If you're like most people these days, you probably have at least some of your music collection stored on your computer. Sure, it's convenient when you're working at your desk. But most people don't have their computers hooked up to their main systems - for good reason.
Integra's NAS-2.6 Audio Network Server can cram thousands of CDs onto its internal hard disk. Most computers aren't configured to look good or work well in a home theater equipment rack, and hooking a PC up to your primary home theater display is not always possible.
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Enter the hard disk audio server, a rack-sized component that puts the vast storage space of today's hard disk drives to work to hold your entire CD collection. These usually work by compressing the audio from CDs using MP3 or some other coding method. Typically, they'll have a video output so you can operate them using menus on your TV screen, and they access some database so you don't have to manually key in title and track information for all your discs. That's the basic idea behind the $3,600 NAS-2.6 Network Audio Server from the Integra division of Onkyo.
The NAS-2.6 server not only has a hard disk drive that can store up to 2,600 hours of music, it can stream the music to other "clients" on the network. The clients can either be desktop PCs or compatible Net-Tune gear also made by Integra and Onkyo. What's more, the NAS-2.6 has four sets of analog stereo line-level outputs that you can feed to other rooms in your house. And family members don't have to listen to the same music -- each room can have its own selections playing.
The server can store music in four different quality settings ranging from uncompressed to three levels of MP3 compression. In essence, you can trade off audio quality for an increase in the number of discs you can store. At the lowest quality (128 kbps), you can cram more than 2,500 hours of music into your disk library on the 160 GB hard drive. Uncompressed, that capacity shrinks to 240 hours.
The MP3 encoder in the NAS-2.6 proved to be very good. Even at the lowest quality (Standard), I rarely found encoding artifacts to be intrusive. Even so, I usually stuck with the High and Very High Quality settings, which provided recorded music virtually indistinguishable from the original CD.
The NAS-2.6 makes ripping a disc to the hard drive very easy - slip a CD into the drive drawer, press Record on either the remote or the front panel, and the server does the rest. There are two ripping speeds - the normal speed gets things done in about eight minutes per disc. A high-speed mode gets most discs ripped in less than five minutes, but the drive mechanism seemed too noisy at that speed for my tastes. While the server is busy transcoding the CD data and storing it, it also goes out to the Gracenote CDDB Music Recognition Service to download the track and title information and to the XiVA online service to gather the cover art. This worked very well, even bringing up the correct track titles for a limited-edition, not-for-sale sampler of The Clash, though the cover art was replaced by a generic "rock" image.
The only anomaly I ran across with this process happened when my Internet connection went down. The server still announced that it was getting the information for the discs, even though it had lost communication ability. I ended up with track names consisting only of numbers and a disc name of "Album 20". However, once I reset my DSL router and restored connectivity, a simple Update Album Information command let me force the server to update the information without re-ripping the disc.