The "Hifidelio" music server

I usually don't do product reviews, but I'll make an exception in this case as I'm very pleased with this device and I think it deserves wider recognition.
Product photo

 

Motivation

With music, as with many other things, I'm old-fashioned. I still have the same amplifier and speakers I bought when I was a student. They're probably not what you'd call "high-end", but I think they're very good and I enjoy listening to good music with an appropriate sound quality. I don't have an iPod or any other MP3 device (except for the players in our family's cars), I don't buy music on iTunes or hang around in file sharing networks, and I still mostly listen to CDs (the real ones that you buy in a store) and (gasp!) LPs. The most "advanced" part of my audio equipment is a CD-R/RW recorder (a Denon CDR-W1500, no longer in production) that I bought several years ago to digitize some of my LPs.

However, with almost 1,500 CDs and more than 500 LPs it was getting more and more of a nuisance to store all this stuff in such a way that old albums are easy to find while new ones can be added quickly. (If you think I'm exaggerating, you should probably wait until you have a real job and a family.) So, some time ago, I started to think that it would be nice to have at least a significant part of my music collection stored on the hard disk of some server that could be controlled from the laptop I'm working at while the music would still be played through my trusty old amp and speakers.

I could have done this myself by building something suitable from off-the-shelf hardware and hacking the software I needed based on a Linux server. Or maybe I could have bought a Mac mini and used Apple's software. But while this (especially the first solution) would have given me the warm and fuzzy feeling of complete control, I don't really have enough time for such endeavours. Not to mention that I'm working with computers all day and I really don't need another one that wants to be administered by me.

So, I looked around for pre-built solutions I could simply add to my hi-fi system. I certainly didn't look at everything that's available in this category, but the devices I saw (for example the one from Marantz) seemed pretty overpriced and lacking in features to me. Until, more or less by chance, I came across the Hifidelio server manufactured by a small German company. When I saw the description, it seemed to me as if the Hifidelio had everything I deemed important and the price was also pretty reasonable. Luckily, my local hi-fi dealer had one available and gave it to me for a couple of days so I could try it out myself and didn't have to buy a pig in a poke. I was sold after the first day and kept it.
 

What's good

I'm not going to describe every feature or provide an exhaustive test here, I'll just cherry-pick some things I particularly like.

Design

The Hifidelio's exterior fits nicely with the rest of my hi-fi components. It doesn't look as spiffy and elegant as some of the real expensive stuff, but then again it isn't expensive, so that's OK.

Network

Setting the machine up and connecting it to our local WLAN (802.11g) was easy and painless. It also has four Ethernet jacks which are connected to the Wifi access point via an internal router. You can integrate the Hifidelio into an existing network as well as set it up as a server for its own network. In short, they got networking right.

Gapless play

Yes, it can do that (unless it's busy). I have a lot of live recordings and albums where songs segue into each other and I'm always annoyed if my car MP3 players make these dramatic pauses between tracks.

User interface

One the one hand, the user interface seems simple and intuitive enough for non-technical users. On the other hand, if you dig deeper into the menus, there are tons of detailed settings you can (and sometimes want to) tweak. Looks like a good compromise to me.

Open architecture

Given that this is a commercial and in a way proprietary product, it is remarkable how open it is. It is based on Linux and you can even telnet into the machine's root account and hack away.

Formats

When ripping CDs, you can encode to AIFF, WAV, FLAC, or MP3 in various bit rates. You can also import music in any of these formats as well as AAC and Ogg Vorbis. (Importing means that the Hifidelio acts as an SMB server to which you can transfer files.) And you can even play MP3 DVDs...

Updates

After I had unpacked the machine and ripped my first CD, I wanted to try out the web frontend and I was pretty disappointed at first. It looked very lame and you could only poke around in the music database - that was it. Luckily, I checked whether software updates where available and installed them. And suddenly I had a pretty spiffy AJAX-based web frontend that can control almost every aspect of the Hifidelio and, as an alternative, a GUI application exported via VNC that completely mimics the device's front panel. Which to me also shows that the company is taking updates seriously - they have released them on a regular basis in the last years and they not only use them to fix bugs but also to add completely new features.

