May We Serve You? Page 4

DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 17 x 4 3/4 x 15 1/4 inches WEIGHT 12 lbs PRICE $1,500 MANUFACTURER SonicBlue, Dept. S&V, 7101 Supra Dr. SW, Albany, OR 97321;; 800-468-5846

SonicBlue Rio Central Visually, the Rio Central is the least like a traditional audio component among our group of servers, looking unlike anything you're likely to have seen in an audio rack. Even its maker's name is unusual. SonicBlue is a diverse company whose products include not only the popular Rio portable MP3 players but also Go-Video's VCR/ DVD player combos, high-end components from California Audio Labs, Supra modems, and ReplayTV hard-disk video recorders.

The Rio Central music server, like the Onkyo, has no video output. It also omits digital audio outputs and analog inputs, meaning it's strictly CD in, analog audio out (you can also transfer files from a PC, which could, of course, include music that was originally in other formats). Instead of using your TV set for menus and other graphical displays, the Rio Central provides its own 3 x 5-inch, backlit half-VGA (320 x 240-pixel) LCD screen, which dominates the front panel.

The display was easy to read up close, but would it be readable from your listening position? My eyesight is fine for distance, but from anywhere beyond about 7 feet, I couldn't make out the text without straining. Being able to search the library of music you've stored is the key that unlocks the power of a music server. You'll need to search the stored files both to find something to listen to now and to create or edit playlists for future use. Using the Rio Central's search function, however, means that you have to stay close to the server and use its front-panel controls rather than the remote.

That caveat aside, the Rio server rates high on the "cool" scale. It includes a number of clever features that show somebody was thinking long and hard. For example, every time you rip a whole CD or a selected track to the hard drive, it actually makes two copies, one at the bit rate you've designated as Standard and one at a more space-efficient bit rate you designate as Portable. Then when you download songs to your Rio portable player via the front-panel USB port, the Rio Central automatically transfers the space-saving versions. This convenient feature is, of course, defeatable, and you can set either the Standard or Portable bit rate however you like.

Ironically, the Rio Central didn't support my Rio 500 portable MP3 player, though two other servers in our test group transferred to the same portable without a hitch. Another oddity: When I dubbed the Corrs' In Blue in its entirety (I was grabbing CDs off the rack pretty much at random at that point), I ended up with 17 tracks instead of 15 - the first two tracks each appeared (and played) twice. Welcome to the digital era!

Here's another clever feature: a Multiple CD record mode that rips discs one after another, beginning each new disc as fast as you can replace the previous one in the tray - no need to reset any controls or even prompt the machine to get going. (You'll see how handy this feature is when you first bring your music server home and face the task of loading in a few hundred discs.) Better still, the Rio Central was the clear speed champ, ripping music at around 8x speed, digesting the typical pop CD in just 7 or 8 minutes. You can listen to a disc while recording it or listen to other tunes already on the hard drive without slowing the server down appreciably.

The local CDDB database on the hard drive found every pop CD I loaded but missed many of my classical recordings (including the fairly mainstream Schumann CD that I used to test the servers' capabilities). Using the built-in modem to dial up and download four CDs' worth of text data took about 4 minutes. Though the Rio Central does boast HomePNA compatibility, I don't have that kind of setup, so I tried to use a USB-to-Ethernet adapter for broadband access. But after spending $40 at CompUSA for the specified adapter, I couldn't get it to work.

There's plenty to like about the Rio Central music server. To name just one more item, besides all the usual ways of sorting files to create playlists, you can select the 40 tracks you've played most often (presumably your faves), the 40 you've played most recently, or those you've played least recently, for a fresh sound. In terms of pure music-serving facilities - leaving aside its lack of video output and built-in Ethernet - the Rio Central probably offers the most of these five servers, with the easiest, fastest CD-to-MP3 transfers and most flexible playlist creation.