Hi-res audio is certainly gaining momentum, as audio manufacturers, industry organizations like the CEA and DEG, and record companies like Sony and Universal are making a strong push to educate people about the value of higher-quality sound. There are many paths that can lead you from hi-res file download to hi-res audio playback through your home theater or high-end audio system. Perhaps the most straightforward is a hard-drive-based hi-res music player like the subject of today's review: the Autonomic Mirage MMS-5A ($4,250). The MMS-5A isn't a brand new product; it was first introduced about two years ago. Autonomic may have been ahead of its time in its enthusiasm toward hi-res audio; now that the rest of us are catching up and the category is growing up, I decided it was time to give this product its due attention.
The MMS-5A sports a 1TB internal hard drive and offers hi-res playback of files up to 24-bit/192-kHz, through both its coaxial digital audio and USB outputs. The MMS-5A will read and play back most major file formats, including MP3, WMA, AAC, AIFF, WAV, and FLAC. Notable omissions include DSD and OGG support, although Autonomic reports that future firmware updates may include these formats.
What really sets the Mirage apart from other hi-res music players is that it's designed to serve as the foundation of a whole-house music solution. The MMS-5A is capable of sending up to six independently controllable audio streams around the house (up to 96 zones). Autonomic products are sold exclusively through the company's network of dealers who are trained to install the complete whole-house solution. The company sells two multizone digital amps, the four-zone M-400 ($2,495) and eight-zone M-800 ($3,495), that are designed to be ideal companion pieces to the Mirage server, although you can also bring in your own amps if desired. The Mirage amplifiers have extensive zone-grouping capabilities, with the ability to configure group and individual zone volume control. Autonomic has also integrated control drivers for the most popular home automation platforms into the Mirage player for easier addition into an existing whole-house system.
While the MMS-5A's inclusion of a hard drive is great for those who want a physical storage device for their music, Autonomic has not neglected the needs of the streaming crowd. You can set up the Mirage server to automatically sync with iTunes, Windows Media Player, or other music folders on your computer(s) to load files onto the MMS-5A's hard drive, but you can also link it to a NAS drive to stream files over a network connection. AirPlay is built in to receive streamed content from AirPlay-enabled computers and iOS devices, and the Mirage also has integrated support for many of the big-ticket music streaming services: Pandora, Spotify, Last.fm, Slacker Radio, Rhapsody, TuneIn, and Sirius/XM. Users of the Amazon Cloud Drive can sync their complete library to the MMS-5A and access the content through other Mirage servers in remote locations (fees vary depending on amount of storage) .
Autonomic also sells a lower-priced music server, the MMS-2A ($1,995), that has a smaller 128GB solid-state drive and support for three independent audio streams. The MMS-2A limits hi-res playback to 24/96; otherwise, it offers an identical experience in terms of setup, navigation, control, and streaming services.
Because the Mirage players are only sold through authorized dealers who will install them for you, Autonomic arranged to have a local dealer -- ListenUp out of Boulder, Colorado -- come out and do the initial setup of my review sample. The guys were kind enough to let me look over their shoulders and ask lots of questions during the install process. I did not utilize the MMS-5A's multizone capabilities for this review, so the process of setting up the MMS-5A in my main listening room was pretty straightforward. For those who are interested in whole-house audio, since the Mirage supports output of up to six independent streams, you can listen to one album in the main listening area while your family members access the music of their choosing elsewhere in the house.
The MMS-5A is basic black-box design that measures 17 inches wide by 10 inches deep by 2.25 inches high (1.7 inches if you remove the feet to mount the box in a rack) and weighs eight pounds, 10 ounces. The only button on the front panel is a power button that glows a very bright blue. Another large, blue light runs across the bottom of the front face; it's a nice accent, but it's also really bright -- thankfully you can turn it off via a back-panel button if you wish.
