Bridging the divide between appliance-like consumer electronics and more-flexible computers has been a challenge. As soon as I had a computer and a stereo, I ran the analog line output from my soundcard so I could listen to MP3s and Internet Radio stations in all their low-bit-rate awfulness. Even as the quality of computer audio sources has improved, there are several things about computers that make them largely inappropriate for the listening room: noise, startup/resume time, the need for ongoing maintenance, power consumption, the quality of the analog audio circuitry, and user interface, to name a few. At the same time, consumer electronics may be missing support for the newest codecs and services. This can be mitigated to some degree by firmware updates, but the customer is depending on companies that want to sell new hardware to devote resources to keeping their old hardware up to date. As high-resolution audio switches inexorably to file-based delivery, mating the flexibility of the computer with the usability of the appliance becomes critical.
Into the fray step embedded systems. Whereas the general-purpose computer is able to run arbitrary code to perform a variety of functions, an embedded system is designed from the outset to do a specific task. Hardware choices will be made with that task in mind, often reducing the technical specifications far below what a contemporary, general-purpose computer would require. Windows, Linux, and BSD are three general-purpose computer operating systems for which there are embedded versions that are customized to perform certain functions. (My MiTac Mio GPS runs Windows, my Amazon Kindle e-reader runs Linux, and my Panasonic TV runs BSD.) This removes the need for a vendor to create and support a brand-new operating system to build their appliance. Properly implemented, embedded operating systems can form a solid basis for home audio gear.
Traditionally, some vendors of these types of solutions have limited themselves to delivering music from local (i.e., attached to the box) and LAN sources, while others focus on Internet services. Since its founding in 2005, Autonomic Controls, based in Armonk, New York, has supplied the custom-installation market with digital music sources, the earliest of which, they point out, they still support with updates. The company’s Mirage line of media servers gather together digital music from local, LAN, and cloud (Internet) sources. In fact, the Mirage MMS•5A is billed as "the world’s first cloud-based media server." That’s not to say that use of the cloud is mandatory; it’s simply another option.
The two models in the Mirage line, the MMS•5A ($4250 USD) and the MMS•2 ($1995), differ in connectivity, DAC chips, and amount of hard-disk storage. The MMS•2 provides one pair of analog outputs and a TosLink optical output, whereas the MMS•5A offers four pairs of analog outputs, a coaxial digital output, and supports USB DACs. In addition, the MMS•5A’s internal ALC892 DAC supports 24-bit/192kHz vs. the 24/96 of the MMS•2’s ALC662 DAC, and has twice the storage capacity at 1TB. Each server comes with a two-year warranty on parts and labor, and purchasers can expect firmware updates for even longer.
What is it?
My review sample of the Mirage MMS•5A came wrapped in a blue-cloth bag and double-boxed. It’s nice-looking -- a 1U, rack-mountable, tapered black box measuring 17"W x 1.7"H x 10"D and weighing about 9 pounds. There are two USB 3 and two USB 2 ports, and one e-SATA port for external storage. The various audio outputs can be configured for multiroom systems to simultaneously play up to six (counting coaxial and USB) independent and renamable audiostreams. The four analog outputs rely on an onboard Realtek HD DAC. Digital output from the coaxial port is selectable at the sample rates 44.1, 48, 96, and 192kHz, at either 16 or 24 bit rates. Selecting a sample rate converts all output to that rate. The very common sample rate of 88.2kHz is not selectable as an output rate, even though the ALC892 datasheet lists it. Video output is provided for album/track details, cover art, and displaying a slide show via HDMI and DVI. However, using the device with a display is not mandatory, and the device does not support playback of video files. Autonomic is accustomed to serving the integrator market; the Mirage offers both RS-232 and IP control, and control interfaces that make the Mirage a turnkey solution when used with the leading providers, including AMX, Control4, and Crestron, RTI and URC, along with a well-documented API for custom applications. The Mirage connects to the network, and thence to the Internet, via a wired gigabit connection; there is no wireless connectivity.
Inside the MMS•5A is a 1TB hard drive on which music and slideshow photos can be stored. There’s a quiet fan (actually, two fans: case and an on-processor heatsink fan), and power is supplied by an external brick, thus removing a source of heat from the chassis. The Mirage was quieter than my computer. While I could hear the fan, when music was playing the fan did not distract. The MMS•5A is claimed to continuously draw 25W (compare to my PC’s measured 36W at idle, with fans holding the CPU cores at 26°C), unless shut down by pressing the Power button on its faceplate. As the remote control has no Power button, it’s best to leave the Mirage on. Built on Windows Embedded Standard 7 (WS7E), the Mirage can use Windows drivers, and its comprehensive codec support includes FLAC, MP3, WMA, and M4A.
