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 . . .
The heart of any music server is its control and navigation experience, but nowhere is that more important than at the high end of the category where you're asking people to pay more for a better user experience. Autonomic offers a number of ways for you to interact with your music collection, and some stand out more than others.
The Mirage onscreen interface is clean, simple, and easy to navigate, but there's nothing especially striking or innovative about it. It's no Kaleidescape or Sooloos. Atop a multi-toned blue background sits main-menu options for Music, Favorites, and About. Within the Music folder, you can browse content by album, artist, genre, playlist, or radio - the latter is where you'll find access to all of the streaming services you enabled during setup. In my case, that meant Pandora and TuneIn Radio. During song playback, the GUI shows cover art to the left and track/album/artist info to the right. Track number, song time, and time of day are also displayed.
You can use the remote's menu button to move through levels within the menu structure, while the info button always takes you to the Now Playing page. The player responds quickly to remote commands as long as the remote is within adequate range (more in this in a second), and I was able to move through the menu layers very quickly.
The benefits of the MMS-5A's dedicated hard drive are that song playback begins immediately and you're not at the mercy of your broadband connection's reliability at any given moment to stream music. If your network should go down for any reason, your music collection is still accessible throughout the house, even if the streaming services are temporarily disabled.
Not everyone wants to use a display device when listening to music, which is when the other Mirage control and navigation options come into play. Honestly, this is where the Mirage system began to shine for me. I really liked the Mirage Media Controller iOS control app for my iPhone - much better than the onscreen display. It is laid out intuitively and mimics the design and user experience of the iPhone Music player, so users will already be familiar with the functionality. In particular, I like that you can jump to a certain letter when searching for a song, artist, album, genre, or composer - something you cannot do via the onscreen interface, where you'd actually have to scroll through your entire catalog to find an album that begins with W, for instance. The addition of full text search would be great, but the ability to jump to the starting letter is good enough. Plus, you can use the control app anywhere in the house to control any zone over the network, instead of being limited to the IR remote. I also auditioned the Android app, which is easy to navigate but doesn't let you search by letter as the iOS app does.
Autonomic also offers a Web controller that gives you direct access to all the tools you need in a clean, intuitive, single-screen interface. I used this controller a lot more than I initially thought I would. As someone who works from home and spends an awful lot of time with her laptop actually on her lap, it was often faster and easier for me to just open the Web controller to browse music than to go grab one of the other remote options.
As I mentioned above, ListenUp also integrated control of the Mirage server into my Control4 system. The Control4 onscreen menu adds a dedicated screen for the Autonomic server under its "Listen" menu, but I could also access the Mirage content and streaming services directly through the LCD screen on my SR-250 remote without needing a display device. Like the Mirage and Android GUIs, the Control4 interface did not allow me to jump to a certain letter, so I still preferred the iOS and Web controllers -- but the point is, I had numerous control options at my disposal based on what device was closest to me at any given moment, which is great for a whole-house music system where everyone can use a different control device in a different room.
One cool feature called TuneBridge allows you to better unite your stored and streaming content. Say you're listening to a Dave Matthews Band song in your library; hitting the TuneBridge button within the control app brings up the option to instantly create a Pandora station based on the artist or song, to add the artist or track to your favorites, or to save your most recent queue as a playlist. It's a simple concept that can organically expose you to new music and flesh out your Mirage library.
The sound quality of the Mirage's digital/USB audio will be dictated by the quality of your external components. The MMS-5A uses the Realtek ALC892 processor with a 24-bit/192-kHz DAC for the stereo analog outputs, but I did not use these outputs. I will say that having a hi-res-capable server in the house inspired me to finally start exploring the hi-res audio realm, an area I have admittedly avoided because it just seemed complicated and expensive to add devices like USB DACs and special computer playback software (I confess, I'm just your average iTunes user most of the time). The Mirage server made it so easy to seamlessly add hi-res audio support to my existing setup, and I've thoroughly enjoyed settling in with some great-sounding new music. Beck's new Morning Phase album has become one of my new faves; the HDTracks 24/96 download just sounds fantastic, and the Mirage has encouraged me to spend more time enjoying music in my home theater, which is the ultimate goal after all.
