Component Reviews

Digital Techniques Blackbird 160A Digital Music Player

160GB hard drive handles both data-reduced and WAV, FLAC etc. unreduced audio files and communicates with wired or Ethernet connections

Published on May 31, 2005

Digital Techniques Blackbird 160A Digital Music Player
$799 SRP

Digital Techniques
13500 Watertown Plank Rd.
Elm Grove, WI 53122
262-860-1000 (voice)
262-860-0199 (fax)
http://www.digitaltechniques.com/

Basic Description

Digital Music player with 160 GB hard drive to store music in mp3,
mp3pro, OGG, WAV, or FLAC format; utilizes M-Audio 2496 Soundcard; RCA
analog audio outputs and coaxial digital output; works via hard-wired
Ethernet or wireless connection; control via web browser from
hard-wired, wireless, or portable (PDA or laptop) computer; Internet
Radio playback; song, title, artist, genre organization; song search
capability; four methods of file transfer: FTP, drag and drop, virtual
drive, USB direct; Windows, Mac, Linux compatible; external power
supply; 7629 song lossless storage via FLAC (assuming 4 minutes songs);
11.5” W x 2.5” H x 10.75” D.

Associated Equipment

Martin Logan Stylos speakers, Meridian 568 Preamplifier, Mark Levinson
No. 29 Amplifier, PC using Windows, Discovery, Audioquest, River Cable
cabling.

Setup & Installation

blackbird main 
The Blackbird comes in four different versions.  There is an 80 or
160 GB version that utilizes a SoundBlaster card for audio output ($499
and $599 respectively), and a larger 300 GB version ($899) in addition
to this unit that uses the same M-Audio 2496 card used in the Blackbird
under review.  The 160A came with a little plastic support stand,
so if desired the Blackbird can be arranged vertically.

Connection.  The first thing I did with the Blackbird was open the
quickstart guide—basically a leaflet.  There are only three steps:
plug it in (2 connections + power), open the browser window on your
computer, and type the address of the unit—that’s it.  And it went
as smooth as it seems.  This brings you to the main selection
menu.  From here you can select “Settings” and read the online
user guide that describes full operation, options, etc.  The first
thing I wanted to do was load some music onto the device.  Unlike
other hard disk recorders that allow you load a CD directly into the
unit, the Blackbird only lets you transfer music that is stored on a
computer or separate USB external drive/stick.  This is one of the
prime differences between the Blackbird and other hard disk storage
devices.

autoplaydrag and drop

Loading Music.  There are four ways to load music onto the
Blackbird.  The first works directly through the computer browser
and requires a Java applet.  (It will prompt you to automatically
load what you need.)  If you go this route you can drag and drop
music from your computer right into the Blackbird.  I chose option
#2—make the Blackbird a network drive and drop files directly onto the
drive without using the Blackbird browser interface.  The
directions show a single backslash, but I needed two to make it
work.  Once you restart the browser for the Blackbird the new
files show up.  The third option is to use FTP file
transfer.  The fourth involves using a USB flash drive.  You
can plug the drive directly into the Blackbird and download songs from
it.

Audio Settings.  In the Installation section of the User
Guide there is an explanation of the audio settings.  The unit
supports both analog and digital audio.  The soundcard normally
comes with a breakout adapter that has a coaxial digital output on
it.  This adapter was missing from my review sample, so I used the
coaxial digital output that is hard-wired directly on the unit. 
It was necessary to select the “mainboard digital” option from the menu
to activate this output.  >From my reading of the manual, it
seems that the output with the adapter would be on regardless although
I was unable to test this.  Unfortunately, radio stations and mp3
files worked fine through it, but WAV files only worked through the
analog outputs.  Even though I had selected the digital output,
the analog outputs still worked.  I assumed this problem was
specific to my review sample.  It was necessary to stop the stream
and restart for the setting change to take effect.

Upgrades.  The unit supports software upgrades, but there
are tons of warnings about doing the upgrade.  You could lose your
all your music files and even destroy the control software if you make
a mistake.  This was enough to ward me off from trying it.

