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This Fireball Lacks Sizzle

By Burt Helm


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good It will rip, sort, and label all your CDs

The Bad It's staggeringly expensive and clumsy. And you need a bunch of other electronics

The Bottom Line Its nuisances make the premium price hard to handle

If you're like me and have a huge stack of CDs at home, you've made this promise: "One of these Saturdays, I'm going to sit down, and put all my music on my computer." But only those with a librarian's patience are able to rip each and every disk onto a hard drive, and then label and organize all the files properly. For the rest of us, our digital playlists are a mess of inconsistent artist names, duplicate songs, and cryptic "Track 03" song titles. Meanwhile, the stack of neglected CDs sit on a shelf, gathering dust, entombed in silence.

So the appeal of Escient's new DVDM-300 "Fireball" is obvious: Dump up to 1,200 CDs into a connected "MegaStorage" CD player, and Escient's big silver box systematically rips each disk onto its massive 300-gigabyte hard drive (enough for roughly 75,000 songs). Connect the box to the Internet with an Ethernet cable. It looks up and labels each song for you, adding track, album, and artist names, and embedding the album's cover art onto the file for good looks.

FOR SERIOUS AUDIOPHILES. Once that's done, you can navigate through your collection on your TV screen, similar to how you might select TV shows using a TiVo (TIVO) recorder. If you connect the box to a DVD player, you can also select DVDs using the menu screen.

But the Fireball is still a work in progress. Escient makes it clear that the product is only for serious audiophiles and gadget-lovers, and it requires that you already have a high-capacity CD/DVD changer that's hooked up to a home-theater system. But the $5,000 retail price is just too high, even for hard-core audio lovers with money to burn.

To test out the new machine, I hooked it up to my existing home-theater system along with a Sony DVP-CX777ES "MegaStorage" CD changer that Escient sent along. The changer, which retails for about $800, holds up to 400 disks and plays both CDs and DVDs.

SLOW POKE. All-in-all, the setup is straightforward, though it's not a snap. Anyone who has installed a home theater or component audio system knows the drill: There's a fair amount of wiring, but it's not impossible. It took me 10 to 15 minutes to install it without too much trouble. I then dumped about 200 CDs into the changer and pressed "record" on the Escient remote.

The machine has many alluring features, but it fails to fully deliver on any of them. Scrolling through your CD and DVD collections on-screen is fun, particularly since the interface showcases each album's cover art at the top while you scroll. And you can also connect the box to your home network and work it from your PC as an external server - a nice feature if you want to sync the Fireball with your Apple (AAPL) iPod digital music player.

But here's the oddest catch: The Fireball rips songs in real-time. That means a 90-minute CD takes 90 minutes to load onto its hard drive. That's odd for a product called "Fireball." It must be said that this isn't completely Escient's fault. Because it hooks up to a standard CD player, and not a computer's CD-ROM drive, the Fireball simply can't go any faster. But the result is waiting several days or a week before it finishes. You can't really interrupt it while it slowly chugs through your collection.

ODD SORTING. Once this marathon task is completed, it's time for the fun to begin, right? Unfortunately, the nuisances only start there. Using the interface isn't intuitive. Several times I found myself completely lost, unsure of how to get back to "record" mode from "listen" mode. Even after a few hours of playing around I often found myself pushing buttons randomly, hoping for the best.

And for basic song selection, the interface is disappointing. After ripping the CDs, the screen lists both the CDs and the digital files. That makes the list twice as long as necessary. In fairness, the program does let you jump ahead to a certain album, song, or artist by entering the first one or two letters of its name using either the remote or a large wireless keyboard that comes with it. Additionally, you can shorten the list if you sort by genre.

But overall, it's clumsy. We live in the time of Apple's iTunes digital music service, where you can bring up any song, album, or artist with a few quick keystrokes into the "search" field. With the Fireball, locating a specific artist or song takes a combination of navigating sub-menus, entering keystrokes, and a lot of slow scrolling.

As a result, I found my patience slowly wearing thin. If you already own a huge-capacity CD changer and are desperate for a way to sort through your entire collection, this might be for you. For the rest of us, filling up that PC hard drive is still the best bet.

Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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