SoniqCast Aireo 2
The original may have been big and bulky for a 1.5GB MP3 player, but it had an ace up its sleeve: the ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks for music transfers. A year later, the thinner and lighter 20GB SoniqCast Aireo 2 has arrived, and its wireless capabilities still make a big impression. Judged purely as an MP3 player, however, the Aireo falters with its too-spare interface, limited playback options, touch-and-go Wi-Fi connectivity, and poor battery life. Early adopters will get a kick out of this mold-breaking device, but those looking for a more solid music player should stick with the iPod or any other top-rated MP3 player.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. The SoniqCast Aireo 2 has the same basic design as an Apple iPod, right down to its 2-inch, seven-line display and a circular, five-way navigational keypad just below. Measuring 2.6 by 0.7 by 4.1 inches and weighing 6.3 ounces, the pearlescent white Aireo 2 is actually a little smaller and lighter than its predecessor. Gone are the black rubber edges and the Mode and Menu buttons from the original Aireo; instead, the new player goes for the minimalist approach with nothing but the five-way keypad and the power button on the lower-right side of the player for controls. On the top of the Aireo is a small plastic dome that we kept pressing in vain, hoping it was another button--it's not, but it flashes blue and red when you're playing tunes or connecting to a hot spot. Flanking the groovy, lighted dome are a pair of headphone minijacks, making it easy to share your music with a buddy.
The Aireo's blue-backlit LCD does a solid job, with the icon-driven main menu guiding you to the player's various functions. Main menu items include Audio Player, FM Stereo, SoniqSync, Hot Spots, Playlists, and Preferences. We were surfing through these choices almost immediately with the five-way keypad; holding the play/select button to enter the Menu mode and pressing the reverse button to back out seems natural. We did miss having a dedicated volume control. Instead, pressing the Up button cycles you through a series of options, the first of which is volume--an irksome extra step we'd rather not have to take. In addition, you can access the player controls such as Pause only on a specific option setting, so you'll often enter a menu rather than actually pausing the player. That said, we appreciate being able to access shuffle, EQ, and FM transmission settings from the playback screen rather than having to dig through the setup menu. In general, as clever as this interface is, there is a propensity to get lost in it, but users should quickly adapt. Meanwhile, pressing the power button gives you the option of locking the keypad or putting the player in Standby mode.
This 20GB wireless Internet media player ships with a carrying case, a pair of decent behind-the-head headphones, a proprietary USB cable, a proprietary wall-wart-style power adapter, a quick-start guide, and software.Excited by the prospect of updating the SoniqCast Aireo 2 's playlists and Audible content wirelessly? Of course you are--but be prepared for a little extra setup time.
As with the original Aireo, the Aireo 2's installation package is stored on its hard drive; just connect the player to your PC's USB 2.0 port (the player appears as an external drive in Windows Explorer) and run the installer. Once the Windows-only SoniqSync software is installed and the player is paired with your system, you can choose Musicmatch or Windows Media Player playlists to copy to the Aireo. You also can set up a SoniqMix--a mix of music that changes on each sync depending on the rules you set, such as the percentage of tunes to swap out, how much hard drive space the mix can fill, and so on. Even better, SoniqSync can log onto your Audible.com account and transfer your spoken-word books and newspaper and magazine subscriptions to the player, or you can use the optional Replay Radio, a $30 download that records and transfers music from radio stations around the world. A nice bonus for Audible fans is the deep set of bookmarking tools as well as a visual representation of an Audible file's chapter sections.
Once you're done with the setup process, you're ready to Wi-Fi. The Aireo 2 will connect to your 802.11b wireless network (WPA support is available this time around, in addition to WEP) and transfer playlists, SoniqMixes, and Audible tracks manually or on a set schedule. This means the player could conceivably update itself overnight while it's sitting in your car, provided your home Wi-Fi network reaches that far. If you're on the road, you can grab new Audible files (such as your daily New York Times or Wall Street Journal digest) using a public hot spot, which you can sniff out using the player's handy Hot Spots utility that includes a signal-strength meter. According to the Aireo's developers, the device will soon be able to connect ad hoc with other Aireos.