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Reviewer: Marja Vanderloo & Henk Boot
Review component retail: $5,100


With today's investigation into the basic functionality of hard-disk music servers, 6moons begins its coverage of this convergence category of devices that crosses over between computers and audio. Who better for this first look at how to set up and operate such a machine than our resident IT specialists from Holland, Marja & Henk? Their job today wasn't to focus on sonics but to explain setup protocol - how to get such a machine to work and integrated with your existing audio system - Ed.

It is quite rare that a complex piece of equipment works just as you expect it to from the word go, with no need for complicated setup protocols, fussy dialing-ins, working your way through an extensive and ill-translated manual -- RTFM for the in-crowd -- or the ultimate reward, feeling inspired to toss the whole bloody thing out of the window here at Bootstrap Systems headquarters on the 32nd floor of a downtown Rotterdam high rise. Too bad this list of modern-day life threats to sanity is more than real. For the designer of any piece of equipment, its workings are transparent. No wonder, he or she literally grew up with the machine and even dreamt about it. What's more, the contraption is part of his own -- sometimes rather distorted and myopic -- mental workings.


Complexity in audio gear is growing rapidly as the convergence of audio and computer devices accelerates. The computer as audio source is already a given fact, not eventual potential. In essence, computers are dumb. Only with the help of an operating system -- an OS -- are they able to function. A part of this OS is the user interface. The design of this interface can make or break a computer system, especially when it is designed for the consumer market. The most popular operating systems now are without a doubt Windows and Mac OS. Straight from the box, both are sufficiently user-friendly. Only when various application software and so-called extensions are added do the main differences become obvious. For now, Apple's Mac OS is truly plug'n'play, trailed by -- at a shrinking distance -- Windows.


Be it coincidence or not, the McIntosh Music Server MS300 makes the similarity to the Apple Macintosh blatant. After a mere 5 minutes, the MS300 is completely ready for business and music can be distributed and listened to throughout the whole house. Read on for the McIntosh moment. The large box that showed up on our doorstep one day contained a modest-looking piece of audio equipment in typical McIntosh style - black with aluminum edges and accents. In fact, it looks just like an ordinary McIntosh CD player with some additional buttons. The backside reveals that there's more to this baby than just another RedBook player. Digging deeper inside the delivery box, we spotted a wireless keyboard and a sizeable remote control.


The MS300 is a CD player, CD recorder, hard-disk server and Internet radio all in one. The front sports the controls you expect on any CD player plus extras for record, select, favorites, guide, source and radio plus four navigation buttons. The back is more crowded since it's the communications interface for other equipment. An IR connection makes it possible to communicate wirelessly with the MS300. An adjacent SLINK receptor opens up a world of CD-changers for connection. For digital outputs, the MS300 sports coaxial and Toslink. A pair of RCA connectors handle analogue output.

The music server can also be connected to a TV screen for which it offers two S-video ports, a composite and a component connector. To complete the range of connectivity options afforded, there are four RS232 receptacles, three pairs of analogue inputs and an Ethernet jack.


In the well-written manual, the user can opt for the quick setup. The only essentials for that are an S-video cable and a TV screen, neither of which are included. A basic small LCD screen is inexpensive and mandatory for initial setup. Another cable that lacked from our delivery was an Ethernet cable. We used one from our own stock and connected the MS300 to an Internet hub. Then we hit the power-on button.


It takes a little time before the MS300 is fully booted up, caused by the retrieval and subsequent startup of the embedded Linux operating system. Do not forget that we are dealing with a computer here. During the boot phase, the power light blinks to revert to steady state when the system is ready.

At this point, the TV screen displays the setup menu in good old-fashioned black and white. Don't ask why. Simply enjoy this blast from the past. As one of the first options, this menu offers a local setting. Where in the heck is the MS300? Using the wireless keyboard, the choice of locale is limited to the US and Canada. A similar limitation presents itself for the time zone setting. Our GMT +01:00 and daylight saving time are absent. These two oddities do not hamper the workings of the MS300. They're merely strange since the MS300 surely finds its way outside of the US and Canada. Next in line is the choice of IP address so the MS300 can communicate with the rest of the computers in the house. As default IP address, the MS300 uses the generic address 169.254.111.180 with a mask of 255.255.0.0. and uses 169.254.0.1 as its default gateway. We can set it to 10.0.0.22, 255.255.255.0 and 10.0.0.138 respectively for our private network.


We use one of our Macintosh computers to browse the MS300, typing our just configured IP address as the URL into the Opera browser. The MS300 menu pops up within seconds and now displays in full color. From this point forward, the TV screen can be disconnect and the online menu be used instead.

After disconnecting it from the Ethernet, we pick up the MS300 and take it to the listening room where we connect the server via its S/PDIF outlet to our Audio Note DAC and connect a wireless Ethernet relay to the Ethernet port of the MS300. A Windows laptop with WiFi capabilities easily interacts with the MS300 and all its functions can be conveniently steered from the listening seat. This makes the laptop into a quasi oversized remote control.


This oversized remote not only acts as the control panel, it also becomes a music client to the music server. Music stored on the MS300 can be played back over the laptop. To be more precise, up to four clients can independently pull down music from the server. The laptop uses iTunes as its default media player. As soon as you make a selection from the MS300, iTunes opens and starts streaming. This music might sound like crap or fantastic, simply depending on the quality you chosen to store it on the server in the first place.