Operation

Once I had a few hundred songs loaded into the machine (which took only
a few minutes), I was ready to start listening to music.  I sat
down at the computer in my office, opened the browser, and clicked
“Artists.”  The main screen looks very plain with seven choices
that are large, blue, and underlined.  The interface is simple and
may put off some users who are used to more pizzazz (like iTunes or
Windows Media Player).  Immediately the user is taken to a screen
with buttons at the top indicating home, stop, mute, playlist, and
skip.  There is also a way to quickly jump to: song list, artist
list, genres, playlist selection, or Internet Radio.

I clicked on a Tori Amos song and sure enough I heard music playing in
the other room.  I queued up a couple of songs which is as simple
as clicking the letter “Q” next to the song.  The Blackbird
automatically creates a playlist and you can then delete or rearrange
songs on the list.  You can save the playlist if you choose
to.  If you want you can choose another song to play instantly and
the change will happen within a second or two.

If you click on a song you can get information including: title,
artist, album, genre, year, track name, file location, and file date if
available.  This was fine with mp3 titles that had the information
imbedded in the file, but for WAV files it was useless.  It did
have the title of the track and file date and location, but no other
information.  More importantly, there was no way to add this
information unlike other hard disk recorders that offer this option.

The Blackbird had 558 Internet radio stations already preset.  If
a station is not listed, then you can input the URL and add it to the
list.  Some stations were dead links and did not play
anything.  Unfortunately, there is no way to easily search or view
the stations in categories.  You have to look through the entire
list to find something of interest and then you can play it or add it
to your list of favorites.  If you click on the radio station then
it brings up whatever information is available about that station, but
when you go back you are at the start of the list again and have to
surf down to find the last place you left off.  I could not figure
out how to delete a song from the list of favorites once it was
added.  If you are familiar with Media player (for instance), then
you will be disappointed in the difficulty in finding stations of
interest with the Blackbird.

Sound Quality and Audio Codecs

The M-Audio 2496 is not a new soundcard.  There are probably
hundreds of reviews of it online.  I bought one back in 2001 (for
$150) to use in my HTPC (Home Theater PC), because it was considered to
be one of the better cards.  At the time, the SoundBlasters didn’t
have a conventional digital output and I needed this for an easy
connection to a surround processor.  Another advantage of the
M-Audio card was that it didn’t resample the audio, so that data coming
in at 44.1 kHz went out at that same rate.  These days, if the
only purpose of the soundcard is for digital output there are many
cards based on the Envy chipset (like Chaintech and Maddog) that sell
for under $40.  These cards offer very good analog audio as well
(from what I’ve read).  At the higher end are professional audio
cards that typically sell for a few hundred dollars and up.  These
cards are considered to be clearly superior for analog audio operations
(like those from RME and Lynx).

Relative to a typical audio component, the analog output quality of the
unit is going to compare with a CD player in the $500-$700 range (or
so).  This is fairly competitive with the quality of most of the
hard disk recorder units I’ve had the opportunity to hear.  If you
intend to use the digital output, then the quality will be mostly
dependent on the DAC you decide to use—either and external product, or
the DACs inside the preamplifer/processor/receiver, etc.

The Blackbird supports lossless and uncompressed WAV which is the
standard format used on CDs.  This gives the best quality sound,
but also uses the most space.  Next in the line of choices is
FLAC.  As opposed to just straight “ripping” music from a CD to
the computer, you’ll have to encode the material in the FLAC (Free
Lossless Audio Codec) format.  FLAC is lossless so no information
is tossed out, but it does use compression, so file size is
reduced.  This can be anywhere from a 30-70% reduction.  OGG
would be the next choice.  It appears to offer better quality than
mp3 for any given file size.  It is lossy, so you can set the
quality setting to determine what level of loss is acceptable when
encoding.  Mp3 and the newer mp3pro are supported and are probably
the most common types of music files that people have—the Blackbird
supports them both.

