Sugg. Retail: US$799 (Internet Direct)
While a myriad of MP3 players have been unleashed on the market in the past year, the Audio ReQuest ARQ-1 distinguishes itself as the only one designed exclusively as a home audio component.
This could mark the genesis of a significant new product category, and an important test of whether consumers are ready to embrace MP3s in a domestic environment. Until now MP3 files have been largely confined to computer workstations or portables, playable elsewhere only if they were burned onto a CD. The ARQ-1 wants to bring MP3 out of the office and gym and into the mainstream; into the living rooms, dens and media rooms of music lovers. Whether it might bring downloadable music into the listening rooms of audiophiles is something I set out to discover.
Since it can play CDs much like any other CD player, the ARQ-1 can certainly function as a standalone audio component; either playing the disc directly or encoding it to the internal hard drive for playback as a compressed digital file (either in MP3 format or Windows Media Audio -WMA). It will also play CD-R and CD-RW data CDs containing MP3 or WMA files. Using it in isolation, however, would waste many of its capabilities. While ostensibly an audio player, the ARQ-1 is perhaps better described as a dedicated audio computer. It may look like a CD player, enclosed in a 17″ wide black box with a display and a remote control, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s essentially a PC built for music. At its heart is an Intel Celeron processor and a 17.3 gigabyte hard drive (two models now available from Audio Request now feature 20 and 30 gigabyte drives, priced at US $799 and $1199 respectively). These are mated to a sound card (to feed the analog audio outputs), a graphics card (to feed the composite and S-video outputs to a TV monitor) and enough computer connectors to connect it with pretty much any PC or Mac (including USB, Ethernet, Serial etc). There is also a set of RCA analog inputs, should you want to digitize music from a turntable (gasp!) or tape deck. Sadly, despite all the connection options, there is no digital audio output of any kind.
I started off using the ARQ-1 in my home theatre/office which made a lot of sense since I could connect the unit to both my TV and my computer. Although the ARQ-1 features a built in, back-lit LCD display,
it’s much easier to organize and access music stored on the machine via the video display and remote, the intuitive and simple menu system very similar to what you’d find in an MP3 player
application for your home computer. In fact, Audio ReQuest even bundles a copy of Music Match 5.0, perhaps the most popular MP3 player software, with the ARQ-1. Plugging in a PC keyboard (I told you it was a computer!) also speeds up track and album naming considerably. Connect the ARQ to a PC with an internet connection and it can also make use of CDDB (Compact Disc Database) to further speed track naming. An ingenious and incredibly handy service, CDDB can automatically recognize what CD is in drawer of the ARQ (or of your computer’s CD-rom drive for that matter) and almost instantly provide complete track and timing info. This is a serious time saver, especially if you’re not using a keyboard with the unit.
Using the supplied interface software, transferring a collection of MP3 files from your PC to the ARQ-1 is drag and drop easy. What if you’ve recorded a bunch of discs to the ARQ that you now want available on your PC? Transferring files in the other direction is done through the same interface and is just as fast and easy. Creating files from your existing CDs is equally simple: Pop in the disc, press record and the tracks are encoded in a matter of
minutes at the preset data rate. As you may have already guessed, the amount of music you can store on the ARQ-1 is directly proportional to the data rate used to encode each track, ranging from 640 hours at the lowly 64 Kb/s to 120 hours at 320 Kb/s, the highest setting. At 128 Kb/s, the de facto standard for MP3s, the ARQ provides 320 hours of playback, more than enough room for the average person’s entire music collection.
Album, the bell tolls for thee
For folks well acquainted with playing digital music files on their PCs, the mechanics of playing music on the ARQ-1 will be very familiar. As with most software audio players music on the ARQ-1 is organized around user-created playlists. Very possibly the beginning of the end for the album as we know it, music in file form with a high speed internet connection is sort of like the world’s biggest CD changer, allowing users to play tracks in any order they choose, for as long as they can stand it.
Naturally there’s nothing stopping you from having an enormous number of playlists, organizing music by genre, artist, mood, era, you get the idea. Thankfully they’ve made it easy to select large numbers of songs and move them around at once without having perform an seemingly endless number of repetitive keystrokes to move a batch of songs to a new category. There’s also the inevitable “random” or shuffle mode, something that becomes alternately fascinating or infuriating with 300 hours of music on tap. You could go for a week without hearing the same track twice! Imagine having your entire music collection randomly cycling in the background all the time. I’m sure many people will use the ARQ-1 in exactly this fashion. For parties, and for providing music in a store or restaurant, this machine is hard to beat.
Yeah, but how does it sound.
A lot of audiophiles I’ve spoken to who have never heard MP3 audio seem to assume that it must sound absolutely terrible, a sonically emaciated, degenerate cousin of the CD. In many ways, I wish this were true, as it would make it much less likely to supercede the CD as the next dominant audio format. An MP3 file encoded at 128 Kb/s, however, is sonically close enough to the CD it was made from that even if most people could tell the difference, it would be so slight they wouldn’t care. Indeed, one of the most insidious things about the format from an audiophile perspective is that it requires good equipment and some degree of listener training to quickly spot the defects.
