It's the digital music age, and for the younger generation, the computer is replacing the traditional stereo system as the music player of choice. When 18-year-olds go off to college these days, they don't always bring a Yamaha receiver, CD changer, tape player and equalizer. Instead, they're likely to tote a computer that can store thousands of songs on its hard drive.
But what if you could have all the advantages of a computer's storage capability built into your home stereo? What if you could take all of your family's music -from your Donna Summer eight-tracks to your son's Beastie Boys MP3s -and digitally stash it in a black box that sits on the shelf with your regular audio components?
That's the idea behind AudioRequest, an $800 gadget that bridges the gap between old-guard stereo systems and the computer music revolution. Think of AudioRequest as a new-age tape player: it will record everything you can play on your stereo and store it on a 17-gigabyte hard drive instead of a couple of hundred cassettes.
Manufactured by ReQuest, a small company based in Troy, N.Y., it's the first of a new generation of home stereo-based MP3 players.
MP3 technology is at the heart of the changing music scene, allowing a computer to compress CD-based music into sound files at a 10th of their original size. These are known as MP3 files.
Until now, home stereo components couldn't play MP3s, which have largely been heard through computer speakers that can't match the sound of even modest stereo systems. AudioRequest changes that. It not only reads computer-generated CDs that contain MP3 files, but also reads regular music compact discs and stores the tracks internally in MP3 format without going through a PC. In addition, it will digitize and store old-fashioned "analog" music from vinyl records, cassettes or eight-track tapes.
Thanks to the compact MP3 format, the box can store 320 hours of music (the equivalent 6,400 three-minute songs) at "near-CD quality."
It will convert CD audio tracks to MP3s at four times the normal speed of computer-based recorders -a little less than a minute per song. For example, AudioRequest took only 13 minutes to convert and store the entire "Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits" album.
This is a cool toy for music lovers, who can consolidate their favorite tunes or entire collections on AudioRequest's hard drive. If you're like me and have hundreds of CDs, cassettes, old records and MP3 discs scattered about, a jumbo jukebox like this one is an appealing idea: No more rummaging around trying to find that old Beatles album. Just click AudioRequest's remote control.
There are limitations to the MP3 format, which compresses music by eliminating sounds that you supposedly can't hear.
I'd almost always listened to MP3 files through simple, 10-watt Labtec computer speakers, which sound fine in my home office. But when I played the files through my stereo using AudioRequest, I noticed for the first time that MP3-based music isn't as good as CD-based audio.
For example, when I played AudioRequest's MP3 version of "Mrs. Robinson" through the superb B&W; speakers of my home system, it sounded a bit flat and muffled. I also had to crank up the volume three notches to get a level comparable to standard CD sound.
AudioRequest tries to overcome these limitations with an option to record MP3 files at higher "bit rates," up to 320 kilobits per second, compared with the standard 128 kbps. That helps a little, but the difference between MP3 and standard audio is still noticeable. And recording at higher bit rates reduces the amount of music AudioReqest can store.
Another problem is the price. Is it worth $800 for a convenient method of playing music you already own?
True, AudioRequest has interesting bells and whistles. With a video cable you can hook it up to your television and display great visuals to the beat of your music, but $800 will buy you a new computer that can do a lot more.
If you like the jukebox idea, you can always buy a Sony 200-CD changer for about a quarter of the cost of AudioRequest. It's not as fast or as versatile as AudioRequest, but my changer keeps all my CDs in one place and plays them with higher-quality sound.
The AudioReQuest is also a bit of digital overkill once you get past basic recording, but hardware freaks will love it. When I looked at the back of the unit, I thought I was staring at the back of a computer, with Ethernet, USB and parallel ports, keyboard slots and so on.
Using the connectors, you can hook up AudioRequest to your PC and perform a variety of interesting functions.
With the Ethernet or parallel port, you can log onto the Internet. Why would you want to do that? To access the world's largest online database of music information, the Compact Disc Database, which stores information on 400,000 album titles and 4.5 million songs. That way, AudioRequest can identify albums and songs you're stored without typing the information yourself.
AudioRequest is sold only online (www.audiorequest.com).
If you're an early adopter, you'll probably love it. Otherwise, it might be worth waiting to see what ReQuest and its competitors come up with as the Christmas season approaches.