The Blackbird does not support AAC, WMA, or RM files.  AAC is
commonly used in the Apple iPod, and WMA is integrated into Windows
Media Player.  A friend let me borrow an external hard drive that
contains most of his music collection.  It plugs right into the
USB port on my computer, but almost all the music and comedy tracks he
has are stored in the WMA format.  They are about 1/10th the size
of the WAV version and sound very good.  I was not able to listen
to any of these files through the Blackbird.

For those looking to start a collection for the Blackbird from scratch,
I would recommend either FLAC or OGG as these would offer either a
completely unreduced sample of the music recorded, or the best
“reduced” quality sample.  Here is a comparison on the OGG website
for those interested in doing some audio comparisons: Codec Comparison
Tests.

Music Player Hardware Alternatives

There are three different categories of product that come to mind that
share some of the qualities of the Blackbird, but not in their
entirety. 

The first, cheapest category is a computer media device.  Its
purpose is to interface with a computer or network and retrieve its
data/music from them.  This means that your computer must be on at
all times, and the device will stream music from it.  This can
reduce computer performance slightly, and these components require a
connection to a TV, use of a remote control, or lack the ability to see
the entire library of music easily.  Three devices that come to
mind are the Slim Devices Squeezebox ($250-$300), the Roku Labs M500
($200), or the D-Link DSM-320 ($190).  The advantages that the
Blackbird offers over these pieces are: built-in storage without the
need to stream music, computer control via laptop or PDA, software that
is resident and stable on the unit itself, and likely better (analog)
audio performance from the analog outputs due to the superior audio
card.

The second category is a computer itself.  It’s typically bigger
and noisier, and its audio quality will depend on sound card
choice.  The fans in the Blackbird were so quiet that they weren’t
worth mentioning.  Arguably, you can buy a computer for very
little these days (<$500), and you will need one to control the
Blackbird anyhow.  If desired you could upgrade the sound card to
whatever level of quality was desired.  The drawback will be the
need to be somewhat computer savvy to set up the network so that a
computer in a remote location can be the audio source (if
desired).  Also, software will need to be selected that can
provide reliable performance and flexibility for cataloging music,
generating playlists, and easy use.  The typical advantages the
Blackbird has over the computer are: size, noise level, reliable
software, easy connection and setup.

The third category is a conventional hard disk recorder like a product
from Escient, Audio Request, Imerge, or one of the few reviewed on this
website.  The aforementioned are over $2000.  There used to
be more offerings in the sub-$1000 area, but most of the machines have
small hard drives or have been eliminated from the product
lineups.  These products are designed to easily integrate with and
audio/video system, have a more elaborate interface, have a built-in CD
player that can rip the music directly, and don’t require a TV/computer
for operation.  They also cost much more than the Blackbird and
for the person who already has music on a computer (or likes to rip
music at the computer) don’t really offer a large advantage (unless you
find the computer control a hardship).  Another option these days
is a portable unit.  The iPod is only a few hundred dollars, but
most people complain about the audio quality direct from the unit’s
outputs, there is no Internet Radio, and control is more limited.

Conclusion

Most of the time, writing the conclusion for a product is a simple
matter.  The Blackbird proves to be a little different in that it
can not be directly compared to another “similar” unit to determine if
it is a good value or not.  The big question is:  Does it
make sense? 

Its advantages are: small size, quiet operation, basically plug and
play (if you already have music in a supported type on a computer on
the network), on-board storage, Internet Radio capability, rock-solid
software, and easy control via a computer and for transferring music.

Its limitations are: cheaper options (if on-board storage is not a
concern), no way to label any files once imported, no WMA or AAC
support, no direct interface, no direct video output, no included
remote control, no display directly on the unit, no CD drive to rip
music, exclusive computer control so you have to have a computer turned
on somewhere, and no search/find feature with the radio stations.

If conventional hard disk recorders seem too expensive, you like the
idea of computer control, but don’t want to mess with normal computer
software, and like the fact that storage is in the device itself, then
the Blackbird may make sense as a music player option.  If not,
then one of the other devices will be the way to go.

Brian Bloom

big_brian_b@hotmail.com




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