Music Across Your Home Network? - AudioTron

Introduction

With the holidays upon us, we have been reviewing products that might make nice gifts for the computer geek in your life. A networking appliance that could be used to play a vast collection of MP3, WMA, and WAV files across a user's home network sounded like an ideal fit for a holiday present.

The increasing number of folks with broadband access these days has led to a subsequent increase in home networking in general. Although most networking use still centers around print and file sharing and gaming, new technology is starting to bring other possible uses into the spotlight.

Turtle Beach originated their AudioTron connected audio concept in January of 2001. When we first saw the AudioTron at that time, we found it to be an interesting concept, but thought the price of $299 was a little too high. Now, however, the AudioTron has dropped in price to as little as $270, a price point that, we feel, makes the AudioTron more attractive.

AudiTron
Well, here is the AudioTron! As you can see, it is a rather small device, about half the size of your typical home CD Player. If you have an audio component system, the AudioTron will look right at home in the typical audio rack. As you will find out later, the AudioTron is rack-mountable as well.

What is AudioTron?

When people ask the question, "What is AudioTron?" the answer isn't easily explained. In a nutshell, AudioTron can be described as a networked interface that allows users to access music in MP3/WMA/WAV format from a storage share point on their network. In addition, if you have a broadband cable modem or DSL connection, you can also use AudioTron to listen to Internet-based radio stations.

Instead of connecting to your computer, the AudioTron connects to your home stereo receiver. Thus, AudioTron allows a user access to their vast MP3/WMA/WAV music collection over their home stereo, using AudioTron's simple interface. AudioTron does not have a hard drive or storage capability, so it is more of a "smart interface" than anything else.

AudioTron is a "smart" stereo component, as the software can be upgraded and it can handle the decompression of compressed audio formats. AudioTron does not use the PC for this process. You can use either the included remote or any Web browser to access the AudioTron. Once the AudioTron is installed on your network, you have a digital "jukebox" of sorts, which offers a great way to listen to and manage a huge music collection, without having to deal with stacks of CDs.

So, What Kind Of Specifications Does The AudioTron Have?

AudioTron Specifications as Supplied By Turtle Beach
Networking Support HPNA (Phoneline) 2.0 running TCP/IP or 10mbit Ethernet
Analog Output (Line Level) Stereo RCA
Analog Output (Headphone) Stereo 1/4" phone jack on front panel
Signal to Noise Ratio 91dBA
THD+N 0.02%
Corsstalk -66dB @ 1kHz
Analog Line-Level impedance <1000 ohm
Headphone Output Impedance <10 ohm
Frequency Response 20 Hz - 20 kHz (+ or minus 1db)
DAC Resolution 24 bits (16-bit playback resolution)
D/A Sampling Rates 8 kHz, 11.025 kHz, 16 kHz, 22.05 kHz, 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz
Volume Control Variable from -96dB to 0dB in 1dB increments
S/PDIF (Digital Output) TOSlink Fiber Optic for Sony/Philips Digital Interface
S/PDIF Sampling Rates Supported 32kHz, 44.1kHz
Dimentions 17x1.75x10 inches (430 x 44 x 250mm)
Weight 5.2 lbs (2.4 Kg)
Power Requirements 90VAC 135VAC 50/60Hz 250mA max
Supported Playlist Formats M3U, PLS
Supported Digital Music File Formats MP3, Unsecure Windows Media (WMA) and WAV PCM (Ethernet Only)
Supported Streaming Media Formats MP3 (Shoutcast & Icecast)

AudioTron Requirements as Supplied By Turtle Beach:

  • A Computer Windows With Windows File Sharing
  • 10/100 Ethernet or HPNA 2.0 Network
  • Pentium Class 233MHz Processor With MMX or better
  • 400MHz Processor for Windows 2000
  • Windows 98 / ME / NT 4.0 Workstation / 2000 / XP
  • 16X Speed Or Higher CD-ROM w/DAE Support
  • 800x600 High Color (16 bit) Video Display
  • 32MB Of RAM (64MB For NT/2000/XP)
  • Service Pack 4 or higher and Internet Explorer 4.01 or higher are required for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation

How Do I Connect The AudioTron To My Stereo Receiver?

The back of the AudioTron provides everything that you need to know in order to connect your AudioTron to your stereo receiver. The AudioTron includes both stereo analog right and left RCA-style outputs that you can use to connect to your stereo receiver, or even a pair of powered speakers, for that matter. The AudioTron also includes a S/PDIFF Toslink optical output that can be used to send the digital output straight to your S/PDIFF input-equipped stereo or home theater receiver.

