Once errant vibrations and noisy power have been slain, the MS250 spins out truly glorious music. Its rendition of the delicate first movement of Dvorák’s “Octet-Serenade” from Serenades from Bohemia [Praga], for example, is every bit as rewarding as the same track played on my many-times-more-expensive reference player. Every dynamic inflection is in place, and the subtle interplay of rhythms is undiminished compared to the reference. The only things the Arcam gives up are a smidgen of tonal lushness, a drop of air, and a slightly more continuous sense of space. Compensating for these, the Arcam actually betters my reference in noise level; it is quieter overall, and lacks the reference’s propensity to add some artificial excitement—actually a form of distortion—to the sound. Other, more raucous tracks, such as “Fill Me Up” from Shawn Colvin’s fine new These Four Walls CD [Nonesuch], demonstrate that the MS250’s bass is beefier and more incisive than that of the reference.
Mind you, these comparisons are all between the reference player and the Arcam playing from its hard drive rather than its CD drawer. Used as a CD player, the MS250 sounds very good, to be sure—but not as good as playing from the hard drive. Since everything else in the sonic chain is the same, this finding validates the view that, for a variety of technical reasons, hard drives make superior transports. How superior? When playing CDs, the Arcam displays some of the false energy that also characterizes the reference player, and there is a uniformly higher noise level that manifests itself as excess sibilance in vocals and a subtle layer of electronic sludge over other instruments. Dynamics are slightly compressed as well. All these drawbacks disappear when the same music is played from the hard drive.
Clearly, then, the best way to enjoy a CD on the MS250 is to first rip the disc to the hard drive, then play the stored version. But I wouldn’t suggest performing those two operations at once, as both the manual and a dedicated button on the remote invite you to do. The normal whir of the server’s internal drive is a little louder than I’d like, but is not obtrusive when playing music. However, when storing a CD, the drive spools up to jet-takeoff speeds, and the resulting whoosh will obscure anything more delicate than Nine Inch Nails. My advice: Wait the five minutes it takes to rip a disc (in uncompressed format) before engaging in serious listening.
Without a reference player close at hand to point up incredibly minor distinctions, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with the sound of the MS250, especially when the source material resides on its hard drive. This music server handily equals or exceeds the performance of CD players near its price range, and, of course, the MS250 is much more than a mere CD player. If Arcam can add a touch more convenience to its features and functionality, the MS250 will be an unqualified success. Sonically, it already is.