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TDK's DA-9000 CDRW Jukebox ($399) is one of those products that, with a few tweaks, could be much better than it currently is. For owners who want to digitally condense a large CD album collection, all the elements are here to make an attractive media jukebox, including a built-in 20GB hard drive, a CD burner, an updatable Gracenote database, and good sound. However, the engineers made some questionable decisions.
From a design standpoint, the black unit is fairly nondescript and decidedly not a high-end model; it looks like your standard DVD player with a seven-line LCD. The remote is the same type of bland, functional unit you'll find with most other media jukeboxes; it lacks the sort of built-in LCD found on many of Sony's CD jukeboxes. A more serious problem is the absence of USB 2.0 support, which would have sped up PC transfers, and an Ethernet jack or wireless option for connecting the unit to a home network.
On the plus side, you get an optical digital output, as well as analog stereo jacks for connecting a line-in source such as a MiniDisc deck. You can record external source material to the hard drive or to CD-R/RW discs, either as uncompressed WAV files, MP3s, or standard audio CDs.
After installing the PC Connection software, we had no problems attaching the unit to our PC and uploading MP3 files of varying bit rates to the DA-9000. Once updated through our PC's Internet connection, the DA-9000's Gracenote database recognized and labeled the tracks of Annie Lennox's just-released album, Bare. Using your PC, you can create playlists and edit track names. Playback options include random and repeat modes, and you can choose to sort by artist, album, or playlist from the unit's main menu. A rudimentary equalizer (TDK calls it effect ) is onboard as well. And should you want a hard copy of a playlist or album, you can easily burn a CD of it.
Our biggest gripes concern ripping speed, the lack of bit-rate options when ripping, and no WMA (Windows Media Audio) file support. It took us on average about 25 minutes to rip a CD to the drive, and you have only three choices when ripping tracks from a CD or a CD-R: no compression, 320Kbps, or 128Kbps. For most discriminating users, the compression sweet spot is either 160Kbps or 192Kbps, both of which offer reasonable sound quality at a reasonable file size. When forced to rip at 320Kbps, the 20GB hard drive will fit only 1,600 songs on it, as compared to the nearly 4,000 tunes you'd get at the lower-fidelity 128Kbps rate.
Those drawbacks aside, the DA-9000's sound quality was quite good. Hooked up to a Denon surround receiver and NHT tower speakers via the optical out, our MP3s sounded about as good as they possibly can. Hopefully, TDK can and will fix some of the issues we've mentioned with a firmware upgrade (easily handled via PC Connection). We'd also like to see the company come out with a deck that has a larger hard drive--say, 40GB or 60GB--and an Ethernet or wireless networking connection. If TDK makes some or any of those improvements, we'll up our score and update our review. Until then, make sure you get a deal on this one before buying.