AudioTron Back
Here is a look at the back of the AudioTron. As you can see, there is not really much to confuse you. You have your choice of either analog or digital output to your receiver. You also have the choice of using either 10mbit Ethernet or HomePNA 2.0 (HPNA 2.0) for connection to your network. Beyond the choice of those connections, the only other thing left to do is plug in the power cable.

Viewing the back of the AudioTron unit, you can see that it supports two methods of connecting it to your home network: 10mbit ethernet or HomePNA 2.0 (HPNA 2.0). It is important to note that the AudioTron does not support the use of 100Base TX, which means that you should have either a dual speed hub that supports 10mbit and 100mbit devices, or a dual speed switch that can support 10mbit and 100mbit devices. So, if you only have a 100Base TX hub and you want to use the AudioTron, it is time to upgrade. The AudioTron does not support 802.11b wireless directly, so if you want to use the AudioTron wireless function, you will need something like a "wired to wireless bridge device."

As shipped, the AudioTron is home stereo-stackable. If you want to rack mount the AudioTron, you will need to purchase the options set of rack mount ears that make it fully rack-mountable.

AudioTron Inside Look
So, you want to know what it looks like inside the AudioTron? We wanted to know as well, so we asked Turtle Beach if we could open the AudioTron to take a peek. I would have to say that they were less than thrilled with the idea, but at least they agreed to let us show you one picture. As you can see, there really isn't much to see other than the Cirrus Logic Maverick EP7312 ARM720T Processor with dymanic clock speeds up to 74Mhz running Microsoft Windows CE Kernel 2.12.

Once the AudioTron is connected to your home receiver, you are ready to start the configuration and setup process.

Setup & Configuration Process

In all fairness to any newbies that might be reading this review, it is important to note that in order to complete the setup & configuration process for the AudioTron, you will need to have some understanding of Windows networking. Turtle Beach does try to provide the basics on some potential pitfalls of the installation process, but without some basic understanding of Windows networking and the current configuration of the network, non-networking users might be in for a bumpy ride.

The manual that Turtle Beach provided was complete and very detailed. Turtle Beach's manual does include a section that is very specifically devoted to troubleshooting problems, which is helpful. Before you start the AudioTron installation process, you must first decide whether you are going to use the TurtleBeach setup utility or the AudioTron's own Web-based configuration utility. (For those of you who have looked at the AudioTron before, the Web-based interface is a new feature that has just been added in recent firmware revisions.) For the example here, we will use the Turtle Beach's own setup utility, which is easier for most novice users to use.

To start the install process, you first need to connect the AudioTron to your stereo or home theater receiver.

Once you have made the connection to your stereo or home theater receiver and to your network, you will need to install the included AudioTron setup program.

Setup Menu
As you can see here, the included AudioTron CD does include a lot of options and an easy-to-use, menu driven interface.

Setup and Configuration Process, Continued

After running the AudioTron Setup program, you will be greeted with a step-by-step guide which takes you through the AudioTron configuration process. This is very helpful, as Turtle Beach walks you through everything necessary to get the AudioTron up and running.

Setup Welcome
After starting the Setup program, Turtle Beach will walk you through the configuration process.

Next, the Setup program attempts to locate AudioTron(s) on your network. This process might take a minute or two, depending on how large your subnet is and how many devices you have.

Search Results
Here the setup program is looking for AudioTron(s) on your local network subnet.

The setup program then allows you to change the location name and the Administrative Password for the unit.

Location Name
Changing the location name for the unit and the admin password for the unit are a snap with the Setup utility.

Setup & Configuration Process, Continued

Once arriving at the Setup Main Menu, you can perform a variety of functions to help get AudioTron going. Turtle Beach has done something clever here, including check mark boxes in front of each task. Very helpful!

Setup Main Menu
The Setup Main Menu, with its bright green check marks, lets you know how far you are into the setup program, keeping track of the tasks you have completed. You click NEXT to continue through the setup process.

The next phase of the setup is likely the most important. In this phase, the setup program and the AudioTron look for music files in the default directory, and, if you don't have a default directory, the setup program creates one for you and copies a demo MP3 file to that directory for testing.

Demo Setup
Here is where we start to get down to the nitty gritty. The setup program starts configuring the directories necessary for AudioTron use and copying a demo file over to the default directlry.

In this step of the configuration, we are able to scan the local hard drive for music files to be shared. In the next step, we will take this a step futher and start scanning the hard drives of the computers on the network for additional music files to be accessed by AudioTron. This means that you can have multiple computers with multiple shares from which the AudioTron can retrieve music.

