|Escient Fireball Audio Server|
|Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Wednesday, 01 January 2003|
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Escient’s new Fireball is an early example of something that is going to become a lot more common in the future, believe me: it’s an audio component that links today’s broadband internet audio experience to your home audio system and with your existing CD collection.
Essentially a dedicated audio server with a 40 GB hard drive, analog and digital I/O and network connections, the Fireball, list price $1,999, allows you to capture audio from the built-in CD drive or from external digital or analog sources, ripping the content to MP3 files and storing them on the internal hard drive. In addition, the Fireball interfaces with the Internet, either by phone line, Home Phone Networking (HPNA) or broadband. The Internet provides Internet radio, along with a transparent interface to the CDDB CD database, which provides track information and cover art. There is also an information and shopping interface that allows you to find out information about the album or artist currently playing (licensed from the All Music Guide) and even buy the recording in question.
The unit itself looks very much like a regular high-end audio component. Its black brushed-aluminium front panel goes nicely with my recently-acquired Sunfire Theater Grand III AV preamp. There’s a built-in CD drive, a two-line blue fluorescent alphanumeric display and a number of blue front-panel LEDs, which I will come back to later.
The rear panel of the Fireball is fairly obvious, although it has some things you won’t usually find on the back of an audio component. There are stereo analog ins and outs on RCA jacks, coax and TOSLink optical digital outputs and three each coax and TOSLink digital ins. In addition, there are three USB ports – one can be used with an adapter for Ethernet, you can attach a supported MP3 player and there is a front-panel port for a USB keyboard.
You can access the Fireball either with your TV/SVGA monitor and IR remote or the supplied IR keyboard (it has SVGA, composite and S-video outs). Alternatively, you can invest in the optional Escient VGA touch-panel.
An interesting feature of the Fireball is that it gives you the ability to hook up one of an increasing number of mega-CD changers to the system, via serial, S-Link or digital connection. The Fireball can control the changer more or less completely to upload the contents of the changer to the hard drive.
The Fireball needs to connect to the Internet, not only for Internet radio but also to download CD information from the on-line database. This can be done either with the built-in modem or via an HPNA network (which uses the house phone wiring) or an Ethernet connection to access via broadband. I used the Ethernet option, employing a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, which worked flawlessly. Hooking up the digital I/O was perfectly straightforward, as was connecting a Sony mega-CD changer.
When you first hook up and power up the Fireball, it goes through a setup procedure that requests you to configure Internet access and other features. This requires that you know how your devices access the Net: in my case, I was able to tell it to get its details from the DHCP server in my router and the whole thing was on the air in a matter of minutes. A broadband connection is a good idea, but if you don’t have one, you can configure the dialup modem to work with any normal ISP (i.e., not AOL or another system that requires special software or places limitations on your Internet activities). A normal Earthlink account or other ISPs like Earthlink will work fine.
The first thing you notice about the Fireball is its extremely well-designed user interface. The onscreen display is somewhat reminiscent of a WebTV system, and does its job well. Simple jobs can be handled with the hand-held multifunction remote, which can also handle some other devices, but for major tasks, you can use the supplied full keyboard, which uses infrared to communicate with the host. The keyboard was a bit disappointing. The build quality and feel was lackluster and made it very easy to overtype. If you enter the same character twice at any speed, you would be lucky to register one of them. You can also use one of several large-scale programmable remotes, such as a Philips Pronto, and a .ccf file is available on their web site to download. Cool – and no doubt very attractive to the custom installers who are a prime market for this product.
There are several basic areas of the Fireball that are delineated in the onscreen display. Select “Music” on the remote, for example, and you will see an elegant “guide” display that allows you to choose “All,” “Playlists,” or stored material within a certain genre, such as “blues” or “Classical.” Between this and the cover art are a menu of available items and other details on the currently-selected disc, playlist or track. An icon to the left of the name in the list will tell you where the material is: on a CD in the internal drive, an MP3 file on the hard-drive or if it’s on a playlist you have created.
Select an album in the list, press “Select” on the remote, and the list will expand to show the tracks on the album. Press “Select” on a track title and the track will start playing – the front panel display indicates the album, track number and title, and the OSD shows its “album” screen, including the title at the top, a large image of the cover art (if available) with the artist name beneath, and a track list to the left from which you can select an individual song or choose to play them all.
Press “iRadio” on the remote and you will be taken to another Guide page that allows you to select from available pre-programmed Internet radio stations. Unfortunately, the system stops whatever it was playing in the “Music” department at this point and is silent until you select a station and it finds it online. The currently rather limited selection is centered around the Sirius satellite radio stations (which are generally excellent), plus some others, many of which never seemed to be available. When the system knows what track is playing, the track is displayed.
A big problem here as far as I am concerned is the inability to specify your own stations, a technique which has been shown to be well within the capabilities of other devices, such as IM-based units, offering Internet Radio. The IM Networks approach to this – with a web site allowing the selection of a vast number of Internet stations, plus the ability to enter your own URLs and store favorites – is the way to go, and hopefully Escient will improve their offering in this area. Go back to the Music guide at this point and the system will resume playing where you previously left off, which is a nice feature.
Up at the top of the screen, you will find a couple of lines, one with some headline or other (for example, alternating between “Art’s solo album is Everclear?” and “Press the OpenGlobe button on your remote to find out”) and the other with the Escient OpenGlobe logo. Press the aforementioned button and you will be taken to a screen downloaded from the OpenGlobe website that includes a list of options: “Now Playing,” “Search,” “Movies,” “Top Hits,” “Special,” “My Account” and “Exit,” a panel mentioning a featured artist and a headline that you can select to read more, and another panel containing music trivia. Near the bottom of the screen is the opportunity to buy the featured artist’s latest CD. Top and bottom of the screen are logo lines and a link to take you to some other part of the site, such as checking out the new CD releases. The music doesn’t stop as you do this, which is exactly how it should behave.
Select “Now Playing,” and the system looks up the current artist in the AllMusic Guide (allmusic.com) and displays this prodigious database’s entry suitably formatted. The left menu now shows a “Back” button, “Biography,” “Discography,” “Similar Artists,” “Influences,” “Search” and “My Account.” You can also check the contents of your shopping cart – the ability to buy material is completely integrated with the site.
You can wander about the AllMusic Guide forever. It contains so much that you are bound to stray. Going back to the main page and choosing “Movies” takes you to a page similar to the entry, but this time showing a set of movie-related panels with search, display and purchase possibilities.
You can exit from this informational/buying experience at any time to get back to the Music guide.