McIntosh has always been a company that has stood with a small number of audio manufacturers in keeping with the audiophile values in a world where many would chose function over form. Their bright blue display combined with the glass front on their equipment has always meant that their product conformed to their goals of creating one of the best products that they could when one considers the technology available at the time. So, when I was lucky enough to get their new MS300 Music Server for review; I will admit I couldn't wait to start seeing just what McIntosh was able to do with the world of evolving digital playback.
Luckily within the last several years, the formats available to store the musical information have become much more sophisticated able to take the often times difficult musical information and store them without much, if any loss of quality. Although these formats are often take far more space than other formats, they allow music to be stored without having to sacrifice the pleasure of a truly involving musical experience. Of course, this does not always come without a price and many of the "lossless" formats not only require special equipment to record and play them back, but also are proprietary in nature.
With that extremely brief history of how the world of digital files has evolved, let me get back to the product at hand, the MS300. Unpacking the unit is fairly straightforward. Although it is fairly weighty, it will fit within any rack or equipment stand that I have used and like all of McIntosh's equipment has a presence even before it is hooked up and turned on. The front panel is extremely well laid out, as I will get into later and it doesn't take a great deal of effort to connect it into your existing stereo system.
The second installation requirement is an Ethernet connection. Unfortunately the unit does not allow for either USB or wireless connection so you will need to connect it directly to your network. While this is somewhat unfortunately, once it is connected into your home network and has access to the internet, there are many features which make the product not only a great addition to your stereo system, but your home network as well.
Once those two installation issues are addressed, setting up the unit is pretty much a breeze. After a power up sequence, the rest of the installation is fairly straight forward. The menus guide you through the majority of the tasks needed for proper installation of the unit, including setting up a connection to the internet and even connecting it to Sony and Pioneer CD changers in order to record your musical collection by converting it to files. These files, depending how your system is configured can also be accessed throughout your home network, so you can listen to your favorite music wherever you are.
I must mention at this point that there are a few other options, which you might consider in setting up your MS300. As I mentioned earlier in the review, there are several different formats that your music can be stored in for playback at a later time. The one which most of us has heard of is MP3. Indeed, the music server is capable of storing your music in these files, and in fact, with its 300 GB hard drive, it can store more tracks than I even have. However, McIntosh has chosen to embrace a free lossless format called FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression). While this does indeed decrease the amount of music that can be stored on the unit; its assets far outweigh the loss of storage by allowing music to be stored as a nearly pristine copy of the original.
In addition to being able to store CDs in musical files for later playback, the MS300 will also get information about the CDs from Gracenote, an Internet provider of information about musical albums. This allows for the download of track titles, genre, and in most cases even artwork to correspond to the original album itself. Even in the rare cases that this information available in their database, McIntosh provides a keyboard and instructions on how to update this information for yourself, if you chose to do so. I found this to be fairly straight forward, and while in some cases time consuming, it did tend to enhance my enjoyment when I chose to listen to random musical selections within a certain musical genre.
Thus far in this review I have spent a great deal of time detailing many of the features and functionality of the product. In truth, there is so much that can be said, that I could spend the remainder of the review just continuing on with this information. However, that would not really give the reader any insight as to the performance of the equipment and after all this is a review, so for more information I would direct you to the company's website or ask you to email me.
The MS300 features a CD player capable of playing CDs, CD-Rs, CD-RWs and MP3 discs. Before I even started ripping discs to use with the unit's music content manager, I began by seeing how well the CD player performed as a stand-alone unit. My first selection, a favorite of mine, was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. I have always been one of these people who enjoys the transition from the extremely low bass of the heartbeat into the music contained within the album.
Although the MS300 is more than just a stand-alone CD player, I can honestly say it handled the extremely low bass with more accuracy than many CD players I have reviewed. The steady increase in volume that marks the beginning of the track did not remotely influence the control the unit maintained on the overall impact of the soundstage the unit was able to generate. In fact, I found myself more involved in the full experience than I have in many of the times I have listened to the track.
On the same album, I switched to another favorite track of mine, Money. Once again, I was delighted to hear the control that was exerted on the music. I could not only hear all the subtle sounds of the low end bass, but the treble seemed nearly limitless and totally unconstrained combining to create a soundstage that allowed me to become a part of the music itself.
Next I put in Enigma's MCMXC a.D., I will admit that while I sometimes wish that the recording was better, the soundstage I have found is often difficult to reproduce realistically. However, once again, with the MS300, this was not an issue. The music was captivating and evolving, to the point of almost being palpable. There was a total sense of overall spaciousness that made everything seem almost surreal, which was the artist's intent when recording the first track, "The Voice of Enigma."
