We Test Drive the Rio Receiver

By Richard Menta 8/17/01

The Rio Receiver is another product released to address a simple need that has arisen out of the growing popularity of ripping and trading MP3 files. That need is to somehow liberate hundreds, even thousands, of music files from our computer systems to other areas in our homes and offices.


The Rio Digital Audio Receiver can be ordered from Amazon

Some users want to integrate the music into the home stereo with its better speakers and amplification. Others want to be able to pump songs into different rooms to provide background music. A simple audio cable would do the job, but laying fifty or a hundred feet of line is not always practical and can be unsightly. You also have to go back to the computer to operate the player controls.

The Rio is unique in that it uses the standard phone line in your home, converting it into a network connection that allows bi-directional communication with the Receiver and your PC. The Rio receiver can also connect to a network via Ethernet for LAN use.

The Hardware

The Rio Receiver is a compact unit, only 9" wide, and so takes up very little space. Selling for about $300, the unit comes with a card called the Rio Connector that you insert into an available PCI slot on your computer. The card is what turns your phone line into a network line using the HPNA (Home Phone Networking Association) protocol. Using your phone line will not interrupt phone calls, which travel across the wires at different frequencies. If you have two phone lines in the house, the Rio will only work with jacks on the same line. Both the Rio Connector and the Receiver have phone jacks to attach to the wall plug.

The Rio Receiver can be attached to the speakers in one of two ways. RCA jacks are provided for adding the unit to a stereo system where the stereo's amp will provide the power and control the volume. Speakers hooked directly using to the RCA jacks will play music, but at a level volume that can not be controlled.

The Receiver also has a built in amp accessible by attaching the speakers directly to the unit using the stereo spring clips in back. Using the spring clips, the unit now controls the volume to the speakers directly and eliminates the need for a separate stereo to run everything. The use of both types of connections gives the Rio a nice flexibility during setup.

Using the Rio Receiver's remote control the user can select and play any tune on the PC without having to go to that PC. That is the player's strongest advantage. Other options out there, like the recently reviewed US Robotics Soundlink, draw music from the PC, but song selection and player controls must still be handled back in the room with the source computer.

The unit plays both MP3 and WMA files, the latter another example of the adoption of Microsoft's format by the consumer electronics industry. Two notes here. First, secured WMA files may not play on the Rio Receiver. That is important if you plan on subscribing to Sony and Universal Music's upcoming PressPlay service that will use secured WMA files when it begins to sell music downloads this fall. Second, the Rio Receiver has difficulties playing low bit (16-24 kbit) files. If you have captured some Net radio streams, they may not sound right over the Rio.

The Rio Receiver requires a Pentium 200MHz using either Windows 98 or 2000. As of this writing, the unit does not work on Macintosh computers or PCs with the Windows 95 or Windows NT operating systems.

Getting Started -

Before you buy the Rio Receiver you need to first make sure you have two very important things. The first is fairly obvious, an available PCI slot. We say fairly obvious because not all slots on a system are PCI (some are ISA for example) and you may not know what you have for sure until you open your computer up.

The second important item you will need to get is the MS Windows CD with your operating system on it. If you don't have it you must get one. Sometimes the driver for the unit needs specific DLL files that are not already installed on your system. During install you may be asked for this CD to load those files and if you don't have it, the Rio won't work.

We take the time to point this out because we had neither the Windows CD nor an open PCI slot when we conducted this test, forcing us to scavenge for another test machine and a CD for this review. A little pre-preparation will avoid frustration later.

Once we got everything in order, it hooked up fairly easy and we were ready to go. Since we had an Ethernet card in out test unit we tried this out also. You can either connect the unit via a network hub with a standard cable or connect it directly to the Ethernet port on the back of the PC using an Ethernet crossover cable.

We loaded the unit's music management and communication software called the Audio Receiver Manager. It puts an icon of a music note in your tray that turns blue when the network is successfully connected and red when it isn't. Happily, the note turned blue when we fired up all the hardware. The Audio Receiver Manager did a quick scan of all the music we had on the hard drive and made it available to the Rio. Unfortunately, it could not access MP3 files we had on CD in the drive, a disappointment.

As is usual for Rio products, the written documentation was mediocre. Full documentation is on the CD, but that is not always the most convenient.

Controls -

The controls on both the unit and the remote were large and easy to use. The trademark joypad is on the unit to facilitate basic play and scan functions and operated quite well.

We set up the unit on the other side of the house. Using the display on the Rio Receiver we were able to select any track we wanted while several rooms away from the PC. The unit has separate random and repeat buttons and a menu button to toggle through the various choices. The volume control knob does double duty to adjust bass, treble, and balance and to scroll through the menu options.

Display -

The display was very clear and bright with a backlight that shut itself off after a few seconds of non-use. ID3 tags displayed all the pertinent song information in full sight.

Scrolling across that various menus wasn't the always most intuitive, but the process was explained well enough in the written documentation. Using the ID3 tags embedded in most (though not all) MP3 files the Rio Receiver segments the music automatically in the display via artist name, album name, genre, and song title. It's a handy little feature, especially for broadband users who have amassed a sizable digital music collection.

Sound -

The whole point of the Rio Receiver is to add portability to the music, preferably to the better sound equipment in your home. Your stereo is simply going to do this music more justice than those cheap speakers on your PC. Even without the stereo, the Rio provided good sound when decent sets of stereo speakers were hooked directly to the Receiver box.

Conclusion

An advantage of the Rio Receiver is that it does not require a stereo system to provide the amplification so a set of speakers can be plugged directly in back. This makes the Rio portable as it can be moved and operated at will to any room with a phone jack. Having a party in the basement? Just move Rio. Having guests for dinner? Just move the Rio.

The Rio is also handy for a doctor's office allowing the staff to pump music in the waiting room. A Rio unit can be even put in every examination room, each one accessing a different selection of music from the same PC (This can be done at home too, but at $300 a pop it's expensive).

Overall, the Rio Receiver did its job and it did it very well, just make sure you have that Windows CD to avoid any setup disappointments. Of all the other options we have seen or tested to date to deliver MP3 music beyond the confines of the PC, the Rio Receiver is the best. Of those other options only two come close to competing with the Rio.

The first is the SliMP3, an upcoming player that does essentially the same thing as the Rio Receiver, but requires and Unix/Linux machine and only works on Ethernet networks, not phone lines. The second option is to copy all your MP3 files to a jukebox player, like Creative's Nomad Jukebox, and hook it up to your stereo. These players sell for about the same price as the Rio Receiver and offer even more portability. The tradeoffs are that you must have a stereo with speakers to amplify through, limiting the jukebox player to the room where your entertainment system lies. A jukebox player would also never work in an office environment, as they are small and have a tendency to walk.

Final Score:

Copyright 2001 MP3 Newswire

 

Other MP3 Portable Reviews:
We Test Drive the Nike PSA[Play 120
We Test Drive the Rio 600
We Test Drive the Creative Nomad Jukebox
We Test Drive the Audio ReQuest MP3 Rack Player



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