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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 "="" http:="" www.download.com="" 3000-2168-10199694.html?tag="txt" "="">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.
No doubt about it: the Aireo 2's wireless capabilities put this player in a class by itself. But how does it stack up as a music player? In terms of audio formats at least, the Aireo falls a bit short: only MP3 and unprotected WMA files are supported, leaving those with OGG, AAC, or even WAV files high and dry. (SoniqCast says support for protected WMA files will come in a future firmware upgrade.) You can choose from five EQ settings (rock, pop, jazz, classical, and speech) or a user-defined setting, but there are no simulated surround or bass modes, such as SRS or TruBass. Also, while there's a shuffle mode, there aren't any repeat modes to speak of--a surprising oversight.
The Aireo boasts a solid FM receiver with 14 presets, which the player will program automatically. While that number is a bit low--we're accustomed to between 15 and 20--we like that the Aireo lets you review the stations it picks. Once you weed out the stations you don't like, the player will scan again and fill up the open presets. Unfortunately, there's no FM or line-in recording, a feature we've come to expect in hard-drive players.
The Aireo's FM transmitter comes with an above-average array of features, including the ability to control the volume, switch from stereo to mono modes, and change the FM frequency from the playback screen.Sound quality on the SoniqCast Aireo 2 is excellent, with plenty of high-range detail and deep bass, especially when we used the EQ presets, and more than enough volume. The included wraparound headphones are predictably average; we recommend swapping them out for a better set.
Getting the Aireo to connect to a Wi-Fi network turned out to be trickier than it sounds. Our experience using an Apple AirPort base station was frustrating. However, using a NetGear wireless router, we were able to connect within seconds and make wireless transfers both with our SoniqCast library and the Audible.com service--although, obviously, at a much slower rate than via USB 2.0. Out on the street, where the Wi-Fi environment is less controlled, we were able to connect to open hot spots but weren't able to access Audible.com updates.
We got a mere 6 hours of battery life from the Aireo 2, compared to 10 to 12 hours for similar hard drive music players. That figure in itself is a deal breaker, especially considering that using the built-in Wi-Fi will no doubt drain the battery even more. Data transfer times of less than 0.5 MB per second over WiFi were considerably slower than the 2.82MB per second we got via USB 2.0.