Search Local PC
In this process, AudioTron Setup is searching for local music files. In the next process, we can expand the search to include other systems on the network.

Setup & Configuration Process, Continued

Using the check Internet option, you are able to verify that the AudioTron can see the Internet, which enables it to play Internet Radio (if you choose to activate that option).

Internet Connection Test
Here we are looking for the Internet connection. This is a cool concept, because it lets you play that great Internet radio that's all the buzz lately. Want to listen to live radio from San Francisco, New York, or Seattle? What about worldwide radio? You can do that with Internet radio, provided they broadcast in MP3 Shoutcast and Icecast formats.

The Advanced Options menu gives you a few more options that you can access with the AudioTron. Most of the time, you will have no need to use this menu, unless you are troubleshooting a problem.

Advanced Options
The majority of the time, you will find little or no need to use these options, but they are handy to have when you do need them.

My installation of the AudioTron didn't go as expected. I was able to get the AudioTron connected to the network and the setup program seemed to run OK, but after all of this, the AudioTron still refused to "see" the MP3 files on my MP3 server. The AudioTron played music across the Internet, but it would not recognize the one computer where my MP3 files are stored. AudioTron would see other systems on the network with no problem, and I spent considerable time trying to make it see my MP3 server. After almost pulling my hair out from frustration, I placed a telephone call to the Turtle Beach folks to see what kind of support I would receive to resolve the issue.

Setup & Configuration Process, Continued

The technical support team at Turtle Beach was on top of the matter quickly and worked with me nearly non-stop in order to resolve the problem. I am sorry to say that Turtle Beach had not seen an issue such as this one I was having with my Windows 98 box, but they continued to troubleshoot and work through the problems to get this completely resolved. After assessing all of the information that they could learn from me, as well as the logs from the AudioTron itself, it was decided that the best way to resolve the issue was to upgrade the AudioTron Firmware from the 2.0.3 version (that the unit shipped with) to the new 2.0.9 revision that they are currently using. Working with the Turtle Beach team, we were able to get the AudioTron flashed to the newest firmware, and, after hard resetting the AudioTron, everything started working properly, with no further problems. The AudioTron was finally able to see the MP3 files.

Turtle Beach provided excellent technical support, and the technician that I worked with (Tom) really knew the AudioTron product. In all fairness to Turtle Beach, we do not know for certain if the problem was caused by something in the test system or something in the AudioTron. What we do know is that the problem was resolved, and it is unlikely that you will encounter this problem. I would agree with Turtle Beach in concluding that this situation with the AudioTron was more of a "fluke" than anything else. Throughout the rest of the tests, we had no additional issues.

If the computer that contains your MP3 files happens to be a Windows NT 4, Windows 2000, or Windows XP system, you will have to take an extra step and create an account and password for the AudioTron. This was not a big hassle, but it is something that cannot be overlooked when configuing the AudioTron.

After spending considerable time working on the setup and configuration of the AudioTron, I feel it safe to conclude that knowledge of Windows Networking and Windows File Sharing is important. Without this knowledge, you are likely going to struggle, and will have to rely on Turtle Beach's (fortunately) excellent support in order to get AudioTron up and running.

Included Software

The software that is included with the AudioTron falls into two categories: the Web-based interface that allows you to access and control the AudioTron, and the included AudioStation application.

The AudioTron Web-based interface can be accessed from almost anything electronically capable, be it a PC or another Internet-enabled device with a Web browser. The Web interface allows you to control and configure your AudioTron. Using a browser, you able able to check the status of the AudioTron, play songs, add songs to a play list and manage almost every aspect of the AudioTron that is controllable from the front panel or the remote control that is included with the unit. We found the Web interface easy to use and a welcome addition to the AudioTron, adding a lot of value and addressing one of the areas folks complained was missing from the first revisions of the AudioTron firmware.

Web-based interface
Here is a look at the AudioTron Web-based interface. If you have your AudioTron located near your TV and happen to have a device connected to your TV that has a browser, you can access the AudioTron and control it that way. Although it might not be the best way to control the AudioTron, in some cases it makes a welcome addition to the front panel and the included wireless remote.