Because the music server can connect to the Internet, thousands of radio stations become accessible. Many stations broadcast in high quality and so are their musical choices. With a little searching, stations without annoying DJs and commercials are easily added to the list of favorite stations.


The McIntosh makes recording child's play. Various methods of uploading to the internal 300GB hard-disk are available. For example, download music from a Windows or Mac computer in MP3 of FLAC format. On a Windows machine, click Start and select Run and type in the configured IP address of the MS300 before you hit Enter. On the desktop, two folders open - Content and Import. By simply dragging and dropping the desired music to the Import folder, the music is downloaded and automatically transferred to the Guide. When using a Mac as client computer, you use the OS X Networking Client. Just remember, this method of importing files only works with MP3 and FLAC formatted files. We used FLAC and this Free Lossless Audio Compression software did not affect the sound quality.


Recording from CD media via the built-in hard-drive is even simpler. If the MS300 is connected to the Internet, open the CD tray and load the CD to be recorded. Now use the remote control and press the Record button. After reading the Table Of Contents -- TOC -- of the CD, the MS300 makes an Internet connection to the Gracenote website. From this website, it automatically downloads the CD cover art and track information. This data is subsequently stored together with the music files. If the connection to the Internet is disrupted or temporarily unavailable, the MS300 will try to reconnect to Gracenote later and pick up the desired info. When a CD changer is at hand that supports SLINK, an entire stack of CDs can be transferred to the MS300 without human supervision. Two recordings formats are available - MP3 up to 392Kbps and FLAC.


Even simpler than filling the MS300's hard disk with music is losing that content. The Maxtor hard disk in the MS300 can crash just as easily as any other disk even though Mean Times Between Failures are very high these days. Still, a hard disk remains a vulnerable mechanical device. The disk doctor thus advises to make backups on a regular basis.


This requires the help of an additional computer. Windows XP for instance is packaged with NTBackup that may be used. Of course, the MS300 needs to be accessible for the Windows machine and that same machine needs enough space to store the MS300's content. Think about an external extra disk of at least 300GB capacity. Prices are falling by the minute for these size hard drives so there's no reasonable excuse left to omit this kind of safety protocol.


The already mentioned Content folder stores all recorded music files. Therefore, this folder needs to be backed up. Unfortunately, the Setup, Information, Radio Stations and Playlists cannot be saved. This is without doubt the weakest part of the MS300's software implementation. Saving the Contents folder is easy. Restoring -- no backup is any good without the possibility of a secure restore -- is just as simple as loading MP3 or FLAC files. Depending on the network speed, the backup or restore can take time. But hey, it's for your own piece of mind.


Now a dilemma. Suppose you made a full backup of your MS300's hard disk to an external hard disk. Suppose after the backup, you have loaded a whole stack of CDs collected from a visit to a friend or music library. After uploading the CDs, it is time for a new backup. Right? With only one 300GB for backup purposes, the dilemma is clear. Starting the new backup means you overwrite the former external disk. Suppose something goes wrong during this process. You might lose all your music! Two approaches to counter this dilemma are available. Either buy a second disk or start with a bigger hard-drive in the first place. The latter can store multiple backups. However, the former has an advantage. You are able to put the oldest backup -- hard disk -- in a safe place, a so-called off-site location. Moreover, while you are at it, also back up valuable data from your PC/Mac. You know why.


One could easily forget that the MS300 is also a CD player. The tray and engine are sturdy and quiet and the sound quality is more than average. We fed the MS300 a wide variety of discs ranging from 20-year old CBS cuttings to freshly burned low and high-quality CD/Rs. All discs, even the black discs some player tend to reject, were processed by the MS300 without hiccups. Another option the McIntosh MS300 is the burning of CD/R discs itself. Unfortunately, the machine only accepts audio, not computer discs, an unnecessary limitation. Don't expect low-speed high-quality burning either.


Concluding the time we spent with the McIntosh Labs Music Server MS300, we can say that the company from New York State did a good job to make a statement of what a music server should be. Control functions are in abundance just as are connectivity options. The user interface is friendly, logical for non-computer freaks and easy to grasp. The 300GB hard drive can hold up to 1000 FLAC'd songs which should serve most users well. Sonics are from plain good to excellent depending on what connection is used. Playing FLAC tracks off the hard drive challenges many CD players in the same price category or even higher. The music server is quiet enough to take its place in the listening room since there are no annoying fans in the box. When placed in an audio rack, some extra damping might be advisable to isolate the hard disk's vibrations from the other kit.


Regarding criticisms, the server is delivered less than complete. For the asking price, the inclusion of a small LCD screen and a set of S-video and Ethernet cables should be expected. In order to use the MS300 to the fullest, a PC or Mac with a home network and backup capacity is essential. In addition, the McIntosh dealer has a job to do. With the lack of cables and a screen, the dealer should be involved in many home deliveries to set up the client's system. He should be computer-savvy when it comes to configuring the MS300 for a home network.


Postscript:
Under the McIntosh MS300 hood lives an Escient Fireball E2-300 Music Server. By choosing Escient for its OEM, McIntosh has made a good choice. Why reinvent the wheel when a company with long-term music server experience is close at hand? Escient is one of the many makes -- Denon, Marantz, Boston Acoustic, Snell, Rio and McIntosh Labs are others -- that are part of the D&M Holdings conglomerate of which Philips is one the main shareholders.
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