By Nathaniel Wilkins
Indianapolis-based Escient Convergence caters to the high-end custom-installation and home-automation markets, so it's not terribly surprising that the company's FireBall digital audio receiver (DAR) carries a list price of $2,000. What do you get for that money? Well, the FireBall is loaded with high-end features and performance, but that doesn't mean that it's perfect. By Nathaniel Wilkins
Indianapolis-based Escient Convergence caters to the high-end custom-installation and home-automation markets, so it's not terribly surprising that the company's FireBall digital audio receiver (DAR) carries a list price of $2,000. What do you get for that money? Well, the FireBall is loaded with high-end features and performance, but that doesn't mean that it's perfect.
Aesthetically, the FireBall is about as top tier as it gets. At 4.45 by 17.45 by 11.90 inches--perfect for your A/V rack--this slick component features a single-tray CD burner/player/ripper and a built-in 40GB hard drive that'll store about 700 hours of MP3s encoded at 128Kbps. The unit's heft and metal casing inspire confidence, and while it lacks a built-in display, the FireBall can be connected to virtually any TV or monitor in order to display the onscreen menus.
The remote control may not be backlit, but it's logically designed. A wireless keyboard makes entering information, such as song titles, searches, and so on, easier. Like other high-end DARs, the FireBall can download Gracenote CDDB information to identify the songs on your CDs--great for when you're ripping and encoding--and it even plays Internet radio stations via either its built-in 56Kbps modem or your home network (more on that later). It's also worth noting that the FireBall can operate some CD changers and integrates with control systems by AMX, Crestron, Philips, and others.
One warning: Setup can be a little tricky. Although the FireBall comes with an excellent Quick Start poster, parts of the manual are incorrect and seem to have been written for an earlier version of the device. Since this DAR doesn't communicate with your computer, there's no PC software to install. However, during setup, you must configure the unit's Internet connectivity. The FireBall should be able to automatically fetch an IP address for itself, but we had to enter the information manually. Another gripe: The unit crashed a few times and was a bit difficult to get back online. The issues may have been caused by our LAN configuration, but other DARs that we've tested didn't experience this problem.
Wide array of features and connectivity
The FireBall offers an impressively large assortment of audio, video, and data ports. One composite, one S-Video, and one VGA port enable connectivity with a wide range of video displays. Audio jacks include one stereo analog output and input, one coaxial digital-audio output and three inputs, and one optical digital-audio output and three inputs. There are three communications ports, one IR port, and three S-Link ports. Additionally, the unit has an HPNA phone-line networking jack, a modem jack, and three USB ports--two on the rear panel and one on the front.
All of these connectivity options highlight the FireBall's flexibility and power. It records in both MP3 and WAV formats from a wide variety of external devices, transfers music to some Compaq and Rio portable MP3 players, and can even sync with other FireBalls to create a multizone audio system. But considering the inclusion of USB ports and network connectivity, there should really be a way to transfer songs onto the FireBall directly from a PC, though Escient says that PC file-transfer software will be released in the near future. And while the HPNA networking jack is a thoughtful inclusion, there's no Ethernet port. So if you want to connect to an Ethernet hub or a router, you'll have to spend around $50 for an adapter such as the one that we used. The FireBall plays standard audio CDs and MP3 CD-Rs or CD-RWs. Several different CD-recording options are located on one simple menu. To comply with copyright laws, the FireBall records to only more expensive audio-type CD-Rs or CD-RWs.
When we connected the FireBall to an old, 20-inch color TV, we found navigating the unit's musical contents to be refreshingly simple and entertaining. Whenever this DAR encounters new music, it downloads the album art, song titles, and other information from Gracenote's CDDB database. Content is sorted by song, album, genre, and user-created playlists. Additionally, Open Globe enables the ordering of CDs through FireBall, although buying downloads isn't possible yet.
With a rated recording speed of 8X, the FireBall took nearly 10 minutes to record a full MP3 disc. The unit rips audio CDs to its hard drive at a rated 6X speed; in our tests, it took 8 minutes to rip a 547MB Stereolab CD. All audio stored on the hard drive is converted to the MP3 format, and recording bit-rate options range from 96Kbps to 320Kbps. Overall, the FireBall's ripping and recording performance is better than average when compared to those of other DARs. The unit, which utilizes Crystal Semiconductor converters, consistently yielded excellent sonic results.
Despite a few notable shortcomings, the FireBall is one of the most advanced DARs that we've seen. Custom installers can't afford not to know about this jaw-dropper, but the average consumer will be satisfied with a less pricey unit. Though it lacks video-display output, Rio's $1,500 offers many of the same features. Those on a tight budget who want a simpler solution should check out Perception Digital's .