Audiotron – Review

Ah ha, spent all that time on Napster and Gnutella, downloaded all those songs and now realised that you can only listen to them on your PC, via those little speakers Dell bundle in.

Got that lovely stereo you picked up at Richer sounds, matt black components, great looking Mission speakers with those white cones, but now you don’t use it as all your music is on your PC.

The Turtle Beach Audiotron, combined with the Intel HPNA (Home Phone network) manages to link your PC in one room to your stereo in another, via your existing telephone extensions, and look good at the same time.

Getting it here – It was a great plan – linking my PC – A Dell Dimension to the stereo, and with a bit of time spent with Google.com I had soon searched out the relevant product reviews so I could decide which pieces of kit would best solve my problems. Not being the most technically literate – I can’t use a soldering iron, and I have no idea what BIOS is – I settled on an Intel product to provide the HPNA network, as they claimed it would work straight out of the box. I also chose the Audiotron because it was black and would look good with the stereo (who said men are shallow!), plus it wasn’t made by Gateway with whom I have had previous wranglings.

The only problem with this plan was that Intel isn’t sold in the UK, (something to do with that mythical green dot on the back of telephone products showing they are OFTEL approved) and the only people who sell the Audiotron are Turtle Beach direct and they wouldn’t even talk to me about UK usage.

Getting hold of the Intel HPNA card was not too much of a big deal as my wife’s parents were in the US on holiday and using a shopbot (www.dealtime.com) I soon found that a US company (www.provantage.com) would happily ship to a hotel in the US but bill to the UK. (.00 inc.) The Audiotron was a different matter altogether. Turtle Beach will not ship to a hotel, so I had to find a colleague’s mum who lives in Florida who would receive the goods and then ship them to the hotel for my parents-in-law to bring home with them (9.00 +shipping). Who ever said that the Internet would lead to borderless trade!

Out of the box or out of my head? – Setting aside the weekend, I started with the Intel Any-point HPNA 2.0 10Mps PCI card. The back of the PC opens with just a thumbscrew and the spare PCI slot is easily accessible. Intel provides a handy step-by-step guide that clearly explains how to insert a PCI card (right down to the helpful advice to put the screw that fixes in the PCI card somewhere safe). It is a two-minute job and the biggest pain is having to unplug all those cables from the back of the PC. I turned the PC back on and as predicted by Intel’s handy guide the screen asks for the enclosed CD and the installation was as easy as that. I didn’t bother with the firewall software you can install, nor a great little idea called Intel Intercom, as I was not going to network up other PCs. The only issue was you don’t know if its working until you have something to network to! It caused no interference with the phone lines and works perfectly well in my house with a host of BT and self installed phone extensions.

Now onto the Audiotron, not such a nice step-by-step guide, but it was still pretty idiot proof. (The Turtle Beach web site has the instructions as a .pdf if you want to see more – www.voyetra-turtle-beach.com/site/kb_ftp/114.asp) You need to make sure that you have a phone socket nearby and a US to UK phone plug converter (Maplin sell them), plus a 240V to 110V transformer (Maplin again £17.00), as the Audiotron does not accept 240V input like the Dell MP3 player does. Everything else comes in the box including gold-plated stereo leads! Plug it all in, (it’s like fitting a stereo component) and then turn it on.

Now here is where it started getting tricky. I know nothing about networking, and the Audiotron manual maintained that explaining in detail how a network works was ‘beyond the scope of the manual’. To cut a long a story short you can find out if the Audiotron is working by trying to ping it from you PC.

I believe that if you have an Ethernet link you can have something call DHPC which automatically allocates IP address to the equipment on the network – if you’re this lucky then the Audiotron will set itself up and Bob’s your uncle. I discovered that with HPNA you need to use static IP addresses that you then need to programme manually into the Audiotron. This in itself is really easy, but working out the correct solution took the time. Once the IP addresses are sorted you can check they’re working by pinging the Audiotron. Switch it on and the Audiotron downloads the database list of your songs. If you have lots of songs this takes quite a while (about an hour) but you only need to do this once. (Another source of worry – you don’t know if it is working until it has finished downloading). Once it has downloaded you discover it has got all the normal tricks like favorite tunes and pre-set lists plus comes with a remote control. However you can tell that an American designed it, as features get in the way of good user experience. (Compare Motorola to Nokia phones to understand my point.)

And that’s it – one networked house, one stereo given a new burst of life. A couple of thoughts though – the sound quality is really good, but only if your .mp3s are at a high enough sample rate. All mine from the net are at 192kbs, and the CDs I have ripped are at 224 kbs, (I use eac (www.exactaudiocopy.de) as the ripper – its great). I have spoken to people who have been tempted by the small file sizes given by a 128 kbs sample rate but music quality really suffers. The best solution is to sample at a high rate and buy a bigger drive to hold the files. The other thing is Audiotron works using the IDE tags encoded in MP3s. I knew nothing about these before I purchased the Audiotron and just used a windows directory structure and file name to organise my music. I have now spent the last three nights going though every song and inserting correct IDE tags so I can select music easily on the Audiotron. This is a total pain in the backside and falls under the list of things I wish I had known beforehand. My advice is, sort your IDE tags as you rip / download the music, don’t wait until you have 2000+ songs to deal with! Turtle Beach encloses with the Audiotron a copy of their Audio Station 4, which is a good jukebox and a workable mass IDE editor, but it is still a pain.

In summary, it’s a clever, easy to install solution (especially if you know what an IP address is) which can link your PC to your stereo, plus gives you the opportunity to extend in the future, either with more PCs or more Audiotrons. The Intel HPNA is brilliant, it really works straight from the box and I would recommend this to anyone. The Audiotron is good, but it is the first generation of this type of machine and so you have to expect some hassle in getting it running smoothly. They are, according to rumor, bringing out a new version in the next few months, which has a better user interface and may work with the 802.11 wireless network convention. However go do it – it will make your friends say wow!

Approximate Price 299 US DOLLARS – Available From Audiotron (now Turtle Beach)

**Update October 2002 – AudioTron now available in the UK from Laser.

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