X10, the company best known for direct marketing its spycams on the Internet, has entered the digital audio receiver (DAR) arena. At only $99 for the transmitter, a universal remote control, and one receiver unit, the Lola Wireless VGA system is by far the least-expensive DAR with TV-based music navigation that we've tested. But there's a catch: the Lola has a limited range and is more susceptible to hiss and interference than pricier wireless DARs.
The Lola is available in three varieties. The Lola Direct Connect uses a wired USB connection with your PC. The Lola Wireless VGA reviewed here and the Lola Wireless TV Video are identical except for different video outputs. We can therefore assume that both wireless products deliver the same audio performance.
Aesthetically, the Lola transmitter and receiver units aren't impressive. While their diminutive sizes helped them blend with our computer and A/V rigs, a plastic piece repeatedly popped off the transmitter, leaving its dish-shaped antenna slumped over.
Even though we had to sort through and connect a smorgasbord of cables, setup wasn't difficult. We patched the transmitter to our PC's audio and video outputs using the included splitter cables. Then, after we had installed the required software (a download from X10's Web site) and connected the transmitter to the computer's USB port, Lola's friendly Media Import Wizard led the way. In less than 30 minutes, the software scoured our hard drive, built a 5,000-song music library, and downloaded the accompanying album art over our broadband Internet connection.
Lola's two main software components are the Media Manager and the Player. You use the Media Manager to add and delete library files, search for playlists and CD artwork, and rearrange file names so they're more clearly displayed. The file-name utility is handy, but it froze a few times during our testing. The Player, Lola's user interface, has a very clean, effective, and intelligent design; its color-coding of the relevant song, artist, and album information matches the remote's.
The receiver unit fit nicely into our home-theater rack. We plugged it into a free A/V input on our receiver, but we could have just as easily connected it directly to the TV. You control the Lola receiver with a solid, midsize universal remote, whose logical layout includes directional navigation and dedicated album, artist, genre, track, and playlist keys.
Since Lola takes its video feed from your computer's video card, the Player appears simultaneously on the PC monitor and on the TV connected to the receiver unit. You'll effectively be using the entire PC screen remotely, so if you're a serious music fan, you might want to invest in a dual-monitor video card to avoid conflicts with other PC users in the household.
The transmitter has a standard USB cable, a VGA video input, and stereo RCA audio inputs. The receiver features stereo RCA audio outputs, along with composite and RF (cable TV-style) video outputs. Both units require external AC power. Connectivity is strictly analog; for fully digital audio input and output, you'll have to look to some of the more expensive DARs. Both the transmitter and the receiver have four selectable RF channels to help you avoid interference. One important note: Lola's analog transmission can result in degraded audio quality, and Lola is without the benefit of a digital system's error correction.
Lola handles a wide variety of audio file formats, including MP3, WMA, WAV, and Real Audio. It also supports M3U and PLL playlists, which makes setup especially easy if you already have an organized digital-music collection.
X10 offers 24/7 customer support, including live Internet chatting. Even on a national holiday, signing on and getting in touch with an X10 rep took us just a few minutes. The user guide is reasonably informative, but we would have preferred succinct bulleted lists rather than the dense, verbose paragraphs.
Transmission range and audio quality are Lola's biggest shortcomings. X10 says the transmitter can be up to 100 feet from the receiver, and since Lola uses RF transmission technology, it should work well even through walls. But in our testing environment, even when we set up the units about 15 feet apart in the same room, we noticed interference, including a clicking sound probably caused by another 2.4GHz RF device. Like all wireless machines that use the crowded 2.4GHz frequency, Lola is susceptible to interference from such common items as microwave ovens and cordless phones.
When we separated the receiver and transmitter by a wall and about 30 feet, the overall audio quality was worse than that of AM radio. Even when transmission-related distortion wasn't an issue, we heard some background hiss and electrical buzz. However, adjusting the antennae and repositioning the transmitter and its cables helped somewhat, and results may vary depending on factors such as the amount of RF interference in your home. For the record, we tested Lola in a crowded city building, probably the worst possible location for such a device.
If your computer's video card has an S-Video or composite-video output, you can save some cash by going with the $69 Lola Wireless TV Video system. Or you might avoid interference issues with the $49 wired Lola Direct Connect. If you want an inexpensive DAR with a better transmission range, you'll have to give up the text display and get RCA's $99.