There’s no doubt that digital music storage and playback is a mainstream technology. You won’t meet too many people who haven’t ripped at least some of their CD collection to their computer and copied it to their iPod or similar portable media player. But there’s one group out there who are far harder to please, the audiophiles. For this select group, compressed music is heresy, and many remain unconvinced by lossless codecs like FLAC.
Part of the problem with convincing the audiophile community of the benefits of digital music libraries is the need to include a computer in the equation. Although ripping my CDs to my NAS box via my Mac doesn’t seem like much of a chore to me, I know that some people simply don’t want that added complication and much prefer to just drop their favourite CD into their favourite transport, and pump it through their carefully chosen amplifier, no doubt connected using an equally carefully chosen interconnect – iTunes is not, and never will be an option.
This is where Pinnacle Audio thinks it has the answer, with its Folio music server. This particular box of tricks is aimed at music lovers who like the idea of a large digital music library, but don’t want to compromise on sound quality and definitely don’t want to muck about with NAS appliances, computers and media streamers.
It’s somewhat ironic that the Folio is aimed at audiophiles who don’t want to use a computer, since in essence, that’s exactly what it is. But don’t go thinking that the Folio is just like your average media PC, because it’s not. The Folio has been designed, first and foremost, to offer the best quality audio, so if you were to crack open that minimalist casing, you wouldn’t find any superfluous electronics that could interfere with its primary brief. That’s why Pinnacle Audio decided on an external power supply.
The Folio itself is pretty nondescript, with a single power button, a slot for loading CDs and a small LCD display. Getting your music onto the Folio couldn’t be easier. You simply insert your CD and it will instantly be ripped using FLAC, ensuring the best possible sound quality. Once the ripping is finished, the Folio with spit the CD back out and you’re ready to rip another disc.
Your music is stored on internal hard drives, of which there are two. The drives are configured using a RAID 1 array – this means that both hard disks hold exactly the same information, so if one disk fails, you don’t lose all your music. In the event of a disk failure, the faulty drive can simply be replaced, and the array rebuilt, leaving your music completely safe once more. The downside is that you can’t replace a failed disk yourself, and the Folio will have to be returned to Pinnacle Audio.
The Folio can be configured to employ RAID 0, which stripes your data across both disks and gives you double the capacity, but neither Pinnacle Audio or I would recommend such a course of action. Although you’d end up with more disk space, you’d be creating two potential points of failure, and if either disk failed, you’d lose your entire music library and have to start ripping your CDs all over again.
Since the Folio is designed with audio quality in mind, Pinnacle Audio is confident that the device’s internal DAC will be adequate to satisfy most audiophiles. However, if you absolutely, positively, must use your own external DAC, you’ll find both optical and coaxial digital outputs at the rear of the Folio.
I certainly can’t fault the sound quality using the Folio’s internal DAC, but then I’m not what you’d call an obsessive audiophile. In fact I hooked the Folio up to a set of Ferguson Hill FH007 / FH008 speakers, which, it has to be said, results in a pretty stunning setup from both visual and audio perspectives. Unsurprisingly, I found the output from the Folio’s FLAC library to be literally indiscernible from the original CD, just as it should be with a lossless codec.
The Folio will also let you create your own mix CDs. You can create a playlist and burn it to a CD-R, which is handy for playing in the car. However, it’s worth noting that the Folio will only burn audio CDs, and you can’t simply burn the FLAC files to a disc.
A nice compromise would be for the Folio to rip a high bit rate MP3 file at the same time that the FLAC file is encoded, then the MP3 file could be used for creating CD libraries or even for loading onto a USB key – there are USB ports at the rear of the Folio. While chatting to Pinnacle Audio I was informed that this could well be possible with future firmware upgrades.
Used as the centre of a music system, the Folio has a great deal going for it. In fact sitting here in the office looking directly at the Folio surrounded by the achingly stylish Ferguson Hills, I can’t help but think that I’d like to take the whole setup home with me. However, while the Folio definitely gets much of its brief spot on, in some areas it’s wide of the mark.
