Escient Fireball SE-80 Music Server 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Brian Kahn   
Wednesday, 01 February 2006

Introduction
Escient’s Fireball SE-80 is their latest entry-level music server offering. The SE-80 features an 80 GB hard drive, as well as an internal CD-RW drive, which can be used to load music onto the hard drive, create music discs from the music stored on the hard drive or as a CD player. Like the E2 and other Fireball units, the SE-80 also has a built in Internet radio receiver, file sharing and web server capabilities, all for the slim price of $995.

The SE chassis and industrial design is consistent with the rest of the Escient family and measures 17-3/8 inches wide by four-and-five-eighths inches high and 11-7/8 inches deep. The chassis is finished in the same attractive brushed black aluminum as the E2 and other Fireballs. The front panel features a curved accent stripe, an oval CD drawer and a row of transport control buttons.

The back panel of the SE is quite simple and barren when compared to Escient’s media controller products and features only the necessities, including video outputs, stereo analog output, digital audio output, an Ethernet port and an IR input. This differs from the other Escient units, as it does not have RS-232 ports or audio inputs.

While the SE is designed to be the entry-level Escient music server, it still has plenty of features. The SE series shares many of the features of the E2 series previously reviewed here on AVRev.com. The main differences between the SE reviewed here and the E2’s are the SE’s lack of front panel display, Toslink digital output, audio inputs, external media control, serial control and a FLAC encoder. The SE is still capable of storing hundreds of hours of music, automatic CD identification, burning custom discs, multiple zone support, Internet radio and more.

The primary purpose of the SE is that it allows the user to easily access music stored on the internal 80 GB drive. The user can choose to convert music into MP3 audio files, ranging in quality from 128 kb/s to 320 kb/s. The SE-80 can hold 536 hours of music recorded in the MP3 format of 320 kb/s and up to 1340 hours when the bitrate is lowered to 128 kb/s.

Set-Up
I easily connected the SE-80 to my reference stereo system via its analog outputs. The video output of the Escient was connected directly to my television monitor. The last connections were an Ethernet cable to a switch on my home network and, finally, power. With all the physical connections made, I powered up the unit and followed the graphic onscreen menus, which were quite easy to navigate.

The SE-80 had no problems setting itself up on my network. Having the SE-80 on my home computer network not only allows it to connect to the Gracenote CDDB database to look up each disc as it is inserted, but also to share files with other Escient devices on the network, as well as computers and portable MP3 players. The Escient products have a built-in peer to peer networking capability, which allowed me to access the music stored on my Escient E2 through the SE-80. When the SE-80 is connected to the Internet, it will also function as an Internet radio server.

The Music
The SE-80 allowed me simple access to the music stored both on the SE-80 and my E2 series Escient on the same network. When viewing the onscreen listing of available music, the music from both servers is integrated into one simple-to-use list. The audio quality of the SE-80 when listening via its analog outputs is the same as the previously reviewed E2 series, which retails for $3,999. This is because both units feature the same MP3 encoders, D/A converters and analog output stages. Accordingly, in this review, I will focus on the differences between the units.

The SE-80 cannot encode music into the FLAC format, but it can play back FLAC-encoded files that are either on another Escient or encoded elsewhere, then transferred onto the SE-80. On the output side, the SE-80 lacks a coaxial digital output. This probably won’t be much of an issue, as it is unlikely that someone who buys a sub-$1,000 music server is going to spend the hundreds of dollars required to better the Escient’s internal DACs.

I encoded a couple of albums onto the SE-80 in the MP3 format at the bitrate of 320 kb/s and on an E2 series Escient in the FLAC format. I first listened to Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors (Sony). On the track “True Colors,” when encoded via MP3, I found that the soundstage was not as well anchored as when encoded with the FLAC format. The instruments and vocals floated a bit, with highs not quite as clean or transparent as on the FLAC-encoded version. I then listened to “Iko Iko,” where I found the FLAC version had more ambience and a deeper soundstage than the MP3 version.

Just to make sure that my results weren’t limited to 1980s pop discs, I loaded the more recent Souls Core by Shawn Mullins (Sony) onto both the E2 and SE-80 in FLAC and 320 kb/s MP3, respectively. Listening to the track “Lullaby” confirmed my earlier listening results, with the MP3 version’s image not being quite as stable and slight loss of texture in the vocals.

Escient’s Internet radio function was easy to use; the unit creates a list of available stations, which are then easily selected from the graphic menu system. I found that I had to refresh the station list occasionally, because the stations were not always available. This was also a simple and painless procedure. The sound quality of the Internet radio sources varied wildly, as there is no set standard for broadcast quality.

The Downside
Recognizing that the SE-80 is designed as the entry-level Escient and as such has defined limits to its capabilities, it is hard to complain about the SE-80’s performance within its limits. Its lack of FLAC encoding and coaxial digital output may prohibit the user from getting the best possible sound quality, but if that’s what you are after, you should probably choose a model with higher capacity to store the larger files anyway.

The one thing that I would have liked to have seen included would have been a front panel display. As it is currently configured, the SE-80 needs an outboard video display in order to navigate the menus and select music. This precludes the SE-80 from use in systems that do not have a video display available. I also understand that compromises have to be made in order to meet this slip price point, but not everyone wants to use an onscreen menu every time they want to spin some songs.

Conclusion
The SE-80 thankfully brings many of the benefits of the E2 line into a unit that is a fraction of the price. This newest and cheapest music server from Escient does a commendable job as an MP3 server. If your system has a display available and you do not need the step-up features of the E2 series, I highly recommend that you check out the SE-80. Even if your needs grow in the future and you end up buying an E2 later on, you can still use the SE-80 as a zone player, rather than having an obsolete box. Overall, the SE-80 is a solid product poised perfectly to introduce anyone to the joyous world of music servers.
Manufacturer Escient
Model Fireball SE-80 Music Server
Reviewer Brian Kahn





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