By Richard Menta
Audiophiles are not just those creatures who spend a fortune on rack systems just to get the truest sound from their speakers. Many times they are just fans of music with a sizable CD collection and a good stereo. The open availability of digital music on Napster has caused their personal music collection to blossom into a couple of GB's worth of songs. How do they listen to this music? Through their computer speakers usually.
So it seems perfectly natural that they would want to incorporate this music into their stereo system with something big enough to hold the entire collection and more. Enter Request Multimedia's Audio Request jukebox, the first MP3 stereo component system to come to market.
Selling for $799, the Audio Request is a rack sized box measuring 17" x 14" x 4". Made of heavy gauge steel, the body is ready for professional use if needed. The unit contains a 17.3GB hard drive, enough to hold roughly 6,400 songs at the standard 128 Kbit compression setting.
The beauty of the player is that it can convert CD tracks to MP3 files directly in the box without having to turn to a PC. The unit can encode and decode CD's at compression rates as low as 32Kbit and as high as 320 Kbit. You do need a PC connection if you want the player to retrieve songs from your hard drive or CDDB data from the Net. The Audio Request connects to your computer in two ways, via a parallel port connection or a built-in Ethernet connection. The Ethernet connection is by far the faster for transferring music, but not all home PC's have that capability. There is also a USB port on the back of the Audio Request. At present is used to connect USB peripherals only, but future firmware upgrades will eventually enable it as a third PC connection.
For convenience, the unit functions as a standard CD player with support for MP3 CD-R/CD-RW media. Recognizing that many high end users have incorporated their music systems with their TV's to form elaborate home theater systems, the Audio Request was designed with a TV interface that serves as a superior display for the unit. Remaining jacks and ports confirm the home theater connection including S-video and standard video out ports. There is also a VGA port to connect to a PC monitor, and a Mic In for voice recording.
All the controls for the Audio Request are activated through a remote control included with the player. The box itself only contains a power button and an eject button for the CD's. Lose or damage the remote and you are stuck so we recommend acquiring a second one from the manufacturer and stored in a safe place. Chances are such a sturdy unit will outlive even a solid built remote.
At first glance the remote itself looks intimidating with at very large footprint and a full alphabet of buttons serving as the units keyboard. The controls actually turned out to be fairly simple to use though initially it appeared to be confusing.
Connect Your Rio.
With all the music stored in this unit, wouldn't it be nice to be able to transfer it directly to a portable player? Well, the people at Request Multimedia had the foresight to do just that as right out of the box the user can attach their Rio 300 to it and upload songs. Right now only the Rio 300 is supported, but future firmware upgrades should soon allow present and future Rio, Creative, Sensory Science, and other portables the ability to tap into the Audio Request's song library.
Another terrific feature is real-time line-in compression and recording. This means the user can attach a cassette player, turntable, heck even an 8 track, and convert that music into MP3 files. Other units that have line-in recording, like the portable Nomad Jukebox, can only convert the files to larger WAV files, skipping the complicated MP3 conversion altogether.
The first thing we recommend doing when you first take the unit out of the box is to attach it to your computer and upgrade the firmware. Our player was unable to gather CDDB files from the Net until we did this, a bug that was corrected in the update. The best news about these updates is that the user will be able to upgrade to the latest features as they come out. Just be aware you will need to disconnect and lug the heavy case to the PC every time you want to update it.
You can download tunes from your computer to the player via software provided with the unit. The software did a good job at file transfer, but it only shows the tunes you are sending down to the player. For the life of us we couldn't figure out how to view songs already loaded in the player, a shortcoming Request Multimedia will hopefully rectify soon.
Loading the CD's to the player was a pretty uneventful process. The hardest part is labeling the CD's in the system using the small keyboard on the remote. The player allows you to hook up a standard keyboard to the back of the unit, a nice touch we tool advantage of. There is a better way.
After you install the PC software for the unit, you have the ability to access the Net and use CDDB to populate the album and track names of your CD's into the unit for you. For those who don't know, CDDB is a CD recognition service that contains data on almost every CD produced. Over the Net, the service can access the basic information on the CD's you loaded in your system and automatically provide the track names for you, saving hours of typing them in.
One of the smartest touches provided by the Audio Request is the ability to automatically name all songs recorded from a CD into the player without having to be live on the Net when you load them. Our recommendation is to load all of your CD's into the unit in one marathon session (tedious yes, but well worth the effort) and pass on entering the track information yourself. Then connect to the Net and let CDDB populate all the CD track titles for you. If you have not upgraded the firmware on the player, remember to do so before you connect to the CDDB database or it may not work.
As we noted before, all the controls are located on the remote unit. Resembling the intimidating mass array of buttons found on many TV/VCR/Stereo remotes, we found the Audio Request's controls fairly easy to use once you got a hand of the layout. That logic will come to you much quicker if you initially hook it up to a PC or TV monitor as the display. We initially tried to navigate from the LCD screen on the player itself (this is how we expect most music only system users to navigate the Audio Request) but it was harder to initially figure out the layout structure on that screen. All became clear when we shifted to a monitor, which displayed better detail. Once we did that, the unit's LCD screen quickly became easy to use as we had the thought process of the navigation in place.
The buttons on the remote were easy to activate, even with our big thumbs, but the alphabetic keyboard was tedious to use, important if you don't have Net access to the CDDB database. The good news is that the unit has a keyboard jack allowing you to hook up a standard PC keyboard to type the information in. Those who transfer music from sources other than CD will need to enter all information manually.
Using a monitor, the display was terrific, easily guiding us through the necessary keystrokes to use our player. As we mentioned above, if you plan to use the unit's LCD display, start with the video display to learn the process, then go back to the LCD. Your computer monitor or an old color 13" set will do just perfectly for this if you don't want to deal with connecting it to your regular television set. Once the system is down in your mind, the clear LCD will do just fine.
Excellent. The whole point of the Audio Request is to listen to music as it was originally intended, through a nice pair of room speakers. It fully achieves that goal.
What more can we say but take all of you CD's, vinyl albums, cassettes, shellac 78's, whatever and convert them over to this player. Then take those old recordings, put them in a nice protective box in the attic and enjoy the extra space you just freed up in your home. Yes, $800 is a bit of money, but for the convenience and capacity this unit provides you will find it is well worth the investment. Think of the Audio Request as your active audio archive that allows you to safely store the hard format collection of your music in a safe, dry place. That is how valuable the line-in feature is, especially to those who collect old wax.
The ability to transfer music to a portable player is another highlight of the player and a feature that is unique and very convenient. Only the Rio 300 is supported at this writing, but all of the major and some minor players will be added in upcoming firmware updates.
The Audio Request is built like a tank and can upgrade its features through firmware. That means a long enjoyable life, unlike most portable players that are vulnerable to a quick obsolescence. Despite the quality, some audiophiles may still look down on such a player because they feel that MP3's are inferior to CD's and they are somewhat right. That gap will only increase exponentially with the recent release of DVD Audio discs. Still, the quality of the format at its best sounds excellent and the MP3 format has a major advantage with its ability to store great quantities of music in a small area.
Overall, this is a great item to expand your system with. So sturdily constructed it will probably find its way into professional venues like radio stations and commercial venues like malls and restaurants where it can pump days worth of music without having to change a CD.
Final Score: A+ (A Milestone Player)
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