For a start, the wireless controller for the Folio operates via your existing wireless network, so, if you don’t have a wireless router in your house, your somewhat out of luck. Second, if you have a particularly large house, even if you do have a wireless router, the Folio’s controller may not be able to reach it. And let’s not forget that the Folio itself has to be connected to your home network using an Ethernet cable. Considering that one of the key points of the Folio is that you don’t need a computer, there’s a great deal of reliance on your ability to install and configure a home network.
I personally doubt that too many homes will have their wireless router in the same room as their hi-fi, so you’re either going to have to use a wireless bridge or some kind of HomePlug device to get the Folio connected to your network. I can’t help but feel that the obvious answer would be to have wireless networking built into the Folio itself, thus negating the need for external network devices and also allowing the controller to connect directly to the Folio, rather than having to take a detour via your router.
Sonos has successfully addressed this very issue by creating hardware that runs its own mesh network, thus allowing the controller to connect directly to the nearest player, rather than having to reach your wireless router. I appreciate that the Folio isn’t a multi-room system, and therefore doesn’t necessarily need a wireless mesh, but Pinnacle Audio has confirmed that multi-zone functionality is on the roadmap.
As well as needing a network connection to communicate with the controller, the Folio also reaches out to the Internet to pull down track details and cover art for each CD that you rip. The device will also check for updates regularly, and if there is a new firmware available, it will download and apply it overnight.
Unfortunately, the wireless controller is somewhat disappointing. To be fair, it does everything I’d want it to, but it just doesn’t do it very well. Rather than design and manufacture its own controller, Pinnacle Audio has chosen to use a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. The Folio app gives you most of the functionality you’d want, like being able to search/browse by artist, album, playlist etc. but the experience is hampered by inconsistent navigation methods and woefully sluggish response.
For instance, when I’m browsing by artist I can’t swipe the screen up and down to scroll, instead I have to press up and down arrows at the side. However, once I select and artist and album, I then no longer have arrows to press and instead have to swipe the screen up and down to scroll. But unfortunately, since Nokia tablets employ resistive rather than capacitive screens, it’s not that easy to swipe and scroll smoothly – I sometimes found myself having to take out the stylus and use the scroll bar instead. And when you do find the track or album that you wish to select, the controller can take an age to respond.
I can understand why Pinnacle Audio has chosen to use a third party device as its controller, after all the cost of designing and manufacturing its own wireless remote would be significant to say the least. However, when you compare the Folio’s controller to the latest Sonos CR200 touch-screen controller, it looks and feels like an antique.
The guys at Pinnacle Audio did tell me that the decision to use the Nokia tablet wasn’t purely to do with cost, since it also meant that if a better third party solution came along, they could switch to that, and I can see some merit in that argument. That said, even taking the Sonos CR200 out of the equation, the Sonos iPhone app is also infinitely slicker and more user friendly than the Folio’s controller solution. Perhaps an iPhone app and a bundled iPod touch would be a better idea.
It’s clear that Pinnacle Audio is aiming the Folio at the audiophile market when you look at the pricing. The entry level Folio with two 250GB hard disks installed has an RRP of £2,399, while 500GB and 750GB configurations will cost you £2,499 and £2,799 respectively.
I have to say that the £400 cost increase from 250GB drives to 750GB drives is somewhat shocking when you consider that 1TB drives can be had for less than £60 each. Unfortunately you can’t buy a Folio without disks installed and fit your own, but I was told that the cost differential for higher capacity options would be looked at.
On the plus side, anyone who orders a Folio before the end of March 2010 will get a 15 per cent discount on their purchase. But even with the discount, this is still a very expensive digital music solution.
There’s a lot to like about the Folio, but it ultimately lacks the polish that its high price demands. The biggest let down is the controller, which can be both unintuitive and unresponsive, ultimately making it frustrating to use. The need for the controller to link to your wireless router is also slightly disappointing, as is the Folio’s lack of built-in wireless functionality.
The sound quality via the Folio’s internal DAC is very impressive, but it’s worth remembering that if you buy a good external DAC then any media streamer with a digital output can sound just as good. Plus every digital source you have could benefit.
The simplicity of getting your music onto the Folio is a big draw, and If that is paramount to you, and you have deep enough pockets, then it could be worth considering. For me though, as it stands, it doesn’t feel like the finished article and better solutions can be had for far less cash.
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