ReQuest F Series Music Server 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Saturday, 01 July 2006

In today’s market of automated homes and wired (and wireless) networking, the idea of having to drag your CD collection to every room of your home is getting as outdated as a turntable. Music servers are nothing new; chances are you already own one. With the advent of the iPod, music servers have touched almost every facet of our daily lives. The ReQuest music server is by no means an iPod, but the underlining principles that drive both products are relatively the same: to organize, store and play back music with relative ease. That is where the analogy ends, as the ReQuest line of music servers are heavy-duty tools designed to faithfully recreate music and reliably broadcast the tunes throughout your home and even beyond. The ReQuest F4.500 music server is priced at $5,000.

The ReQuest looks, more or less, like a single-disc CD player measuring in at 17 inches wide by 16 inches deep and three-and-a-half inches tall, weighing a manageable 22 pounds. The ReQuest comes in black aluminum with a brushed metal faceplate. Speaking of the ReQuest’s faceplate, the first thing I noticed was how barren it was. Minus the single disc tray and small LCD display, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, on the ReQuest’s front panel by way of controls or options. This baby was meant to be controlled via remote and there’s no getting around it, but more on that later. The ReQuest’s faceplate is easily removable through the use of two thumbscrews on the unit’s outermost edges. Behind the faceplate is the unit’s QuickSwap hard drive bay, USB keyboard port and master power switch. The QuickSwap hard drive is a nice feature, as it will allow you to change and/or share hard drives from other ReQuest units in the event that you fill one with music or a friend wants to share his or her library with you. It’s important to note that the ReQuest music servers only work with ReQuest’s own proprietary hard drives and not with those commonly found in most computers or electronic stores. Turning my attention to the rear of the unit, I was greeted with more familiar sights in terms of connection options. Moving from left to right, the first thing I noticed was the ReQuest’s rather large fan, which keeps the unit’s hard drive and circuitry cool. While the ReQuest may look like a CD player, it is essentially a computer and it sounds like one (at least mechanically), too. Next to the fan are the master power switch and AC power outlet. Continuing on, I came across the ReQuest’s RS-232 serial port, which allows the music server to be used with a variety of home automation products and controls from the likes of Crestron, AMX and more. Without jumping too far ahead, I should point out that most users will want to take advantage of the ReQuest’s third-party control support; it seems the F Series Music server is designed with this in mind. Next to the serial port are the ReQuest’s RCA line outs. There are four line outs to choose from, which allows for multi-room music capabilities from a single ReQuest unit, provided your house is wired accordingly and you have the appropriate hardware in each of the rooms you wish to utilize with this feature. The entry level F Series servers are equipped to handle two zones out of the box, while the higher-end models can distribute music to four separate zones. Next to the line outs are the ReQuest’s line inputs, as well as its digital outs, which include both coaxial and optical. Below the audio connections rests the unit’s video outputs, which can be used in conjunction with your television or small display device to give you visual access to the ReQuest’s menu system in the event that you don’t have a Crestron or AMX control system. The ReQuest supports most video connections, ranging from component down to composite video. There is also a VGA port, which can be used to connect the ReQuest to a VGA-compliant or computer monitor. Throw in a couple of rear-mounted USB ports and an Ethernet jack, which allow for remote access and maintenance, and you’ve got the ReQuest in all of its physical glory.

Looking inward, the ReQuest music server can be configured with a variety of hard drives, which will start you off with as little or as much space as you could possibly want. The standard F Series unit ships with a 160 GB hard drive. However, you can upgrade, at any time, to a 300GB or 500GB hard drive. With 160 GB at your disposal, you can expect to store up to 250 CDs in pure WAV format, 500 CDs in the open source FLAC encoding, 1,000 CDs in MP3 at 320kbps, 2,000 CDs in MP3 at 192kbps, and 3,000 CDs in MP3 at 128kbps, respectively. Which encoding format to choose is a matter of preference and you’ll want to experiment a little bit to find which one works for you and your music collection.

Another nifty advantage that ReQuest has over the competition is its ability to give you access to your library from beyond the home. That’s right: if your ReQuest is connected to a network, you can log onto it and stream music, update or manage your library, or rip songs to an iPod or other portable player from the comfort of your hotel room in, oh, let’s say Bangkok. To make it even easier, the ReQuest works with both PC and Mac seamlessly, as well as with programs like iTunes and Musicmatch. If you have a second home or condo that you like to visit from time to time, you’ll never have to be without music. Adding an additional ReQuest server to your second home will essentially make it an extension of your primary home system without having to transfer hard drives and/or port files to and fro, thanks to ReQuest’s own NetSync technology. Think of it less like multi-room and more or less like multi-location. Or multi-state, or better yet, multi-country. That, my friends, is pretty damn cool.

