Escient Fireball Audio Server 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Richard Elen   
Wednesday, 01 January 2003

Introduction
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.

Installation
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.

A major benefit of the Fireball is that it provides the ability to you get your own music into the system. The simplest way is to pop a CD into the internal drive and ripping it to the hard drive. This drive is also a CD-RW drive and you can also use it to burn CD compilations of your favorite music, which is very sweet. The system stores audio in MP3 (MPEG 1, layer 3) format, the commonest music data compression format on the Net. You can decide what data rate to use in the creation of the MP3, from 96 to 320 Kbits/sec, and the tracks to convert. In a couple of button pushes, the system is ripping your disc to the hard drive, having looked up the album, the artwork and track listing, all at around 10 times real time: an average CD takes six to seven minutes. You can’t do anything else while it’s carrying out this process. Switch the unit off while it is ripping and it will continue to do so, flashing all three of the main blue front-panel LEDs until it’s finished, which can take a while – aaaargh. These LEDs are enormously bright and if you’re trying to sleep in the next room, you’ll think you’ve suddenly woken up in a strange motel on tour with some band or other. Larger-value resistors (like those of Sunfire, for instance) would have been nice to calm them down a bit.

The other possibility for getting audio into the system, which is rather more major, is to rip your entire collection from a mega CD changer. Here you simply hook up a supported changer, load it with discs, press the button and walk away. It will spend the next however-long-period-of-time copying the discs from the changer, encoding them to MP3 and storing them and their track data. This process, however, happens in real time, so it can take a while.

The Fireball does not rip the tracks directly to MP3. It copies them to the hard drive immediately and then rips them at its own pace, which can take some time. In the meantime, you can still play back the tracks without the disc being present. In fact, the temporary storage is at full resolution, without compression.

I discovered this in a rather interesting way. I put my copy of Alan Parsons’ DTS CD On Air into the on-board drive, and the system not only successfully found it and its cover in the CDDB, it also started playing it – in surround. The Fireball doesn’t have a DTS decoder, of course, but my Sunfire was able to decode the digital output. Interesting. I ripped the CD to the hard drive and removed the disc – it could still play the music back in surround. I noticed that when I looked at the disc’s entry in the Guide, I was informed that it was still encoding.

I came back in the morning and tried to play the disc. The entry now told me its data rate. It had finished encoding – now, instead of surround audio, it played back only noise. The lossy MP3 encoding process had lost the data that made surround decoding possible.

This is a real drag. You can choose the data rate of the encoding, but one thing you can’t do is to choose “no compression.” Of course, using compression dramatically increases the playing time the hard drive will provide – up to 1200 CDs or 700 MP3 albums. But not being able to store without lossy encoding means that the Fireball’s ability to play – and find in the online database – DTS surround discs is completely lost if you try to store them.

There’s another problem too: the system’s basic element is a song. It cannot deal with CDs, where one song runs into another. Rip Sergeant Pepper, for example, play it back, and you will get nasty two-second default pauses between the tracks on replay, rather than the zero-second pauses the album demands and originally had. Of course, this is fine if you are building playlists of your favorite tracks, but not if you are just sitting listening to the album.

I noticed that the CDDB was pretty good at recovering artist and track data online. Escient uses its own version of the CDDB database, called GraceNote, and it contains a lot of stuff, although like all these things, the contributors, who are ordinary listeners like you and me, can’t spell to save their lives. This means that you often have to edit the returned data to fix errors. The related album cover art database, however, is a lot less extensive. I have a really weird collection of albums and I was a) surprised at how many were in the CDDB and b) how few had artwork available. If the art isn’t available online, the system places a generic image there, which is pretty horrible and indicates only the nominal genre (though I guess it’s better than nothing).

I was tempted, and succumbed, to ripping the weirdest albums in my collection to see if the online databases could find them. It found the titles for Sergei Kuryokhin’s incredible Sparrow Oratorium, but it didn’t have the cover and more than one track was misspelled (okay, it’s Russian, but they are correctly spelled in English in the CD liner notes). The same was the case with Huub de Lange’s Life And Death In a Street Organ and a few other amazing albums that you will only hear if you listen to “Late Junction” on BBC Radio 3. Benjamin Biolay’s Rose Kennedy was the same too: artist and title but no cover. I also noticed at this point that the system could not handle accents in the listings: Novembre Toute L’Année came out with two question marks instead of an e-acute. Kevin Gilbert’s Shaming of the True had a listing but no picture. What was interesting was that brilliant local San Diego artist Eve Selis was well-represented with both information and cover pics. So was Mr Scruff’s Keep It Unreal, Rabbit Songs by Hem, No More Sad Refrains by Sandy Denny, Silly Sisters by Maddy Prior and June Tabor from zillions of years ago, Five Leaves Left from Nick Drake, and Songs of Sanctuary by Adiemus (aka Karl Jenkins, formerly of Soft Machine). I warned you, I have a weird collection.

Now, nothing is more frustrating than having one of those generic icons onscreen when listening to a favorite album. Luckily, there is now a piece of software that comes with the Fireball (I downloaded it from Escient’s site), which enables you to fix this and manage a houseful of Fireballs into the bargain. The Pipeline software is for Windows only – grrr. Although it will work on a Mac with Virtual PC, the real way of doing this is to equip the Fireball with a web server, which Escient is working on, that would make it compatible with anything. At present, it enables you to organize and create playlists, name and label things, and most fun of all, throw cover art (or whatever) at the unit to replace those generic icons (you can even create your own generic icons). About the only thing I couldn’t find was a way to send updates to the online database. And incidentally, though the Fireball’s onscreen display can’t cope with accents, Pipeline can.

