What I did on my holidays: the Brennan JB7

I've just had a week off.

So what did I do? All those things I don’t have time to do when reviewing and editing – I listened to lots of music, watched a few movies, did some reading and a spot of writing.

Busman’s holiday? Not quite: when you do this for a living, you don’t get much chance to switch off the work brain and switch on the enjoyment brain, and it takes a while to stop listening to the system and start listening to the music again.

All of which explains why I was pretty pleased when the doorbell rang on Monday morning and a courier was there with a surprisingly small box from Cambridge company 3GA, containing the Brennan JB7 hard-disk music system and a pair of speakers.

It’s a product I’d been meaning to get a listen to for a while, and a chance phone call a couple of weeks back meant I got the chance to slot it in when i had some time off. That meant I could use it as it is meant to be used, freed from the pressure of reviewing deadlines.

And having lived with the Brennan for almost a week now, I can safely say that not only do I ‘get’ what the designer was trying to achieve – I also really like the JB7. So what follows isn’t by any means a review, more a set of user impressions.

Designed for simplicity
The JB7 is the brainchild of Martin Brennan, who those of a geeky persuasion may recognise as a veteran of Sinclair and the Alan Sugar empire, not to mention the co-designer of the world’s first 64-bit games computer, the Atari Jaguar.

A Cambridge physics graduate, Brennan had long had the idea for the JB7 on the back-burner: the pitch for the unit says that “Ever since CDs were invented Martin wanted a CD player that would hold his entire CD collection.

“He wanted something as simple to use as a light switch but at the same time something that would let him find a particular track without leaving the armchair - and he wanted something that could rattle the windows when he was in the mood.”

The result is a small, simple to use and very blue machine designed to take up minimal space and yet deliver convincing performance. You probably own larger hardback novels than this – it’s just under 5cm tall and 22cm wide – and simplicity is assured by just four large buttons and one control knob.

Several versions of the JB7 are available: it starts from £309 delivered with a 40GB hard-disk, and goes up to £359 for the 160GB of the review unit. Add in the little Brennan BSP50 two-way speakers, yours for £59 a pair, and the total package I received could be on your doorstep for £418.

There’s a slot-loading CD drive for ripping discs, a USB slot for copying files to/from memory devices or iPods, or to connect an external hard drive, a full-function credit-card remote control and 3.5mm sockets for line in/out and headphones. Oh, and the small matter of onboard 2x30W amplification, meaning you really only need to add the speakers and you’re in business.

All the things it doesn’t do...
Playing the ‘anticipate the comments’ game, the Brennan JB7 doesn’t have any network capability (let alone wi-fi), won’t store video, and won’t check your email, play internet radio or let you prepare a PowerPoint presentation while you listen to music. And it doesn’t update its 2.4-million album database automatically – you just request an update disc occasionally from the manufacturer.

And true, it ‘only’ has a 160GB hard drive, whereas I know before you tell me that you could easily buy a terabyte or two for what? Five bob or so?

What’s more, it uses MP3 compression, although you can also store discs in uncompressed form if required. At the standard 192kbps rate – you can also choose 128k or 320k – that means the 40GB version will store 400 albums, or 50 uncompressed, while the 160GB will hold 1600 albums, or 210 uncompressed.

Why just MP3? Over to Martin Brennan again: “JB7 is about convenience and accessibility so we tend not to focus on compression types and bit rates – I design the low level software that deals with inverse cosine transforms, Huffman codes, psychoacoustic masking and all that kind of stuff, but when I listen to music I don’t want to deal with all that – I just want my music easy to get to.

“We do have a simple in-house high speed lossless compression algorithm that provides a modest level of lossless compression that can be performed on-the-fly as CDs are loaded. We decided against using it in this product because it wouldn't deliver any real benefit to the majority of our customers.”

And just so the hi-fi purists aren’t left out of the ‘yes, but’ game, the JB7 has springclip speaker terminals, and all the rear panel ins and outs are on 3.5mm stereo jacks, not RCA phonos.

...And what it does
This system couldn’t be any simpler to use. You stick in a CD, and the unit asks you if you want to copy it to the hard disk. Press the master control knob to agree and it looks up the disc database, and gives you the details – sometimes you have to scroll through a couple. Find the right one, press again, and off it goes – meanwhile, you can play something already stored. At the end of the rip process, the disc is ejected. See here for a video explaining all.

Finding music is similarly simple: you can search by track name or album title/artist, play whole albums or let the player run through everything stored. Again, this video explains how it’s done.

There are also seven playlists available, named after the colours of the rainbow, and into which you can program tracks. Each list has its own key on the remote – just press and hold to add a track.

Finally, you can also transfer tracks into an MP3 player – there’s a video showing how to do this, too.

I’m going to leave the serious ‘how it sounds’ stuff to the proper review, either here or in the magazine, but suffice it to say here I’ve had a lot of fun listening to the system over the past week, both through the optional speakers – which are more than respectable for £60 – and using a 3.5mm to phono adapter to connect it to my main system.

Even at the default 192kbps compression the system sounds good for all-day music, and sounds to me like it would be a very acceptable solution for a second system, a study or even a bedroom. I’ve had some fun with it blasting out everything from dance music to Elgar, and from Pink Floyd to a budget Ian Dury package I picked up in the supermarket the other night. At a fiver for a two-disc set, it was a no-brainer, and worth it for the moment the chap next door asked me what that ‘Ada’ song I was playing was all about!

Initial impressions are ‘mission accomplished’ on this one: it’s unfeasibly compact and neat, so beautifully thought through that it’s a breeze to use, and meets the design criteria in terms of the performance/usability trade-off. And above all, it’s huge fun, and the sort of product that’ll have you saying to friends “come and have a look at this.”

It’s going to be a hard one to give up when the time comes.

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.