(Dave)While sitting at my PC writing this section, I'm listening to some of my favorite music (as it happens, Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson). I've set up the AudioTron to find all my "folk-rock" albums, and play all the songs in random order. Yesterday, I asked it to play tracks from all my CDs in random order.
At the same time, I'm using AudioStation to "rip" my CDs to disk so I can play them on the AudioTron. At this point, I've recorded 890 tracks from 69 CDs and I'm adding them as fast as I can. It's as nearly automatic as could be -- AudioStation uses CDDB through my broadband Internet connection to get all the information about a CD within 20 seconds after I put the CD in the drive, and it finishes ripping each disk within four minutes.
While I've encountered a few setup problems, I'm very impressed with this system and doubt I'll be able to live without it. Sandy hasn't been able to play with it yet, so we'll report on her evaluation and some additional features in next month's issue.
Now I wish I could do the same thing with all my vinyl disks!
When we visited EH Expo last month, we saw the AudioTron for the first time. Seth Dotterer, director of marketing at Turtle Beach, was kind enough to arrange for us to borrow one for evaluation. We've had it for about 10 days and I've been playing music on it almost constantly since I got it working.
Turtle Beach describes AudioTron as a "digital music player for home networks". It is packaged as a piece of audio equipment designed to fit in with and connect to the home entertainment center. It connects to a home network with Ethernet or HPNA phoneline networking. Once AudioTron is set up, it searches the hard drives on all computers connected to the network for music files, and creates its own index by artist, album, track and genre.
It couldn't be much easier to use. With the front panel or remote control, you just select one or more tracks to play - by artist, album, track or genre. They can be played in track or random order, and you have all the buttons you'd expect to pause playback, go backward and forward, control volume and more.
For the purpose of this review, I've set up the AudioTron on the conference table across from my desk. That way, I can point the remote control at it to keep the music going, rip disks, and write this review at the same time! The AudioTron has standard RCA jacks for audio output - for now I've connected it to a spare set of computer speakers. (I had to go out and buy an adapter - too bad it wasn't included with the kit.)
Setting it up was the hard part. While we have a rather complex network at home -- a Windows NT domain with eight PCs running everything from Windows 3.11 to XP Pro -- we were impressed that AudioTron seemed to cope with it fine. The problem was to figure out exactly how to set up our PCs so the AudioTron could find our music files. It took a combination of reading an appendix in the detailed instruction manual installed from the CD-ROM, research on the Turtle Beach web site, and several calls to customer support to get it right. The AudioTron includes a very nice setup utility - but unfortunately it told us that we were set up correctly when we weren't.
Once I got it working and got some music on my hard drive, I've played music nearly continuously. The sound quality is generally fine, although several tracks seem distorted - perhaps I should have used a higher "quality" setting when recording the CDs with AudioStation. But I can always play the CD when I want to listen critically rather than writing a review!
AudioTron is priced right -- it's $299.95 including all the required cables and the AudioStation jukebox software.
AudioTron comes with AudioStation, a Windows "jukebox" program to create and manage the digital music library. I've used several of these programs over the years, and found that AudioStation makes it nearly effortless to rip CDs and create an index to my music library.
I installed AudioStation from the AudioTron CD, and then (following a call with customer support) downloaded a newer version from the Turtle Beach website. Once I registered AudioStation and CDDB (see below) I was ready to start ripping CDs ("ripping" is the term commonly used for reading a CD and converting it to a digital music file in a compressed format on your hard drive).
The ripping process couldn't be simpler or faster. I configured AudioStation to "Record CDs automatically on insertion." After I put a music disk into the computer CD-ROM drive, it takes about 20 seconds to see a screen indicating that CDDB has found the metadata for the disk (see below) and AudioStation automatically starts ripping (it calls it "recording") the CD to my hard drive. It finishes processing a CD within four minutes. At that point, it has added the album as a folder on my hard drive, with each of the tracks as a file in WMA format. It also builds a database of artists, albums and tracks.
I'm glad that my new machine has a fast processor (1.8 GHz) and a big (80GB) hard drive. AudioStation uses just about all the CPU cycles while ripping CDs. Each album requires about 35 MB of disk space so I've already used about 3.5 GB while working on this review. But at this point I've recorded 99 albums and almost 1400 tracks - more than 86 hours playing time according to AudioStation.
I could play the music from my new library directly on my PC with AudioStation, but it's easier to use AudioTron. Once I move AudioTron to another room, I'll probably start using AudioStation as the player.
I had some setup problems with AudioStation, but was impressed that it properly supported both our Windows NT domain and the XP Pro operating system on my new machine. I'm still having a problem getting it working on Sandy's XP Pro machine and hope to resolve the problem in a few days so she can use it too.
So far, I've ripped all of the disks at a "medium" quality level of 96 Kbps - perhaps I should have ripped them at higher quality. But the process is so effortless that I can go back and do it again for the albums that need it.
AudioStation is priced at $29.95 in a box, or $19.95 for a download. There's also a free demo version with a few features disabled.
CDDB - Gracenote
CDDB is an online music data base that's essential to the operation of AudioTron and AudioStation. CDDB comes from Gracenote, a sister company to OpenGlobe (see our separate article). CDDB's data base has the "metadata" for almost a million albums and 10 million songs, all available online from CDDB's servers through the Internet. Nearly all jukebox programs and standalone devices use CDDB's database and online service.
CDDB was the pioneer in building an online database of CD metadata. The database is built by user submissions: users enter metadata (album name, artist, genre, song titles and more) for albums that aren't in the database, and to correct mistakes in entries that are already there.
This approach makes CDDB a very broad database (it failed to find only 5 CDs in my collection, all pretty obscure and probably self-published), but it creates inconsistencies in the metadata - such as slightly different artist names and/or genres on different CDs by the same people. Once I'm done with this review, I'll submit metadata for the CDs it couldn't find and corrections for some of the others.
The Future Of Audio
Using AudioTron/AudioStation/CDDB and musing on what Rob Hudson said about OpenGlobe got us thinking about where this is heading. The PC and consumer electronics worlds are moving closer all the time.
I'm using AudioStation on my PC to build a collection of songs from all of our CDs, cataloged automatically by artist and album. AudioStation is using the online metadata from CDDB to build an index. Stepping away from the PC, AudioTron uses the index so we can search for and play music any way we want - by track, album, artist, etc - and anywhere we want (at least anywhere our network goes).
While we think the system is great, we'd like to play the audio selectively on any set of speakers in our house - but we'd have to get multiple AudioTrons to do that. And we miss the additional metadata (artist bios and cross links) that OpenGlobe provides to advanced consumer electronics devices in the home entertainment center.
Because AudioTron is already connected to our home network, it's not a big stretch of the imagination to extend it to add UPnP-based music server functionality. If we installed UPnP speakers like those shown at EH Expo by GE SMART (see BBHR 4/2/2002), AudioTron could provide their music under control of any "control point". It's only a little more of a stretch to extend AudioTron with video output and a broadband link to OpenGlobe.
Looking further out, we'd sure like to see music servers running on networked devices like AudioTron and on one of our PCs, both with access to all the music in the house. We'll upgrade all our loudspeakers so they're connected to the home network and controllable through UPnP. We'll carry around a wireless web tablet to select music from the server's index, control which speakers are playing, and view the CDDB and OpenGlobe metadata while we're listening to the music. May sound far-fetched but it's not far away...