Which brings me to the remote. Upon first glance, I wanted to tear this thing apart (as I am likely to do with most remotes), but upon using it, I changed my tune. Sure, it’s not as sexy as I think it should be, given the ReQuest’s price point and potential customer base, but it is supremely functional and rather easy to use. It’s a bit bulky, but bear in mind that the remote is basically a computer keyboard, a CD player controller and an onscreen menu all rolled into one. With that in mind, it’s rather astonishing that the remote is as compact as it is. It doesn’t feature any backlighting or cool LCD screens that many of us have grown accustomed to, but it does what any good remote should: it controls the system easily and efficiently. Still, I can’t help but want the remote to match the look and feel of the ReQuest unit itself. However, most users will be ditching this remote in favor of their Crestron, AMX or Control 4 touch panel.

My review sample came by way of publisher Jerry Del Colliano’s personal stash. It was already loaded (and I mean loaded) with tunes from select classical works to tasty jazz to damn near every heavy metal or guitar rock selection you might want to hear. While construction rages on at the Del Colliano house, including the new reference theater (which will be featured in later this summer with a Flash tour), I took the opportunity to swipe his beloved ReQuest and give it a once over for this particular review. Out of the box and into my living room system it went. The physical set-up of the ReQuest server is as easy as plugging it in and making the necessary connections, be it RCA or digital. I opted for an analog connection, taking advantage of my favorite Monster M Series interconnects. Since I do not have a control system from the likes of Crestron (which will be how the server is ultimately controlled), I connected the ReQuest directly to my Vizio Plasma screen to take advantage of its onscreen menus. I chose to go with the component video outs on the ReQuest for the best performance possible. However, video quality was the least of my concerns as this is a music-only server. Still, I applaud ReQuest for going the extra mile here. Once everything was connected, I booted her up and prepared to wait. And wait. And wait. The first time you boot up your ReQuest server (or swap out hard drives and/or power down), you’ll be prompted to basically grab a cup of coffee or two while the system boots. Once the system is booted up, it’s ready to rock.

Like I said earlier, this particular ReQuest came fully loaded, but for the sake of this review, I added a few musical selections to publisher Del Colliano’s playlists. Importing music is rather elementary and I didn’t really need the manual to help figure it out. To say it’s as easy as, say, iTunes would be a bit of a misstatement, but it’s far from complicated. I began by putting in Alanis Morrisette’s second album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junky (Maverick). I ripped the entire CD three times, with each rip being of a different compression quality. For starters, I set the rip to MP3 at 128kbps, which is the lowest quality the ReQuest will allow. At 128kbps, the 17-track CD took approximately six minutes. Next, I ripped the same disc again, but in FLAC format, which I set to lossless compression. At that particular setting, the CD took roughly 13 minutes. This is an amount of time that is grounds for concern, in my opinion. Sure, the quality is bound to be better, but if you’re attempting to rip a multitude of discs at once, you best not make any dinner plans. As iTunes is as quick as it is, with entire discs sometimes taking less than a minute, asking the user to wait 10 minutes plus is pushing it. Happily, I only had to rip a couple of discs before being able to enjoy the music.

Once I was done with my importing, I sat back and prepared to bask in endless music. A few keystrokes later and that’s exactly what I got. One only needs to spend a couple of minutes with the ReQuest playing sweet-sweet music before the idea of a music server becomes less of a novelty and more of a necessity. It’s addictive and thoroughly enjoyable. To be able to go from Counting Crows to Guns N’ Roses at the drop of a hat is not only easy, it’s just downright cool. With the help of the ReQuest’s onscreen menu, navigating the endless collection was a snap and remarkably intuitive. The menu itself is very user-friendly and laid out in such a way that I’d even let my mother use it without having to first give her a tutorial. Make no mistake about it, the folks at ReQuest have done their homework when it comes to user accessibility, which is more than I can say for some other music server interfaces.

Music and Movies
For the purpose of this review, I chose to focus on a single disc to best illustrate the differences in the varying encoding options that the ReQuest offers, which should be able to be applied across the board to numerous CDs. Obviously, with recording quality varying from disc to disc, the best option would be to rip everything in as pure a form as possible. However, for the sake of hard drive space, you may want to pick and choose which albums are for critical listening and which ones are simply for ambient noise.

