Escient Fireball DVDM-552 Movie Manager 
Home Theater Media Servers Video Servers
Written by Matthew Evert   
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Let me begin by coming clean about probably being one of the bigger nerds at when it comes to the home theater techno-toys. I jumped at the opportunity to review an all-in-one media manager and the Escient DVDM-552 did not disappoint. Escient is not new to the arena of the music management category of home theater. With several management devices already successfully on the market, Escient was primed for a big splash when it released the DVDM-552 in early 2006. Escient is a division of D&M Holdings, which also owns familiar names such as Marantz, Denon, Boston Acoustics and McIntosh, none of them wimps in the home theater industry. The $5,999 DVDM-552 is a multi-zone music and movie manager targeted for use in a home theater. It slices, it dices and it purées all your media into one conveniently organized interface. It combines DVDs, Internet radio, SACDs, CDs and MP3s into three neatly filed menus. By adding up to five 400-disc changers to the DVDM, you can quickly organize your entire music and movie collection in one place in your home and not have to worry about changing a disc ever again.

This amazing amount of multi-media management functionality is housed in a small footprint no larger than a typical preprocessor or preamp. Measuring 17-and-three-eighths inches wide by four-and-five-eighths inches high and 11-and-seven-eighths inches deep, the DVDM will have no trouble fitting into your equipment rack. The silver brushed aluminum face has a similar look and feel to a DVD player, with a large two-line LED display, a disc tray and a few navigation buttons. I really liked this aspect of the player because there is so much under the hood of this unit that it would be pointless to try to move much control to the front panel. As a result, the user is forced to use the onscreen display on the monitor and has simple navigation controls on the remote or panel to maneuver around. Not to worry, Escient did an excellent job with the user interface of the onscreen controls, so this design is superior.

Underneath the steel chassis is a super-charged media center PC. There is a 500GB hard drive, a DVD rewriteable drive, video processors, Ethernet card, audio and I/O boards, and a fan. On the back panel, you find yourself looking at a preprocessor-like layout of inputs and outputs, with five sets of video inputs, including S-Video, component and composite video connections. I pity the fool who uses the composite inputs, but if you like torture, then this is your “iron maiden” input. On the audio side, there are both analog RCA and digital optical inputs. Strangely, there are both optical and coaxial audio outputs available.

Two sets of outputs for both video and audio are provided, so that you have an additional output to either an Escient 15-inch touch panel display or to another room. Using a MP-200 Remote Digital Media Player (MSRP: $999) in this other room, you can browse and play from the same collection of media as the room with the DVDM-552. The MP-200 has its own audio/video outputs, remote and Ethernet connection, so it can act essentially like a remote DVDM-552. Want to watch the same movie as the one in the main room? No problem. Just select the same movie from the onscreen display. Of course, if you want to watch something else, you can do so as long as it is in a separate DVD changer. If the movie or CD is in the same changer, it will be grayed out, but if you insist on still watching it, you can kick the main room Fireball off its movie so you can watch yours. An endless battle may ensue as a consequence over who gets to watch what. With great power comes great responsibility.

Once you have hooked up the audio, video and the RS-232 cables from each of the five 400-disc changers to the Fireball and connected the Ethernet cable into your home network. After connecting the Fireball into your preamp, you are ready to rock. The onscreen display will ask you to verify that the network is set up properly and then it will start building your media library. The Fireball will begin cycling through each disc in each changer and looking up the disc in either the GraceNote CD database or the Escient Movie Database via the Internet. A progress bar will keep you updated on the process of downloading all the media information for each disc, such as title, movie summary, cover art, song lists, aspect ratios, etc. Each disc takes several minutes to locate all of its data, so depending on how many changers you filled up, this should be an overnight activity. The result of this is a cataloged library of all your movies, music CDs and SACDs. The discs are sorted by genre and by whether they are movies or music.

Massive multi-disc changers have always been a great idea for protecting your collection from the bumps and bruises of handling them, not to mention avoiding loading them in the wrong way. The issue with changers is locating certain discs in the carousel itself. You can manually enter in a few characters of text to label them, but it is tedious and cryptic to read. For a distributed audio system, it gets worse, since the changer (and the display) is in a rack somewhere out of sight. With the DVDM-552, all the navigation is done via the monitor and advanced tricks like creating playlists of music tracks from several thousand music CDs is a snap. You can even create custom groups of movies that are your favorites or children’s movies, for example. The Sony changers that work with the Fireball can play DVD-Video, SACD, MP3 and music CD discs without issue.

