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Escient FireBall E-40 Digital Music Manager review: Escient FireBall E-40 Digital Music Manager

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The Good Records, rips, and plays audio and MP3 CDs; 40GB internal hard drive; high-end design and sound quality; TV-based user interface; receives Sirius Internet radio stations; compatible with some DVD/CD changers and home automation systems.

The Bad Very expensive; awkward file-transfer software; no wireless networking; no Web surfing.

The Bottom Line The FireBall E-40 is one of the better DARs we've tested, but its $2,000 list price leaves us cold.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Review summary

The $2,000 list price of Escient's FireBall E-40 digital audio receiver (DAR) tells you right away that the company caters to the custom-installation and high-end markets. The DAR has vast recording capabilities and unbeatable construction, though Escient could refine the file-transfer software and add a few features to make the machine a more compelling, higher-value buy. If money is no object, the FireBall is a shoo-in, but if you're outside the high-end home system-integration sphere, consider instead one of the many other digital media receivers available for a fraction of the FireBall's price. Aesthetically, the E-40 is sharp enough to schmooze with Hollywood's jet set, 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.

The FireBall organizes music in easily selectable category tabs on the main user interface, which the unit can display on virtually any TV or monitor. You control operation with the universal remote, the wireless keyboard, or the optional touch panel. The remote's directional keys make navigation easy, while the keyboard simplifies the entry of information such as song titles for CDs not indexed by the &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Egracenote%2Ecom">Gracenote database.
The maximum speeds of the single-tray CD burner/player/ripper are rated at 6X for ripping and 8X for recording. The built-in 40GB hard drive can store about 700 hours of MP3 files encoded at 128Kbps. If you want more, the 120GB FireBall E-120 is also available. Unlike DARs that stream audio from the hard drives of networked PCs, the FireBall doesn't require a live connection with your computer. But an Internet hookup is necessary for streaming Sirius radio and downloading CD information. The E-40 offers an impressively large connectivity assortment. With one composite, one S-Video, and one VGA output, the FireBall can hook up with virtually all TVs and computer monitors. For analog audio, you get one RCA stereo input and output. The sets of coaxial and optical digital-audio jacks each comprise three ins and one out. The unit communicates with a computer via Ethernet, USB, or a modem. The front-panel USB port can currently transfer tracks to three MP3 players: the PA-1 and the PA-2 from Compaq, and the Rio 600. Disappointingly, no analog inputs are on the front, and the E-40 lacks any sort of built-in wireless-networking option.

Escient targets high-end home installers and system integrators with additional back-panel connectivity: one IR blaster, three RS-232, and three S-Link ports. The FireBall can control some CD/DVD changers. It integrates with command systems by AMX, Crestron, Philips, and others.

The E-40 handles plenty of formats, playing WAV, MP3, and WMA files, as well as spinning audio and MP3 CDs. Using a single menu, you can rip audio CDs to WAV or MP3 at bit rates of 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).

Compatible with WMA Internet radio, the E-40 is preconfigured to play some streams from Sirius, a satellite radio company. But the unit doesn't support the popular PLS streaming format used by Shoutcast and others. The Open Globe portal provides a way to order home delivery of DVDs and CDs, but you can't stream movies on demand. Setup was relatively easy, with one snag. We unpacked the E-40 and connected it to our TV, stereo receiver, and router, but the FireBall didn't connect to the Internet until we'd assigned it a static IP address. That process is fairly simple for anyone familiar with networking, but $2,000 should buy a smoother installation.

Since we last evaluated a FireBall model, Escient has added the Pipeline feature. Along with offering some music-organization tools, Pipeline enables track transfer between a PC and the E-40, but this is not a drag-and-drop affair. To locate and move MP3 files, you must work through an unintuitive, overcomplicated process via a very difficult interface. We couldn't get it to do anything before we'd studied its electronic help file.

But the E-40 earned its fair share of kudos. We successfully played an assortment of audio and MP3 CDs, streamed Internet radio, ripped tracks from CDs, recorded from analog sources, and burned CD-Rs. The MP3 files that the FireBall encoded were free of artifacts, and the discs we recorded didn't have clicks or pops. Analog recording and playback sounded silky smooth.

The FireBall rips and records CDs relatively quickly, but unsurprisingly, a fast computer-based burner can readily outpace it. To make a copy of Marvin Gaye's 78-minute CD, Live at the London Palladium, the E-40 spent just longer than 7 minutes ripping the disc to its hard drive and another 7 minutes recording the tracks to CD-R. Because of a lengthy track-scanning process, burning a mix CD from MP3 files on the unit's hard drive took about 19 minutes. Also note that during CD recording, other functions are disabled.

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