I kicked things off with the aforementioned Alanis Morrisette album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junky (Maverick). I consider this particular album to be one of Morrisette’s best and a huge step forward in terms of musical maturity for the once-budding young artist. I chose the MP3 version of the track “Unsent” to begin my listening tests. Right off the bat, the ReQuest proved it was no iPod. Even at the lowest resolution supported, the ReQuest sound quality was such that I had to double-check that I had the proper format selected. I did, but nevertheless, I was not as offended by the ReQuest’s MP3 sound as I have been with other players. Overall, the sound was lively, dynamic and weighty. On closer inspection, I was able to detect a bit of spatial flattening, giving the soundstage a feel more linear than arc-like. Still, the musicians and instruments were steadfast in their space, with a fair amount of air surrounding them. Bass was very good and, while not as deep as possible, it did maintain its overall rhythm when directly compared to the CD track itself. The midrange was the most notably affected by the MP3 format, adding a bit of digital raspiness to Morrisette’s vocals, which made the overall presentation a bit flat and one-dimensional. The highest frequencies were slightly plagued by the same phenomenon, but they never became objectionable to the point where I felt like stopping the track. If it sounds like I’m nitpicking, it’s because I am. When critically listening, I could hear the MP3’s lower quality. However, the second my attention was diverted for even a second, the anomalies were less noticeable.

Turning my attention to the FLAC-encoded version of “Unsent,” it became clear to me why lossless is still the way to go. I couldn’t detect at any point any differences between the FLAC encoding and the actual CD itself. I would even go so far as to say that the ReQuest’s playback of the track was slightly more enjoyable than the CD itself through my reference Denon player. The highs simply sparkled, while the bass gained in weight, scale and impact. Morrisette’s vocals were lifelike in weight and scale and exhibited none of the earlier-mentioned digital compression found with MP3s. Most notably, the depth of the soundstage improved dramatically both front to back and left to right. Dynamics also improved noticeably, as the music seemed to gain a bit of snap in its step.

Without a doubt, if you are planning on doing nothing but critical listening, I would have to recommend the FLAC or WAV encoding. While the ReQuest can swing as an audiophile player, it must be pointed out that it is a lifestyle piece, one that is meant to fill your everyday life with music. I have to imagine that most users will use the ReQuest server as part of a music on the fly or multi-room system and not solely as a critical listening device. If this is the case, I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending any of the various MP3 settings for ripping your music library to the ReQuest server. Regardless, the ReQuest exhibits strong traits in both the casual and critical listening arenas that make it a bargain compared to the competition.

The Downside
While I enjoyed my time with the ReQuest music server, I did run across a few hiccups. First off, the time it takes to rip a disc to the hard drive is just too long. However, the ReQuest is nothing if not thorough and never faltered, even when presented with badly damaged discs. Still, the ripping process was more a test of my patience than anything else.

Next was the onscreen menu. While the menu itself was very intuitive and easy to use, it didn’t always lock onto my television, which would leave me a bit in the dark and force me to change into my Geek Squad alter ego as I tried to remedy the problem. I have to assume that most of you are going to use the ReQuest in conjunction with a third-party control system, which should provide you with a much easier time. Still, if you’re forced to utilize your television set to access the onscreen menus, be prepared for a few bumps along the road.

Lastly, there is the issue of noise. The fan on the rear of the ReQuest is quite loud and, during low-level listening, very audible from my listening position. I would recommend placing the ReQuest in a closed rack if possible. (NOTE: Since the time of this review ReQuest has upgraded the power supply with a quieter fan.)

With a retail price of $5,000, the ReQuest isn’t cheap. However, you can get into an F Series music server for less and then expand from there, making it a more cost-effective solution if you are on a budget. Certainly you can build or even buy a ready-made music server for a whole lot less, but in that case, you will be getting less. Couple this with the fact that most music servers are built around existing and sometimes troubling operating systems, such as Windows, and the ReQuest begins to look better and better. The ReQuest is a luxury item. Once you’ve lived with it for more than a day, you may find yourself rationalizing the cost. It is, without a doubt, the most reliable music server I’ve encountered, video bugs and all, and is backed by the best customer service I’ve ever seen. Throw in a myriad of features like remote location access and multi-room capability from a single box and it quickly becomes apparent why ReQuest customers continue to pay the relatively steep price tag.
Manufacturer ReQuest
Model F Series Music Server
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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