The first AM/FM stereo receiver with full-blown digital-audio-receiver (DAR) capabilities, Onkyo's NC-500 makes Internet audio feel like a natural part of your stereo system. This device receives Web radio stations and plays MP3, WMA, and WAV files stored on your PC. Setup is simple, features are plentiful, and sound quality is up to audiophile standards. Measuring 8.0 by 3.5 by 11.0 inches, the NC-500's front panel is about half the width of a full-sized stereo component, so don't count on stacking other components on top of it. While the Onkyo's silver front panel has a slick, expensive appearance, the low-contrast, white dye with which the button labels were printed can make them tricky to read in low lighting. The 20-character-by-four-line, dot matrix, front-panel display is relatively large at 1.5 by 4.0 inches, but it can't be read from a distance. Due to the remote's lack of a backlight and the difficulty of reading a small LCD from across the room, most people will choose the television-display option discussed in the Features tab.
Compared to some other Ethernet-based DARs that we've tested, the NC-500 was completely painless to set up. After unpacking the slick microcomponent, we connected speakers, hooked its TV output to our television, installed the Net-Tune PC server software, and ran the Ethernet cable from the NC-500 to our router. Notably, the Onkyo was able to receive Internet-radio broadcasts as soon as it connected to our network.
After installation, the Net-Tune software prompted us to run its database builder, which indexes audio files on networked PC hard drives. The app also includes an ID3-tag editor and a log viewer, which details the NC-500's network status. Overall, the software has a sparse design, but each of its three components does its specific job effectively.
Because the remote control has dedicated buttons for iNet Radio and your digital-music collection, as well as AM/FM-tuner auxiliary controls, choosing a new listening mode is a simple affair. Once a source is selected, the remote's directional navigation buttons make browsing lists of music and radio stations equally effortless. As a nice bonus, the remote has shortcut buttons for album, artist, genre, and playlist, making for lightning-fast access to your PC's tunes. The NC-500 plays MP3, WMA, and WAV files stored on any network-connected PC that's running the Net-Tune software, so even if you have music on multiple machines, you can browse all of it by title, artist, album, genre, or playlist. This DAR also offers access to hundreds of Internet radio stations, accessible by genre, location, or language. Store your favorites in 20 Internet-radio presets, which supplement the 40 AM/FM presets.
The NC-500's rear panel hosts an Ethernet port; an onscreen-display output; an analog auxiliary-audio input (RCA type); two analog-audio outputs (one fixed and one variable-RCA type); AM and FM antenna ports; and spring-clip connections for two speakers. In addition, a TV output lets you navigate menus on your television screen--a big plus in our book.
The NC-500's biggest shortcoming is its scarcity of audio inputs and outputs. If you're using the DAR as your main receiver and amplifier, you can connect only one input device, such as a CD player; your phonograph and other components will have to go into storage. That said, the NC-500's line outputs do allow it to act as a component in a system that's organized around another receiver or amplifier.
The unit's built-in amp outputs 15 watts (RMS) per channel, which can be sent directly to speakers--either the ones that are included in Onkyo's NC-500PGK or your own replacements. The NC-500 sounded remarkably clean--thanks to an audiophile-level signal-to-noise ratio of 100dB--when we used it as a component to our Pioneer Elite integrated amplifier, allowing the Pioneer to handle the amplification duties. By contrast, our 88dB-sensitivity Event 20/20 studio monitors and 89dB-sensitivity Paradigm Titans sounded merely acceptable when driven by the NC-500. This DAR's limited wattage was especially evident in its narrow dynamic range. The bottom line: If you're going to use the NC-500 as an amplifier, match it with small, efficient speakers, such as the ones that come with the aforementioned Onkyo Net-Tune NC-500PKG.