Equipment Review No. 2 MAR/APR/2001
|Audio Request ARQ1-20|
Home MP3/CD Player/Recorder with HD Storage
Description and Specifications: Home MP3 player/ recorder with 20 GB hard disk storage capability that plays CD/ CD-R/ CD-RW. Encoding rates offered: 64, 96, 128, 160, 192, 256, 320 kbps, and variable bit rates labeled 6% and 50%. Encoding is done at 4X speed. Allows MP3 encoding of analog source material via two RCA analog inputs. Video output via composite, S-video, VGA connections enable graphic interface for play list editing and navigation, and animated visuals driven by music content. Parallel and RJ-45 connections allow data transfer via networked systems and/or portable MP3 players. Remote control allows all function control, and keyboard (AT style) connection allows manual input as well. Compact Disc Database (CDDB) is accessible when the device is connected to a computer. The supplied software (PC) offers full control remotely and allows for future software upgrades. Already planned updates/ upgrades include microphone input for voice recording and Karaoke, USB connection allowing more compatibility with computers and other MP3 devices, and the ability to store images and photos for play lists and/ or effects. Volume control.
Note: MPEG1 Layer 3 (MP3) files are audio files that have been data reduced and compressed in order to save space. A standard CD audio file (WAV) is about 10 times the size (or larger) of a typical MP3 file (at 128 kbps). The chart below indicates approximately how much storage capacity is available on a 20 Gigabyte drive. Storage capacity (uncompressed) would normally be about 39 hours of music on this size drive.
Storage Chart (data rate and storage amount):
Equipment Used: Martin Logan SL3's and B&W CDM7 NT speakers, Mark Levinson No. 29 power amp and Rega Mira integrated amplifier, Meridian 568 preamp, Philips CDC-935, Rega Planet, and Rotel RCD-930 CD players, Audioquest cables, Barco 808, Marantz PV5580W, Gateway2000 Vivitron 17 monitors.
Setup 1 - Basic Audio: I first hooked up the ARQ1 to my stereo system with only a pair of audio interconnects and controlled it with the handheld remote. The unit is heavy (25 lbs) and well built. Basically it is a computer inside with a CD-ROM drawer and an LCD screen. I didn't really like the feel of the eject button, but lived with it. Being a computer it is subject to a 40 second initial start up time (hard start), but normally a soft start via remote takes a couple of seconds. The unit has a fan for cooling. During my testing the fan was about as loud as a computer fan, meaning that if the unit is going to be in a typical living room stereo system, it might be best to locate it in a cabinet or well away from the listening spot.
The unit comes loaded with some music already so I was able to play something right away. Immediately I realized that the sound was very good! I've heard so many things about the poor quality of MP3 that I was prejudiced from the start. But after listening to a Latin jazz track from the ARQ1 I dropped those preconceptions. The unit offers volume control, but I had no need of it in my system. I did try it and it functioned as expected, although I didn't do any quality tests with it.
The remote has all the controls necessary to do almost anything you'd want with the unit. Sometimes I had to push hard on the remote to get the signal to the unit even though I was close. Others have mentioned this problem was overcome with a software revision, or it could have been my batteries needed replacing. I discovered a forum discussion area dedicated to the Audio Request ARQ products at www.avsforum.com. I soon graduated to using a keyboard, so I stopped using the remote although I used it to turn the unit on and off and for comparison testing. I was able to go up and down the song lists and back and forth between tracks, artists, albums, etc. It has letters and symbols so you can enter in track, album, year, and title information when encoding songs. The remote gives you the ability to put the unit in standby mode. When you turn the unit back on from the remote it only takes a couple of seconds to come on. I deleted all the songs (which can be retrieved on the CD that comes with the unit) so I could start fresh. I encoded a couple of CD's and also used the unit as a standalone CD player. Everything functioned properly and worked as the manual suggests.
In fact, the Audio Request ARQ1 has one of the best manuals I've ever come across. It is well laid out and talks you through setup and every operation and function of the ARQ1. There are gray tabs for the various sections that enable easy access and quick location of specific topics as well as a lengthy troubleshooting section. Hints are in the margins and are useful for complete computer novices like myself. Soon I was anxious to hookup my computer to test some of the other capabilities of the ARQ1.
Setup 2 - The Computer: I connected the unit to my computer network solely for the purpose of testing its capabilities of transferring MP3 files. Multiple ARQ units are supported via PC control. I didn't have a long cable to run from my Cable modem router box to the ARQ1, so I thought I would hook it up directly with a crossover cable to my computer's network card. I have over a hundred mp3 files that I've downloaded from various sources or have ripped from CD's that I own on my computer. Because the unit encodes at 4x, it is impractical to load a large library of music on the unit for obvious reasons. I loaded 7 CD's directly onto the unit, but got tired of going back every 20-25 minutes to change CD's. It is easy to see how you can load it up over time and eventually build an entire library.