The cloud services supported by the Mirage are Last.fm, Pandora, Rhapsody, Sirius XM, TuneIn, Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon Cloud Drive. Notably missing from that list are MOG, Rdio, Napster, and Google Music. As these services are implemented via firmware, more can be added later. (The next promised to be added is Napster Europe.) During the time I was evaluating the Mirage, two firmware updates arrived, so it does appear as if there will be ongoing support.
Turning to the local network, the Mirage supports Apple’s AirPlay implementation of DLNA, access to network storage, and PC/Mac synchronization software. Conveniently, the MMS•5A mounts as a Windows fileshare, so I was able to drop my recent downloads onto its internal hard drive easily from my PC. You could even set that folder as your download manager target. I was even able to browse to that share and play a FLAC from it using my Android device. In this way, one could centralize music storage on the Mirage. According to the Intel NAS Performance Toolkit’s Exerciser, the Mirage’s performance as a file server was excellent; it fully saturated a 100Mbps network, and achieved nearly 900Mbps when attached to my gigabit switch. A 24/192 two-channel audio file should require substantially less than 10Mbps, so 100Mbps should be sufficient, even accounting for network congestion, latency, and inconsistent throughput.
The MMS•5A comes with many accessories, including four Monoprice RCA interconnects, one digital coaxial cable, rack ears and removable feet, and an infrared remote. Autonomic Controls recommends using their iPad ($50) or iPhone ($20) apps for the best interface for browsing music and managing queues. Alternatively, the Mirage’s built-in Web server provides a Flash-based interface for use from computer and Android browsers. Autonomic plans to release an Android app, but suggests that owners of Windows phones use the Flash Web app. I used the iPod Touch app during the course of my evaluation, and concur with Autonomic: This was the best way to use the MMS•5A. APIs are provided so that an integrator can preempt the need to use any of these options.
Over the course of my listening, I connected the Mirage MMS•5A to two amplifiers: via analog and coaxial to an Onkyo TX-SR500 AVR, and via USB and analog to an NAD C 375DAC integrated. My listening room is on a 100Mbps D-Link switch, to which I wired the Mirage, and further upstream to a 100Mbps Asus 802.11n router. My NAS and main computer are in a different room on a 1GB switch. To display the Mirage’s interface, I connected it to my TV via HDMI.
Configuration is performed through a website, served to the local network from the Mirage itself. Setup is quite straightforward, conducted through the webpage’s forms and grouped into sensible topic areas. The Server tab sets the server name, which will appear on your network with two accessible folders: Music and, for slide-show images, Photos.
Display controls the video output for the user interface, cover art, and slide show. The Source designates which outputs are active, and where the music will be heard. When activating the DAC output, I was surprised to be presented with a choice of bit and sample rates for the output, and asked Autonomic about this. CEO Michael de Nigris told me that "The purpose of prompting the user to choose a sample rate is so that the Mirage knows the maximum sample rate of the customer’s device. The Mirage will downsample as necessary to ensure playback, and our upsampling is entirely nondestructive, with no loss of quality or signal. We use the upsampling so that the Mirage does not have to continuously be switching decode rates."
There’s also a Content tab for configuring access credentials to the supported cloud services, network shares, and local storage. I tried a number of devices on the USB 2 and e-SATA storage-expansion ports. A variety of major-brand thumb drives and a Seagate FreeAgent portable hard drive were not recognized at all. A LaCie d2 Quadra hard drive was recognized in both e-SATA and USB 2 connections. What made the difference, I surmised, was that the LaCie does not require power from the USB host -- it plugs directly into the wall for power -- but the Seagate and thumb drives do. Autonomic confirms that only externally powered drives are supported. I had no USB 3 devices available for testing.
Although recognized by the MMS•5A, the LaCie was not directly available as a place from which to play music, as I’d hoped it would be. It could be added to the storage pool, but only after overwriting all the content of the drive. As de Nigris explained, "It is important to note that the USB is there for extending the permanent storage capacity of the MMS•5A, not to download content. We suggest that content be downloaded using your computer and our sync software and/or AirPlay." In all, this is not an ideal user experience -- support for USB mass storage is a well-established expectation. I found that the best way to get music onto the Mirage was to upload it to the MMS•5A’s fileshare across the LAN. I never came anywhere near exhausting the storage capacity of the Mirage’s built-in 1TB hard drive, nor would I, even with my entire CD collection ripped to FLAC.
I tried the four USB DACs I had on hand: NAD C 375DAC, E-MU 0404 USB, Creative Labs Audigy2NX, and Resonessence Concero. The E-MU was not recognized at all. The Creative Labs was recognized but didn’t work, even with test tones. The Mirage prompted me to request support for the Resonessence. Only the NAD was able to play music via USB.