For the most part, playback was reliable, but there were a couple instances when I would try to switch to a new song while another was playing and the new song would play simultaneously over the old one. I had to stop playback completely and start again.
The supplied IR remote was my least favorite control option. It feels like an afterthought, thrown in so you'd still be able to control the system if your network or whole-house control system were to crash. The remote has limited range and a very narrow IR window; I basically had to be in a straight line to the MMS-5A's IR sensor to get the player to respond. Plus, the inability to enter text or jump to a certain letter in your library can make for a frustrating browsing experience. At least the GUI scrolls very quickly through your library, but anyone who has amassed a huge music collection will grow weary of this quickly.
I saw no way to access TuneBridge directly through the onscreen interface. It was easily accessible through the iOS, Android, Control4, and Web controllers but not directly through the onscreen menu -- another reason to embrace the other control methods.
The lack of a disc drive means you can't just pop in a CD to listen or rip to your collection. The Mirage system requires a broadband connection and thus is not a good choice for someone who doesn't have one. This is the direction most music servers are going these days, so it's no surprise here.
The lack of integrated WiFi means you have to hardwire the server to your router or switch. This was a non-issue for me, as my Apple Time Machine sits right below my gear rack. Others may not be so lucky. Yes, Ethernet makes for the most reliable connection, but it's not as convenient for some.
I have yet to see a hi-res player that lets you go out to a site like HDTracks over the network connection and purchase content to be downloaded directly to the hard drive, bypassing the computer entirely. Hopefully such a feature is coming soon.
Comparison and Competition
Let's not beat around the bush. If viewed solely as a hi-res music player, the $4,250 MMS-5A is very expensive. However, you need to factor in its whole-house focus; the six-stream, 96-zone output capability and integrated control drivers distinguish it from other players in the category and give it a unique position and value propostion. The three-stream MMS-2A, at $1,995, is more competitively priced with other new hi-res players - such as Sony's $1,999 HAP-Z1ES server that has a 1TB server, built-in WiFi, and DSD support, but it lacks multi-stream capability, integrated control drivers, and digital outputs.
Of course, Kaleidescape is the marquee name in the high-end server realm. The Cinema One has a 4TB server and costs $3,995, but it's really a movie server first and music server second. It's a single-room solution that currently lacks support for hi-res audio (beyond Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA) and all the streaming services that the Mirage includes. Kaleidescape's custom-oriented whole-house media server systems carry much higher price tags.
Meridian's Media Core music servers use the aforementioned and well-regarded Sooloos interface. The lowest-priced Media Core 200 with a 500GB hard drive carries an MSRP around $4,000.
Naim offers the UnitiServe 2TB hi-res audio player for $3,695 to $3,995, depending on configuration.
Back when I reviewed the Kaleidescape Cinema One movie server, I asked whether there's a place for a dedicated high-end server in today's DIY world where there are so many lower-priced ways to store, stream, and play digital files. The same question and my same answer apply to Autonomic's Mirage MMS-5A and its little brother, the MMS-2A. Just because you can assemble your own hi-res-capable music server and whole-house setup doesn't mean that everyone wants to. The DIYer may take great pleasure in mixing and matching to create a great system on the cheap, but there's also an audience of more affluent music lovers who are not at all interested in peaking behind the curtain. They just want a clean, easy solution for accessing better-sounding music all around the house, and they're willing to pay someone else to make it happen.
For those who have the means, the Mirage music players can deliver high-quality audio and a diverse selection of streaming services in a simple, intuitive fashion, through a variety of control options. Clearly the MMS-5A is targeted specifically at the higher-end client who wants robust whole-house capabilities. For those of us with more modest needs, the $1,995 MMS-2A is the more competitively priced choice and still delivers 24/96 audio and three independently controlled streams for whole-house distribution. Autonomic also sells package deals that bundle either music player with amplifiers and in-wall keypads.
If you're intrigued by the thought of hi-res audio but fear its complexity, then a professionally installed hard-drive-based product like the Autonomic Mirage music player is definitely a good place to begin your search, and I think you'll like what you find.