DVDM-300 Set up - Music and Internet Radio
There are four ways to get music onto the FireBall:
- Use the QuickFire CD ripping service
- Insert the disc into the FireBall (or an external changer) and let it rip it for you
- Drag and drop from your computer to the FireBall over your network (requires that the music already be on your computer)
- Record from an external source.
Well, I wasn't using the QuickFire CD ripping service (it seems that unless you have an inordinately large catalog of music, an excess of money, or a little of both, this would be a bit extravagant). I know that I, since the illegalization of Napster and the clones, have officially stopped downloading content from free sites. I also know that I tended not to download anything I already owned, so in my case nearly all my CDs would have to be ripped (not a small number). There are a number of different options (MP3-128, -160, -192, -320, and FLAC) for storing music on the 300 gig internal hard drive of the FireBall with the most compressed (MP3-128) giving around 5000 hours of storage and the least compressed (CD quality lossless FLAC files) allowing about 850 hours. I grabbed a random disc and loaded it using every one of the available storage options, none of them ripped significantly faster than the other (most between 3 and 4 minutes). You can load all your discs into a changer (Sony DVP-CX777ES 400 disc DVD/CD changer, Kenwood DV5050 and 5900 403 disc DVD/CD changers, or the Sony 200, 300, 400 disc CDP series CD-only changers) and either let the FireBall manage them from there (like the movies) or have it rip any one, any range (discs 5 though 100), or all to the hard drive.
So, in my impressionable youth, I worked briefly for a record store (a chain out in California, now defunct I think). One of the things that manufacturers would do is to send free discs for the crew (often identified by holes punched in the cover) and demo discs (often a subset of the best songs, pasteurized if needed) to be played over the store's speaker system. I have one of these discs from those days that I used as one of my two "ringer"discs. The FireBall, using Gracenote as its identification database (it uses AMG for the cover art), easily identified at least the title, artist, and song list, and usually the cover art of everything I threw at it. With a sick grin on my face, I stuck the demo disc in the FireBall. Much to my surprise, it was picked up! It didn't get the cover art (I'm not sure if there ever was any) but it got the artist's name, album info, and all the songs. Pretty impressive. It didn't find my second ringer, "Isaac the Procrastinator,"a giveaway from Chic-fil-a. Hey, given the completeness of the database, they will probably have it added before too long!
The default for the FireBall is to play the disc that is loaded into the machine. This is easily reconfigurable from the setup menu allowing you to choose to immediately rip the disc and allowing you to choose the format. I would have preferred to have it default to "rip"as that is most likely the first use of the machine, but I agree with the logic: If you make the user choose rip, they are forced to pick a format. Later on, it can be switched to auto play once you've ripped your library (honestly, with only a 3 minute rip time, I don't see why you wouldn't rip every disc). I've toyed with the idea that it should ask you if you want to auto-play or rip when you insert every disc but decided it would be more annoying than setting a default. Personally, it is kind of a catch 22, no matter what way Escient went, someone would complain. In my opinion, I like setting the default and forgetting about it.
Transferring music from my hard drive to the FireBall proved to be difficult, but once again because of my ailing computer rather than any fault of the FireBall. Once I got the computer working ("Hello, tech support?") it was an absolute dream. It took about 8 minutes and 45 seconds to import 520 megs of MP3s. It did take a while for the FireBall to integrate all that music into the system (I kept trying to play it and it wouldn't). After I shut the machine down and came back to it later, everything magically worked.
The last method of getting content onto the hard drive is to record from another source. That's right, you can take that old tape deck or record player or any other "real time"source and move all that content over to the Escient! All you have to do is hit the record button, select "record from an external source,"set the record time, and hit play. Then you can name it and even search the Internet for its cover art.
The content is viewable by artist, title, song, genre/user defined groups, and cover art (the artist name, title, label, year, and track names are all modifiable). You can select individual songs or select an entire album to play by pressing PLAY while the Album Title is selected. You can also select the entire contents of an album when building a Playlist or selecting tracks to rip, by using the TOGGLE key on the remote (the double spinning arrows key). A small quip I had was that, while there are the standard repeat (track/title/group) and random (title/group) play options, you couldn't do them both - it was either one or the other.
The FireBall is also capable of burning playlists to CD, copying a CD from an
external changer or the internal drive, or even recording to a CD from the external analogue inputs. It
can burn either music CDs (redbook-compatible) or data CDs for FLAC or MP3 files. It burned the CDs (at
FLAC) in about 8 to 10 minutes.
Granted, it was not the fastest CD burning experience I've ever
had, but it worked.
It can also manage CD-RW's allowing you to add or delete content at a later
Set up and Performance - Internet Radio
The FireBall comes preprogrammed with a number of Internet Radio stations, many of which those of you who use this type of service will be familiar with. These are separated by genre for easy access. Of everything I have covered so far, this is the only function that required a broadband connection. While I use a cable modem, it is not the "top of the line"highest speed connection you can get (honestly, it was the connection speed they were having a special on at the time I signed up). I've experienced Internet Radio in the past and, while less than impressed with its quality, I was impressed by its ability to send me EXACTLY the music I want to hear -for free 舰 at least until they starting charging for it 舰 at which point I stopped listening to it. Up until now, my experience has been that Internet Radio stations tend to have random pauses, breaks, and other such artifacts that I put up with because it was free. I can honestly say, the FireBall delivered the best Internet Radio experience I have ever had.