The AudioTron also includes the Voyetra Turtle Beach-developed AudioStation 5. AudioStation is, in many ways, like a number of the MP3 "jukebox" style programs that have been developed for the PC. AudioStation allows you to play, record, and organize your MP3 files. As a "ripper," AudioStation 5 works well, but is still not as fast as some of the other products available. We found AudioStation 5 to be best at organizing music files, but many will prefer to use other software. If you want to continue to use another program to play, record, and organize your MP3 files, you do have the option not to use AudioStation 5, which is nice. If you are not already using some other program to handle these chores, AudioStation 5 can get the job done, but it does lack the integrated ability to "burn" your music to CDRs, which is a feature that most audiophiles can't live without. (As we understand it, AudioStation 5.2 does include CDR support, but the version that was included with this AudioTron did not include this support.)

AudioStation 5
AudioStation 5 is included with the AudioTron and, in many ways, it is a good program. It does lack some of the features to which many users have grown accustomed, such as the capability to burn your music to CDRs. (It is our understanding that if you upgrade to AudioStation 5.2, it includes CDR burning support.) Power users may opt to bypass AudioStation 5 for something else. A good thing is that AudioTron doesn't require the use of AudioStation 5 for anything other than selecting Internet Streaming Radio Stations, if you have that option enabled.

We found all of the software and user interfaces included with the AudioTron to be very good. Although AudioStation 5 might not be as full-featured as one might like, it still is a good addition to the overall package.

A Look At AudioTron Front Panel and Remote Control

The front panel of the AudioTron is very "clean," and there isn't a lot of wasted space. All of the fourteen buttons are clearly labeled, and some of them have lights to assist you in finding them in a dimly lit or dark room. The back-lighted two-line by forty-charter display is lit with a green light, which makes it easy to read from across the room. Turning the knob on the far right end of the unit left or right allows you to scroll through options, and pressing it forward allows you to make your selection. The control knob seem very sturdy and clicks softly each time you turn it. This system for navigating the AudioTron's many options works well, and is an innovative solution. The unit also includes a headphone jack in the front, which is way to listen to the AudioTron.

Front View
In this picture, you can see the AudioTron in action. We had it sitting on the top of the audio rack during the test process. The buttons are laid out well, and the display takes up the majority of the front of the unit, which makes it easy to read. We found the display easy to read from across the room, a nice feature if you are listening to Internet radio and want to know the name of the song that is currently playing.

The remote included with the AudioTron is of a unique design that Turtle Beach has created specifically for the AudioTron. The remote is of the infared variety and is powered by two "AAA" batteries, which should provide months of heavy use. The remote consists of forty-one buttons. We did find the remote buttons a little on the "mushy" side, but they were no better or worse than many of the other remotes that we've seen. We really liked the four pre-set buttons on the remote, which was a handy feature. Turtle Beach has a CCF file posted on its web site for Philips Pronto users, so controlling the AudioTron with the Philips Pronto Programmable Universal remote is a snap by loading this CCF file into your Pronto.

Remote
The AudioTron remote, up-close and personal. We found the remote to work well at providing yet another way to interact with your AudioTron. Although we first thought that the number of buttons was a little over the top, they really are all necessary in order to provide you with the best way to control your AudioTron remotely.

Test Setup

When selecting a test platform, we felt it was important to work with what we would use in the real world. We didn't build a new system to hold the MP3 files, because that isn't what most people would do. We went with the system that we have been using for the past couple of years, which is simply an Intel Pentium 233Mhz MMX. According to Turtle Beach's requirements for the AudioTron, this should be more than enough to supply music to multiple AudioTrons in one household. We found this to be more than true! You can find an old used Pentium 233 MMX computer at a local computer show for less than $100, and, as long as you can get a large hard drive connected to it, it will store more than enough music. (Of course, you need to make sure that the BIOS on this older system will support adding a large hard drive!)". In this case, we had about 9GB of MP3 files on the test system, and we still had plenty of space to add more. One of these days, we will get around to "ripping" all of the other CDs that are around here, and get them on the music server, too.

Common & Audio Hardware
Unit Installed Turtle Beach AudioTron in Ethernet 10mbit Half Mode - Firmware 2.0.9
Internet Connection Time Warner RoadRunner Cable Modem - Motorla Cyber Surfer
Network SMC EZ Switch 10/100 - 1016DT
Router Netgear RT314 Gateway Router
Home Stereo Receiver Yamaha - HTR 5150 A/V Receiver - Tested Using Both the Digital and Analog Inputs
Speakers Yamaha - Encore 2 Natural Sound Speaker Package
Cables RCA, S/PDIF, and Speaker Cables by Monster Cable
Music Hosted On The Following Computer
Mainboard Asus TX-97e - Intel TX Chipset
CPU Intel Pentium 233 MMX - Socket 7
Memory 256MB - 2 - 128MB PC-66 Micron Branded RAM
Graphics STB Velocity 128 - Riva 128ZX - 8MB SGRAM - PCI
Hard Drive Quantum Fireball ST - 4.3GB - 5400 RPM - ATA 33
IBM DTTA-351680 - 16.8GB Hard Drive - 5400 RPM - ATA 33
NIC 3Com 3C905C-TX-M NIC
CD Drive Samsung 24X
Case and Power Supply Enlight Mid-Tower AT Case
Enlight 300Watt Power Supply
OS Windows 98SE w/all updates applied

How Well Does It Work and How Does It Sound?

