Escient FireBall DVDM-100 DVD and Music Manager

The latest FireBall aims to give us what we've been missing.

One of the benefits of talking about home theater all day every day is that I get to hear people ask questions like this: "I'd buy a DVD megachanger if there were a way to keep track of my hundreds of discs, but what choice do I have?" Apparently, the spies from Escient were eavesdropping. Their FireBall DVDM-100 DVD and Music Manager has been designed specifically to integrate with the latest generation of super DVD jukeboxes to help identify and organize all of the movies and music stored inside, with a little help from the Internet. You can find a specific DVD in a hurry, sort through all of your comedies, or visually search through all of the covers, right from the sofa.

Labeling Your DVDs
This service might be familiar to the millions who have used Gracenote's Compact Disc Database—CDDB—on their computer: A CD is quickly scanned, its digital fingerprint is quickly run through the archive to find a match, and the resulting title, artist, and track names are filled into the appropriate spaces within a music application like Musicmatch. Escient's new DVDM-100 drops in between your DVD jukebox and your receiver, with additional connections for a home network, either wired or wireless. The DVDM-100 accesses the Internet to provide CDDB information for your CDs, while Escient's exclusive online movieDB inserts DVD movie titles, casts, plot summaries, and (perhaps most importantly) cover art into the 4:3 graphic user interface that appears on the TV screen. The DVDM-100 also supports DVD-Audio and SACD, as long as the connected DVD changer can read them.

The rear panel offers three complete sets of inputs for DVD changers: progressive-scan component video, S-video, composite video, digital optical and coaxial audio, and 5.1 analog audio for changers with SACD and/or DVD-Audio capabilities. One complete set of outputs connects to any home entertainment system. Its video-switching matrix passes the progressive signal's full bandwidth, with minimal loss resulting from the additional connections mandated by this accessory, assuming that your cables are of reasonable quality. Escient has included cables for analog stereo audio, composite video, Ethernet, phone, RS-232, and S-Link/Direct IR. The Sony DVP-CX777ES changer I used for this review does not send all of its data over RS-232, so I needed to connect the 0.125-inch S-Link cable for system control.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the DVDM-100 is compatible with AOL, with an Ethernet port for broadband, too. After a quick setup on a networked PC, the DVDM-100 worked beautifully with a Wi-Fi adapter, specifically the Linksys WET54G Wireless-G Ethernet bridge. I can't emphasize enough the importance of choosing a good Wireless-G broadband router like the Linksys WRT54G. Although I didn't see much of a difference between the FireBall's 802.11b and 802.11g performance, it's fully g-compatible, so any future FireBall upgrades should take advantage of this superior format.

You operate the unit using a supplied remote control and wireless keyboard. I must confess that the remote's button layout took a lot of getting used to, although the onscreen information was clear and very comforting at each step, especially during any long waits. Responses can be sluggish, probably due to the fact that commands often have to be routed from the DVDM-100 to the changer and back again. Upon initial startup, the Auto-Build feature gathers and collates cover art and vital statistics from the Internet for all loaded discs. It takes about 30 seconds for each disc, so fill up your changer and walk away for a couple of hours. The Quick Lookups feature handles added or rearranged discs.

A Little Game Playing
Time for a little game of Stump the Band (broadband, that is). The DVDM-100 knew the difference between the old and new releases of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (at least after a second lookup), but it listed only the movie summary as a description of the non-movie supplement disc. It recognized the DTS version of Jurassic Park: The Lost World, but not the standard version of the same title. Oddly enough, my online search—a fairly elaborate process not covered in the 185-page manual, rather via additional instructions stored on the Website—did not find a match for the sequel of "Jurassic," but it did click with "Lost World." When I later moved the disc to a different slot, the DVDM-100 forgot it again.

Only two of the four discs in Steely Dan's Citizen Steely Dan boxed set were identified—with incorrect cover art, I might add—and a mere seven of the 16 tracks on disc three were listed; the remaining CDs were deemed "Unknown DVDs." The online search provided information for some DVD-Audio discs, like Night at the Opera, but not for others, like The Nightfly. Although you can play SACDs via the DVDM-100, none of the ones I inserted, even biggies like Dark Side of the Moon, were recognized by either CDDB or movieDB. Unlike with DVDs, I wasn't given the option to re-search for an SACD or CD title with a single button.

To be fair, the integrated DVD Movie Encyclopedia service of InterVideo's WinDVD on my PC fared worse by comparison, repeatedly telling me that I was the first person to view almost every DVD I tried, hence no available info. Like WinDVD, the movieDB engine adds user-entered information to its database for all to share in the future. However, Musicmatch Plus' CDDB feature immediately and accurately provided CD details for every music disc, although it would not display cover art. A PC reads the disc directly, whereas the DVDM-100 relies upon a secondary device, the changer, which can lead to missed matches.

Longer titles are problematic because they end in an ellipsis and the text doesn't scroll, so TV-on-DVD sets that contain the space-hogging words "The Complete First Season" tend to run out of display room before you can see the number of the disc within the set. The data is there, as revealed in the complicated editor function, but that was the only place I could find it. Modifying the official movieDB text is a chore, although it beats typing it all in from scratch for an anonymous disc. If you can't find the cover art in the database, you can import it to the DVDM-100, but this procedure requires a great deal of time and effort.

An Internet Bonus
The inclusion of Internet radio is a clever and welcome bonus. I counted 130 presets, most at a fixed bit rate of either 20 or 34 kilobits per second, with a few as high as 96 or as low as 10. Track information isn't provided, and a few-second lag occurs at each change of the channel. There are no commercials, and the playlists are wonderful, but the compressed-to-the-verge-of-distortion quality (replete with skips) leaves much to be desired. You can add new channels if you know the desired URL. Despite its dumbed-down interface and singular intent of getting you to part with more money, the OpenGlobe Internet portal is remarkably slow and klunky.

So, is it worth spending $2,000 for an add-on component to an $800 DVD changer? I would not attempt to enjoy a 400-disc megachanger without a tamer, and the alternative of plugging in a keyboard to enter even basic info by hand isn't an option, especially with my typing. Still, a high-end, convenience product such as this should be a little easier to use—and a lot more accurate.

•Provides detailed information for your entire DVD, CD, SACD, and DVD-Audio collection
•Looking up discs on the Internet is a hit-and-miss process
•Works with up to three connected DVD megachangers

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