Review summary With so many cookie-cutter products passing through our doors each week, it's always a pleasure to discover a device as innovative as SoniqCast's $200 Element Aireo wireless portable music player. Equipped with both an 802.11b Wi-Fi interface and an FM transmitter, this nifty device can broadcast its output to any FM radio in your house or car. It will automatically download new content from your PC or from online services through your wireless network or a public hot spot. Though the Aireo has a few growing pains, we were knocked out by what could be the most innovative portable music device since the original Apple iPod. 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 Aireo's ruggedly built, iPod-size chassis boasts a water-resistant rubberized finish and responsive, low-latency buttons that click smartly when pressed. Its streamlined front panel consists of Mode and Menu buttons, a four-way jog control, and an oversized backlit display. On the sides are a power button, a slot for up to 1GB of Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard flash memory, and a pair of headphone jacks that can accommodate two simultaneous listeners.
The Aireo's primary storage medium is a tiny 1.5GB Cornice hard drive. Despite the fact that the player is nearly twice the size of Cornice models such as the Rio Nitrus, its ergonomic design places all controls within easy reach of your thumb. Overall, the player has a utilitarian feel, but users who value small form factors and high-capacity (such as the 4GB iPod Mini) may be turned off by its relatively large dimensions (0.7 by 4.6 inches by 0.9 inches) and 8-ounce weight. Because the Aireo's Windows-only software is stored on its hard drive, there's no need for a setup CD. First-time hookup is an elaborate process that involves multiple downloading, configuring, and upgrading chores, but if all goes well, you'll find yourself listening to music less than an hour after first plugging the device into a USB 1.1 port. Much of the upfront work involves configuring the bundled SoniqSync Music Manager application to access MP3 and unprotected WMA content stored on your PC in Musicmatch and Windows Media Player playlists.
The Aireo can download music from any PC running SoniqSync through either a tethered USB connection or a wireless 802.11b Wi-Fi network. Its integrated FM transmitter converts the device into a virtual radio station that can play music on any FM radio in your house or car. These features work synergistically with the Aireo's ability to schedule unattended music downloads. Leave the player in your car overnight (powered through its optional 12V charger/dock) within range of your Wi-Fi network, and it will automatically download music added that day to playlists on your PC.
SoniqSync's streamlined interface is enhanced by wizardlike pop-up Help windows that guide you through most tasks.
If all this isn't enough, the Aireo's hard drive can also serve as a file caddy. When connected to your computer via USB, the player appears in Windows Explorer as a removable 1.5GB storage device that can be used to store and transport computer files. (This function is not available through wireless connections.) This is one area where extra hard drive capacity could help.
The Aireo's menu system is simple enough to learn, but its modest navigation functions are limited to choosing whether to play a single track; a playlist; or all the songs associated with one genre, artist, or album. The Aireo offers a seven-band equalizer, a built-in FM tuner, and a song-shuffle option but lacks common features such as the ability to create and delete playlists on the fly. It has no built-in microphone or voice-recording capabilities, and although it can play music stored on SD or MMC media, it can't save content onto the cards.
We tested three different Aireo units over a period of four months. During that time, SoniqCast continuously upgraded the device's feature set, interface, and application software. The company continues to aggressively add features as we go to press, and by the time you read this, expects to have added luxuries such as EQ and FM station presets and a keypad lock. All enhancements can be made to existing players by downloading free software and firmware upgrades.
We were particularly impressed by the addition of Audible.com support, which was implemented in the Aireo's most recent version 3.2 firmware. Users who purchase an Audible subscription can now transfer downloaded Audible content from their PC to the player with just a few clicks. More importantly, SoniqCast claims that the Aireo is the first handheld music player that can wirelessly retrieve online content directly from Audible.com without passing through an intermediate PC. Even if you're out of range of your own wireless network, the Aireo can download selections from your online Audible library through any public or private 802.11b wireless access point (WAP), a task that's facilitated by the Aireo's handy HotSpotz function, which locates and identifies Wi-Fi hot spots on the fly. Also, for a limited time, you can take $100 off the price of an Aireo with a one-year subscription to Audible.com.
These features are especially useful when combined with the Aireo's other capabilities. You can set up the player to automatically retrieve the morning paper from Audible in time for your commute to work or to download an entire audiobook bestseller from hot spots you traverse as you stroll through town. In addition to thousands of audiobooks and a constantly updated library of popular radio broadcasts, Audible offers spoken-word versions of newspapers and magazines that include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company. SoniqCast is already in the process of adding similar support for other online-content services, including ReplayRadio.
The Aireo ships with one set of behind-the-head earphones, a USB cable, an AC power adapter, and an imitation leather carrying case with belt hook. Optional accessories include a 12V automobile ($25) adapter and the $40 combo 12V charger/docking station that lets you power and store the Aireo in your car. SoniqCast offers unlimited technical support at a toll-free number from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.
Configuring the Aireo for its first dynamic download is a cumbersome task that involves creating Musicmatch and Windows Media Player playlists, then loading them into the SoniqSync "mixes" section of the software. These mixes are transferred to the player. But once we completed the initial setup, adding and deleting music from the device was relatively simple. Each time the Aireo synchronizes itself with your PC, it automatically updates the songs in its locally stored mixes to match the contents of the corresponding playlists on your computer. The player normally deletes any tracks that you've listened to in their entirety since the last update, but it lets you preserve specific songs by tagging them as permanent Favorites.
The Aireo's FM reception and sound quality were surprisingly good and, in most cases, were limited by only the quality of the radio and the content itself. The player's autoscan feature does a good job of finding an FM frequency that isn't overwhelmed by adjacent stations (you can also select one manually), but you'll occasionally need to switch frequencies on long road trips to compensate for changes in local reception.
Obtaining a good transmission signal sometimes took a bit of experimentation. The Aireo's highly directional transmitter had limited but acceptable range, and we loved the way each radio in the house picked up its output as we walked from room to room. But in the car, it took a bit of fiddling to find the clearest path to the antenna. Being able to manually adjust the Aireo's FM signal strength made the job much easier, but we obtained the best results in rural areas where it was easier to find an unoccupied band.
We were impressed with the Aireo's wizard-driven Wi-Fi dock-and-sync procedure. After enduring horrific problems configuring other 802.11b devices, it was refreshing to watch it automatically detect our network and identify all attached PCs that were running SoniqSync.
Using Windows Explorer, we were able to transfer songs at a rate of about 0.48MB per second--acceptable for a USB 1.1 device but far behind what we would have expected had the Aireo offered a USB 2.0 or FireWire interface. However, the transfer medium isn't necessarily the limiting factor in the Aireo's music-download performance. Using SoniqSync to copy the same files to the player over USB gave us a rate of about 0.30MB per second, while doing so over an 11Mbps 802.11b wireless connection resulted in a rate just a touch slower, at about 0.29MB per second.
On average, it took our test unit only about five minutes to download each hour of Audible content from a Wi-Fi-connected test-bed PC. Despite a high level of compression, the Audible audio codec consistently produced great-sounding spoken-word output.
Battery life, on the other hand, was unexceptional. Our evaluation unit played continuously at moderate volume for 4 hours, 35 minutes before shutting itself off due to low battery conditions, considerably less than the 7 hours specified by SoniqCast.
Our test unit's unattended music-update function worked well, as did its HotSpotz feature, which clearly detected Wi-Fi hot spots as we walked around the neighborhood. (The Aireo identifies specific PCs on a wireless network only if they're running SoniqSync.) The Aireo worked well with WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy)-encrypted networks but won't support the newer, more secure WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) protocol until later this year.