May 9, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• By ReQuest, by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

By ReQuest, by Wes Phillips

John Atkinson has written about his experiences with music servers from Olive (the Symphony) and Slim Devices (the Squeezebox), so it may seem as if I'm coming late to the party when I write about Audio ReQuest.

Maybe I am—I'm not necessarily an early adopter, and I'm sure no computer whiz. In fact, to some extent I share an attitude I've seen expressed at's Vote section: I spend my day slaving away at a computer, and I'm not sure I want to deal with one in my "copious leisure hours."

Of course, that ignores the fact that sometimes I'm just plain stupid. Take this whole "spend my day slaving away at a computer" thing, for instance. My handwriting is indecipherable and my typing isn't much better. Before word-processing programs, spell-checks, and painless revisions, I wasn't really capable of being a writer—so, instead of saying I "slave" at a computer, it would be more accurate to say that the computer freed me to not only make a living, but to freely express myself.

Similarly, computers are an ideal way to organize a music collection and arrange it for playback. That's not to say that the whole computer-based approach to playback doesn't bring along its own complications, however.

Computers, even quiet computers, make noise. Drives whirr, fans spin, you get clicks—and then there's the business of choosing the right soundcard, setting up a network, and all that other geeky stuff. If you're into computers the way most of us are into hi-fi gear, that can be another fun part of the hobby. If you're not, it's another big turn-off.

Reading JA's account of the Olive Symphony, I realized that there's a new solution that falls somewhere between hi-fi component and computer peripheral: a component music server that links to both computer and hi-fi to offer the best of both worlds. So when John Reine, of ReQuest, Inc., mentioned that his company made high-end music servers, I figured I had to see if they could deliver the goods.

Reine arrived with a ReQuest F2.250 Audio Server ($3500) and an Elo Entuitive 1525/27L touchscreen ($650). While the touchscreen isn't essential, some form of display is. Reine explained that many customers incorporate the ReQuest into their total-home-automation systems and control it with a Crestron or other touchpad remote.

ReQuest makes several levels of server. The F series represents their current high-end option, with higher-quality audio output stages and a better DAC, not to mention digital output capabilities. The "2" after the F indicated that my audition sample was a two-zone unit, and the "250" indicated the size of its hot-swappable hard drive, which can hold approximately 250 CDs' worth of music in uncompressed WAV files (or 500 in FLAC, or 1000 in 320kbps MP3, or 3000 in 128kbps MP3).

The F2.250 is designed to go into a media closet or some other out-of-the-way location—it does have a fan—so Reine and I placed it next to my Apple PowerMac G5 in my office, connected to my WiFi system's Ethernet router. The demo sample had some music pre-loaded on it, but we transferred other tracks from my iTunes music library (more later). I also ripped individual discs with the F2.250's CD tray. This process was pretty painless, thanks to the ReQuest's open-source metadata lookup database, FreeDB, which proved surprisingly comprehensive. FreeDB tags all the tracks as the disc is ripped to the drive, which takes about three minutes. Because I'm an audiophile and wanted to see just how good ReQuest could be, I ripped everything to WAV or FLAC, which meant I traded drive space for quality—a trade I reckon most Stereophile readers would make.

The F2.250 comes with a handheld remote, but because I'd placed it in my office, not my living room, I needed a way to arrange playlists and make on-the-fly program changes from my listening chair. That was easy. I accessed ReQuest's support Web page from my iBook and downloaded Java Remote, which gave me complete control of the F2.250 from anywhere within my WiFi system.

I connected the F2.250 to my big rig both through its analog outputs and, via its digital output, to a Musical Fidelity X-DACV3. There wasn't a boatload of difference between ReQuest's beefed-up F-series DAC and the MF, so I ended up moving the MF to another room so I could connect it to my Apple AirPort Express, which benefited from it more (but that's another story).

A simple request
If, so far, this all sounds simple, thoughtless, and painless, well, it was and it wasn't. My rule of thumb is that I lose at least two days' work from any "simple" upgrade of a computer program. Adding the ReQuest introduced several new components to my system, not to mention adding the Java Remote program to my laptop. Still, it was all up and running within an hour, so I was ahead of the game. Even so, there were a few minor glitches.

The only glitch of any consequence was that all of the music on my main computer was in Apple's Lossless Codec, which didn't transfer as easily and intuitively from my PowerMac to the F2.250 as, apparently, any other music file would have. It turns out that ReQuest has done a lot of work on transferring files from their servers to an iPod, but are still working on seamless integration of two-way plug'n'play with all aspects of iTunes. John Reine says they'll complete that project by late spring.

So instead of simply moving a bunch of files from my Mac to the ReQuest, I had to rip a lot of CDs. Good thing I put the F2.250 next to my workstation—I could load 'em in while I was slaving away all day. The only other complaint I had—and I'm stretching here—is that FreeDB didn't always recognize my discs, though the ones that slipped through the cracks were mostly very-limited-release early music and baroque recordings. I shouldn't have been surprised, because those discs require you to type in a lot of information. I sometimes chose to not rip them—especially as the demo unit would be going back to ReQuest after the review. Typing in a lot of text on a touch-sensitive screen isn't my idea of a great time—although, in ReQuest's defense, I should say that you can remove the F2.250's front panel and plug in a USB keyboard for serious data insertion. But I had no problem finding more than 200 recordings that were in FreeDB's database—and neither will you.

