Music servers are coming thick and fast at the moment and the Systemline, from a part of the Armour Home Electronics empire, seems like a typical enough example.

It has a CD drive, an internal hard disc and just enough buttons and front-panel display to make operation possible without attaching a TV (or VGA) monitor, or using the remote control (though employing both those devices will make life much easier).

Simple setup

Like models from Imerge, but in contrast to the Escient Fireball and the Cambridge Audio Azur 640H, this server has three multiple outputs. The ability to play separate streams to separate zones is surely a prerequisite for a server to be useful in a full-on multi-room installation, so three seems a sensible number.

Significantly, all three on this unit are both analogue and digital, so an installation with a local DAC in each zone is a possibility, though you might need to convert the optical output to electrical first.

The usual server features apply, too: the basic idea is that you load your CDs on to the hard disc using the CD drive, which is a speedy computer type, and access them quickly from there by title, genre or artist.

Thanks to the usual Ethernet connectivity, you can hook up the server to your broadband modem and the unit seamlessly accesses an online database and loads album details for you.

Slow loading

This all works very nicely and you can also set the drive to load CDs to disc automatically upon insertion, without interrupting whatever you happen to be listening to. It's not quite as fast as we'd like, though.

Despite making a noise like a jet engine, the CD drive took nearly six minutes to load Dark Side of the Moon (approx 45 minutes), while our PC with a Plextor reader did the same in two minutes, 20 seconds.

If you think you may never wish to listen to a disc again, you can play it direct from the drive, and the unit's Internet connection allows you to access online radio stations. You can also load your collection of LPs, cassettes and other analogue recordings via the line inputs at the rear (two pairs!).

And finally, you can connect additional Systemline servers, home computers and portable audio devices either via wired Ethernet or a wireless adaptor, making for a nearly limitless system.

Limited storage

Assuming you don't go to such lengths, the main limit of this system is the built-in hard disc. For reasons which elude us, the only size of drive currently available is 160GB.

If you are going to store music compressed in MP3 format that's pretty big, but if you share our inclination to preserve quality by storing it uncompressed, that's only about 240 hours, which is pretty borderline for most serious collections.

There's no lossless compression option either, which would have doubled that figure. At the time of writing, a 500GB drive costs about £25 more than 160GB. We'd rather see a £50-£100 hike in the server's price and the ability to swallow over 1,000 CDs in full quality - Escient at least can offer that.

One aspect of the Musicserver, which we're in no mood to criticise, is its physical construction. It's built to a very high standard from thick sheet steel and is very neat inside, with decent-quality audio parts on the relevant circuit board.

It's also well provided with connections: we've mentioned the audio side but there are also composite video outputs (one for each audio output), S-Video, VGA, three USB sockets (one of them on the front), RS232 and even a PC keyboard socket, plus the Ethernet we referred to above.

Noisy distractions

As we've come to expect from modern servers, initial setting up is pretty painless. That said, we ended up a little disenchanted with the remote control. It has a tendency to skip two
or three lines on a menu when we only wanted one and reaction from the server can be surprisingly slow.

In terms of basic sound quality, we were definitely impressed. The assumption tends to be that dedicated CD players are top of the heap in terms of quality, while servers and multi-format players are well down at the bottom.

Well, it isn't always the case and this machine puts on a performance that wouldn't in any way shame a £300 CD player. Sadly, a drawback it shares with all the other servers we've encountered is the mechanical noise it makes from hard disc and multiple internal fans.

For our most critical listening, therefore, we put it outside in the hall and used long interconnects, but, of course, the remote control doesn't work through a wooden door! A glass-fronted hi-fi cabinet could be a partial solution, but we're waiting eagerly for the first silent, or truly whisper-quiet server.

Crisp audio

Unwanted noise dealt with and there's some real class to the sound. By contrast with the Escient, for instance, it's much the same sound from hard disc or CD direct.

For a start, there is no sign of noise breakthrough from computer circuits or the switch-mode power supply and the tonal balance seems nice and natural. The sound has a pleasing clarity and crispness and, as one listens to more and more tracks, it becomes clear that there's an admirable degree of detail in evidence, too.

Even stereo imaging is good, with a clear and stable lateral spread and fair-to-decent coverage of depth. To be picky, there's a little coloration in the midrange which contributes some chestiness to male voices and a little extra 'quack' to larger saxophones.

But bass is really very well controlled and nicely extended, with a good combination of rhythmic precision, while the treble is clear and open and only a little short of the standard achieved by good CD-only players.

Justifies the price?

In short, this is a fine bit of audio performance, confirmed by lab measurements that look a lot like those we expect from competent CD players. Unfortunately, with this server we can't see the blueprint for the perfect device, either in a hi-fi separates system or an installation.

In the case of the latter, it can be assumed that MP3 will be used and the capacity isn't an option, but we don't see why full CD-quality shouldn't be available. 240 hours may be an average collection for most but not, we strongly suspect, for the readers of this magazine.

And the noise is a real nuisance if the Musicserver is to be primarily the heart of a 'real' hi-fi. What's more, £1,200 buys quite a nice laptop PC, that does everything the Musicserver does and more, very conveniently...