Another unfortunate drawback with changers is their huge lag time and the clunky sounds they make as they change discs. Imagine a playlist of tracks on discs that are located on the opposite sides of the changer … yikes! It could be nearly a minute to get to the next song. Party over, because everyone got bored and left. This is where the 500GB internal hard drive comes into action. By selecting the music CD or tracks in the onscreen library and selecting the options screen, you can rip the selections to the hard drive as MP3 or lossless FLAC files. Now you can create a series of playlists that run quickly and smoothly without the clunky changers. You have a myriad of bit rates, ranging from 128kbps MP3s to the lossless FLAC files. Naturally, movies cannot be ripped due to copyright laws.

Let us not forget that there is also a DVD writeable player built into the DVDM-552. This allows for copying of CDs, creation of CDs from MP3 or FLAC files on the hard drive, or even creation of MP3 mix DVDs. All the DVD+RW and DVD-RW formats are supported, so you can buy just about any blank media and use it with the Fireball. Many of you will already have an MP3 collection on a networked PC in your home; the Fireball can import those files into your library, too. A 500GB hard drive is very big for an MP3 collection, but if you are doing FLACs, then you could run out of space after 1,500 discs. If you are in danger of this happening, you can add another DVDM-552 and double your library capacity.

In addition to music and movies, the Fireball is an Internet device, so it can navigate and play back Internet radio stations. Escient pre-loads the Fireball with some free RadioIO and Shoutcast stations, but it is easy to add your own stations if you know the URLs. As with the other media mentioned above, you can organize radio playlists and groups.

The remote is nearly identical to my Anthem AVM30 learning remote and is intuitive to use. It has the ability to control the players and navigate the menus of the Fireball. Escient provides an output RS-232 port and direct access IR codes for the Fireball, so that you can program a fancy remote like the Marantz RC9500 or program a control system from AMX, Crestron, Elan, etc. A web server is featured in the Fireball, which allows it to be controlled by a desktop PC, Mac, laptop, or PDA via a web browser. That’s not all. If you are really savvy with your web browser, you can actually have streaming MP3s play from any computer with a web browser. Sorry, but it doesn’t work for anything in the changers like CDs or DVDs, just MP3s and FLACs on the hard drive.

Lastly, the Fireball has many custom options. A screen saver function is provided to prevent screen burn-in issues. Different user interface skins are available to change the look and feel of the Fireball to your liking. Screen adjustments such as color, tint, sharpness, aspect ratio and brightness can be accessed from the menus as well. Although the reference media databases are mostly accurate, they do make mistakes. Escient provides a manual edit function for all the media information and allows you to manually search the database for album artwork and other information to correct any mistakes in your library.

Music and Movies
I began the movie playback with a cult favorite of mine, Conan the Barbarian (Universal Studios Home Video). Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly does more speaking as California’s governor in one phone call than he does in the entire movie; instead, he lets his sword do all the talking. The sounds of Conan’s horses galloping on the trail leading up to Thulsa Doom’s mountain lair echoed from the back to the front of the soundstage. The panting of the horses as they ran past my listening position really immersed me in the scene, as if I were sitting there right along the trail eating a burrito. The loud knocking of the hooves striking the ground perplexed me as to how something that loud could still sound so liquid and uncolored. The efforts of the digital remastering team for the soundtrack obviously did a great job with such an old film. Equally as startling to me was how much of the picture came alive with rich colors and excellent contrast, even on my LCD projector, which has average contrast range. Significant details in the background of the scene where Conan and his warriors enter into the lair came into the light. For example, even after viewing this film a dozen times, I never noticed before that the workers in the lair were actually hacking up human bodies and were moving them around in the background in order to make some sort of cannibal soup du jour. A critical piece of the plot is now uncovered with a high-resolution DVD player, a decent projector and a remastered DVD.