Adding the ReQuest F2.250 server to my audio system—and to my computer system, for that matter—was less hassle than changing my WiFi hub from a LinkSys model to an AirPort Extreme Basestation, or adding the AirPort Express to my kitchen system, and both of those are supposed to be plug'n'play. So trust me when I say that the ReQuest was painless compared to almost anything else I've done involving computers in the last six months.

Prix fixe or à la carte
Once the ReQuest is loaded, the fun begins. You can choose to play your entire collection randomly, which is pretty much guaranteed to generate at least one buzz kill per day—either by harshing your mellow by following J.S. Bach with Metallica or by following "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" with "Für Elise." If you go the shuffle-play route, it's better to stick with a single artist or genre, although I find that either palls after a while.

As far as I'm concerned, the best part of music-management systems is creating brilliant playlists. That's something ReQuest allows you to do—and save. Want to craft the perfect three-hour lull-you-to-sleep program? Collect the songs, create the list—heck, you can even add to it as you develop the idea over time (or, for that matter, delete songs that don't work). I like hearing music while I cook, so I've come up with a bunch of playlists to accompany my forays into different cuisines, such as Cajun, Indian, Mexican, and Caribbean. Nothing works for kneading bread like reggae, and Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MG's are the perfect complement to prepping a batch of barbecue.

Now that's what I call home cooking.

Extra helpings
I didn't do any A/B comparisons of WAV and FLAC files, or even Vogg Orbis. I meant to, but I noticed little difference between those high-quality file formats. Well, I might have noticed a few, but nothing that seemed to matter. With all three, music was engrossing and I managed to have meaningful musical experiences, which was good enough for me. After all, I have my Ayre C-5xe universal player for critical listening, and the whole idea (for me, anyway) of a music server is to reduce hassle, not increase it.

The best thing about the ReQuest F2.250 was that it allowed me to listen to a lot more music than I normally listen to because it made the whole process simpler. Listening to the ReQuest didn't replace my "serious" listening sessions, in which I focus solely on the music and where it takes me—in fact, I could still do that with carefully considered music programs, which beats the heck out of coming back to earth and scrambling for the next selection. But the F2.250 also allowed me to listen to a variety of music when it wasn't critical to pay attention to it, but I didn't want radio or other "background" music.

More musical enjoyment is lagniappe.

Through both its digital output converted by the Musical Fidelity X-DACV3 and through its own analog outputs, the ReQuest F2.250 delivered full-bodied, musically satisfying, goosebump-producing, sit-back-with-a-big-ol'-grin listening pleasure. You know, the real thing—not watered-down, 3.2% music lite. That ain't too shabby.

When you consider that the F2.250 allowed me to store more than 200 of my favorite discs in a way that made them not only instantly accessible but endlessly reconfigurable, it gets even better. I loved the ReQuest F2.250 and definitely consider it worth adding to my system—although I'm starting to think that I might want the extra capacity of an F2.500 ($5000), which has a hard drive twice as big.

Or I might wait. John Reine has just announced an improved line of ReQuest servers: the S series, which has even better audio electronics, plus either 1TB or 1.5TB of drive capacity. Now we're talking selection!

Harmony 880 remote control "upgrade"
If you're a diehard hater of computers in the listening room, playlists are the way to go. When I first installed the ReQuest F2.250, my iBook was by my listening chair at all times. That wasn't so terrible—it's a remarkably quiet laptop—but once the novelty had worn off, I found I didn't need to access all of the F2.250's functions. All I really wanted was a skip-track feature, especially as I needed access to my preamp's remote and, occasionally, my universal player's remote (ReQuest doesn't play SACDs—yet).

That's where Harmony's 880 remote ($250) came in. The Harmony downloads the control codes you need from its Internet database and has a color LCD screen, which makes it simple to use in a dimly lit listening room. It allowed me to program all of my components into a single, simple-to-lose remote—and it even gave me a recharging/docking cradle to keep it in.

The Harmony 880 was also the answer to an audio reviewer's dreams. The constantly changing mélange of gear passing through my house means I have a constantly changing plethora of remotes, and am always trying to turn down the volume with the CD player's remote or trying to switch tracks with the preamp controller. If you have a single-manufacturer system, you won't need a product like the Harmony, but the more stuff you have, the more remotes you probably have—and that's a pain in the keister. Simple to use and as close to universal as these things come, the Harmony 880 was a godsend.

Evolution Series – New from Krell
Power and elegance characterize the Evolution Series. NINE state-of-the-art components bring the impeccable performance debuted in the Evolution One and Evolution Two to a potent, compelling new platform. Sources: Evolution 505 SACD / Evolution 525 Progressive DVD/SACD • Stereo Preamplifiers: Evolution 202 / 222 • Surround/Preamp Processor: Evolution 707 • Power Amplifiers: Evolution 402 Stereo / 403 Three-channel • Evolution 600 / 900 Monaural.
From Wes Phillips

Not weird, but I always wanted to know more about V-discs.

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at

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