Little black box can store thousands of songs

Personal audio recorder uses MP3 format to load music onto hard disk

June 19, 2000|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Hard disks are about to transform music in the same way they're beginning to remake television - by giving us total control.

The most important piece of new personal technology introduced last year, in my less-than- humble opinion, was the personal video recorder, or PVR. Using hard disks nearly identical to those found inside personal computers, PVRs perform several incredible tricks - such as "pausing" live broadcasts and recording one show while playing back another - that leave videocassette recorders slowly sinking in the tar pit of consumer electronics extinction.

PVRs designed by Silicon Valley start-ups ReplayTV ( and TiVo ( are available from several big manufacturers, including Panasonic, Philips and Sony; there's also my personal favorite, the DishPlayer combination satellite receiver-PVR ( developed by Microsoft.

Now comes the musical equivalent, which I'll call the personal audio recorder, or PAR.

ReQuest Inc., a small company based in Troy, N.Y., shipped the first PAR in late April. Two other companies are promising PARs by early next month, with one more competitor due in October.

The AudioReQuest ARQ1 (800-236-0802; is a 25-pound black box, the size of a large CD player, that contains a 17-gigabyte hard disk and sells for $799. Using the MP3 digital music format that's almost a universal standard on the Web, AudioReQuest can store 320 hours of music - or 6,400 three-minute songs - at "near CD quality."

I'm excited about the concept represented by PARs. But after setting up and running AudioReQuest, I'm also cautious. In two important ways that I'll explain below, this product is a year or two ahead of its time.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand AudioReQuest is to think of it as an electronic jukebox. But instead of a mechanical mechanism shuffling CDs, music is stored digitally on the hard disk.

There are several ways to get music into AudioReQuest.

The simplest method is putting a standard music CD into the AudioReQuest's CD tray and pushing the "record" button on the handheld remote control. AudioReQuest then converts the music into MP3 format at four times normal speed and stores the MP3 files on the hard disk. In other words, a 48-minute album takes 12 minutes to load.

Internet music buffs with CD recorders in their PCs can put MP3 tunes on CD-R or CD-RW discs, then take those discs to the AudioReQuest and make a transfer.

AudioReQuest also comes with software and a connecting cable for Windows PCs, allowing direct hard-disk-to-hard-disk transfers.

Finally, AudioReQuest has standard stereo input jacks for hooking up tape decks, turntables and other audio equipment. Music from these sources is converted to MP3 and stored on the AudioReQuest hard disk.

To listen to your uploaded music collection, AudioReQuest has standard stereo output jacks for connecting to a stereo or home theater receiver.

Managing the huge number of tunes AudioReQuest can hold requires hooking up a television or a computer monitor to the box, so you can view on-screen menus listings song titles and rearrange them into custom playlists.

Setting up AudioReQuest isn't hard, although I encountered glitches with my review unit.

When I first plugged in my AudioReQuest, it wouldn't function. An engineer at ReQuest told me the processor chip in a few units had shaken loose from its socket during shipment. He authorized me to open the case - a step that normally voids the warranty - and stick the processor back in the slot. He also said ReQuest had fixed the socket so future customers would not encounter the same problem.

At this point, I was able to hook AudioReQuest to my home theater system. I uploaded several CD tracks, using the default 128 kilobits-per-second recording rate that produces "near CD-quality" sound. Audiophiles can opt for higher bit rates, up to 320K, although this reduces the amount of music AudioReQuest can store.

The uploaded tracks, to my untrained ear, sounded just about as good as when I played the same tracks directly from the original disc. There may have been a slight reduction in the brightness of the music and the sense of separation among the instruments, but I'd have no complaints listening to my CD collection filtered into MP3 format.

I next brought a laptop computer into the family room to test AudioReQuest's software.

But I couldn't make a connection - apparently because the parallel port on the laptop wasn't properly configured to work with the software.

So I hauled an old desktop computer system out of my closet and this time I succeeded in making a connection between the PC and AudioReQuest. I downloaded a traditional Gaelic folk song called "Tha Mi Sgith by Kaye" from ( onto the PC's hard disk, then transferred the file to AudioReQuest and listened to the lilting harmonies through my home theater speaker system.

Why bother with all this? As I see it, PARs solve two big problems.

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