By Nat Wilkins
Sonicblue, known more for its portable Rio MP3 players, enters the shelf-system market with the Rio EX1000. This stylish, three-piece minisystem includes an MP3-compatible CD player, a tape deck, and a digital tuner. We only wish that Sonicblue had endowed the EX1000 with better sound quality and offered a stronger MP3 CD interface. By Nat Wilkins
Sonicblue, known more for its portable Rio MP3 players, enters the shelf-system market with the Rio EX1000. This stylish, three-piece minisystem includes an MP3-compatible CD player, a tape deck, and a digital tuner. We only wish that Sonicblue had endowed the EX1000 with better sound quality and offered a stronger MP3 CD interface.
In terms of appearance, the EX1000 is pretty easy on the eyes. While the main unit is silver with a teal faceplate, the medium-density fiberboard speakers sport an attractive, maplelike laminate and pale-blue grille cloths. Weighing in at around 30 pounds, the system is solidly built, and we liked that you can choose to backlight the EX1000's 2.5-by-2-inch LCD with one of seven different colors (or you can turn the backlight off). Another plus: The front-panel buttons are laid out logically, and there's even a jog dial so that you can effortlessly tune stations and access other functions. The included remote is decent enough and is straightforward to use.
On the connectivity front, the EX1000 offers the bare minimum. The only rear-panel audio jack is a stereo (RCA) line in, which allows you to record or monitor an external audio source. However, there are no audio outputs whatsoever, so you can't record to an external device such as an audio CD recorder or a MiniDisc unit. Meanwhile, the headphone jack is the 1/8-inch miniplug size that's compatible with most of today's headphones.
The usual features
The EX1000's central unit delivers most of the functionality that you'd expect from a basic shelf system, including an AM/FM digital tuner that stores 30 station presets and a CD player that offers Repeat and Random modes and playlist programming. However, we were disappointed to find that you can't program the playback order of tracks from an MP3 CD. Also, the single-well tape deck doesn't feature noise reduction, such as Dolby B, but this is a minor omission since most people won't be buying this system for its tape deck.
A bigger gripe is that while the EX1000 supports ID3 tags, it doesn't utilize them as fully as it should. When a track from an MP3 CD is queued, the LCD shows the song title but not the artist name. Additionally, the titles of albums (folders) saved on MP3 CDs cannot be displayed. Instead, albums are represented by numbers, which can sometimes make it a hassle to find specific records or songs. It's worth mentioning that the unit can play MP3s with bit rates from 56Kbps to 320Kbps, as well as variable bit-rate (VBR) MP3s.
Sonicblue says that the EX1000 outputs 120 watts of continuous (RMS) power. The biamplified design delivers 20 watts to each vented speaker's 2-inch midrange driver and 1-inch tweeter, plus 40 watts to each speaker's 3-inch, side-firing woofer.
We didn't expect the EX1000 to sound great--and it didn't--but most listeners will find the sound quality acceptable. When we fired up Outkast's tune "Synthesizer," we experimented with the unit's S-Bass knob, selecting different levels of bass-boost intensity. The EX1000 also has four equalizer presets and a Power Surround mode that makes the sound seem a little more spacious. While the speakers' side-firing subwoofers delivered enough feel-it-in-your-chest bass to satisfy, their sloppiness was displeasing; in place of the kick drum's usual punchy accuracy, there was a blurry boom.
The EX1000's treble and midrange performance isn't particularly smooth, but it isn't excessively abrasive either. When we played Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, the Boss's voice was missing some of its characteristic lower midrange robustness, and the upper frequencies were slightly grainy. That said, the EX1000 plays loud enough for a small- or medium-sized room and doesn't easily distort unless bass boost is maximized and the volume is cranked. Ultimately, we didn't mind using the EX1000 for background music, but we wouldn't recommend it for intensive, focused listening. There are other minisystems in this price range that may not look quite as good but do sound better.
At $299 (list price), the Rio EX1000 is a bit overpriced, considering its limited features and unimpressive sound. Although you can find the EX1000 for around $250, if you're willing to forgo the tape deck, check out RCA's $200 RS2538, a five-CD unit with MP3 CD playback.