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Escient FireBall E2 Digital Music Server review: Escient FireBall E2 Digital Music Server

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The Good Plays, rips, and records CDs; high-end design and sound quality; refined TV-based user interface; streams music to DLNA/UPnP-compliant network digital audio receivers; streams music to and from networked PCs and Macs; mountable as a network drive; integrates with some CD megachangers, home automation systems, and other Escient products.

The Bad Very expensive; no built-in wireless networking; not compatible with DRM-protected audio files or Rhapsody.

The Bottom Line The Escient FireBall E2 offers sophisticated home-integration capabilities for your digital audio--but its assortment of high-end features come with a price tag to match.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

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.

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