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

Escient FireBall E2 Digital Music Server

Nathaniel Wilkins
6 min read
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.


Escient FireBall E2 Digital Music Server

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.

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.

The FireBall E2 series plays MP3 and WMA files as well as MP3 CDs. Because we don't like to see features evaporate, we're not thrilled that the FireBall no longer supports WAV files, but with the addition of the lossless FLAC format--which is your best bet for CD-quality sound--it's a worthwhile trade-off. As with every non-Apple network media player, the FireBall can't play protected AAC files purchased from the iTunes Music Store. What's more, it can't play protected WMAs, such as those purchased from most other Internet music stores or downloaded as part of a subscription plan; for instance, those available from Napster or Musicmatch. The lack of protected-WMA support is more notable than the AAC issue, because numerous sub-$300 digital media receivers can play purchased WMAs. On the plus side, the FireBall supports WMA and MP3 Internet radio streams. Numerous radio streams of varying quality are preprogrammed into the player, and you can manually add stations to its database.

Through a series of firmware and software upgrades, Escient has made it a lot easier for the FireBall to act as both a digital audio server and a client. That means you can stream compatible digital audio files from the FireBall to a networked PC or Mac, or--with a download of the Windows or Mac version of Escient's free Fireball-PC software--you can stream music from your computer to the FireBall. And because the FireBall can be mapped as a network hard drive, you can drag and drop files at will. The network drive functionality also lets you catalog your FireBall's contents with iTunes, add them to playlists, or even sync them up with your iPod, though doing so across your network is certainly slower than with a local hard drive. That said, it's worth noting that you can't access iTunes playlists directly from your FireBall.

The FireBall's network hard-drive functionality even extends beyond computers. Escient has added UPnP and DLNA support for digital media receivers. That means you can purchase a compatible digital media receiver and stream music to it from your FireBall. Since the FireBall doesn't have Wi-Fi capabilities, it still has to be connected to your router via an Ethernet cable, but if your router has 802.11g/b capabilities, it can wirelessly transmit the audio streams to a wireless digital media receiver. When we tested this new functionality with the Roku SoundBridge M1000, one of our favorite network digital media devices, selecting the FireBall as the media server was straightforward and streams played without a hitch. The FireBall should also be able to send music to the Sonos Digital Music System as well as to other FireBall products on the same network.

Setting up the Escient FireBall E2 is downright simple; essentially, you plug it in and go. FLAC files that we encoded with the unit sounded virtually indistinguishable from CDs. Through the analog jacks, recording and playback sounded top notch. Especially when playing a well-mastered CD, you can hear how much better the FireBall sounds compared to more pedestrian components. It even sounds noticeably--though not vastly--better than Olive's Musica device. With rated CD-ripping and -burning speeds of 12X and 10X respectively, the E2-series units are faster than the first-generation FireBall models, which were rated at 6X ripping and 8X recording. In comparison, the Olive Musica offers faster-rated ripping and burning speeds of 12X and 24X respectively, but if you have a need for speed, PC burners are still your best bet. Of course, you probably won't want one in your living room.

If you need a digital audio server with sophisticated home-integration capabilities--and you've budgeted accordingly--the Escient E2-series FireBall units are the way to go. If you're looking for a solid CD-enabled music server alternative, you'll save quite a lot of cash by going with the Olive Musica, which has integrated 802.11g for wire-free network connectivity but lacks a TV output.


Escient FireBall E2 Digital Music Server

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8
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