Brennan JB7 Micro Jukebox
Sounds great, looks great
Review Ever wanted to combine the convenience of digital music with decent sound and build quality? Then say hello to your new best friend, the JB7 Micro Jukebox. This tactile and user-friendly bit of kit delivers both with aplomb.
Right from the start, we could feel this was a class piece of kit: well built, reassuringly heavy and sporting a really attractive electric blue and battleship grey livery. The unit can be plumbed into a hi-fi, but also you can choose some very acceptable Brennan-branded speakers, which also felt reassuringly solid, with really hardy, spring-loaded cable grips at the rear.
The only thing slightly letting all of this down was the quality of the cables supplied, which didn’t quite live up the feel of the rest of the kit.
Brennan's JB7 Micro Jukebox: class
Basically, the product is a hard drive which stores, sorts and plays back music garnered from the your CD collection, or transferred from a personal MP3 player or USB stick. Three versions are available - 40GB, 80GB and 160GB - and a big plus is that the player will store tracks at 128Kb/s, 192Kb/s, 320Kb/s or with no compression at all direct from a CD. To give you a feel for the capacity, the 80GB model can store 22,000 tracks at 128Kb/s or 9000 at 320Kb/s.
We decided to go for the jugular, slammed Live and Dangerous by Thin Lizzy into the JB7’s CD slot, selected no compression, and stood back.
The beast sprang immediately to life and a little over four minutes later we had the files captured. Now, Live and Dangerous is a long album - many of its 18 tracks come in at well over four minutes - so this was a pretty good performance at zero compression. We pressed play and an even more pleasant surprise was waiting.
The machine sings like a black bird on a spring morning. The unit’s built-in pair of 30W amplifiers deliver a clean, bouncy, crisp and deep sound stage. There are loads of crowd noises and bits of atmosphere on this album that would just be lost on a less accomplished player, but the JB7 spots them all and spits them out at you with real confidence.
The JB7 was designed by Martin Brennan. Fans of the 8-bit computing era may recall Brennan was on of the developers of Sinclair's ill-fated 'Loki' computer, a project killed when the company was bought by Amstrad.
Brennan later moved to Atari, where he developed the unreleased Panther games console and its successor, the Jaguar, which did make it to market.
OK, so the unit does well at no compression, but taking things further we tried The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land, at 320Kb/s. We were surprise by how much bass the unit retained. Breath spilled out of the unit with all the required menace, while The Doors' Riders on the Storm showed the unit can be subtle at 320Kb/s as well, picking up all those atmospheric raindrops as well as the fat notes of the organ playing.
Tests at 128Kb/s and 192Kb/s showed changes in the depth of delivery, but the unit still performed well. Still, we would recommend sacrificing space to stick to the higher bit rates as the machine just does it so well. What's also really nice is that if you choose to move to a new track part way through another, the JB7 does this effortlessly, fading one out and one in at the same time.
The integrated track and album database is managed by CDDB, which currently has 2m CDs on its books, and recognition of album and track data is more or less instantaneous. You can also obtain CD-Rom discs to keep the database bang up to date. The CD deck itself is all about recording, and by the company’s own admission doesn't excel as a playback device, so users are much better getting the tracks off the CDs and onto the HDD.
The remote control handles all the unit's functions not just the basics
The JB7 presents the track data on a rather compact vacuum fluorescent display, but the 180 x 32 characters are large and change very quickly when you move from one track to thenext or scroll through the machine's options. The display's brightness can be adjusted to suit. The control interface itself consists of rounded, tactile knobs on the front of the unit and a credit card-sized remote.
Both the remote and the front panel give access to all the functions, but we found it was easier to select the first few letters of a song title for searches was using the the front panel than the remote. Searches are done in real time, the list of matches falling as you key in more letters.
The machine lets you search by album or track and also keeps a history of the tracks played so you can scroll through those as well. There is also more straightforward Album Browse section where you just read through an alphabetical list of the albums on the machine. It has a random play option too.
If we were going to be ultra picky, it might have been nice to able to choose random play, but specify a particular genre or mood. Nevertheless, playlists are also available, so this partly fulfils that role. There are ten folders named after the colours of the rainbow - nice touch, that - already set up in the player’s memory for you to load different moods or party mixes into. These can then be played back by one touch of the '0' to '9' buttons on the remote. You can also re-name tracks if you want to.
With its USB 2.0 port, the JB7 is compatible with personal MP3 players and USB sticks. Content can flow in both directions, although not onto an iPod. In search mode, the JB7 will only look for tracks on USB devices, not albums. The machine can be set to search and play only music from the external device, but this clever little box of tricks can search both its hard drive and the external drive at the same time too. Whole playlists can be sent intact to an external device.
The optional speakers do a really good job
The JB7 can record direct to the HDD from an external source such as a radio thanks to a an auxiliary input on the rear of the machine. At any time, you can call up data on the status of the HDD that shows the amount of content stored and the how much disk space is left.
For safety’s sake, the machine can also back itself up onto another external hard drive so there would be no need to re-load all of the content should an accident occur to the JB7. This function can also be used to transfer all of the tracks to a second JB7 should you want to get another one as a second system for the bedroom. Lastly, there's a handy alarm function which allows the JB7 to wake you up.
This is a true 21st Century hi-fi component. It sounds great, has a good level of digital convenience and also has a knowingly retro, but somehow modern look at the same time. The optional speakers do a really good job, but we get the distinct impression this machine would not feel out of place driving a really serious system. It is also compact enough to be moved around the home to provide whole-house playback.