The software install took about 20 seconds total. I followed the directions in the manual, but I couldn't get connected. I called technical support and spoke with Becky. Not only was she friendly, she knew exactly what she was doing. She suggested that instead of hooking up directly to the computer that I should move the ARQ1 temporarily in place of another computer's (my roommate's) network connection so I could take advantage of the CDDB for the 7 CD's that I had already encoded. Note: CDDB is what allows the unit to recognize the names of all the discs that have been loaded into the machine. Also, I needed to reset the network connection in the setup menu each time the unit undergoes a hard turn-off. After I got it connected she walked me through the software, and I transferred a couple of files back and forth. Transferring files was super fast! I just clicked on what files I wanted to transfer and away they went! Also, my 7 CD's were updated with Artist, Title, and Track information in about 10 seconds. I asked her for some suggestions on using the unit, and spoke to her about the ins and outs of MP3 id tags. This is important if you do a lot of downloading, because if the id tags are not correct then the information about the songs will not be correctly displayed on the ARQ1.
Next I tried to use the keyboard to control the unit directly and hooked my computer monitor directly to the Audio Request. I should mention that the ARQ1 has a screensaver should you decide to leave it permanently connected to an active monitor and don't want to run the risk of burn in. There are 5 preset themes including Sunset, Star Trek, Purple Orb, Request, and a default. Some of these have a spectrum analyzer, but the fun really begins when you use the visualizations-there are 7 presets. If you have Windows media player then you've probably encountered something very similar. When you play music through the Audio Request, the unit can generate video images that are related to the audio frequency content in the music. I sampled each mode on the 17" computer monitor, but couldn't wait to try it on the big screen. I couldn't keep the unit connected in place of the second computer (which is not mine), so I connected the ARQ1 back to the stereo system.
Setup 3 - Advanced Audio and Video: The last step was to hook up the Audio Request ARQ1 in a more permanent location. I wanted to maintain some of the flexibility and the video capability of the computer setup, but needed more control than what was available with the basic audio setup. I connected a keyboard (AT) to the ARQ1, and ran the video to my projector. Included with the unit are 2 keyboard overlays that label the various buttons needed for one-touch commands. At this point I did not have the unit connected to the network, but I was more interested in playing music, watching the visuals, and assessing the audio quality of the unit.
First off, the video quality through the composite video connection looked just ok. Obviously this is not a DVD player, so I wasn't expecting DVD quality. The video looked more suited to being displayed on a graphics monitor, and looked best with the VGA output. Still, the graphics were not super high quality. The manual mentions that the visuals can be utilized with external sources when they are connected to the line inputs.
One of features of the ARQ1 is the ability to encode analog sources as well. I would suggest feeding the tape out from a preamp, integrated amp, or receiver if you want to take advantage of the visuals and/or the encoding capability. The manual mentions LP encoding, but doesn't state anything about a phonograph preamp. The unit doesn't seem to have any way to properly equalize an LP pickup, so I guess they assume that you would be using an intermediary piece such as a conventional preamp, integrated, or receiver with a phonograph input. Just for kicks I hooked the analog output of the CD changer to the ARQ1 and recorded track 1 from Alice In Chains Unplugged Album. The first problem I encountered was with the record level indicator. No matter how low I set the level, the indicator still went into the red. Frankly, this is one area where the manual is deficient. There is no explanation of how one should use this indicator with the exception of a blurb about lowering the control makes the audio quieter and raising the control makes the audio louder. Yeah. I did the best I could, but I didn't know if the indicator was working like an analog recording meter or a digital meter.
There seemed to be slightly more loss in the recording than some of the other 128 kbps digital recordings I made. However, for tape and less important sources, the line in recording capability would be more than effective. For serious recorders who want to use analog sources a better CD burner might be an option. One of the big omissions on the ARQ1 is the lack of digital inputs and outputs. When recording from DAT, MD, DCC, LD, or any other digital format that is not CD, the analog inputs must be used. This seems like a big drawback when trying to preserve audio quality. Many surround pieces these days advertise the fact that they do MPEG decoding and accept a digital input. This would also allow digital recording on a compatible device too. This way the digital signal could be passed to a device with better quality D/A converters and/ or a better analog section resulting in better sound.
I don't own a portable RIO MP3 player, so I was unable to try downloading from the ARQ1. I assume it would be a fairly straightforward procedure and it is accessed through the MENU button.