The one thing I wanted to explore in particular was the ability to program in new stations based on my personal preferences. You can have the FireBall scan for stations, and it comes back with a good cross section of station types. But if you are into a specific type of music/station, you are going to have to do a little research. The menu screen for this is easily accessible (as is most of the functionality of the FireBall) but finding a station that you can add proved more of a challenge. Once I got the correct URL, it connected right away and was stored in memory even if I had it rescan for stations (I assumed it would wipe out the ones I entered, but it didn't). Basically, once you find the URL for the station you want (thanks Clint for providing a great link), you give the station a name, location (both can be made up), the URL, and the connection type/speed. Press save and BAM! you are done. Simple, easy, and intuitive. I will note that using a laptop, or in this case my desktop, made entering the stations a breeze. Surf in one window; enter in another 舰 use the mouse instead of the arrow keys, lots of copying and pasting opportunities that are not available using the remote, etc.
Set up and Performance - Other
Another feature that I thought was a really nice touch is the ability to print out your play lists for movies, music, and even Internet Radio. Lets face it, there are plenty of people out there that print out every single email they receive (paperless office, yeah right). For those, the ability to view a hardcopy list of everything on the hard drive speaks exactly to their needs. From the option menu in each of the three categories, simply select the "print X library"and out pops a page that can either be printed or PDF'ed.
When they told me I could access the FireBall of the Internet and listen to my music from a
remote computer (read: work
heh, heh, heh) I was
intrigued to say the least (rubs hands
Truly, of all the functionality I expected from a music/movie server,
this was unexpected.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test this functionality as it was meant to be
utilized (see sidebar), but the streaming from the Escient to a computer on the internal network was as
effortless and intuitive as everything else.
Feedback from Escient
The FireBall can be accessed via the Internet by enabling your router to forward the IP address of your FireBall via port 80. This is called port forwarding and there should be a setting in your router for doing this. Once you have setup the port forwarding in your router then you can enter the IP address of your router from any location on the Internet. You can also put the web interface into Streaming Client mode so you can play the music on the FireBall to the remote location. Do this by clicking the Setup button in the FireBall web interface and then selecting the Web Client Mode link.
Installers take note: You can set this system up in a client's house and have ALL the same access to the menus and option screens that they do. No more house calls because Mr. Moneybags can't figure out how find his jazz play list and he has guests coming over in an hour. Connect to the system from your computer, switch it to music, find the play list, and hit play. That, my friend, is convenience! The only drawback that I can see 舰 overdependence of clients. Suddenly Mrs. Ilosttheremote has got you on the phone twenty times a day. Solution -charge by the incident, not the hour. Watch the money roll in.
Since the Escient FireBall is really meant to be controlled with either third party products (AMX, Creston, etc.) or via your laptop or PDA, the remote deficiencies are kind of excusable. I mean, come on, who is going to drop $5k on a music/movie server and NOT have a touch screen remote? I mean other than me, that is? The remote works fine, it is utilitarian, it lights up, and it is black. The writing is a bit small and the buttons are too close together and too small but I really think the remote is only to be used during the initial setup and then replaced by something else. My vote? For set up issues (especially setting groups and radio stations) the laptop. You can do things a lot easier. The remote (or preferably some sort of touch panel remote) is more than enough for day-to-day operation. The LEFT arrow key will automatically back you out of whatever screen you are on while in the Setup or Options menus. Also, there in no scrolling ability via the wheel on a mouse 舰 you have to hit the down arrow (not on the keyboard, on the screen). Minor points.
If there is one knock I have against the FireBall other than the lack of in-box wireless access, it is the lack of multi-room support in the box. There is, however, the ability to add FireBall MP-150 multi-zone players. There are several advantages to this approach. 1) You can add as many zone players as you want (which play up to 5 simultaneous streams from one server), 2) Each MP-150 provides independent control and GUI browsing from each zone, and 3) digital audio outputs are provided for each zone (unlike analogue-only systems). These are some cool options, but it does mean another purchase has to be made in order to get sound to a second zone. Many $500 receivers have a Zone 2 audio output with discrete source selection and we'd love to see this on future products from Escient to make the system a bit more flexible for small multi-room use. When combining servers, each box is additive - meaning it all looks like one network. So if you have 80 GB of music on your SE-80 and 300 GB on the DVDM-300, from the user's standpoint, it all looks like one 380 GB database. The two servers are completely interlaced. You don't have to search one and then another.
The last two features that really deserve a mention are the customizable GUI and the backup capability. Sometimes, it's the little things that make a difference. While many may be content with all speakers being black boxes, the first company that gave us a choice of real wood (veneer or no) made the consumers slap their collective foreheads saying, "Duh, why didn't someone think of this before!" Someone over at Escient said, "You know, the thing is hooked up to their computer anyhow, why don't we let them set their own background?" And someone else added, "Yeah, and why don't we let them set their screen saver to display their own pictures?" It's those simple yet intuitive touches that really make the difference between a good product and a great one. (Note: backgrounds should be 720 x 640 and less than 500k, and screen saver pictures must be less than 500k.) It would have been nice if you could choose a global background theme or set instead of having to change all 11 screens individually. Also, oddly enough, I couldn't find this customization screen on the computer interface where it would have been easiest to manage. (Escient has informed us that this feature will be available at a later date via the automatic software update feature built into every Fireball product.)