SonicBlue (Rio) has built a device I've been wanting for years. It eats your CDs and plays them back digitally: 40gig worth of them! Here's an early review of my experience with this new toy. Update: It has a bit of XP in it!

Overview

The Rio Advanced Digital Audio Center from SonicBlue is a home audio unit with just one purpose: memorize all your CDs and act like a giant jukebox. While I’m not into high end audio, like certain Chets I could name, I do like rapid random access to my music. So I have had a collection of MP3 portable players, mostly from Rio, and I’ve had four multi-CD changers:

  • A Pioneer unit that had a six-disk pack. It could play randomly from those six discs. At the time, this was a lot better than one.
  • A Sony unit that was the guts of a real CD jukebox. This was really neat: it held something like 64 CDs, and it had a serial interface to my computer. With luck, I could select a CD. I could direct it to play a given track, but the interface wouldn't bring back enough information so that I could tell when a track or CD ended. Its best use, therefore, was to play whole CDs, one at a time. Probably if I knew more about hardware I could have made it better.
  • A Sony 100-disc changer. This was really set up for home entertainment, with a remote control and stuff. It had no way to record what the discs were, other than a booklet you could store the CD cover art in. It could play in random mode, however, so it was good to start it up and let it go. I think it had playlists, but I never bothered to set them up, as it would have taken millions of button clicks on its console: it had no computer interface.
  • Same thing but with 200 CDs. That was my unit until this week, when the Rio arrived.

The Rio Advanced Digital Audio Center (also known as Rio Central) is a box about 17 inches wide, 5 high, 15 deep. It has a blue LCD screen about 3 by 4 inches. Runs Linux. Has a 40 gigabyte hard drive. Has a CDRW built in. It produces pretty good sound by my standards, but the stats mean nothing to me. You can look them up on the site if they mean something to you.

The box has the CD info database (CDDB) built into it, and can go on line for things it doesn’t know about. It can allegedly dial your phone or use your Ethernet connection. I haven’t tried this yet, but will probably have done so by the end of the day, and possibly by the end of this article. So far, you turn it on and it works, about like this:

  • Put a CD in its tray, and it will offer to play it or record it. You want to record it, so the Rio sucks in the raw digital data, and converts it to MP3 in the background. (It doesn't create WMA, which is a bit of a shame, as to my ears WMA is as good as MP3, and the files are smaller.) You can put it in a multiple CD mode where when it is done with one, it opens its mouth for another -- hold on, it just did that -- so you pick up the next CD on the stack (Billy Joel, The Bridge) and feed it in. It records much faster than listening time, probably about ten minutes per disc, depending on what else it is doing, and, I suppose, on the density of recording. As it records, it notes the album, artist, track title, and so on. So far it has found the info for all my CDs on its hard drive, from Mozart to Blondie to Beau Soleil.
  • Use the console buttons or the remote to tell it to play things. It can play by album, artist, genre, year, and of course, playlists that you have set up. It can play things in sequence or randomly, once through or repeat forever. If you don't mind taking a chance on hearing Aerosmith, Cats, Rocky Horror, Marcia Ball, and Beethoven all in one sitting, you can just set it loose playing things randomly.

There’s not much more to it. It has all kinds of setup options, such as recording quality (160 Kbps, 192, 256, or even 320, which for all I know is better than what’s on your CD to begin with. Of course, the number of CDs you can record varies with quality: from over 600 at the lowest quality (and no portable recordings) to 191 at full quality for both playback and your portable. (The box makes separate copies of each CD for download to your Rio portable. You can control separately the quality level for those, from 64Kbps to 128.)

There’s a playlist capability, as I mentioned, that can be set up from the remote or using your PC over Ethernet or HomePNA, which I gather is a home network that runs on your phone lines. I haven’t tried the playlist capability, but will set up the network and the PC software Real Soon Now.

The box can load your portable (if it’s a Rio 600 or 800), and it even has a few games.