Listening Tests
You may not want to do strict listening tests with this box. It’s an MP3 system and will remain so until they take up my suggestion of letting you rip things without compression, which means that even at the highest data rate, it is not CD quality. It’s close, especially on rock music, but on a classical recording for example, you can clearly tell the difference. I listened to the Decca recording of Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Richard Addinsell’s classic Rachmaninov-esque “Warsaw Concerto” from the 1941 movie “Dangerous Moonlight” (aka “Suicide Squadron,” the film’s much more prosaic title in the U.S.) and switched between the CD in the unit’s internal drive and the MP3 version ripped previously. (The Gracenote entry was interesting, with the title in the wrong field and no cover art.) The difference was obvious, with the MP3 sounding flatter and less dynamic than the original on the default bit rate. Setting the data rate at maximum improved matters a touch – you would not have known you weren’t listening to the CD unless you did a direct A/B, but I did have the CD and did do a direct A/B, and I could hear the difference. Trying the system with rock music, such as Benjamin Biolay’s aforementioned album Rose Kennedy (I suppose this counts as rock music) still showed a difference, with the strings sounding less present and the drums attacks a little less crisp and clean when listening to the MP3.

When people say that MP3 is “near-CD quality,” what they mean is that it sounds worse than one of those first generation CDs from 1983 -- the type that made vinylphiles tell you that digital audio (aka CD) would never catch on. People further tell me that the GenX and Yers don’t care about sound quality as much as the flexibility, portability and convenience of MP3. Bullshit is all I can say to that. Non-audiophile Baby Boomers and GenXers alike can hear and appreciate the difference between good and bad sound.

Talking of portability, you can hook your MP3 player up to the Fireball and download songs via USB. It recognizes your player when you plug it in, and off you go. Er… well, it does if it’s one of the couple of players that are supported, neither of which I own. It doesn’t support an iPod (no 1394 port), which rather deflates the cool factor a bit, and it doesn’t support my NetMD MiniDisc recorder either (which is a mini MD recorder that pretends to be an MP3 player and does a good job of it, too).

The Downside
Okay, so the downside is a bit extensive on this occasion. But before we go there, it should be noted that this is a brand-new example of a brand-new genre of audio component. Let us not forget it is in its early days of development. Products like this are so software-based that the main limitation on the manufacturer is whether they think an idea is worth implementing or not. So… here’s some things I think are worth implementing, in order of preference:

You should be able to choose your own Internet radio stations. If you could do that, I would buy a Fireball straight away, even if a no-compression option were the only other change. Escient told me that they think their customers would be concerned if the stations provided were not rock-solid in terms of definite availability. Of course, the ability to find and store your own choices doesn’t mean that Escient shouldn’t provide them with known working examples as “factory presets.” In any case, a whole bunch of their fixed set of stations weren’t there anyway. This area of the product needs some work, and should do more than offer the equivalent of the CD-quality audio channels on your satellite TV system but at much lower quality.

The discerning music enthusiast wants the Fireball to include the ability to rip material without compression. This would mean that people who want actual CD quality, or surround sound, would be able to get it - and of course they would need to be made aware of the fact that the recording time would be significantly reduced. You wouldn’t want to do it with everything, but for some things it would be great. The unit already rips material to disc without compression: it just needs an option to make it stay like that. At 40 gig and a retail price of $2,000, I question the value of this in late 2002. The internal cost of a 200 gig internal drive, even when purchased in low quantities, is under $100.

Lack of Macintosh support is a significant problem for me. Escient says that they don’t think it’s worth the Pipeline software supporting a computer system that has only five percent of the market, but that figure is truly questionable. Reputable online sources report over 11.6 percent of computers in use in the market today run a version of the Mac OS (source: spymac.com), and many music people are Mac-based, as proven by recent prodigious sales of the Apple iPod. The real solution is to give the Fireball a web server, which Escient is considering, to solve the platform problem forever.

The Fireball needs to talk to some other portable players: the iPod most notably, although of course that would need a 1394 port, which isn’t currently provided.

I would have like to see an effective way of dealing with albums that have non-two-second pauses between tracks. The system knows which tracks on an album come one after the other. One way of dealing with this would be to store the pause value used on the CD in the file header, so that when a playlist juxtaposes tracks in their original order, the correct pause can be used.

Much like those on Jerry Del Colliano’s new Krell power amps, the Fireball’s blue LEDS are too bright. The Fireball needs a way to dim the blue LEDs, much like the Krell amps can be dimmed via one of Krell’s system remotes.

*It is important to note the Escient is working on solutions to some of these problems. Free upgrade software Should be available in January of 2003 providing:

• Full uncompresed (wav) selectable format
• Choice of compression or no compression
• Ability to choose your own Internet radio stations
• Ability to rip material without compression

Conclusion
Despite the longest list of downsides I have ever written, this is a really cool box. With a few changes, it could be such an exceptionally cool box that everyone will want one. Hey, they may all want one anyway -- with a few changes, I’d want one, too. For custom audio/video installers, the Escient Fireball can jump through hoops with a simplicity that is refreshing. A Pronto, Crestron or AMX-based theater or distributed music system can have more sources and ways to listen to music than was until recently thought possible. For audiophiles and music enthusiasts, the lack of non-compressed storage might make the $2,000 for a Fireball a tough pill to swallow. For Gen-Xers looking to fire up their iPod with their favorite CDs, the Fireball is not the ticket.

It is early in the game for components like the Fireball, but for a first time out, this unit is impressive and I am confident that it is only going to get better and better with software and firmware updates. If you are looking to manage a huge collection of music with the gentle caress of your remote, the Escient Fireball may be for you.
Manufacturer Escient
Model Fireball Audio Server
Reviewer Richard Elen





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