McIntosh MS300 Music Server

Comedian Robert Klein once did a routine about those ubiquitous old K-Tel TV ads for huge collections of music on a cassette or CD box set. "Every Elvis Presley song for just $9.99 plus shipping and handling," he began. Riffing on the increasing grandiosity of those ads, he ended with a flourish, "A trailer truck will pull up to your house loaded with CDs filled with every piece of music ever recorded!"

We may not be there yet, but with hard drive based music servers it won't be long before our music collections could resemble the contents of that truck, but taking up considerably less space. While music servers for two-channel audio aren't part of our usual diet here at Ultimate AV, most home theater fans do more than simply watch movies. They love music as well. And since most music recordings are still two-channel, and appear likely to be for some time into the future, products that simplify the music listening experience and add extra features to it are by no means irrelevant.

Components that store the content of DVDs and CDs, at least up to now, serve one or the other of these formats, but not both. The manufacturer of the first server we tested, the Kaleidescape System , presently stores only DVDs (plus some limited HD content for now), but has plans to add CD capability as well. But it's an exceptionally expensive product. If you want to store and organize your CDs in a stand-lone server there are other alternatives.

It is possible, of course, to configure a computer to store, organize, reconfigure, play back, and copy your CDs. And with the prices of home computers these days, they'll soon be having "computer days" at the ballpark- bring a kid, get a free PC.

But many audiophiles don't want a computer in their audio systems. Sure, many of our components today are nothing more than one-trick computers. But at least you don't have to deal with the noise and complexity of computer, or have to get through a Windows XP or Mac OS X boot-up just to listen to music.

The Bit Bucket
While it's hardly cheap at $5100, the McIntosh MS300 Music Server is one of the first products to bring much of the functionality of those computer-based servers to a dedicated audio component.

In current server-speak, the MS300's hard drive will hold up to 50,000 "songs." There are four MP3 compression rates available: 128, 160, 192, and 320kbps. Presumably, the specified maximum capacity is at 128k, the highest compression rate.

Audiophiles who want no part of MP3 aren't left out, however. There's also a lossless mode—FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). This compresses the bits into about half the space they occupied on the CD, yet is claimed to recover all of the original data, bit for bit. Using this format, the MS300 is said to be capable of storing up to 800 CDs, depending of course on length.

You can load your music into the built-in hard drive in one of several ways. The most obvious—and the one I used for this review—is from the built-in CD-R/RW drive. Ripping the music (an ugly term for dumping music onto a computer's hard drive) from this route is very fast—under five minutes per disc for most of the 80 CDs I loaded.

There are also analog, digital, and control inputs for up to three 400-disc changers (specific models from Kenwood, Pioneer, or Sony). The logic in linking a CD changer to a server like the McIntosh is that to you can configure the changer-server combination to simply load all of the titles on the changer onto the MS300's hard drive. This will take a while; unlike the CD-R/RW drive in the MS300, this must be done in real time. But it can proceed unattended.

While an external changer can also function as overflow storage for very large collections, you might need to purchase more than one MS300 if your collection is too large and you want server-type access to all of it. There is no current provision for adding an external hard drive, or for linking multiple MS300s together for simultaneous operation. According to McIntosh, however, a feature will be added in January 2006 to allow peer-to-peer networking of two MS300s and the seamless integration and access of data from either machine.

There are also three analog inputs, together with the McIntosh's internal analog-to-digital converters, for importing other sources onto the hard drive. But apart from loading music or playing it back directly from changers as described above (which must be performed using a control link from those changers) there is no way to connect the MS300 digitally to a source such as the digital output of a single disc CD player. This won't be a real limitation for most users since the on-board CD drive serves the purpose, but it will be a limitation for some. You cannot, for example, use the output of your favorite outboard analog-to-digital converter to feed the McIntosh an LP or microphone preamp as a source.

You can also import music stored on your PC or Macintosh computer (from your Macintosh to your McIntosh).

A Video Essential
In addition to all the audio and control inputs and outputs on the rear panel, you'll also find composite, S-Video, and component video outputs. No, the MS300 does not play DVDs, or even Video CDs. These are strictly for viewing the McIntosh's video control and information menus.

This is the one aspect of the server's design that may have more than a few audiophiles getting off the bus. It's impossible to use this product for anything but the most rudimentary CD playback without a video monitor of some sort. True, there's a small front-panel window that provides some information, but to actually navigate and find anything on the hard drive, you'll need to have a display connected to the MS300. The McIntosh's menus even provide video controls for a display.

While home theater fans will already have a suitable, convenient display (but be careful to avoid burn-in with CRTs and plasmas, even though a screen-saver in the McIntosh helps), most audio-only enthusiasts will not. But with small, light, efficient flat-panel LCD televisions becoming more affordable, finding a suitable display to locate close to the primary listening seat (or in another spot where you can see and read it) shouldn't be a major obstacle.

Just be sure that the display you choose has enough resolution to make the menus clear. While I was uploading CDs onto the hard drive for this report, I placed the MS300 near my word processor so I could do other things during this tedious procedure (it took me over five hours to load 80 CDs—far faster than real-time, to be sure, but hours that could be used for some productive multitasking). For a display I used the composite video input of a cheap Axion portable DVD player I bought on sale at Radio Shack (around $100, Cat # 16-3912). The McIntosh menus were barely legible on its low-resolution, 3.6-inch LCD screen. It served the purpose (I've found it very useful for other tasks like viewing the on-screen setup menus on various pieces of gear when I don't want to fire up a video projector), but for regular day-to-day use I'd want something that makes the very fine print on some of the MS300's menus a bit easier to read.

A small computer monitor would be ideal for this application; they are designed specifically for static images and available in a wide selection at ever-cheaper prices. Unfortunately, there is no way to connect the MS300 to most computer monitors (which do not have video inputs). A VGA output would have been a useful feature.

Are You Being Served
Some capabilities of the MS300 are not immediately made obvious in the well written but poorly organized owner's manual. For example, I got to page 63 before the manual made it clear that the server can actually record the content of its hard drive onto CD-R or CD-RW discs—either for backups of entire CDs or for compilations. I was page 75 before I found out, to my relief, that the server offers a lossless (at least in theory) recording mode. And setting up the server so that it will simply play back an individual CD directly from its CD-R/RW drive is described on page 77. It was obvious to me from the beginning that such an upscale product must have all of these features, but I've had unpleasant surprises before.

Most of your time with the MS300 will be spent playing back music that you've ripped onto its hard drive. With potentially hundreds of albums and thousands of selections to choose from, finding a specific title or song could be a nightmare that will leave you running instead to your CD shelf.

But the McIntosh provides a Music Guide that sorts your library in several different ways. You can search by artist, title, song, or cover art. You can also browse by genres—such as Alternative, Folk, Jazz, Classical—rather than the complete list of your stored titles.

If you opt to play a complete title, rather than just a cut or song on the album, you can play it straight through, select a specific track, or select repeat or random play options for either that title or a specified group of titles (see below).

You can also organize titles into Groups, such as all your Rolling Stones albums, all your Beethoven recordings, or all your soundtracks.

McIntosh Laboratory, Inc.
(607) 723-3512