By Nat Wilkins
A hard drive-based jukebox and a CD burner rolled into one, the pricey Sonicblue Rio Central digital-audio server merits the consideration of any well-heeled gear head. It's an extremely flexible, powerful MP3-capable home-stereo component that's remarkably easy to set up and use--plus, it sounds great and has a mammoth 40GB of storage capacity. By Nat Wilkins
A hard drive-based jukebox and a CD burner rolled into one, the pricey Sonicblue Rio Central digital-audio server merits the consideration of any well-heeled gear head. It's an extremely flexible, powerful MP3-capable home-stereo component that's remarkably easy to set up and use--plus, it sounds great and has a mammoth 40GB of storage capacity.
Surprisingly easy to set up
Setting up home-audio servers can be a real nightmare, but with the Central, this process is a dream. We simply plugged it in, connected the digital optical output (analog RCA--but not coaxial digital--is also available) to a home stereo, and watched as it configured itself. The Rio Central was playing a CD in no time.
Attaching this gizmo to a PC with the USB cable was just as easy; it installed itself immediately. And the enclosed software made transferring MP3s and WMAs from a computer to the Central a mere matter of copying and pasting. This software also enables you to browse the Central's contents and control playback from your PC.
Next, we popped in a CD--Kiss Alive III, if you must know--and a prompt appeared on the bright, large (5.75 by 3.5 inches), color LCD, asking us to choose from several options: playing the CD, recording the CD, or recording and playing it simultaneously. It took seven minutes to transfer the CD's contents to the Rio Central's hard drive--about right, considering the device's 10X ripping speed.
All music is stored on the built-in 40GB hard drive. According to Sonicblue, that's enough room to store about 6,500 songs of average length ripped at 128Kbps. The Rio Central can encode CDs to the MP3 format at bit rates between 128Kbps and 320Kbps. All tunes are automatically named by the Central's internal database, but if a song's info isn't there, the device can grab the info from the online Gracenote service via its internal 56Kbps modem.
Slow CD burning but quick navigation
The Rio Central can burn audio CDs or MP3 CDs from its hard drive to its CD-RW drive, but both processes take a while--29 minutes total, which is too long as far as we're concerned. On the other hand, the advanced song-navigation features impressed us completely. Tunes stored on the unit's hard drive are automatically categorized into a variety of menus: Artist, Album, Genre, Year, Most Recently Played, Newest Recordings, Top 40 (Most Played), and Least Played. In conjunction with the aforementioned display, this categorization scheme makes it easy to find songs for recording to CD, queue tracks for listening, program playlists, and transfer MP3s to one of Sonicblue's Rio-series MP3 players using one of the Central's three USB ports (one in the front, two in the back). We loaded up a Rio 600 in this manner and didn't encounter any problems.
Another plus: The Central can also send music to up to five around your house. Setting such a system up is strikingly easy. All we had to do was plug both units into phone jacks (Ethernet works too), and bingo--we could navigate and play the Central's MP3 collection from the Rio Receiver, even while the Central itself played something else.
On a more critical note, the device's case is entirely plastic and feels less solid than that of most other high-end audio components. Also, the full-function remote's tiny buttons aren't backlit. But as far as sound quality goes, the Rio Central is high-end all the way, with audiophile-worthy specs: a 24-bit, 96KHz Burr-Brown digital-analog converter, 115dB channel separation, and a 101.5dB signal-to-noise ratio. Soundwise, the Central outperforms every MP3 product we've reviewed.
Great system, steep price
Needless to say, we came away pretty enthused with this multifaceted home-audio component, which can interface with your PC, store your entire MP3 collection, and burn CDs from its hard drive's contents. Unfortunately, all of this smooth functionality comes with a steep $1,500 price tag. Still, if you want the MP3s that you play over your stereo to sound great, the Central is the way to go.