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If the idea of having your entire CD collection stored inside a hi-fi, being able to beam it all over your house and being able to stream music from your PC wirelessly sounds appealing, you're looking at the right music system.
The Philips MCI-500H is the latest and greatest Streamium system from Philips, aimed at being the central musical hub of your living room. It's on sale now for around £400.
Depending on how much your eyes are deceiving you, you may be fooled into thinking this comprises two separate hi-fi units. The two pseudo-separates are in fact one unit -- a block of navigation and control buttons, and a block housing a gorgeous colour LCD screen. Between them is a tray-loading CD drive.
The main unit is more lightweight than we expected, but is well-built nonetheless. Philips' obsession with gloss hasn't gone amiss either, which is something you'll either love, hate or indeed not care either way about, which is where our opinions fall.
A pair of pretty solid 50W two-way speakers are included, featuring 133mm (5.25-inch) woofers and 25mm (1-inch) silk dome tweeters.
Up from the 80GB hard disk we usually see in systems like this, Philips has stuck a 160GB model in the MCI-500 for ripping your CDs to. And you can rip them at MP3 bit rates between 128Kbps and 320Kbps. Ripping to lossless FLAC or WAV would've been a nice touch, but Philips never has been fond of supporting lossless audio.
This remains true with the formats it'll play over your home network from your PC, or from USB memory sticks via the integrated USB socket -- MP3, WMA and AAC files are fine, but FLAC, OGG, Lossless WMA and WAV are ushered away. Clearly the audiophile isn't the target market here -- it's all about convenience.
In keeping with this, CDs can be ripped to the hard disk with a couple of clicks of the 'record' button, and if the system is connected to the Internet via Ethernet or Wi-Fi (both are supported, included encrypted networks), the system will access the Gracenote CD database, adding artist, album and track information into the files it rips. That said, a less extensive version of the Gracenote database lives on the internal hard disk, so popular CDs will be tagged without any Internet connectivity.
Other Philips Streamium systems can stream any music stored on the MCI-500 over an ad-hoc wireless network, too. So you could easily stick a Philips WAK3300 in your bedroom and have it pull music from the MCI-500 in your lounge. You can add up to five such 'Stations', all of which can simultaneously stream whatever's playing on the central unit.
One of the most attractive aspects of this pretty feature-packed system is its ease of use. Menus are simple and well laid out, navigation is straightforward and features work the way you would expect them to work. This is no bad thing, as it's easy to make wireless streaming media systems unattractively complicated to digital virgin.
With the included, and straightforward, Philips Media Manager software installed on your networked PC, it takes only a couple of minutes to have the MCI-500 streaming the MP3, WMA or AAC music files over your home network. Network configuration is taken care of manually and the software automatically sets itself up as a UPnP server.
Short of just playing a CD natively, streaming is the fastest way of playing back music -- CD ripping is, like almost all systems of this ilk, painfully slow. A decent computer will rip a full CD in a couple of minutes. It takes the MCI-500 about 12 minutes of average.
Now, with your music ripped or streaming, sound quality is fairly decent. There's a good helping of bass, with a prominent body of mid-range backing it up, but a more extended treble would've been appreciated -- music lacks sparkle in the high-end, leaving some music feeling warm, but slightly blanketed. The Philips MCD908 might be a very different systems, but it costs a couple of hundred quid less and definitely takes the prize in terms of sound quality.
But the speakers are powerful, and will generate a room-filling performance with ease. We just wish Philips had used standard speaker wire terminals so you could upgrade to better speakers in the future -- you'll have to physically cut the bundled cable if you want to upgrade. The colour-coded easy-to-connect terminals add extra convenience to this system, but further limit its appeal to those of us with more critical ears.
The Philips MCI-500H is an attractive, well-built and painfully easy-to-use system for anyone who wants a living room jukebox, music streamer, Internet radio and CD player in one unit. And being able to stream its collection of CDs to smaller systems in the bedroom or kitchen should win it some extra fans, too.
For a higher CNET UK rating, we would want lossless audio, RSS feed support for listening to podcasts, faster CD ripping and standard speaker terminals, particularly when the more budget-oriented Philips WAC3500D is a few hundred pounds cheaper, includes an iPod dock and offers a similar feature set.
But for £400, it's a fair offering, and you're getting a fat helping of luxury, a much nicer design and better sound quality.
Edited by Marian Smith