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Imerge SoundServer S3000 review

Some say PCs and hi-fi don't mix, but Imerge begs to differ

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Our Verdict

This is a particularly well executed solution to storing, sorting and accessing a music collection

For

  • The sound quality requires no apology
  • Offers fabulous flexibility

Against

  • Mechanical noise
  • Larger hard disk versions a bit pricey

We've seen a few sound servers before, including a direct ancestor of this new machine, but it's likely that the breed will be unfamiliar to at least a few folks reading this. The idea is simple enough: store the contents of anything from a few dozen to a few hundred CDs on a computer hard drive and regurgitate them on demand without the user needing to swap discs all the time.

It's much cleverer than that, though, most obviously because this is actually four players fed from the same drive. Each can play completely separately from the others. If you're the sort of person who considers listening to music to be an active rather than a passive activity, and who therefore has no interest in music being piped to the kitchen, the study, the bedroom or anywhere apart from the lone hi-fi system, you can buy a one-output S3000.

The device works perfectly well as a simple jukebox, but its true home is definitely in a multiroom installation, where it makes the entire household's music collection instantly and effortlessly available to the entire household.

Forget about the single-output machine, as there is, in fact, the choice of one, two or four outputs. You've got to love the flexibility: Alfie listens to Mozart in one room while Bertie listens to Radiohead in another, both off the same source. Caz, elsewhere, overhears Radiohead and decides to listen to the same track, starting from the top while Bertie is halfway through. Try doing that with a regular CD collection!

A hard drive is like a filing cabinet. You can put a lot of stuff in it, but unless you have a logical and efficient filing system, you may spend half your life looking for it. Imerge is fully aware of this and has put a lot of effort into making recordings traceable. In many ways it's considerably easier to find tracks on a sound server than in a CD collection.

A CD library

In the S3000, Imerge has combined two technologies to make your music collection easily searchable: video and the internet. Video outputs at the unit's rear (composite, S-Video and VGA) provide a full graphical user interface via a TV or monitor (basic operation is possible using the front-panel display), while the built-in modem and Ethernet enable the unit to connect to the online Gracenote database.

This means the player can automatically download not only track and album details, but even the album cover artwork, all from reading the CD's table of contents.

Once the details have been stored on the S3000's internal drive, they can be used for searching by title or artist. You can also assemble playlists matching all sorts of criteria. If you've ever used a PC as a music source you'll have a pretty good idea, but this is even better, because the whole system (which is actually based on an embedded PC internally) is geared to that one function. We fell in love with it at once, though even after a generous review period we'd probably only investigated half the possibilities.

Two basic questions have probably already crossed your mind. One, how does the music get round the house; and two, how does it get on the hard drive in the first place?

The first of these is easily answered: via regular stereo interconnects, preferably connected to a multiroom distribution amplifier, perhaps with CAT5 signal cables concealed within your walls and under the floors, and therefore installed by a professional.

Or, theoretically, you could just use very long interconnect cables. Yes, whatever scheme you use, it's going to cost a bit and cause some mayhem, unless you're having a pretty thorough domestic overhaul done at the time (a lot of new-build properties have all sorts of wiring pre-installed).

There's a single digital output, which could in principle be relayed by a wireless link... and there's nothing to stop you using a Sonneteer Bard system to replace the wiring of one output, but that adds considerably to the cost as well.

As for question two, there are various ways to get audio onto the hard drive. The most obvious is to use the CD-ROM drive built into the S3000. Put a disc in and, a small number of button pushes later, the contents can be copied at high speed - a full CD takes only just over two minutes.

You can also connect to a PC via Ethernet (and indeed control the S3000 from the same PC if you wish) and transfer music that way, which opens up the world of downloadable audio and allows you to transfer to and from portable players.

Future release

The S3000 has digital and analogue inputs for real-time recording, but these are due to be enabled in a future software release, so we didn't try them. It's worth noting that various enterprising businesses will transfer your CD library to hard disk if you're too busy or you just can't face it. Oh - and you can play a CD direct from the drive should you ever need to.

Indeed, never mind loading all those CDs - you may very well wish to have the S3000 professionally installed. It's a complex bit of kit and takes some getting used to, and unless you're a real techno-head, we'd recommend allowing some extra budget for installation and set-up - not to mention hand-holding while you get the hang of it. If you're coming from a background in traditional hi-fi, this is really a revolution, and a slightly daunting learning curve is in the nature of the beast. Trust us - it's worth it.

The mere news that this machine is based on an embedded PC may have some audio purists running for the hills. More fool them! The audio circuits are by no means an afterthought and the sound is actually perfectly respectable for, say, a £500 CD player.

It's true that a fair few PC sound cards are noisy, grainy and indistinct-sounding by the standards of proper hi-fi, but as we mentioned earlier, this device is conceived first and foremost as audio rather than computing equipment, and it shows, both in the good audio parts used internally and in the clear and detailed sound. There's plenty of body to the bass and the midrange is tonally neutral, leading on to an extended and admirably open treble.

A basic lab check confirmed that there's nothing unusual in the S3000's performance and it passes the usual tests with flying colours. But the story doesn't stop here, for as with most computer-based sound-storage devices, it offers a trade-off between capacity and quality. Yes, folks, this device supports MP3 and WMA, which at the same data rate is widely reckoned to be slightly higher quality. You get various options of data rate, the higher ones offering better quality but lower storage capacity.

As hard-core audiophiles, we tested it mainly in 'native' CD-quality (WAV file) mode, where its performance is bit-for-bit identical to the original disc, but we also had a listen to some of the compressed modes, which revealed that, well, if you're not very picky, they'll do.

There's room for argument about the degree of improvement in going from 128kbps MP3 to 192kbps and higher, but in general there's always some quality hit. Lucky, then, that the S3000 is available with various hard disks fitted, from a basic 80GB (already enough for 100-plus CDs uncompressed, or up to ten times that amount depending on MP3/WMA options) to a whopping 400GB, which will swallow most CD collections whole.

Yes, the price rises (rather steeply, we feel, given the cost of raw drives these days), but we strongly recommend stumping up for a bigger drive and storing in uncompressed form.

There's one important factor in the sound we haven't mentioned: mechanical noise. The hard drive and small cooling fan in the S3000 are noisy, and you're unlikely to want this unit to be in the same room as any speakers you ever listen to properly.

Of course, it's expected to be sited out of the way and has all the appropriate connectivity for remote control and so on - but then loading new material from CD becomes less convenient. That apart, the S3000 has a lot going for it, and we are suitably impressed that Imerge has maintained what audiophiles will recognise as good sound quality in a machine that's so versatile. Richard Black