My initial listening to the Audio Request was done using a variety of different music I had loaded onto the machine from my PC and ripped from my CD collection. I appreciated being able to stay in the chair for
long periods of time while surfing through all kinds of different music, as I did when I used the machine while working at my desk. Played through the big system though, with my undivided attention, the sound wasn’t inspiring. Although the Audio Request sounded best on pop and rock material it still sounded hard and a little flat overall, the music constrained by a thinness most unbecoming. More than anything the sound reminded me of early CDs played back on early CD equipment: brittle and fatiguing. Before there was a decent understanding of digital jitter and it’s effects it was often hard to identify what was wrong with CD sound. All the frequency information might have been there, but something was clearly amiss, and it could be hard to listen for long without fatigue. I got the same sort of feeling from the Audio ReQuest. The music was largely intact, and the unit even did a surprisingly decent job on vocals, but there was definitely an unwanted edge.
With more demanding music the ARQ-1 fared worse. Acoustic jazz clearly brought to light one of the codec’s biggest problems: cymbals. Airy and shimmering on CD, well recorded cymbals became a splashy,
phasey sounding mush once encoded on the Audio ReQuest. It was also fairly clear that transients were being blunted and that much of the low level ambient information was missing in action when compared to the original CDs. Intrigued, I encoded a track from our own Bellingham Sessions CDs at a variety of different bit rates in an effort to see how transparent the codec would be at a higher data rate (all previous listening at been to files encoded at 128 Kb/s).
The jump to 160 Kb/s yielded immediate results. Cymbal sound improved, as did soundstage depth and tonal complexity but there was still a sense that the algorithm was struggling with the busier passages (possibly as a result of the codec’s reliance on the Masking Effect). At 192 Kb/s the sound smoothed out a bit and things were generally a little more musical. 256 Kb/s yielded another big jump, conjuring up quite a lot more ambient detail with better delineation of instruments and tonal colour. Also, the busiest sections of the track failed to rattle the encoder as seriously as before. 320 Kb/s, the maximum setting, yielded the best results short of CD playback, again coming up with more detail and better defined transients. Considerably more musical and involving, listener fatigue would be much less of a factor at this bit rate than at 128.
When I played the CD directly I was not surprised to find that it still sounded best, providing greater sense of delicacy and microdynamics, fuller bass, natural and airy cymbals and a smoother overall presentation. I was surprised, however, to discover that the channels were reversed. Or, rather, that they were now correct, the ARQ’s Fraunhofer encoder having reversed the left and right channel on each MP3 file it created. I brought this up with the company and they claim that this encoder defect has been remedied in all current models (my sample was an early demo model). It seems to be a common encoder problem, at least one software encoder I’ve used with my PC doing the same thing.
Although it’s not likely to be used much as a standalone CD player I felt compelled to compare the Audio Request to the Rotel RCD 951, which I still had on hand from a previous review. For what is essentially a computer with a host of other features it held its own quite well. Nevertheless it sounded veiled compared to the dedicated player and lacked the Rotel’s overall resolution and low level detail. Sadistically perhaps, I made some comparisons with the Rotel feeding an MSB Link III (Half Nelson upgrade with upsampling board). Not even close. I would have been very inetested to hear the ARQ feeding the MSB, but, despite almost every other conceivable input and output provided, there is no digital audio out.
Sadly, the lackluster sound was exacerbated by the fan noise. Yup, just like your computer the ARQ-1 needs a little time to boot up and, once running, provides the soft, airy whirr that has come to accompany so many of our workdays. I’d say it’s quieter than most PCs, but even with my equipment in the next room (a large double doorway separates the two rooms) I could still hear the ARQ’s fan. Needless to say, this doesn’t mesh well with attempts at serious listening.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
It may seem like I’m being pretty hard on the ARQ-1, but it bears pointing out that its sonic flaws (with the exception of the fan noise) all relate to the sonic compromises of the MP3 encoding algorithm. In its current form it won’t likely appeal to many serious audiophiles, but it is nonetheless a groundbreaking and very well designed chunk of consumer
electronics. Audio ReQuest also says that it’s fully upgradeable to support MPEG-2 AAC, essentially an improved version of the MP3 format (see my sidebar, ‘Codec Considerations‘), which could improve its sound considerably (at the time of writing, however, they had no rollout date planned for the upgrade). For sophisticated technofiles with broadband internet connections and pre-existing home networks it’s probably the ideal way to bring a highly flexible musical source to a family room, den, or home theater. If you’ve already got a computer in the same room as the system you want to use for music, however, you might as well just use the computer and save yourself the not insignificant sum of US$800.00. This kind of redundancy could make the ARQ-1 a tough sell with certain folks.
Still, devices like the ARQ-1 might just be what we end up listening to music on in the coming decades. Come back in a few years with fifty times the storage capacity, no fan, and the ability to play losslessly compressed files up to 192 Khz, 24 bit, and we’ll talk. Pure audiophile fantasy? I hope not.
For more on MP3 Audio and its implications for Audiophiles have a look at these other stories:
MP3: The Death Knell for High End Audio?