Hermstedt Hifidelio wireless music centre
Time to scrap that PC music hub?
Review Germany's Hermstedt isn't a name you'd usually associate with hi-fi or digital music. The firm is better known for its ISDN-based file-transfer solutions for media companies, so the Hifidelio Music Centre marks something of a departure - I suspect the hand of a company staffer who had the product developed because he or she wanted to buy one.
If the mention of ISDN sounds old-fashioned, the phrase 'music centre' seems even more so. To me, it recalls slab-like stereos from the late 1970s combining a radio, tape player and record deck. But it's an apt phrase for the Hifidelio, which takes the concept into the 21st Century: this box doesn't just play music, it stores it too.
What we have is an 80GB hard drive - 160GB on the Pro version - CD player and network hub - all it lacks is an integrated amplifier, which is no great surprising since Hermstedt is targeting the audiophile market. Its US partner, which offers the Hifidelio under the Symphony brand, is likewise pursuing the high end of the market, classical music fans in particular.
Out of the box, the Hifidelio is an empty shell waiting to be loaded with songs. Slide a CD into the neat, trayless drive and you're ready to rip the contents to the hard drive. You've a good selection of formats to choose from: raw, uncompressed audio for the purist; FLAC lossless compression for the purist who worries he or she might not have enough storage capacity; Ogg for the Linux buff; and MP3 for everyone else. Out of respect for iTunes users, Hifidelio also supports AAC, but unlike the other formats, it's only available for playback.
An on-board CD database identifies inserted discs and populates the ripped tracks with the appropriate artist, album, track title, genre etc. Hifidelio uses the FreeDB database, and when it's connected to the Internet can update itself. Still, it was able to identify most of the obscure stuff I chucked at it, including a couple of discs picked up in Australia for the kids. Only relatively recent records remained unidentifiable.
You can change the default tags for unknown songs using the machine's control wheel, but it's tricky. The remote control, with its numeric pad, is a little easier to use. It operates like a mobile phone keypad, with several letters assigned to each number. Unfortunately, they're not printed on the remote, so you have to guess or refer back to the manual. Hifidelio's web interface, of which more later, is a better bet.
Ripping is an odd process. The Hifidelio copies a disc's tracks to the hard drive, and only then starts to convert them from native CD format to whatever compressed format you've chosen. The rationale is that this is quicker: you can listen to songs almost immediately, rather than wait for the conversion process to finish. Hifidelio racks up all the uncompressed songs and converts them in the background.
The downside is that you can easily select a song and find it's taking up 30MB instead of 5MB. At the start, there's plenty of room for uncompressed audio, but as the drive fills, that's no longer the case. And the Hifidelio is as susceptible to the difficulty all MP3 players seems to have playing one song immediately after another. When the first track fades out, it doesn't matter, but it's irritating when the two songs flow directly into each other. Here, as usual, there's a clear pause and, occasionally, a click. Another irritation is the time the Hifidelio takes to start up after it's dropped into stand-by mode. It's much too long to be standing around with a CD in your hand.
Hifidelio presents an iPod-like UI, with a round, rotating panel for scrolling. Wrapped around this is a shuttle-style rocker control - push it right to go deeper into the menu structure, left to go back again. It feels more clumsy than the iPod's click-wheel, but it works. To the left of the wheel, between it and the generous monochrome LCD, are four function buttons whose context-sensitive actions are displayed on the screen.
Beneath the CD drive are separate play, stop, track skip, record and eject controls, all of which pulse on and off like a PowerBook's sleep indicator, another sign of Hermstedt's Mac heritage.
Round the back, things get more interesting. In addition to gold-plated RCA input and output jacks, there are digital co-ax and SP/DIF ports. Refreshingly, the machine comes with a pair of nice chunky gold-plated amp leads, plus optical digital cables. Further over are a pair of USB 2.0 connectors, four Ethernet ports and an anchor point for the Wi-Fi antenna. Yes, Hifidelio is equipped with 802.11g wireless connectivity.
It's something of a networking powerhouse, in fact. On the wired side, it can operate as a switch, assigning IP addresses to any device connected to it and routing data between them. The integrated wireless access point extends that to as many clients as the 54Mbps maximum bandwidth will support. What it can't do is share a broadband Internet connection, but it will work just as keenly with a home gateway box, wirelessly or connected by Ethernet cable.
The one snag is security. While Hifidelio supports the old WEP security system, it's not happy with the more up to date, stronger WPA system, which prevented me from tying the review box into my home WLAN. So I put it into access point mode and connected my PowerBook that way.
Hifidelio runs its own SMB server, so I was able to log in, mount a folder on my desktop and drag over a host of pre-ripped albums. You have to import the tracks into Hifidelio's music database, in which it stores the tracks' ID tags, but that's a straightforward, quick process - just select all the albums and hit the import function button. Alas, you can't copy installed songs back to a computer, though any recordings you make using the device itself can be copied. Whether this is to avoid the wrath of the labels or to protect Hermstedt's own Hifidelio Back-up Drive business isn't clear, but I have my suspicions.
The back-up drive plugs into one of Hifidelio's USB ports, which can also be used to load up an iPod or other MP3 player. I tried my own HDD, without joy, and my iPod's too old and USB-less to work either. The CD drive is also a 24x burner, so at a pinch you can back-up your albums that way. But with a system like this, your original CDs can be the back-up, of course.