My third disc was something a little more "mainstream." I put in Mobile Fidelity's recording of John Coltrane's Soultrane. While I won't say that the sound was the most impressive sounding I have ever heard of this recording, it certainly was no slouch either. I was certainly able to hear the attack and decay of the various instruments. However, the overall tonality seemed to be a tad constrained and lacked a certain visceral quality that I have heard from other digital front ends. In the MS300's defense, I will point out that my extensive use and listening to this particular CD makes my standards much higher than most others who listen to this recording.
In order to round out my initial experiences with the MS300, I played PentaTone's recording of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 Nutcracker Suite. A full orchestral recording is usually one of the most challenging for all but the best of playback sources. While I have found that Pentatone excels in its SACD multi-channel presentations, it nevertheless also does an admirable job of reproducing the idiosyncrasies of many orchestral recordings. This one is certainly no exception. The playback by the MS300 was outstanding. It was not only able to convey both the quieter sections, but the louder ones as well. It once again was able to draw the listener into the music without making them feel overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the powerful movements. In fact, I even found a three-dimensional effect that made the music seem even more realistic and involving than I had ever heard it before. I found myself listening to it over and over and hearing instruments I had seemingly overlooked in the past.
Of course these are only a few of the many musical selections I used while reviewing the MS300. In all the recordings I played, I found that the unit was able to hold its own against even my most favorite of CD players. The only types of music I found it had the slightest trouble with were jazz and certain blues recordings. This appeared because it seemed to have a slight bit of trouble in the separation of instruments, which were within the same upper midrange. Although even this did not take away from the fact that it was an outstanding performer.
The MS300's review doesn't end there however, once I had satisfied myself of its abilities as a stand alone CD player, I began to rip CDs into FLAC files for storage on its internal hard drive. I chose this over the MP3 format because of its lossless abilities. While I know there is a place for MP3 files, I also know that they might be smaller, but they also decrease the quality of a recording. I did try doing do on the MS300, but the loss was substantial enough that I felt FLAC file format was the way to go if I wanted to really see what the unit was capable of in this review.
In keeping with my initial order I started by copying the four recordings I mentioned earlier, Dark Side of the Moon, MCMXC a.D. Soultrane, and Symphony No. 6 Nutcracker Suite. The actual process of ripping a CD is a real pleasure. There is a setting which allows you to place a CD into the drawer, it loads it, rips the tracks from the CD and when its all completed, ejects the CD. This entire process, depending on the CD takes only a few minutes to finish. Once its done, it connects to the Gracenote server and gets all the album information, so you really have very little work, if any to do.
I need to note one somewhat cool option. If for some reason you don't have the MS300 connected to the Internet when you are recording your CDs, the next time you connect to the internet it will download all the information on the albums you have recorded. Also, if you have access to the supported CD changers, you can actually allow the unit to record whole libraries of CDs without any intervention. Trust me; this comes in handy when you are loading a whole bunch of them at once. One note of warning though, the CD player in the MS300 did a far better job than any of the changers I connected the unit too.
Well once again starting with the Dark Side of the Moon, the FLAC version of the recording was pretty amazing. While I won't say that I couldn't hear a slight loss in the initial intensity of the heartbeat, I will say that the difference between the CD and the FLAC file was nearly unidentifiable. All the loss of detail I was used to hearing when I created an MP3 file was virtually eliminated and track after track, I was hard pressed to find any difference.
Perhaps because the Enigma recording was not nearly as good as the Pink Floyd recording, I did hear a slight decrease in the sound quality when listening to the FLAC file versus the CD playback. This came in the form of a slight compression in the overall vocal quality when listened to again the musical background. However, it was more akin to listening to the recording with a lesser quality CD player than that of a poor MP3 recording.
The John Coltrane recording fared extremely well in the conversion from CD to FLAC file. Quite honestly I couldn't distinguish the difference between the original and the recording. It was a delight to know I could listen to the recorded version and not have to worry about any sort of degradation in sound quality.
Finally the orchestral recording also did extremely well in the conversation. While No. 6 Nutcracker Suite, did lose a slight amount of extreme treble and bass, it was not nearly enough degradation to lessen the feeling of spaciousness or sound staging. It felt as though there might be something missing, but the more you listened the less you felt it meant anything.
Once again, these were only a few of the selections that I loaded onto the unit's hard drive. In fact, when I was done, I was extremely happy that the music content was so well managed by the software on the unit. I have a couple of hundred CDs on there and am able to access them with only the slightest effort.
Storage Capability: 300 GB Hard Drive
THD + Noise: 0.01 percent
Signal To Noise: 96dB
Integrated Web Interface Capabilities
Plays: CD, CD-R, CD-R/W and MP3
Capable of streaming music files over a home network to remote locations via Ethernet enabled devices