After getting it installed and working, the AudioTron really performs well. It was a welcome surprise, to be honest. When the AudioTron arrived, we were not sure that the end result was going to sound this good. Of course, the sound was better when we were all digitally connected with the S/PDIF cable, rather than the RCA analog cables. The majority of the MP3s that were on the server were sampled at either 128kbps or 160kpbs, which makes what we would consider "good sounding," CD-quality MP3s. The AudioTron can handle bit rates up to 320kbps.

Based on some reports, we did expect to have some problems with the MP3 ID tags, but we didn't have any problems with any files. Of course, this doesn't mean that you will not encounter problems with some of your MP3s, just that we didn't. Turtle Beach does suggest that you use a variety of tools to modify and fix your MP3 ID Tags, so that they are fully compatible.

In some situations using the analog RCA connection, we noticed that we heard a low "hum" from the speakers. According to what we found on Turtle Beach's Web site, this does happen in some configurations. The easiest fix was just to use the S/PDIF digital connection, where we didn't get any "hum."

One cause of possible concern is network congestion, which could cause dropouts during playback. Turtle Beach does address this problem with a buffering system, which is user-adjustable. This allows the AudioTron to buffer more of the song ahead of time, in order to overcome possible network congestion.

In normal use, we found the interface easy to use and the sound quality to be good. We would agree that, on properly ripped CDs with a high bit rate, the quality was almost CD-like, and it really did sound better being played through such large speakers. When doing a CD-to-AudioTron comparison of the same song, it was difficult to tell the difference between the two.

Conclusion

Before we started the tests, we asked the question, "Is the AudioTron one of the first true home network appliances?" The answer has to be an emphatic "YES!" - the AudioTron makes a great merger between networking technology and appliance functionality. Using this merger of technology, you can have your computer-recorded music readily accessible from any room in your house; all you need to do is provide network connectivity.

We found that the AudioTron can require a lot of network bandwidth, and sometimes, on a highly congested network, its limited 10mbit half-duplex connection might not be enough. Although you are able to adjust the buffering in order to help with this problem, we would perfer to see Turtle Beach upgrade the NIC on the AudioTron to support 100mbit, which would provide a much needed increase in bandwidth. However, the average user with limited network usage isn't likely to notice any problems. To be clear, you are not going to be able to let your kids play Quake II/III on the Internet, and be able to stream Internet radio at the same time, but, using the AudioTron's buffering technology, it is possible to let your kids play Quake II/III online while you play MP3s from your MP3 server, as long at they are not on the same computer. Of course, you might have to play with your settings to get this working smoothly, and it will help if you have a 100mbit switch where you can plug in everything.

We found the Internet radio functions to be more of an issue. Even with a cable modem connection in the lab, we encountered many situations where the broadcast would have dropouts, or just stop altogether. Based on the review of this problem, it was more an issue of Internet congestion than with the AudioTron itself. We did feel that the selection of Internet stations was limited, and we would like to see the AudioTron support Microsoft-based streaming media, rather than just the MPEG-based formats that it currently supports. It should be noted that that any user can create his/her own radio presets from TurtleRadio.com and new stations can be added as long as they conform to the Shoutcast/Icecast Formats.

All in all, we found the AudioTron to be a welcome addition to most network-enabled enviorments. If you have been looking for a solution such as this, we would recommend AudioTron. While the price might scare off some users, the convenience of AudioTron and its unique features will likely keep this breakthrough a viable user technology.

КОНЕЦ СТАТЬИ


Координаты для связи с редакцией:

Общий адрес редакции: thg@thg.ru;
Размещение рекламы: Roman@thg.ru;
Другие координаты, в т.ч. адреса для отправки информации и пресс-релизов, приглашений на мероприятия и т.д. указаны на этой странице.


Все статьи: THG.ru

 

Rambler's Top100 Рейтинг@Mail.ru