After some four years in development, Arcam has added the MS250 to its ‘FMJ’ range of hi-fi separates.
By no means the cheapest act available, it nevertheless promises audiophile sound quality based on Arcam’s CD player expertise and offers a handy capacity of 400GB – equivalent to well over 500 hours of uncompressed audio.
Stunning amount of storage
Lossless compression would have made that over 1,000 hours, but 500 should last most people a few years. In many respects, the specification is familiar, with multiple independent audio outputs fed from a hard drive, internal CD reader/writer, internet radio or line inputs, plus Ethernet, USB and video connections and a few other control sockets besides.
Arcam has upped the ante by offering four outputs (most servers seem to have three), but of these only one has a digital alternative to the analogue phono sockets. Is that a problem?
Possibly not: for one thing, if the sound quality via analogue outputs lives up to Arcam’s claims an external DAC is unlikely to do much to enhance it, while the really dedicated owner could still add something very fancy (think Chord, dCS etc.) in the principal listening zone to gild the lily.
Then again, digital interconnects have advantages on long runs and can also be connected via a wireless interface of some sort.
Inside Arcam's music server
Inside, we found not just similar, but identical control and power supply sections and a closely related CD transport, too. The audio board is completely different, though, so in a sense this is no more surprising than finding that two CD players share a transport and a handful of control chips.
And since we thought the Systemline was pretty well equipped on the control interface front, we’re bound to say the same of this machine, with all the connections we can easily imagine needing for typical application. Actually it has rather more inputs for remote control, giving extra flexibility in the implementation of a multi-room installation.
The audio board, all Arcam’s own work (the rest is clearly all bought in), carries high specification DACs chips of recent vintage from Cirrus/Crystal, followed by good-quality op-amps, resulting in a signal path not entirely unlike that of good current CD players.
Slow to store
The power supply is a switch-mode package – traditionally a no-no in high-quality audio, but we’re not alone in accepting that many recent hi-fi components using such a supply have demonstrated a perfectly acceptable, not to say impressive, performance.
The Meridian 808 Signature CD player, for instance. If switchmode is good enough for that epitome of digital excellence, we’re certainly not going to discount it in applications like this.
We’re still hunting for a server that can ‘store’ (they all seem to use that term – i.e. rip a CD to hard disk) really quickly. This one has two settings – Fast and Quiet, but while Fast seems to run at only about eight times normal speed (and is anything but quiet), Quiet runs at a rather tedious four times speed and is far from silent.
Still, it’s always entertaining to see track details etc. and even cover artwork pop up automatically, thanks to a seamless connection to an online database.
Music cataloguing made fun
If your collection features a lot of really obscure CDs, you may have to enter some details yourself, but it’s not too tiresome and you can add a PC keyboard to speed things up.
A TV or VGA display is, as usual with servers, more a requirement than a luxury for setting up, but simple selection and playing functions are perfectly possible using only the front panel display.
The remote control is nice to use and the front panel buttons duplicate all frequently-used functions. In addition to playing music from the hard disk or CD drive, you can listen to Internet radio stations (assuming you have broadband), some of which are starting to put out better sound than was the case a year ago.
Line inputs also allow recording from vinyl, cassette and other analogue formats. iPod and similar devices can interface via USB and you can build a network of MS250s and connect to home computers to share music as well.
A noisy unit
Once again, we are forced to issue a warning that having this server in the same room as your loudspeakers places a distinct limit on sound quality, simply because of the volume of sound it emits.
The hard drive isn’t the half of it: there are two internal fans and the CD drive is far from silent when used to play discs which you can’t be bothered to store.
To our mind, cooling a server without the aid of fans is an absolutely essential first step towards making it truly audiophile and it’s certainly possible: just look up ‘Hush Technologies’ on the Internet, for instance.
Impressive audio quality
An ugly 1980s-style glass-fronted hi-fi cabinet didn’t make enough difference to noise levels, so we took the MS250 out of our room and introduced the long interconnects.
This set-up quickly brings impressive results. What surprises us more than anything is the very high degree of insight into even very complex recordings that this server affords us.
We aren’t entirely astonished to find that its tonal balance is good, nor that the sound is basically clean, but the degree to which it emulates a very fine CD player is frankly rather a pleasant shock.
In addition, over and above the general balance, both bass and treble have the kind of clean, detailed and above all, confident extension that one expects in high-end kit and hopes for, though sometimes in vain, in decent mid-price equipment.
If we have any criticism of the bass it’s that it can sometimes be a little indistinct in pitch, but it is firmly extended and times very well, giving great drive and energy in rock and other strongly rhythmic music.
The treble is open and airy and high sounds decay into silence very naturally. The line inputs seem more than just decent, too and were admirably up to the task of storing tracks from some treasured LPs.
So is this server the perfect embodiment of the new digital experience? Not entirely.
A worthwhile hi-fi investment?
We’re undeniably full of admiration for Arcam’s achievements on the sound front, but we are still beset by doubts as to whether we could live with it as part of a hi-fi system, pretty much entirely because of that wretched noise it – and all of its peer group that we can recall – makes.
All the same, put it in the cupboard under the stairs as part of a multi-room installation and in audio terms, it is currently the model by which to measure the rest. It seems qualified congratulations are in order.