May We Serve You? Page 3

DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 17 x 4 x 13 3/4 inches WEIGHT 16 pounds PRICE $1,000 MANUFACTURER Hewlett-Packard, Dept. S&V, 3000 Hanover St., Palo Alto, CA 94304;; 650-857-1501

Hewlett-Packard de100c It took me awhile to stop doing a double-take at the sight of an audio component with the familiar lowercase "hp" logo - one I'm more accustomed to seeing on computers, printers, and test equipment - but I got over it. Hewlett-Packard's de100c, a.k.a. Digital Entertainment Center, looks like a CD player, but its capabilities cover just about as many bases as the fuller name suggests: playing CDs, recording from CD to hard drive, burning CDs with either standard PCM audio or MP3 files, listening to Internet radio, and downloading and purchasing music online.

While you can manage most routine playback functions using the de100c's front-panel dot-matrix display, the onscreen display is a better choice: the menus are self-prompting and easy to navigate. No question, the Hewlett-Packard was the easiest of the five servers to set up and use right out of the box. There was no need to pore over manuals to get going - its "wizard" setup guide was terrific. I also had no trouble following the onscreen prompts to connect a Rio 500 portable player and download MP3 files to it.

One potentially useful function that the de100c doesn't do is record from external devices. There's no digital audio input, and while there's a pair of analog stereo inputs on the back panel, they weren't usable on my test sample - but they could be activated by a future system update. So if you want to rip tracks from an LP or cassette to your server, you'll first have to get them onto a CD, or into your PC.

Playing and dubbing CDs on the de100c was a snap: within 30 seconds of loading any disc, all of the artist and title info appeared onscreen, thanks to the miracle of a broadband Internet connection. The server automatically downloads the text data from the database, which in my experience is infallibly complete and up to date. (I've been unable to stump it even with my most obscure contemporary classical discs.)

Listening to Internet radio through the de100c was almost as easy. The server automatically downloads a list of about 500 featured stations, and you can instruct it to search among them by location, genre, or user-specified keyword. Of course, stations streaming their signals at the lowest bit rates the server will play - like KACU in Abilene, Texas, at 28 kbps - sounded just as bad as they do on my computer's dopey little speakers. In other words, you get a swirly, "listening down a pipe" sound that's worse than AM radio. But the best streams, like some classical stations at 96 kbps, provided a decent, FM-radio-grade listening experience.

I liked some of the server's ergonomic touches a lot. The remote's Now Playing key, which instantly returns the onscreen display to the main screen for whatever source is currently active, is only one example. But I found weaknesses, too. Operation without the onscreen display could be difficult, the pointy remote is just plain dumb looking, and its tiny black-on-gray lettering couldn't be any harder to read.

Like most servers, Hewlett-Packard's de100c doesn't do anything I can't already do with my audio system, my computer, and a CD burner - except handily consolidate many of their functions into a well-balanced whole that even your mom could use. And that's no small feat.

DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 17 1/8 x 4 1/8 x 15 3/8 inches WEIGHT 231/4 pounds PRICE $1,500 MANUFACTURER Imerge America, Dept. S&V, 620 Herndon Pkwy., Suite 200; Herndon, VA 20170;; 703-481-9815

Imerge SoundServer S1000 It's funny how national characteristics seem able to infuse even brand-new technologies like digital music servers. The SoundServer S1000 from Imerge, based in the same Cambridgeshire region of England where you'll find most of the British hi-fi industry, exhibits all the classic aspects of Brit-fi components: simplicity of operation, an elegantly unadorned exterior, and topflight performance.

Using the SoundServer is fairly straightforward. You can rip discs or tracks from the internal CD drive, at slightly more than 2x speed, to the hard drive in either uncompressed CD format or in MP3 format with the usual choice of bit rates. You can request playback of stored tracks either as complete albums or in playlists assembled manually or sorted by album/track title or genre. You can listen to music from the hard disk while you're recording something else. The SoundServer retrieves CD text data automatically from via either a dial-up or (preferably) broadband Internet connection. There's an Ethernet port for the latter.

The Imerge SoundServer also carries the Brit-fi torch in having a few quirks. One oddity, for example, is that it cannot function as a plain CD player - you can't, that is, just pop in a disc and hit play. You can listen to a disc while you're recording it, but there'll be a few minutes of time lag so a buffer can be filled. (I also found that the SoundServer's playback response time slowed appreciably during recording.) Obviously, this is a clumsy way to play a CD. Why Imerge designed the S1000 this way escapes me, particularly since the server's lab performance with uncompressed files showed it to be the best "CD player" of the lot. We're told, however, that a downloadable operating-system update due by the time you read this will allow direct CD playback.

The SoundServer manual makes passing reference to something Imerge calls XivaNet, an Internet service for music reviews, news, downloads, purchases, and so on, all to be accessible via the SoundServer and its onscreen display, but none of this was implemented while I had the server for evaluation. Also in the works is a Windows program that will allow the SoundServer to download music files from (and be controlled by) a PC - this promises to be an important utility, since the S1000 cannot copy audio files from a recordable CD intended for computer use.

The SoundServer was the least intimidating to operate of the five servers. As usual, though, the price of simplicity is fewer features. For instance, if you browse the hard drive's contents, there is no path back to the main track/time display for the currently playing album (or playlist). You have to work your way through the Play menu again and re-cue that album or playlist to where you left off. Although its feature set is a bit basic, the Imerge SoundServer S1000 does what it does in a very consistent, reliable fashion. Sometimes the best surprise is no surprise.