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Rio parks digital audio in cars

The company begins to ship the Rio Car, an in-dash digital audio player for automobiles, starting at $1,199.

Rio's Car Rio will help motorists fuel up on digital audio.

Rio announced Monday that it has begun shipping the Rio Car, an in-dash digital audio player for automobiles. The car player has been expected since Rio's parent company, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sonicblue, acquired Empeg in October. Empeg makes digital audio players for cars that are already available in Europe.

With more than 200 million cars on American roads, there is a huge market waiting to be tapped--although gathering acceptance will take some time, according to Thilo Koslowski, a Gartner analyst.

Digital music isn't expected to gain mass popularity until the players come pre-installed in new cars.

"People generally like to have all their components already installed, so this player will have to be extremely easy to install if they want to get any sort of penetration," Koslowski said.

The Rio Car can be used with existing tape decks, AM/FM radios, CD players and amplifiers, according to Rio. The component slides out of a standard car stereo slot and can be attached to a home stereo system.

The player will face competition from car parts giants Delphi and Visteon, which plan to have similar digital audio players out this summer.

There are four versions of the Rio Car player, ranging from $1,199 for the 10GB model to $1,999 for the 60GB one. People will be able to store up to 1,000 hours of audio on the 60GB model, depending on the quality of the recording, according to the company.

At those prices, the Rio Car is not looking at mainstream acceptance anytime soon but there is a sizable enthusiast crowd that "gets it" says P.J. McNealy, an analyst at Gartner.

"They're thinking early adopters because they are the only ones that will understand how valuable 1,000 hours of music can be," McNealy said.

Other features of the player include an LED that displays song titles and artists, a remote control, and a USB connection for downloading music.