Escient Fireball DVDM-100 DVD and Music Manager 
Home Theater Media Servers Video Servers
Written by Brian Kahn   
Wednesday, 01 September 2004

Introduction
The Escient FireBall DVDM-100 retails for $1,995 and is a high-tech solution to the ever-growing problem of AV media management. The FireBall unit is best described as the brain or control center for up to 1200 CDs and/or DVDs. The Escient unit itself does not hold any discs, nor does it have an internal hard drive to store data (like the insanely overpriced Kalidescape products). Instead, these discs are housed in up to three of Sony or Kenwood’s 400-disc changers. The FireBall then acts as a switcher and controller for the external changers. The FireBall also thoughtfully has a built-in Internet radio receiver. For those of you with large MP3 libraries, the FireBall, when connected to a hard drive-based music storage system from Escient or another manufacturer, can access and manage playback of MP3 encoded music as well.

The unit itself measures 17-3/8 inches wide by four-and-five-eighths inches high and 11-7/8 inches deep, about the size of a standard CD or DVD player, but it is immediately distinguishable by its almost blank front panel. The front panel is a black piece of brushed aluminum with a small IR receiver window in the top left corner. The back panel is filled with connections for interfacing between the FireBall DVDM-100 and your system’s preamplifier or processor and the DVD/CD changer(s). The FireBall DVDM-100 has three complete sets of inputs for the changers, including 5.1 analog, optical, coaxial, composite video, s-video and component video, as well as one matching set of outputs to connect the FireBall to the rest of the system. In addition to the above audio/video connections, the FireBall DVDM-100 also features IR/S-link inputs and outputs, four RS-232 connections, video output for touch-screen panels, and lastly Ethernet and phone jacks for Internet/network connections.

Set-up
Set-up was straightforward and easily accomplished. I first removed my reference Kenwood Entre' Hub ($1,500 - 1,750) from my system. I then connected the FireBall to my DVD/CD changer via 5.1 analog audio cables, digital coaxial cable, component video cables, IR control cable and lastly a RS-232 cable. I used the Kenwood DV-5900M changer, which handles DVD-Audio, as well as video discs. The process would then be repeated for up to two more changers. Connecting the FireBall DVDM-100 to my reference Krell HTS 7.1 was even easier. I connected the component video, digital coaxial and 5.1 analog audio to the DVD assigned inputs on the Krell. Lastly, I connected the DVDM-100 to my Ethernet network via the Ethernet jack on the back.

The physical connections were quick and easy to make. If one wants to later add another changer, all that needs to be done is to simply connect the changer to the DVDM-100. Once the physical connections are made and the unit is powered up, the set-up process continues with the FireBall software. The set-up process is easy to follow, with graphic onscreen menus. First you are walked through the Internet connection, setting up the dial-up or broadband connection. Next, the FireBall begins the Autobuild process, during which all the changers are inventoried.

The Autobuild process provides the user with ample time to do laundry, have lunch or otherwise catch up with household chores to keep your significant other happy. The length of time for the Autobuild process depends on the speed of your Internet connection and the number of discs in the connected changers. During the Autobuild process, the FireBall utilizes the Internet connection to access the Gracenote CDDB and Escient Movie DB databases. Using the information provided by these databases, the Escient attempts to identify and label all the discs loaded into the changers. In addition to being able to seamlessly integrate media from three separate changers, this is one of the main benefits of the FireBall system. I found that the The DVDM-100 was able to properly identify approximately 90 percent of the discs loaded into the changer. The titles of the remaining discs can be edited with the supplied wireless keyboard remote. The accuracy of the system is said to improve over time, as the DVDM-100 (unlike my Kenwood) shares the manually-input information with the database (which is double-checked by the Escient people), thereby expanding the database every time someone manually enters a title.

If one is fortunate enough to have a touch-panel control system like an AMX or Crestron, the FireBall DVDM-100 accommodates these systems with a composite video out and a fourth RS-232 jack to interface with the touch-panel system. Most popular touch-panel systems, including Crestron, PHAST, AMX, Elan and of course Escient, are supported. With a touch-panel system, one can easily search for and select the desired disc and have it cued up and ready to play while your family and guests are watching something else on the main screen.

Functionality
I used the FireBall DVDM-100 primarily to watch movies and listen to DVD-Audio discs. I also used it to listen to Internet radio on a few occasions, mainly for background music.

Beginning with OpenGlobe and moving through the FireBall’s capabilities, I found OpenGlobe to be mildly entertaining. OpenGlobe is a service that I believe will become more useful as it is further developed. Currently, the OpenGlobe service provides limited music news and trivia questions, as well as the ability to purchase featured CDs and DVDs. I doubt that many people will be spending much time with OpenGlobe at this time, but it is nice to know it’s there as the service develops.

The FireBall’s DVDM-100 Internet radio function was easy to use. As with all Internet radio devices, the sound quality varies greatly and is heavily dependent on what is being transmitted. Over the past year or so, I have found that the quality of the stations available on the Internet radio receiver vary, definitely much more so than with conventional stations. Nonetheless, it can be an excellent source for finding new music and old favorites for non-critical listening. The niche programming on Internet radio ranges from guys in Amsterdam strung out on pills playing cool Euro-electronica to people in the Alaskan tundra programming heavy metal. Your programming options, unlike traditional radio, are endless. The sound for these stations range from okay to crappy and have a lot to do with the broadcast quality and your own connection speed. If you are looking for an audiophile source for new music, Internet radio is not for you. However, if you are looking for a new source to find cool new bands in subgenres you like, Internet radio is brilliant.

