AudioReQuest F4.500 Audio Server
Let's fantasize a bit. Let's run wild. Let's say your hunger for music has genetically transmitted itself to your kids. Now let's postulate that every member of the family has different musical tastes. Fortunately, your McMansion is big enough to let everyone blast away with impunity. Now all you've got to do is serve up, say, four audio feeds. In your designer home, local systems would be a recurring eyesore—you want your multizone system to do the serving. All you've got to do is find an audio server that'll satisfy four mutually incompatible music lovers in four separate zones at once.
Far fetched? Add the digital-music revolution to the long, steady growth in whole-house audio systems, and a multisource server isn't such a stretch. And even if your house doesn't contain four warring music lovers, you still might get as obsessed with the new AudioReQuest F4.500 four-zone audio server as I was for the month that I hogged the first available review sample.
Every time I wanted to play a new CD, or an old one for that matter, I ripped it with the server and listened to it that way. Keying in my selections on the optional Elo Entuitive 1525/27L touchscreen somehow got to feel more natural than picking discs off the shelf. And the ripped tracks sounded as good as the original CDs, partly because AudioReQuest supports lossless file formats and partly because the soundcard has been upgraded in the new F.Series. I connected one of the analog outputs to my 2.1-channel desktop system and one of the digital outs to my reference surround system. Both sounded superb. For the duration of the review loan, my universal disc player gathered dust.
This custom-install-centric system is designed to be always on and to live in a closet. If you like having direct access to it, an acoustically isolated, well ventilated cabinet would do just as well—that would take care of the fan's noise and protect the unit from its tendency to suck in dust through the front panel. Killing the fan requires powering down followed by a hard boot (not recommended). If a perpetually live touchscreen bothers you, that powers down easily and powers up quickly.
The front panel has just a CD drive and a small character-based display. Detach the incredibly handsome 0.5-inch aluminum faceplate for access to a keyboard input and the QuickSwap disc drive. The latter is removable, so you can carry it to the AudioReQuest system in your vacation home-though you could also access the system remotely via the web.
3 Paths to Joy
There are three ways to control the system. I usually stuck with Elo's 15-inch color touchscreen, the newest and coolest way to operate an ARQ. But I also ran it from my PC with the JavaRemote, and tried out the remote control. In a nutshell, there is the AudioReQuest approach—supply every possible option to a custom-install-oriented consumer who can well afford it.
Fast encoding is another new feature of the F.Series. It takes three or four minutes to rip a CD to lossless Windows WAV, open-source FLAC, or (for greater capacity) lossy MP3. The system also plays back Ogg Vorbis. You can bump MP3s to an iPod through iTunes, with the ARQ showing up as a networked hard drive. The metadata lookup source is open-source FreeDB, except for album art, which comes from Loudeye. Unless you're heavily into ultra-small-label classical or world music, these databases will cover your basic needs. Accents and nonroman fonts are not supported (though I've been surprised to note that both iTunes and Windows Media Player speak, for example, Chinese). About 500 CDs fit on the 300-gigabyte hard drive with WAV encoding. Ripping in MP3 would quadruple capacity.
The ARQ works like any other music player only better. Once you've amassed a library, the touchscreen offers six giant buttons—Artist, Album, Genre, Playlist, Song, or Random play—along with transport, volume, and help. You can search by artist, album, genre, or song by keying your desires into an onscreen keyboard. Whatever you've selected, you can always add items to the queue. My review sample was set up to alternate the "now playing" screen with a photo folder. (I used the slideshow feature for a tribute to Chi-chan, my former fierce little black cat.)
The JavaRemote PC interface is slightly different; it's structured in four tabs. The Player tab shows you what's going on but also lets you pick material by song, artist, and so on. The Browse tab offers choices roughly similar to the main touchscreen menu. The Manage tab is similar to Browse but offers some different actions including deletion. The menu tab leads to a character-based menu that serves as the control panel for installers or advanced users.
There are so many ways to perform basic functions that even a first-time user can blunder into the touchscreen or PC menus and get the party started. ARQ systems are as easy to use, in their own way, as anything from Fortress Jobs or Fortress Gates. However, you'll get more out of the Linux-based system if you discuss your desires with an installer and let him handle the fine points of networking and setup.
Now let's try out a few scenarios.
• Imagine yourself in a hotel room in Tokyo. You want to access your system in, say, upstate New York, which incidentally is the place where two inspired young entrepreneurs launched AudioReQuest in 1998. Your broadband-connected laptop connects to ARQLink, which in turn connects to the Web server built into your ARQ back in the States. In seconds, NetSync+ is streaming your favorite playlist into the laptop. It's the next best thing to being home.
•But you're not happy with the playlist. It includes some things you're sick of and lacks others that you ripped shortly before leaving for the airport. So you edit it remotely. You're so satisfied with the result that you e-mail the new playlist to your music buddies.
•When you get back from Japan, you find yourself in the basement workshop, hiding from the kids. This is not one of the four ARQ zones, but you do have a Wi-Fi (or perhaps Ethernet) connection. The NetSync+ streaming function also works at home and streams music from the server while you putter around.
•The kids are really getting on your nerves, so you hire a babysitter and you're off to your vacation home in Vermont. Up there, you've got a one-zone Z Series unit and broadband. Oops—you forgot to bring along the detachable F.Series hard drive. Well, no problem. You can always use NetSync+ to update the library. Oops—don't bother. The automatic backup function has already done it for you.
If you don't need four zones of pleasure, ReQuest offers several less ambitious products with lower storage capacities. The least of them costs more than, say, a PC and an iPod, but, for home listening, an ARQ system does more things and does them more easily. Giving up my review sample was hard. F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They're different than you and me." Hemingway to Fitzgerald: "Yes, they have more money." He might have added that they have more fun too.
• Encodes up to 500 CDs with lossless audio quality
• Individual feeds to four zones
• Remote access and streaming
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. For links to the latest edition, visit www.quietriverpress.com