Operation: On a basic level the ARQ1 is a CD player. When the unit is hooked up in normal operation it is a simple procedure to load a disc and press play. All the functions that are present in a normal CD player are present here, including skipping, scanning, program play, shuffle, repeat, pause, and intro play.
Also, the unit functions like a huge multi-disc changer. You get a component that can store 100's of hours of music with almost instantaneous access, and a Jukebox feature that allows you to select songs on the fly and have them play back in the order selected. Also, play lists can be programmed in any manner for various groupings, such as music genre. The songs can be listed in full, by album title, by artist, or from a play list. Like many of the big multi-changers when video is connected we can watch a cool light display in time to the music, easily view play lists, and adjust various options on the ARQ1. Unlike a typical mega changer, there is no need to have your CD's stuck in a single machine. Once the songs are loaded you can do whatever you want with the CD's. Also, I was able to transport the unit to a friend's house and quickly hook it up and play songs instantly. Normally, one would never consider trying to move a big CD changer full of CD's for this purpose.
And finally, when a computer is added to the mix then you get automatic disc labeling, music sharing, remote room control, and superior functionality. Even if you don't intend to use the computer for file transferring or system control, it is almost essential for CDDB capability. Once you have it connected you may find that encoding and then transferring (if you have a fast machine) is much quicker on the computer rather than using the CD slot on the ARQ1 itself. Even with my older Pentium 200 (!) machine I could download a song from www.napster.com using a cable modem and load it onto the Audio Request in slightly less time than encoding directly. Using the ARQ1 still gives the option of selecting the data rate--that is not always the case when downloading (files are almost always in the default 128 kbps rate although you can search for files with higher data rates on Napster). The computer software is icon driven and is very simple to use after 1 or 2 tries.
The first thing that is visible in the LCD display is CD, All Songs, Artists, and Albums. Moving the cursor up and down selects between these categories or goes down to scroll through Now Playing, Network Shared, Selected Songs, and then the user-entered play lists. Moving the cursor to the right moves into these categories and then pressing ENTER selects. CANCEL or MODE allows you to go back. The main menu allows you to select line-in recording, change views, download to a portable player, change settings, start a new play list, or get system information. After you've loaded the ARQ1 with tons of music you might wonder how much space is left. Going into the setup menu and selecting "System Information" easily determines this. It displays what per cent of the space is used, how many songs are in the system, how many albums, how many pending CDDB's exist, how many active CDDB's exist, and the amount of Gigabytes used. The settings menu allows you to adjust the screensaver, change from NTSC to PAL video, reset the unit (delete everything), reset the CDDB, change the network configuration, change the time/date, and most importantly alter the recording data rate.
Deleting is done simply by pushing the delete button, and then the ARQ1 queries whether you want to delete from the play list or permanently, and then gives you a chance to confirm. When recording is taking place there are music notes that indicate song and total progress on the front LCD display or visually in the video display. Unfortunately, it is impossible to listen to music from the Audio Request ARQ1 while recording is taking place. However, if you start recording during the middle of a listening session, when recording is complete the unit will continue right where you left off.
During testing I only had a few moments of difficulty with the ARQ1. When I would skip quickly (via keyboard) back and forth between songs, occasionally I would encounter a brief skip a few seconds into the song when the unit began to play. When left to play by itself it never seemed to have this problem. I can only guess that my rapid button pushing was over exercising its cueing ability. A more serious problem occurred when I pushed a button or two (like CANCEL) before letting the ARQ1 go into recording mode. Sometimes when I started the recording of a track by mistake rather than the entire disc, I tried to quickly stop the operation and then the unit would freeze and none of the controls would have any effect. At this point the only thing to do is a hard turn-off. The ARQ1 always returned to normal operation after this occurred. I asked tech support about this, and Becky assured me that it was okay to reset the unit in this manner. She also said that occasionally this did occur, but it was only a concern if it happened often. Normal, practiced use would seem to obviate the risk of this happening. I guess I was just a little too impatient. Otherwise, the ARQ1 worked exactly as advertised. One thing I would definitely like to see is an ability to know what the encoding rate is on songs that are already inside the unit. I was told that there would be a software update to allow the display to contain more information in an even more useful manner. Updates are one of the many advantages of this type of machine.
Listening Tests: Since this is my first experience with a dedicated MP3 product designed for home use, I wanted to make sure I did some extended listening tests. The ARQ1 offers several different encoding rates, so I recorded track 4 from Tori Amos's Under The Pink, and "Dirty Blue" from Adam Makowicz's The Name Is Makowicz. I thought the 64 kbps setting was pretty much useless for hi-fi recording-it sounded worse than 3" bad quality car speakers. The 96 kbps had a little more high frequencies but distorted the sound in other ways. These settings may not even be useful for accurate voice recording unless you just wanted to get the sound recorded at all. The 128 kbps rate is the default and for good reason! At this setting the sound jumps a tremendous amount in quality from the lower settings. At this point I decided not to bother recording anything else at a lower rate.
