May We Serve You? Page 2

Make Mine Broadband Four of our five servers rely on an Internet connection for certain features, including access to Gracenote's Web site. Three of them have internal modems and can use either a dial-up connection or a far faster broadband connection. The ZapMedia server requires broadband for all its Web-based features (more on these later), and the Onkyo is the only one that can't connect to the Internet.

In most homes, a broadband connection means either cable-modem or DSL service, and the Hewlett-Packard, Imerge, and ZapMedia servers sport RJ-45 Ethernet jacks to connect to it. SonicBlue's Rio includes a basic CDDB database on its hard drive but supplements it as necessary from the Web. It can connect to the Web via a HomePNA network (essentially Ethernet on phone lines) or through its USB port using a USB-to-Ethernet adapter (about $40 to $50 depending on where you buy it).

For several reasons, a broadband connection is more than a luxury. For one thing, the Hewlett-Packard and ZapMedia servers let you listen to Internet radio, and a broadband connection is pretty much required for that. But even for simple CDDB access, dial-up is too slow to be optimal. And I should note that ZapMedia, Imerge, and Hewlett-Packard promise that additional Web-based enhancements will be forthcoming. Whatever they are, you can bet that dial-up isn't going to show them at their best. So if you're serious about introducing a digital music server into your system and your Web connection isn't already broadband, you need to consider making the upgrade - including budgeting for the monthly fees.

DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 17 1/8 x 3 1/4 x 14 1/4 inches WEIGHT 5 pounds PRICE $800 MANUFACTURER Onkyo, Dept. S&V, 18 Park Way, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458;; 201-785-2600

Onkyo MB-S1 Music Library Audio industry stalwart Onkyo has a long-standing reputation for making excellent CD players, so I wasn't too surprised that its first music server, the MB-S1 Music Library ($800), pretty much resembles a home CD player. It's low and slim, and you have to look closely to spot the CD and HDD (hard-disk drive) keys that switch it between its two identities.

The least computerlike of the servers in our quintet, the MB-S1 operates the most like an audio recorder and offers the most basic server functions. You can rip CDs to the 20-GB drive from the internal CD player either a disc or track at a time, but you can't rip a programmed sequence of tracks from one disc. And it's the only one of the five that lets you copy from an external source, either digital (a MiniDisc player, say) or analog (a cassette deck or phono preamp).

Somewhat surprisingly, the MB-S1 can record CDs to the hard disk at high speed, about 5x, but only in uncompressed format. You can rip in MP3 format only at real-time speed. (All of the other servers rip MP3 at 2.5x or faster.) However, the Onkyo can dub an existing CD-R/RW disc containing 128-kbps MP3 files to its hard drive at high speed, which works out to about 20x compared with real-time dubbing of the PCM-format originals. Of course, the MB-S1 can also function as a simple CD player.

For the most part, I found the Onkyo server dead easy to use even given ergonomic drawbacks like the absence of an onscreen display and the cramped layout of the remote control (its labels are tiny, too). To browse through thousands of stored MP3 files, you have to be able to read the list of titles. And while the MB-S1 has a nice, bright dot-matrix window on its front panel, you can't read it from across the room while making selections with the remote. On the other hand, the people who hate the idea of having to turn on a TV set to listen to music may be quite happy with Onkyo's approach.

But the MB-S1's biggest weakness is that there's no way to import text information automatically for the files you store. Instead, you must enter titles, artists, and other information manually using either the front-panel jog/wheel (by far the faster option) or the remote's telephone-style numeric keypad - pressing the 2 key once for "A," twice for "B," three times for "C," and so on. There isn't even a way to plug in a computer keyboard, which would certainly help.

Onkyo does supply a Windows software program, Carry Tunes, that lets you edit files on your PC and transfer them to the MB-S1, but the transfer is unidirectional - you can't use it to title files already ripped to the hard drive. A music server with a few thousand anonymous selections is obviously not much good. So before choosing the MB-S1, you have to ask yourself whether you will take the time to enter 10 or 15 track titles for each of the 300 or so CDs the server can hold.

On the plus side, the MB-S1 does let you create up to a hundred playlists that can be defined in various ways. And, once you've entered all the text data, it can sort your complete hard-disk music library by artist, track or album title, or genre - even the date and time when you ripped the file to the hard drive. Except for its lack of an easy way to enter text data, the Onkyo is probably the server in this group that gives you the least wrenching transition from traditional audio to the brave new world of digital convergence.