Rio also makes the “Rio Receiver”, which is a network device that can read MP3s from your PC and play them through speakers or feed the audio to your amp. The ADAC comes with a “free” Rio, which can also, it turns out, read from the ADAC. Apparently you can serve up to a dozen of the receivers, each with different music. I’ll believe that when I hear it, but one should be no problem.

The box doesn’t work perfectly. It seems to become confused sometimes in Multiple CD mode and doesn’t commence to eat the next CD: you have to go to the menu and put it in multiple CD mode again, then it eats some more. This may relate to the fact that it reads the CD raw and then converts to MP3 in the background: the manual suggests that sometimes it will refuse to proceed until the backlog is consumed.

It crashed on me once: it went into a mode where it was no longer paying attention to the buttons. I had to cycle the power and then everything seemed to be OK again. I guess even Linux apps can crash.

So far, so good. I’ve already loaded about 100 CDs into it, and everything seems to be going fine. I think I’m going to have to delete some of the portable versions, though: I’ve recorded a bunch at 256Kbps and I may be running low on storage. Time for an upgrade!

Well, that’s my first report. I’ll add more based on any inquiries, or as I gain experience with the device. So far … I like it.

Networking

I hooked up one of the recommended USB Ethernet thingies, as directed. I was a bit scared when the link light never lit, and the activity light didn’t go. However, I asked the machine to check for software updates, and it gave a little status list, you know the thing, “looking for network”, “connecting to site”, “checking for updates”, and finally came back and said it had no updates.

I went ahead and hooked up a CD reader to my laptop (no mean feat, for some reason the PCMCIA one doesn’t get found any more), and loaded the “emplode” software that lets you set up play lists and the like. It came up, showed one Rio in its “open” dialog, asked me for the Rio’s password, and brought up a list of what was on the machine. Cool. It actually worked like it was supposed to. As a Windows user, I’m accustomed to things working less well than this, especially in light of recent experiences with Blackberry and Handspring Treo. I haven’t made any playlists yet, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it looks easy enough to do. Another checkmark in the good column.

Compression

As I was loading CDs yesterday, I happened to check the storage available, and the machine was 97% full after loading only a few more than 100 CDs. I had recorded some at higher quality, and I’m saving portable recordings of everything but still it should be able to take at least 250 CDs or more. What’s up with that?

So I used emplode to look at the size and density of things. I found a Cowboy Junkies song that was 28 megabytes! That’s a lot for a group whose tunes make you want to kill yourself from depression. I noticed the song was recorded at 1411K bits per second. The highest available is 320, and I had never selected that level. After a while I realized that I had read the answer in the manual (and written it here). The device reads in the CD at full resolution, and then compresses it down to the desired quality in the background. I went to the status screen, and sure enough it says “Audio compression in progress”. This morning, it still says that, and the space is down to 65 percent at this writing. The Cowboy Junkies song is down to 7.8 meg. That’s more like it.

Details

Price: $1500. Worth it? It is to me, but I’m crazy.

What can it do that my PC can’t? Not much. My laptop has about a million songs on it, can play them through its sound card and export them to my portables. The ADAC can play songs when my laptop isn’t connected to the speakers (though I bet there are other ways to do that over the wireless), and it has a remote, and a nice connection to my real stereo. So my wife could in principle work it without having to mess with my computer. (This is a very good thing.) It rips very rapidly (and does that cool background compression).

On any rational basis, no one needs this thing. Where did I ever sign up to be rational? I like it. So far, so good!

UPDATE: Email from Rob Voisey

I got the following email from Rob Voisey of SonicBlue, the makers of the Rio Central:

I read your review of our Rio Central product - glad you like it :)

I wondered if you were aware that we used some XP techniques in its development? About a year ago we switched to a fine grained iterative development cycle using a task card system, backed up with pair programming. We don’t exclusively pair, but for many tasks it is an ideal technique.

I’ve been meaning to introduce further XP techniques to our team - next on the list is intensive unit testing, although its going to be a challenge given our existing (extensive) code base.

Keep spreading the word!

I like the Rio Central even better now, knowing that it has a bit of XP in it. Nothing finer than that!