Finally, a nice feature is that the Mirage can be used as an AirPlay receiver. This worked from iTunes 10.5 via Windows, where "Mirage Media Server" showed up as an AirPort Express speaker choice. In the Mirage configuration -- on the Web -- the AirPlay signal can be directed to the USB DAC, S/PDIF, or any of the four analog outputs. This functionality worked for both protected and unprotected AAC.
In my view, the main reasons not to use a general-purpose computer for serving up media are the shortcomings of the user interface. Standard desktop environments -- Aero, Aqua, Gnome, KDE, xfce, etc. -- are optimized for the user to sit within a few feet of the display, and to use a keyboard and pointing device to manipulate relatively small icons and menu elements -- not an ideal experience for someone sitting back in a listening chair. There are really two choices in user-interface design that are appropriate here: 1) a lean-back experience with very large objects placed on an HDTV and indirectly manipulated with an infrared or radio-frequency remote -- essentially, the Windows Media Center experience; or 2) move the entire experience to direct manipulation of the interface via a touchscreen device using two-way IP control. The Mirage provides both of these; I found the touchscreen the far more refined experience.
Autonomic has included a minimalist IR remote-control unit with physical buttons for transport control, song information, browsing a music library, and thumbs up/down for the delivered Pandora app. Using the remote for selecting the tracks, playlist, or cloud services from which to play music will require a display connected via the available DVI or HDMI video outputs. The IR remote alone may be adequate for the smallest file-based media collections, but becomes tedious (down, down, down . . .) when the list of songs fills more than a few screens. The Mirage includes IP control options to provide a more user-friendly solution. Installed in the device is an Adobe Flash-driven website that can be accessed with any Flash-enabled Web browser (I tested Chrome and Firefox on Windows and Linux and Dolphin HD on Android; Mobile Safari famously does not support Flash). For a Flash-based Web app, it is refreshingly light, and I had no problems running it on an eight-year-old laptop. When using this solution, I recommend setting a static IP on your router for the Mirage so that you can save a bookmark to the interface. The interface provides transport controls, the abilities to browse by album, artist, genre, and playlist, and to access cloud-based services such as Pandora and TuneIn. Music can be queued or played immediately to any of the enabled outputs. The Mirage’s quick-loading library will combine music from the local drives, LAN, and Internet sources. The listener need not know where a tune is stored to play it.
Similarly, the same Flash interface was quite usable running in full-screen mode on my 5" Samsung Galaxy player. Apple’s popular iOS devices do not support Flash without some hacking, so Autonomic has made iPhone ($20) and iPad ($50) apps available in Apple’s App Store. Autonomic provided me with an iPod Touch preloaded with their app. This app has one big advantage over the Flash site: It can find the Mirage on your network even if the IP address has changed. Autonomic has certainly taken Apple’s design paradigm to heart: the library-browsing interface is reminiscent of the Music (iTunes) app. One can browse by artist, album, playlist, genre, song, or composer, and access Internet Radio services.
The app’s playback controls are similarly comprehensive, allowing one to manage the queues for each output and make the typical transport adjustments. All of the functionality of the Flash site is provided in the iOS app, but in a more streamlined and less cluttered manner, with less displayed on each screen (the right choice for the iPod’s small display). Autonomic promises an Android app in the next few months.
While the iOS app (or Flash website) affords extensive control, simplified navigation, and the ability to have a video-free listening room, an IR remote has one key advantage over a touchscreen device: It does not need to be awakened to use it. For those who don’t mind juggling multiple remotes, I think using the iPod app to queue up and manage music/radio and an IR remote to handle play/pause/skip during music playback provides the best of both worlds. With all the necessary accessories, the Mirage provides an excellent user interface that, to be available on a traditional computer, would require significant modifications to it.
In general, I like to listen to review equipment with the full delivered functionality before adding "upgrades" to which some end users may not have access. In the case of the Mirage MMS•5A, delivered functionality means the built-in DAC, especially because it’s required in order to use all six streams of output for a multiroom system. However, I found I could do so for only a limited time. In fact, I found the Mirage’s own Realtek HD DAC to sound muffled, constrained, and ambiguous in both imaging and tonality. It did not provide a pleasant listening experience, even with familiar, well-recorded performances. This chip is usually found soldered to a computer’s motherboard (as it is to the Mirage’s). Rock sounded feeble; orchestral recordings relegated me to the worst seats in the hall, then removed the very essence of the hall. If you’re interested in using this product to deliver music to your one-room system, budget for a good coaxial or USB DAC. Even the step up to the built-in DAC of my decade-old budget AVR was quite a big step. The Mirage sounded best when using the USB DAC in the NAD C 375DAC I had on hand. The NAD opened up the soundstage and rendered considerably greater detail.