Copying songs wirelessly worked well, though once when I popped downstairs to check on the unit and changed the album currently being played, the connection with the computer was lost. That aside, the device played tracks back flawlessly while the copy was in progress. They also played just fine while I was ripping CDs, though one disc caused it problems, resulting in a lag between moving the controller and seeing the effect on the display. Playback remained smooth, however.
You don't need to copy songs from your computer. Instead, you can instead run iTune and stream songs to the Hifidelio - and vice versa. iTunes lists the Hifidelio in the playlist panel as a shared song library. Likewise, your shared iTunes library shows up in Hifidelio own list of servers - you may have other Hifidelios in the vicinity too. Just select the one you want and, once the listing has loaded, choose a song in the usual, iPod-like way.
Hifidelio cleverly buffers each song so it will continue to play if the connection drops for some reason. Unsurprisingly - I did try, though - it won't play DRM-protected songs downloaded from the iTunes music store. What's needed is a clever bit of code to stream the uncompress, DRM-authorised audio across to the Hifidelio - or for Apple to license FairPlay at more attractive rates.
In addition to the SMB server, there's a web server on board, too, which the Hifidelio uses to provide a front end to its music database. This allows you to edit songs' tag information using a keyboard rather than the remote or the device itself, and you can delete tracks. You can't yet changed the Hifidelio's settings, but such an option is clearly coming in a future upgrade.
Once loaded with songs and connected to an amplifier, the Hifidelio was set a-playing. Seated two metres or so away, the LCD, though large, presents text that's too small to read without squinting. By default, it's set to use a large font for the 'now playing' screen, which kicks in after 20s - you can change the period. But there's no way to similarly increase the size of the menu readout, which would be more useful than being able to read the name of the song you're listening too. The display is great when you're up close - it's only limiting when you're sitting on your sofa. A display on the remote would, perhaps be the ideal solution - a quicker one would be to update the software to display menus in the larger font.
Hermstedt makes a big noise about how quiet the Hifidelio runs, and its fanless operation - a low-power PowerPC chip does all the heavy lifting - makes for a silent device. Well, almost. There's no fan noise, but the hard drive and CD player add their voices to the mix. Play music and you won't hear either unless you're up close, but I could hear the HDD in the gaps between tracks. To be fair, I didn't find it intrusive, but then I'm used to working with a laptop throughout the day. And Hermstedt claims the only noise the unit produces comes from the CD drive, so my review sample may simply have had a below-par hard drive.
I found the sound quality to be very good, compressed audio formats notwithstanding. Audio quality is inherently subjective, but there was no audible noise coming through during HDD and CD operation. I didn't approach this review from an audiophole - my listening environment is far from perfect and while my Rotel amp and Mission speakers are good, they're not top-of-the-range - but the Hifidelio cut the mustard alongside my other source separates. It's certainly better than my iPod. Putting it on pause and turning the amp's volume up to max, you can hear a little hiss but more than my CD player generates. That said, I had the Hifidelio hooked up to the AUX input rather than the CD connectors, and that may have made things worse.
The Pro version, which I tested, offers a couple of advantages over the standard Hifidelio. It supports MP3 encoding at 320Kbps - which Hermstedt dubs "CD quality" - and it will, at your choice, dynamically compress the audio envelope, the better to cope with loud environments or to make the sound less neighbour-annoying at nighttime. There's an 'expert mode' in which you can tamper with the settings to your heart's content.
The Hifidelio is not a cheap product, with the Pro version coming it at around £800. But consider, that's exactly the same price-per-megabyte as the 60GB iPod, and half the price per meg of the 20GB iPod, so it's not exactly out of kilter with the rest of the digital music market. That's looking at it solely from a storage perspective - you're also getting a very good network device for your money and a decent CD player.
More to the point, perhaps, £800 - or £600 for the 80GB standard version - isn't beyond the means of the sort of person who'll happily spend the best part of a grand on an amplifier. That's the audience Hermstedt is pitching at, not the guy who wants to connect his ghetto blaster or cheap composite system to a digital music store.
The Hifidelio, then, will make a superb addition to any high-end music system. However, there are flaws and things to fix. Yes, it will interface with an iPod or other MP3 player, but a computer remains the best way of getting music on to one, particularly if your music collection is larger than your player's storage capacity. That will make the Hifidelio less attractive to anyone who regularly uses a portable player.
Or indeed a computer. Yes, you can copy songs across to your Hifidelio, but not back again, and of course the Hermstedt box is no help at all if you have DRM-protected songs. The iTunes support helps, but do you really want half your music one box, and half on the other? For back-up reasons alone, I'd want my collection on both. The ability to synchronise the two collections would be perfect, but it's a feature Hermstedt doesn't offer.
For folk new to digital music, however, the Hifidelio has much to recommend it. As a focal point for your entire music collection, with the ability not only to play that music, but to beam it around the house, it's a winner. ®
|Hermstedt Hifidelio Pro|
|Pros||Excellent sound quality; integrated track identification database; wired and wireless networking powerhouse;.|
|Cons||Expensive; could be more capacious; LCD too hard to read from sofa-distance; track transitions aren't seamless; long start-up time.|
|Price||£799 (Pro); £599 (standard)|
|More info||The Hermstedt Hifidelio site|