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The Jukebox II arrived in a multicolored box with a convenient handle--strictly first class. Inside, we found a sleek, silver machine that weighs a solid 13 pounds. The majority of the controls reside behind a hidden door, so the front panel looks sparse, but that's a good thing. In terms of design, our only gripe is that both the 2.5-by-0.5-inch display and the control buttons are on the small side.
Luckily, the remote control excels. Its large (2.75-by-1.6-inch), backlit, eight-line, 22-character display is useful; not only does it show song and album titles, but it offers easy text- and icon-based menu navigation. One strange downside: The remote doesn't automatically update display information, such as the song currently playing. You can update the information on the remote by pressing the Refresh button as long as the remote isn't in Sleep mode. If it is sleeping, the remote takes a few seconds to reestablish contact with the device, then updates its display to reflect the song that's currently playing.
The 38-page, small-font manual hints at the unit's depth of features. But first, the basics: You can transfer music from a PC, rip tunes onto the Jukebox II's hard drive from an audio CD, or copy songs from an MP3 CD. Ripped files recorded through the line-in jack get converted to the MP3 format at either 128Kbps or 320Kbps, or they can be left uncompressed. The 20GB hard drive stores approximately 500 CDs, which translates to 300 hours' worth of music encoded at 128Kbps. And since--unlike --the unit doesn't have a built-in CD burner, it isn't forced to employ the annoying SCMS copy-protection system. When it comes to playback, you can play MP3s from the hard drive or a CD, or you can just put a commercial CD in the drive.
Perception Digital doesn't ship software with the unit, probably because the company wants everyone to obtain the latest firmware. This process is not a huge inconvenience, but you do have to download both a USB driver and the PDJockey software in order to transfer MP3s from your PC to the device. The simply designed software shows the contents of your hard drive in one pane and the Jukebox II's files in the other. We wish that there were a faster connection for transferring files, but USB suffices. MP3 files of any bit rate and variable bit rate can be stored on the device's hard drive. The unit doesn't directly support WMA files, but PDJockey will automatically convert them to MP3s at a slight quality loss.
All in all, the Jukebox II successfully delivers hassle-free menu navigation and song selection. From the main menu, you can browse the contents of an inserted CD, peruse the hard drive by album or artist, or search through programmable playlists. You can also select the last 20 or top 20 (most listened to) tracks, set up recording through the line input, transfer files to a SmartMedia card for use with your portable MP3 player, or dive into the system menu. We give Perception Digital major kudos for the Gracenote/CDDB functionality, which allows the deck to automatically display song and album titles from store-bought CDs without needing an Internet connection. Hopefully, Perception Digital will keep this database up-to-date and available via firmware upgrades.
Audio connectivity options include an RCA line input, a 1/8-inch miniplug headphone jack, a stereo analog output, and one optical digital S/PDIF output. However, we felt that a coaxial digital output should have been included to provide more flexibility. As noted, there's a USB port on the front panel, which at first seems like an untidy location. But after you learn that the PDHercules must be disconnected from your computer during playback, you realize that this is the logical and most convenient spot.
Good performance, relatively low price
On the performance front, this DAR delivers what it promises. A 24-bit Cirrus Logic digital-to-analog converter ensures good sounding playback--a 90dB signal-to-noise ratio through the analog outputs--while an 18-bit analog-to-digital converter delivers solid recording quality. We ripped several CDs to the unit's hard drive and encountered no errors. However, when you couple this DAR's 6X rip speed with the time required for compression, the conversion process can be slow. It took more than an hour to rip and compress Outkast's 659MB CD Aquemini. Ripping the audio without compressing it took only about 12 minutes.
While the PDHercules doesn't feature a CD burner, it costs significantly less than many units that offer comparable--if not less--functionality. Considering its great $500 price and solid feature set, we have no problem recommending the Jukebox II. If you're willing to spend more, Sonicblue's is another option.