For those of us who are demanding audio/videophiles, the FireBall DVDM-100 does not disappoint. While the main benefit of having an FireBall DVDM-100 in your system is the ability to seamlessly integrate media from multiple changers and find it quickly, this is of limited value if the playback quality suffers. Not to worry with the FireBall. I found that the FireBall box passed 5.1 analog audio, digital audio and component video without any noticeable degradation. Those with multiple changers will benefit the most, as they will no longer have to daisy-chain the outputs from changers two and three through any other changer. Furthermore, with the FireBall DVDM-100k, one can access the 5.1 analog audio from all three changers. This means that your SACD and DVD-Audio discs can be in any changer. Without the DVDM-100, all SACDs and DVD-Audio discs have to be in changer number one, as there is no daisy-chaining ability for 5.1 analog audio.

Navigating the discs is fairly easy, as the FireBall automatically places them in alphabetical order in one large group. From here, the group can be broken into sub-groups, such as DVD-Audio, action, comedy, etc. Another way of finding the disc you want, although not quite as fast but very cool nonetheless, is “cover view.” In this mode, the jackets from the discs are displayed on the screen and one simply uses the cursor to highlight and select the movie (a la Kalidescape). The speed of navigation is limited only by the ability of the changers to physically access the requested disc.

The Downside
One potential downside is that you can’t mix Kenwood and Sony changers. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, the high-quality switching capability is the perfect opportunity to seamlessly integrate DVD-Audio and SACD into your system by hooking up a DVD/DVD Audio changer from Kenwood and a DVD/SACD changer from Sony to the FireBall at the same time. I discussed this with Escient and they believe that this capability could be possible on future software updates if there is a demand for it.

Sticking with software, or more accurately databases, the Gracenote CDDB and Escient Movie DB, while constantly improving, are far from perfect. As I indicated, they were able to identify over 90 percent of my discs. Most of the remaining 10 percent were labeled unknown, but some were completely mislabeled. Most of the mislabeled discs were DVD-Audio discs. The good news is that the people at Escient are aware of this and are working on an update to more accurately identify DVD-Audio discs.

On the hardware side, my only concern is the non-modular back plate and the lack of expandability for future connectors, such as DVI. While composite, S-Video and component cover all the current mega-changers, I expect that the near future will bring us changers with digital video interfaces.

Conclusion
I found the FireBall DVDM-100 to be a great way to effectively and affordably organize and quickly access a large collection of DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, CD and SACD discs. Using the FireBall box as the switcher, rather than daisy-chaining the changers, preserves the audio/video signals and retains the benefits of SACD and DVD-Audio discs, regardless of whether they are in the first changer or the third.

The best comparison for the FireBall DVDM-100 is Kalidescape’s hard drive-based video server, with an entry price just a shade under $30,000 to hold a mere 180 discs (amazingly, $150 per disc). In order to compete with the 1,200-disc storage capacity of a three-changer FireBall system, you might break into the six figure range with a Kalidescape system. Despite a retail price that resembles a J-Lo trip to Van Clef and Arpels, Kalidescape’s user interface is truly something to behold as is its ability to broadcast movies to multiple locations, but it doesn’t do anything for music. Kalidescape is closer to 100 percent on finding disc titles when you load in a new disc and it also can manage your screen masking for different aspect ratios, which is ultra-cool. While you do get some cool features for an extra $25,000 to $75,000 grand, Kalidescape does force you to sign your life away with a user agreement that is loaded with scary legal jargon. Since you own the DVDs and the players on a FireBall system, you don’t really have to worry about Big Brother shutting your system off, which should definitely be a fear with the big-bucks Kalidescape system. Basically, for a tiny fraction of the price of the best video server and with many other goodies installed, you get all of the advantages of the top-of-the-line system for way less money. Unless you have successfully taken a few companies public, the FireBall system is the way to go.

Going to the next level, the FireBall system can be further expanded by adding their hard drive music server system. This will allow you to stream MP3-encoded music, as well as accessing your disc collection through one interface. I highly recommend those with large collections of DVDs, CDs, SACDs and DVD-Audio discs stored in multiple mega-changers to invest in the FireBall DVDM-100. The FireBall makes the task of wading through hundreds of discs to find the one you want quick and easy to accomplish, allowing you to get straight to entertainment without much wasted time searching.

With many of the best features of the reference standard video servers, the FireBall DVDM-100 is a breakthrough product that helps home theater enthusiasts manage growing collection of movies on DVD while providing new ways to manage your vast MP3 collections and allowing you to try out obscure internet radio stations. Because of how the FireBall DVDM-100 can improve the ease with which you can get new movies and music into your life, I can give the system an emphatic thumbs up.
Manufacturer Escient
Model Fireball DVDM-100 DVD and Music Manager
Reviewer Brian Kahn





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