The Mirage made playing downloaded or ripped FLACs as easy as spinning discs, if not easier. When played through the MMS•5A’s analog outputs, "Oye Como Va," from Santana’s Abraxas (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia/Legacy), was a mere shadow of itself: faint, amorphous, utterly uninvolving. Switching over to the NAD’s USB DAC -- using, in both cases, the same integrated amplifier -- the music came alive, with the bass developing heft, the instrumental voices spreading across the soundstage, and Santana’s guitar exuding its distinctive sound. With Mozart’s Piano Concertos, performed by Ronald Brautigam and the Cologne Academy conducted by Michael Alexander Willens (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eClassical), there was a much bigger difference. I could hear that Brautigam was playing a fortepiano, not a pianoforte, and the biggest differences were in the details of instrumental tonality and imaging. The Mirage’s built-in DAC squishes the orchestra into the very center of the soundstage, but the NAD reveals detail, particularly in the upper range, and divulges the separation and distinction of instrumental voices throughout the entire soundstage. Much the same improvement was in evidence in Ole Bull’s violin concertos, performed by Annar Follesø, with Ole Kristian Ruud conducting the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (24/96 FLAC, 2L/2L). The Allegro affetuoso (La Notte) from the Concerto Fantastico gained the upper-extension characteristic of how a violin actually sounds to the ear, and the performance hall came into focus. An add-on DAC is essential to enjoy playback from the Mirage.
I listened to audio files, both stored on the Mirage’s internal hard drive -- loaded over the network -- and streamed from my Synology NAS (acting as an SMB, rather than a DLNA, server). When traversing a 100Mbps network, 96kHz FLACs hesitated, with some regularity, at the beginning of playback -- usually about 20 seconds in. I would prefer that playback wait a bit longer to begin rather than starting and then buffering. My Windows computer, which sat next to the Mirage and relied on the same switch, suffered no such delays playing material off the NAS as I tried to replicate the problem.
In 2011, SoundStage! Hi-Fi reviewed a music server from Bryston, the BDP-1, that costs less than half the price of the Mirage MMS•5A -- and, more recently, a music server from Cambridge Audio that costs half that while still offering many of its features. In both cases, the reviewers found the products to sonically excel. In comparison, from the perspective of the audiophile (or aspiring audiophile) who is interested in using a music server for critical listening from a single source, the Mirage provides less value.
However, the Mirage is aimed at a different market. With the ability to send different programs to different rooms simultaneously, the MMS•5A is pitched at the multiroom/whole-house-installation crowd. Full exploitation of this capability will require using the less-than-ideal analog outputs. This may be satisfactory for less critical rooms, a patio, or for background listening, even though the built-in DAC is inadequate for more focused listening. If you have a good DAC, an iOS device, and the need to integrate with a multiroom audio system, the Mirage is worth considering.
Supplemented with a high-quality USB DAC and an iOS (or, soon, Android) device for queue management, Autonomic Control’s Mirage MMS•5A can handily beat a computer in ease of use and reliability for local playback. Its user interface and library-management facilities are excellent for file-based audio. As delivered, however, I feel it overpromises and underdelivers in terms of sound quality. Serious listening requires an external DAC. I suggest that those who already have the accessories and an interest in multiroom audio give the Mirage a try.
. . . Sathyan Sundaram
- Speakers -- Wharfedale Diamond 8.2, Diamond 8 Centre, PowerCube 10 subwoofer; Infinity Primus P162, M-Audio Studiophile DX4 nearfield monitors
- Analog sources -- Goldring GR1 turntable, Rega RB100 tonearm, Goldring Elektra cartridge; Cambridge Audio 540P phono preamplifier
- Digital sources -- Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player; Pioneer DV-563A DVD/SACD/CD player; Roku XDS with MOG Primo subscription; Intel H61 desktop (2.6GHz, 8GB RAM, Crucial SSD) running Ubuntu Desktop 12.04 LTS (64-bit) and Windows 8 Release Preview (64-bit), foobar2000 and XBMC, with Realtek ALC887 DAC/optical output (ALSA/WASAPI driver); E-MU 0404 USB DAC; Synology DS211j SMB/DLNA server
- Receivers/integrateds -- Onkyo TX-SR500; NAD C 375DAC
- Remote controls -- Apple iPod touch (fourth generation); Samsung Galaxy player 5; IBM ThinkPad T40 running Ubuntu 11.10 (32-bit)
Autonomic Controls Mirage MMS•5A Media Server
Price: $4250 USD plus remote-control apps ($20 iPhone, $50 iPad).
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Autonomic Controls, Inc.
200 Business Park Drive
Armonk, NY 10504
Phone: (914) 598–1647