The MMS-5A's back panel sports one coaxial digital audio output and one audiophile-grade USB 3.0 port, as well as four pairs of unbalanced stereo RCA outs. HDMI and DVI video outputs are available for the onscreen user interface to be displayed on your TV or projector (the HDMI port is not available for audio). An eSATA port and three additional USB ports are available to add more storage. You must hardwire the MMS-5A to your router via the LAN port (10/100/1000 BaseT) for network connectivity; there's no built-in WiFi. In my case, ListenUp ran coaxial digital audio and HDMI video output to a Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 receiver and an Ethernet cable to my Apple Time Capsule for networking.
The remainder of the setup process takes place via a Web-based configuration tool that, again, is intended for use by a trained Autonomic installer. For any installers out there, I found the Web tool to be well laid out and very easy to navigate. One important setup parameter that will require adjustment is the desired resolution for the coaxial digital audio output. The system supports stereo audio from 16/44.1 all the way up to 24/192, and it includes a very useful test tone to help you figure out the highest resolution that your receiver or preamp's coaxial digital audio input will accept. In my case, the HK AVR 3700 will accept a resolution all the way up to 24/192. Once you select a resolution for that output, the Mirage sends out all music at that setting. For those who plan to use the Mirage's USB output for hi-res audio, it supports up to 7.1-channel 24/192 output, although the output resolution will ultimately be determined by the capabilities of your chosen USB DAC.
The Content section of the Web configuration tool is where your installer adds the computers and streaming services you want to access. For streaming services, you simply check off the services you wish to use and input your login credentials. (Only Spotify Premium subscribers can enable their account, while Pandora is available to users of the free service.) To sync content from a Mac or PC, you need to download the appropriate version of Autonomic's Media Sync software to every computer that contains software you wish to sync - and make sure those computers are connected to the same home network as the server. I downloaded the software to both a Mac and PC that contain audio files.
The Media Sync software is as basic and straightforward as it gets, with tabs for Status, iTunes, Windows Media (PC version only), Other, and Advanced. Through the iTunes and Windows Media tabs, you can dictate what content and playlists you want to sync. Through the Other tab, you can add any other music folders you wish to sync; I added the HDTracks folder where all the hi-res files I've downloaded from HDTracks.com are automatically stored. Then you hit "Apply Changes," and the content automatically begins loading onto the server over your network connection.
At least, that's what happened with my Windows laptop, where AIFF files in iTunes synced without problem. With my Mac, where the bulk of my music collection resides, I initially couldn't get the server to sync with iTunes. It synced with other folders, but not iTunes. After numerous attempts to figure out the problem myself, I called Autonomic tech support, gave them access to remotely tech my computer, and let them go to work. To their credit, they found and solved the problem fairly quickly (some corrupt file tags were tripping up the sync process). After that, everything worked seamlessly. Within a few hours, I had all my iTunes music (with all my playlists in tact), as well as a couple hi-res HDTracks albums, loaded and ready for playback. If you let the Media Sync software continue to run in the background of your computer(s), it will monitor your system and automatically add any newly loaded music files to the server.
A few other setup notes: Under Display Settings, the GUI's screen resolution can be set for 720p or 1080p, and a screen saver can be enabled that runs through a set of preloaded photos. You can also load your own photos onto the server to use for the screen saver.
The Mirage player comes with a small, non-backlit IR remote that sports just 11 buttons: menu, info, navigation, track forward/reverse, play/pause, and thumbs up/down. It's highly likely that someone investing in a system at this price point also uses a higher-end control system; the MMS-5A supports RS-232 and IP control, and Autonomic has integrated preprogrammed control modules for Crestron, Control4, AMX, RTI, and Savant (among others) to make the integration process very easy. The ListenUp crew integrated control of the MMS-5A into my existing Control4 system via IP, which worked seamlessly. Autonomic also offers the free Mirage Media Controller app for iOS and Android that allows you to use your tablet or smartphone to control the server over a network connection from anywhere in the house.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, Comparison and Competition, and the Conclusion . . .