The next comparison for reference before listening to higher rates involved a comparison with a slightly more expensive stand-alone CD player-the Rega Planet. When going back and forth between the 128 setting and the Rega I'd say that the sound was better on the Rega in just about every way that is important to a critical listening audiophile. On a lesser system or with a cheaper player, these differences would be less noticeable. I heard a less veiled sound, less congestion, more space, better dynamics (especially micro dynamics), more air, dimensionality, liveliness, depth, width, and realism from the dedicated CD player. I even wrote my notes while listening to track 1 from Sheffield Labs Acoustic Storm-wow! To better put it in perspective I compared the ARQ1 directly with the Rotel RCD-930. As a CD player (disregarding all of its many other capabilities), the ARQ1 is a decent player. I'd rank it somewhere between the now discontinued Rotel CD player and the Rega Planet in terms of audio performance. And yes, even with the ARQ1 playing CD's I could detect differences between the changes in data rate. At this point I was happy to try and discover which rate was most acceptable from an audio archiving standpoint.
The jump to 160 kbps offered a more refined sound that I'd describe as cleaner with more resolution, and instruments and voices were more distinct. For other testing aside from the 3 tracks previously mentioned, I added track 1 from Steely Dan's latest recording Two Against Nature. This was a more than acceptable rate for recording. Lesser recordings would probably not benefit a great deal from going to 160. Yet, a few people who I spoke with who I'd consider MP3 experts, mentioned that they would never use anything less than 192 kbps, and that the differences to them were quite obvious. I haven't been listening to MP3's on a considerably good system before this time, so my experience was somewhat limited. Had I spent months with the ARQ1 in my system, I may have noticed other material that showed the differences to be more apparent.
At 192 kbps I was straining to hear the difference from the 160 setting. The saxophone from the jazz recording seemed somewhat better. When more instruments were playing, or there was a rapid change in dynamics the fact that I wasn't listening to the original CD became more noticeable. It was as if all the encoded rates took something out of the recording, but the most noticeable jumps were not necessarily from 128 to 160, or from 160 to 192.
256 kbps offered a significant jump in quality with the recordings I listened to. I had almost as many observations on improvements as there were at 128 kbps. I noticed more dynamics with piano, bass had more depth, delicacy of instrumental textures improved, transients were better, voice was improved and more real, and transitions between notes were quicker. Any of the last 3 settings (160/192/256) offered improved "audiophile" sound from MP3.
The 320 kbps setting is the highest resolution setting offered. At this setting you get about 5 times as much storage space vs. using the identical wav file on the CD (which is not an option). At 320 there was an increase in depth, the sound was more locked in spatial position or "tighter," and had more rightness to the sound of the recordings. Switching back to the CD, I still felt the sound was more dimensional, voice was more realistic, and overall everything sounded more like music. A friend who was present during some of the listening commented, "the CD sounds better. It's like the CD has 10 layers of sound whereas the 256 setting struggles for 9." Close enough for most people? Absolutely. Close enough for audiophiles? Perhaps.
Conclusion: The Audio Request ARQ1 was a fun product to review. I felt like a salesman when I was explaining to friends what it could do and how neat it was! It offers jukebox-like features in a single CD player sized unit. At one point I brought the unit over to a friend's and hooked it up to his TV so we could sit back, talk, and listen to some hip hop while being mesmerized by one of the preset visualizations. The CD playback is good enough for any basic stereo system. It was only bettered in direct comparison by a unit selling for $950, which was just a single disc player with none of the many features of the ARQ1. With the ARQ1 I was able to instantly access hundreds or even thousands of songs in a manner of seconds. This is its biggest advantage-the ability to store an entire collection of music and have it accessible in an instant. Most people will still utilize a secondary player for DVD playback or for serious critical listening. Also, it gives you something to listen to when the unit is recording.
Drawbacks were few. Loading a library of music in directly (with the CD slot) may take a long time, and would be a tedious process. For people with large collections of MP3 files on a computer already, it will be a snap. You can use the unit independent of a computer, but having it connected to a network allows operation of the CDDB system that is very worthwhile. The PC control software is easy to use and makes transfers simple and easy. Before loading a large amount of music I would suggest trying the different encoding rates to determine the setting that best suits your needs. All in all, the Audio Request ARQ1 is the most flexible jukebox I've ever had the pleasure of using. It just might be the next piece to add to your audio/video system.
- Brian Bloom firstname.lastname@example.org