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AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - web magazine for music, audio & home theater

Mind the Media Servers...
blue computer

The CEA has announced five Technologies To Watch in 2005 in the consumer electronics industry, and the very first one is Media Servers. The idea is for a central large hard disc drive that stores every sort of digital media, allowing for the distribution of those files to other devices throughout the home. They say more than 52% of U.S. homes will have home networks by 2008 - the infrastructure for media servers. Consumers are expected to store all their music, photos and movies on the one device and listen to or view it on other devices.

Our advice - along with several other nay-sayers in the industry: Let’s Hope That Doesn’t Come to Pass! As leading UK audio writer Barry Fox puts it, “Every week now Microsoft and Intel are pushing closer to their final goal - which will suck all the relaxed pleasure out of home entertainment and turn it into a technology obstacle course.” The computer industry has been pushing for this so-called “convergence” for years but so far the gear designed for it has fallen flat. We are talking here about a great deal more than the melding of home theater and hi-fi music listening. To enjoy music and movies at home a system has to meet a certain level of quality in performance. It also should be dependable and easy to use.

Some sort of data reduction is absolutely required in order to store all these digital materials on a reasonably-sized home hard drive. Although the latest AAC is a sonic improvement over MP3, it’s still nowhere near the resolution of standard 44.1 PCM (which is nowhere near the resolution of DSD or 192K PCM). Both DTS and Dolby have been upgraded for DTV, but except for the least-reduced optional lossless version of DTS, they still don’t match hi-res multichannel audio. The MPEG2 standard has also been upgraded for DTV use, but has to be even more heavily data-reduced than audio datastreams or one movie would take up your entire hard drive and broadcasting it would be impossible.

One example of the new media servers is the Moore Medio PC, which combines a CD player, DVD video player, TV and home PC in a single box. Like all such convergence units thus far, it is based on the Microsoft Windows platform. An Intel spokesman says, “The PC is the best platform to store and manage CDs and videos.” That’s fine for computer geeks who get a kick out of constant upgrading of both software and hardware, plus dealing with the ingrained undependability of PCs in general. If you want to plop down and relax by listening to some music or watching a DVD when you get home from work, are you ready for on-screen alert messages telling you that you have to download something first or check off a bunch of options, or maybe even reinstall some software?

And we haven’t even considered one of the ever-more-threatening banes of PC usage - viruses. Where will you be when your all-in-one entertainment system gets infected by a virus worm? Mac users have been free of that concern so far but it’s probably only a matter of time until someone regards our minority platform worthy of virus attack as well. Please - let’s forget about PC-based home media servers and spend that energy instead in making home entertainment hardware easier to hook up and use for those without a first-class engineer’s license! Some may have thought audio gear was complicated, but home theater has now passed the absurdity barrier.

- John Sunier

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