Escient specializes in the rarefied world of audio and video products designed for the custom-installation and home-integration markets. It should come as no surprise, then, that the company's FireBall E2-series digital music devices start at around $2,000 and go up from there, depending on the unit's drive capacity. (Another reason for the hefty price tag is that Indianapolis-based Escient is actually manufacturing its products in the United States.) While the FireBall series still lacks some of the basic features found on entry-level network digital audio devices--mainly, support for purchased and subscription-based DRM music as well as built-in wireless networking--the updated hardware adds some useful and worthwhile functionality that will be particularly beneficial to sophisticated users who want to rip and stream digital music throughout their whole-house audio systems.
The Escient FireBall is a sophisticated network digital music server with a built-in hard drive and a CD player/recorder. The E2 series is available in three capacities: the E2-100 (100GB, $2,000), the E2-200 (200GB, $3,000), and the E2-400 (400GB, $4,000). In addition to storing and streaming digital music files, the FireBall can also control and access music from a variety of compatible CD megachangers from Sony, Pioneer, and Kenwood. The changers can be daisy-chained, allowing access to as many as 1,200 CDs--not counting the music the FireBall can access from its hard drive or other networked storage.
Aesthetically, the FireBall is high-end all the way, featuring robust metal construction, an unusually thorough assortment of front-panel buttons, and a bright blue text display. And at 4.45 by 17.45 by 11.9 inches, this slick component is perfect for your A/V rack. Around back, the FireBall offers an impressively large connectivity assortment. With one component-video, as well as two S-Video and composite-video outputs, the FireBall's onscreen display can be shown on virtually any TV--you can even optimize the video output for 4:3 (standard) or 16:9 (wide-screen) displays. But it's on the audio side where the FireBall really shines, offering a bevy of inputs and outputs that would put some A/V receivers to shame: two digital (one optical, one coaxial) and one set of RCA (red and white) analog stereo outputs are flanked by three sets of analog ins and six digital inputs--three each of optical and coaxial.
Escient targets high-end home installers and system integrators with additional back-panel connectivity: one IR minijack input, three S-Link ports, and four RS-232 connectors. The FireBall hooks into your home network via a single Ethernet jack--unlike many of today's competing devices, it doesn't have 802.11b/g Wi-Fi capabilities. Once it's networked, however, the FireBall can be controlled via a Web browser from any standard PC or handheld on the same network. In comparison to its predecessor, the old FireBall E-40, the newer E2-100, E2-200, and E2-400 models no longer have a front-panel USB port--but that's not much of a drawback because it wasn't really used for anything.
The Escient FireBall includes a versatile CD player/recorder. Using a single onscreen menu, you can rip audio CDs to the internal hard disk as MP3 or FLAC (lossless) files at bit rates varying from 128Kbps to 320Kbps, burn audio and MP3 files to audio-type CD-Rs or CD-RWs (copyright laws forbid the use of the more-affordable PC-type data discs), and record from external sources through the analog inputs (the digital ins are for pass-through playback only). The FireBall organizes hard-drive-based music in easily selectable category tabs on the main user interface, displayed on an attached TV. CD metadata is automatically imported from the online Gracenote database, but you can add your own information with the included PC-style wireless keyboard. Basic control and navigation is accomplished with the universal remote or an optional touch panel. The remote's directional keys make navigation easy.