Brennan JB7 Music Server £300
5th Jun 2008 | 09:55
Newcomer Brennan’s JB7 is a CD player, amp and 40GB server all for just £300!
Hot on the heels of the Arcam Solo Mini comes the Brennan JB7 Music Server sub-miniature system, about the size of longish hardback novel.
It doesn't include a radio, but amazingly the tiny steel case contains a CD player, a 20-watt power amp and a 40GB hard disk, which can be upgraded to 80GB for £20 more.
This is made possible by using a slot-loading transport, a laptop-style hard disk and a switching power amp, with the case as a heatsink.
We were impressed from the start by the quality of build and presentation.
The front panel is a very fetching blue-anodised aluminium affair, dominated by a graphics display and a multi-function twist/push knob, while the rest of the case is solidly made from steel with no exposed screws on top or at the sides.
The rear is a little less impressive, but does include spring-clip speaker cable terminals, as well as 3.5mm stereo mini-jack sockets for headphones and line out and line in (yes, it records too!).
Remove the top cover and, surprisingly enough, there's even some empty space inside, though not much. There's a slight cheat on the space front in that the power supply is external - a rather substantial 'lump in a lead' plastic box, but in the unit proper, Brennan has assembled everything neatly and with perfectly decent-quality parts too.
Most servers we've seen recently have been multi-output devices with Ethernet connectivity, to allow for the benefits Internet connection has to offer - online database access and internet radio. This one, by contrast, is a simple, single-output device that's intended to be completely self-contained in normal use.
It doesn't overlook the possibilities of database access, though, as it comes with a pre-loaded 'CDDB' database. All right, that's going to be out of date as soon as it's loaded but you can load a new one from time to time.
The other thing many servers rely on is an attached video display. Again, there's no option for this with the JB7, but the display is perfectly adequate and is aided by some thoughtfully devised search features.
The knob can be used to 'dial up' a few letters from the title of an album or track (like looking up a name in the directory of a mobile phone) and, as one adds more letters, the display even tells you how many items match the entered text.
Recordings that have been loaded from a CD that's already in the database will have titles automatically loaded for them. Other discs such as our custom-made test discs, which are not in the database, can also be labelled easily enough.
The drawback of a laptop-style hard drive like this is, of course, is limited capacity. It's been a few years since 40GB was eyebrow-raisingly huge and these days it's a lot less than most full-size servers can offer.
The simple fact is, that in full (wav) audio quality it's only about 50 hours of music when one takes into account overheads and the space used by the database. 80GB is a little over 100 hours.
The default mode for the JB7 is 192kbps, though other bitrates are available and in a way, uncompressed mode may seem inappropriate for a device like this, but we're glad it's been included. FLAC or similar lossless encoding would have been a real bonus, mind you!
Audio can be (slowly) loaded to hard disk from CD (8x speed is claimed, but ours seemed a little slower) or from MP3 players, or external hard drives connected via the front-panel USB socket.
In fact, an external hard drive could easily be the salvation of this device when the internal one fills up. You can also use an external drive for backup.
Let's start with the really good news. If you've been following our recent reviews of music servers, you'll recall some heartfelt complaints about mechanical noise. And, while the JB7 is not strictly silent, it's pretty much inaudible if your ear isn't right up against the case. The hard drive makes very little noise and the unventilated case keeps most of it internal.
In terms of what comes out of the electrical outputs, we're happy to report on some very favourable impressions too. Let's not get carried away and pretend that the results will displace a couple of grands'-worth of hi-fi separates, but the sound is really not at all bad.
Noise is low (though there is just a hint of audible warbling in the background, if one listens carefully in a very quiet room) and the bass and treble seem admirably extended. However, there's plenty of get-up-and-go to the sound and the dominant impression is of an altogether very enjoyable experience.
Playback direct from CD is slightly marred by noise from the transport, but is otherwise is identical to hard disc playback.
For the test, Brennan sent us a pair of its own bookshelf speakers (£60). We were rather impressed with these and if money's really tight you could do a lot worse.
In the interests of finding out more about the JB7 itself, though, we tried various rather more upmarket speaker models, including the magnificent Bowers and Wilkins 803S.
Their slightly tricky low impedance proved a taxing test for the JB7 and led us to the discovery that overload is not lightly glossed over; when this amp clips, you'll know about it!
The amp-friendlier ATC SCM20, however, gave us some really rather impressive sounds. Yes, there's a lack of absolute clarity in the JB7's output, if one is to judge it against good standalone amplifiers, but the extent of the confusion and grain it adds is not enough to mask the basic character of the music.
We tried some classical tracks, various pop recordings and a few familiar jazz excerpts and while we might not have learned anything new about them, we enjoyed them all.
If newcomer Brennan has set out to make a 21st-century all-round music system for people who hate hi-fi, they've probably succeeded. Operation is simple and the proliferation of gadgets, especially mobile phones, has made everyone familiar with the basic principle of control menus and database (index) searching.
For those of us, meanwhile, who do take their sound systems seriously, this dinky little product still has plenty to offer.
Offhand, we can't think of a better all-round solution for an office or spare room system, for instance, unless, of course, your office or spare room is large and you've cash to burn.
The JB7 takes up very little space and with its own or other decent mini speakers it can deliver a quality of sound which is good enough to be enjoyable even for those accustomed to fully-fledged hi-fi separates.
For the price of a pair of mid-market speaker cables, you can't get much better value than this!