Analog recordings

The Hifidelio offers a convenient way to record analog music like LPs. After I had ripped most of my CDs, I started working on my LP collection, and overall this is a pretty painless process - but see below. Luckily, I'm working at home most of the time, so usually during the day I record a couple of LPs, and in the evening I sit down with a headphone and cut and edit these recordings. This is certainly more work than archiving your CDs, but in a way with a much higher reward as - once you've done it - you have all your old LPs available digitally and can play individual songs with one keypress like with any CD.

Other things

Things I haven't done yet but which are available and top off the overall good impression:

Forum

There's a good Hifidelio user forum at hifidelio-user.de where you'll most likely find answers to your questions (if you have any). The forum isn't officially endorsed by Hifidelio, but some of their hackers seem to be regulars. The main language of the forum is German, but it seems to be fine to post English questions as well.
 

What's not so good

Some things which are slightly irritating but wouldn't prevent me from buying the Hifidelio again.

Slow ripping

Ripping a CD with the Hifidelio is a two-step process in which the tracks are first extracted from the CD in AIFF format and then converted into the final format (MP3 by default) in a background job. That's kind of clever as you can feed it a lot more CDs that way, but the background process seems to run at a pretty low priority - after I had ripped about three dozens of CDs on my first day, the Hifidelio was still converting when I looked at it again the next morning. Probably not a big issue anymore once you've ripped the lion's share of your CDs, but while you're at it, it is a nuisance. And for some other reason as well: you can't reliably start editing all the song titles, album titles, and artist names freedb got wrong, while the Hifidelio is still converting - it can get confused and put things in the wrong places. Seems their algorithm could use some improvement. (The best workaround is to edit the CD after it has been inserted and before you rip it. You can also save the edit information, so that the CD will be displayed correctly the next time you insert it.)

Erroneous imports

I've seen quite a few song titles that were a lot too short, like one word instead of four or sometimes even just one character instead of a whole word. I know that there are myriads of typos in the freedb database (is it really so hard to proof-read ten lines of text before you submit them?), but I'm pretty sure that what I saw was due to glitches in the routine that retrieved the data over the Internet.

The CD drive

It's a slot-in drive, and I don't like that. It makes me nervous because you're at the mercy of your appliance once the CD has disappeared. And some CDs aren't ejected completely so that you're forced to touch the rear side to pull them out. The CD player also has severe problems with CDs with a black or dark front side. For example, it completely refused to accept "Civilization Phaze III" from Frank Zappa or "Crisis" from Defunkt.

Update: After having ripped several hundred CDs I have to say that the drive is a bit annoying. It pretty often (my estimate would be one out of thirty) fails to read a CD other players or my laptop don't have a problem with. Furthermore, when it hangs trying to read such a CD, there's no way to eject it other than power-cycling the whole device. That's really a PITA!

Editing analog recordings

Editing analog recordings works quite nicely and doesn't take up too much time, but the process could still be improved IMHO. For example, the visual feedback when adjusting the recording volume is not very helpful, and it is a bit hard to cut tracks that have only very small pauses (or none at all) between them. I hope that this will be improved in the future.

The Hifidelio website

Not exactly a reason to buy or not to buy the Hifidelio, but I personally think that the website looks really cheap and ugly. Maybe I'm corrupted because I worked for an advertising agency in the nineties, but I think they're shooting themselves in the foot. I'm pretty sure that typical hi-fi customers expect something a bit more classy.
 

Wish list

What I want from Hifidelio. (Are you reading?)

Upgrade path

In the future, they should provide some upgrade path where you can replace your hard drive with a larger one without losing your data and without having to buy a new device. Alternatively, there should be a way to attach an external drive and use it as a "transparent" extension. (Yes, 160GB aren't enough for me, I'm afraid.)

USB ports

It would have been nice if they had located one of the USB ports in the front panel.

Front panel

The front panel display is switched off if you haven't pressed a key for a while. That's good. However, it is switched on again as soon as you do something via the VNC client. That shouldn't happen.

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