It’s a fair bet that in twenty years’ time we’ll look back and realise that, even by 2007, we’d hardly got the measure of the audio possibilities offered by music servers and the internet. Yet, we’re more clued-up today then we were, say, five years ago and hardware manufacturers are starting to capitalise on it in mutually useful ways.

Take the Fireball SE500i as a case in point. Escient calls it a ‘Music Manager’, which is not a bad description as it keeps copies of your CDs and, more importantly, keeps tabs on them, too. It also gives access to internet radio stations. It doesn’t, however, allow you to download MP3 files from websites, although you can hook it up to your computer and copy over files downloaded on the latter.

Keeping all your CDs in one place is not by any means a new concept. CD changers did the job a decade ago and since servers took over about five years ago, they’ve been getting bigger, better and more able to cope with large collections. The hard drive in this model is 500GB in size, which would work out at about 800 hours of audio in the CD format, but since Escient has built in FLAC encoding (the L stands for ‘Lossless’) there’s more like 1,500 hours on offer, which will handle most collections. Of course, MP3 is available for even greater capacity, but we’ll not dwell on that.

Internet radio capability

Internet radio is a bit more of a novelty and many folk will already have experimented with it via a home computer. What we really like about the Fireball, though, is the ease with which it accesses such services. Slightly nervously, we plugged in the unit, connected a TV borrowed from a neighbour (when Escient made this device entirely dependent on an external video display, they forgot that some people prefer to live without TV!) and connected the Ethernet cable to a BT Home Hub – most broadband modems connected to most ISPs should work perfectly well. About four clicks on the remote control later and the Fireball was registering itself with the server and downloading a list of radio stations, making it absolutely no more of a headache to set up than a DAB tuner.

Ethernet also connects to a home computer allowing for an infinitely expandable network should the Fireball’s 500GB prove insufficient. With a bit of free software from Escient’s website you can use the Fireball to play music on the computer, but copying files to the Fireball is no sweat. Neither is loading CDs as there’s a high-speed CD drive on the Fireball, which apart from playing discs allows very quick and easy copying to the hard drive. Naturally, this includes the Gracenote-derived information. Displaying the disc information and artwork on the video display is seamless thanks to the connection with the Gracenote online database – listing a surprising number of even quite obscure discs.

The first servers on the market with internet connectivity relied on dial-up, but applications like this really benefit from continuous broadband and the display will be showing full disc details in only about the same amount of time it takes some regular CD players to load up a disc. It’s possible to set the Fireball up so that discs are automatically loaded to the hard disc when they are inserted. This really minimises the pain of getting a collection transferred – just put in a new disc each time you walk past the machine!

‘Ripping’ time seems to be in the order of five or six minutes, which isn’t quite as fast as the best computer drives, but is bearable. And yes, we did check that the audio extraction is bit-accurate. Reversing the process, the CD drive also writes discs and it’s possible to make CD compilations of tracks on the hard drive.

Sound quality

How fussy can we be about sound quality?

To some extent, the answer depends on the application. If the Fireball is going to feed a round-the-house music system from a cupboard under the stairs, maybe we shouldn’t be too particular. Leaving aside the question of internet radio, which is the modern equivalent of medium wave because of its use of low bit-rates, there are basically two issues to address; sound from the CD drive and sound from the hard disc. In the case of the latter we’re looking exclusively at FLAC-encoded material so, in principle, given the same bits are put out by each there should be little or no difference.

We were rather surprised, though, to find that hard disc sounded better than CD. Having checked that the settings were all correct we ran a few lab tests to make sure we weren’t imagining things and, sure enough, performance direct from CD really is quite shabby – by a considerable margin, the roughest we’ve seen for a long time. Perhaps, direct play from CD was only intended as a feature for occasional use or to check the disc about to be recorded. And what if you chose to make the Fireball the centre of a stereo system? Then you certainly won’t want to record every disc you own.

Sound from the hard disc isn’t brilliant either. It’s not bad tonally, but detail definitely takes a beating compared with even very modest performing CD players, while bass is vague and treble rather coarse. There’s a semblance of imaging, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from modern kit at any price.

There is a way of mitigating all this, and that’s to use an external DAC. The digital output of the Fireball works just fine and when we connected up even quite a basic DAC, in the form of the monitor circuit of a MiniDisc recorder, the sound picked up no end. Going for broke and hooking up a dCS did indeed lift quality to full-on audiophile levels. But then the mechanical noise of the Fireball, which includes a fan as well as a hard disc, is a serious setback if the machine is in the same room as the loudspeakers. Incidentally, that fan is on even when the player is in standby mode, and draws a continuous 25 watts twenty-four hours a day unless the mains cord is removed. So it’s not the most eco-friendly either!

The internet radio can be quite addictive and is a pleasure to use, but from an audiophile perspective we have mixed feelings. A decent audio output would have been possible without costing a fortune and quieter mechanical operation surely isn’t beyond the company’s capability either. The lone audio output, as noted, counts against installation duty and the TV/video display requirement makes that seem still less attractive. So what’s the point? Pimped with a DAC and a sound-absorbent cabinet it looks much better, but the cost rises by a few hundred pounds. And as a last resort there’s always a cheap laptop computer and a DAC.