Spy Game (Universal Studios Home Video) was a thriller about a retiring spymaster who comes back to save the life of one of his pupils. In one scene in Beirut, Bishop (Brad Pitt) takes Muir (Robert Redford) to breakfast and, in the process, they must sneak across an active battlefield. Sounds of bullets whizzed by the two spies as they took refuge behind disabled cars strewn across the battlefield. The high-pitched sound of bullets bouncing off the steel cars was sharp and startling, but did not feel harsh to my ears at any time. Dialogue between the actors was clear to me even as the barrage of other battle sounds were constantly inserted into the scene. I did notice a little washout with the whites and light blues of the sky as the two characters sat and waited for the doctor to meet them. As the sun began to set, the light colors seemed a little exaggerated and appeared to lose some resolution. I saw less whitening of the sky with my Marantz DV9500 as I watched the same scene. Again, the Sony ES777 player is a fraction of the cost of the Marantz, so there are obvious processor and electronic improvements to explain that.

Having seen Slayer for the first time about a month ago when they came to San Diego, I was anxious to compare the live experience to their Reign In Blood: Still Reigning DVD (American Recordings). True to form, the video contains all the critical elements of a good Slayer show: lightning-fast guitars, double bass and blood. During “Necrophobic,” drummer Dave Lombardo conjured up a violent symphony of decaying cymbals rings. There was no noticeable graininess, despite the nonstop assault of crash cymbals and high hat taps filling the air. Accompanying Lombardo was the deadly guitar duo of Hanneman and King, whose blazing fast speed metal guitar work was proudly showcased during this song. The infamous track “Reign in Blood” featured the thunderous double bass of Lombardo, paired with the screams of singer Tom Araya. Although more limited in vocal range, the now older Araya has no problems delivering the message of this song to the audience with ferocious passion. At times during the song, Tom belted out high-pitched screams, followed by low-pitched groans. The entire vocal range was constantly tested and the digital output of the Fireball system had no trouble delivering impact and clarity. As if colorful flashing lights and ever-present smoke was not enough to visually stimulate the viewer of this video, Slayer added blood to the formula. During this song, blood (or red-colored water) was sprayed down on the band members to emulate raining blood. Excellent! Apparently the band must practice playing covered in blood, because this did not affect their ability to play one bit and they repeated this act during their live show.

The Downside
For all the tasks the DVDM-552 excels at, it is missing a few things that keep it from being truly revolutionary. The lack of any HDMI inputs or outputs leaves those trying to connect all of their digital equipment via this format reaching for some component video cables. It also has no analog 5.1 inputs and outputs, which effectively defeats the purpose of having SACD and DVD-Audio support in the first place.

Multitasking is poor with this unit. You can’t listen to music on the hard drive or Internet radio while ripping music to the hard drive from the changer or internal DVD drive. Basically, you have to wait and hear nothing while your music collection is being stored on the hard drive, which could take several days. Ripping to MP3, even at the lowest bit rate, seemed super-slow compared to ripping on a PC. Adding a single disc to the changer can lead to long waits while the changer re-looks up all the discs to see if anything changed from the last time it was run. Many of my SACD discs were not recognized by the Escient or GraceNote databases. Changer options are limited to one model, the Sony 777ES. There were several occasions when the changer and DVDM-552 lost contact with each other and become out of synch, requiring me to power cycle the changer. The Fireball is basically a networked PC, so it makes a noticeable hum from the internal hard drive even with the unit in standby mode. The fan also adds a lot of noise to my otherwise quiet home theater system.

The popularity of media managers is growing at an alarming rate, due to more people realizing how tedious juggling hundreds of discs can be. As libraries grow, so does the hassle of having to keep them organized and simple to use. In a world of information on demand and the Internet, media managers such as Escient’s DVDM-552 are a welcome addition. I found the user interface and the set-up of the unit very intuitive and easy. Once the unit is set up, I can easily picture a child or elderly person able to quickly find music or a movie within my collection. The addition of the internal hard drive increases the storage capacity and the speed of accessing the music within my library immensely. No more fumbling with my iPod and all the wires when entertaining guests. No scurrying through hundreds of CDs when I want to critically listen to music in a lossless format. The opportunity to listen to all my ripped music via MP3 streaming over a web browser is very trick and will impress any average Joe. I applaud the effort of Escient to merge an amazing amount of power and convenience into a small package. Although not cheap by most people’s standards, compared to $30,000 Kalidescape system, the Fireball can easily be considered a bargain.
Manufacturer Escient
Model Fireball DVDM-552 Movie Manager
Reviewer Matthew Evert

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