Ironically, given Arcam’s sterling record for audio-engineering prowess, it is computer technology that defines the firm’s new MS250 music server. Silicon, software, hard drives, and Internet connectivity share top honors for the product’s supreme versatility, overall ease of use, and potent sonic edge over traditional digital front ends. And those same elements share culpability for the MS250’s current shortcomings.
The latter fall into two categories: minor ergonomic bloopers and features that are not yet fully baked. Let’s first examine the bloopers. Because the MS250 not only plays CDs but can store them, burn them, catalogue them, and retrieve inventoried tracks according to various criteria—not to mention offering Internet radio access, the ability to digitally archive analog material, and four listening zones—its user interface is necessarily more complex than that of a basic CD player. Arcam has sorted out this expansive functionality via the triedand- true computer paradigm of menus and sub-menus. Yet while the MS250’s implementation of that structure is admirably straightforward and intuitive, it also needlessly discards some of the oldfashioned CD player’s elegant simplicity. For instance, consider the user who would like to play the sixth track of an album residing on the MS250’s hard drive. The Arcam presents logically organized menus allowing selection first of music within the stored library, then of albums, then of the desired album. At this point, playing the sixth track should involve nothing more than pressing “6” on the remote, as you would with any CD player. Unfortunately, that action has no effect. Instead, the menu-bound server compels you to scroll through the track list until the desired title is highlighted, then select it. The old way was better!
And, while I’m ranting, what’s the use of fast-forward and fast-reverse buttons that offer no audible clues as to where you are in the music? This bit of ergonomic regression, which calls to mind a cassette deck, makes finding a spot within a track pure guesswork.
As for features that need more development, one offender is the MS250’s digital archiving of analog material, such as LPs. Though an appealing concept, this server makes the capability impractical to use. The reason is that the MS250 is set up to store just one track (or LP cut) at a time, making the prospect of archiving one’s record collection daunting in the extreme. This is a real shame because the digital copies themselves are pristine; in my brief tests they were virtually indistinguishable from the original. To fulfill the feature’s promise, Arcam needs to borrow a few tricks from standard-issue CD recorders, which can swallow an LP side whole and either detect the silences between tracks or allow the user to create track markers after the fact.
Another important oversight is the lack of a lossless compression scheme.The MS250 offers a choice of several variants of MP3 encoding—all of which selectively discard bits and fidelity—or uncompressed storage. The latter will be the preferred mode for serious audiophiles, but choosing it limits even the enormous 400- gigabyte drive to about 650 CDs. Very likely, that is insufficient for many users. A lossless compression format, such as FLAC, would increase storage capacity by about 25–40% without any compromise in sound quality. (The MS250’s storage can be increased by adding an external hard drive.)
Notice that most, if not all, of these faux pas and omissions are matters of software or firmware. And being a computer-based product, the MS250 has abundant means—downloads, disk-based updates, firmware swaps— of quickly enhancing features and achieving ergonomic Nirvana. I hope that Arcam will aggressively do so.
Once I became familiar with the MS250’s operation and began serious listening, I was at first impressed but at the same time slightly let down. The sound was undeniably high caliber, but frankly I expected even more given the superb parts Arcam showered on this unit. The server boasts the latest Crystal DACs, a Wolfson ADC, Wima caps, and equally-upscale op-amps and clocks. My initial grousing revolved around the MS250’s distant spatial perspective and cool tonal balance. Instruments lacked sufficient body and there seemed to be large, empty gaps between them.
However, it turns out that the computer-oriented nature of the MS250, complete with a gyrating hard drive and gobs of electronic noise, means that it reaps outsize benefits from tweaks aimed at cleaning up vibration and power. Regarding the former, Arcam has worked its FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) magic on the MS250, but that’s not enough. Perching the unit atop a trio of Goldmund Cones made for a major improvement, adding needed richness and immediacy, filling in spaces, and fleshing out dynamics. Routing AC through a Price Wheeler Brick Wall PW8R15AUD power filter/ surge suppressor (highly recommended) was at least as significant. Doing so further improved all the aforementioned parameters, and also rounded out rough edges, giving the sound a far more relaxed quality.