestron or AMX-based theater or distributed music system can have more sources and ways to listen to music than was until recently thought possible. For audiophiles and music enthusiasts, the lack of non-compressed storage might make the $2,000 for a Fireball a tough pill to swallow. For Gen-Xers looking to fire up their iPod with their favorite CDs, the Fireball is not the ticket.

It is early in the game for components like the Fireball, but for a first time out, this unit is impressive and I am confident that it is only going to get better and better with software and firmware updates. If you are looking to manage a huge collection of music with the gentle caress of your remote, the Escient Fireball may be for you.
Manufacturer Escient
Model Fireball Audio Server
Reviewer Richard Elen





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