Dell Digital Audio Receiver – Review

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

Lust -As soon as I saw the Dell Digital Audio Receiver I knew it was exactly what I needed! About half as big again as a car hi-fi this small but perfectly formed box of tricks is the answer to a question I’ve had for sometime – How can I play my music collection on my PC through my system in the AV room (without having a PC in there!).

Shipping Problems – After lots of email back and forward to Dell USA they said they definitely wouldn’t deliver their Digital Audio Receiver to the UK. But by a happy co-incidence a good mate was just about to head to Kansas on a weeks business.

I ordered the unit on the Sunday night before he left and it arrived at his US office the following Wednesday. Shipping was very reasonable at around £8.50

Mysterious Changing Prices – A few days after I ordered the DDAR I noticed the price I had been charged had increased.  I emailed Dell to complain and they immediately credited my card with the difference . Nice one!

Setting It Up – DDAR comes with ARM (Audio Receiver Manager) software. This is the interface between the songs on your PC and the DDAR itself. Once installed it’s fairly invisible apart from a small icon in your taskbar which shows it’s running.

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

The package also includes MusicMatch Jukebox V5.1 which is not necessary for the operation of the system and can be replaced with your own choice of ripping software. First thing I noticed when looking round the back was that the power supply accepts UK as well as US voltage. No need for a transformer then, happy days!

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

The DDAR sits between your PC and your hi-fi. It simply plugs into an ordinary RJ45 LAN point via a standard CAT5 cable (supplied). The system also supports the “Home PNA Network” standard with connectors on the back to plug into a phone socket on the wall (US style plug) and one to plug the phone handset into the DDAR itself. I am unable to test this system but I assume it works just like the 10BaseT Ethernet connection.

You then have the choice of connecting up some small speakers (not supplied) to the units own 8 watt internal amp, or connecting it to your own system via the line out phono sockets. As mine is with the other gear in my AV room I use the latter option. A third option allows you to plug active speakers (the little powered speakers most of us use with our PCs) into the line out min-jack.

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

Using The System – I was expecting something much more flimsy and lightweight from the pictures I’d seen but in actual fact the unit has some weight to it and is well built. The transport buttons have little travel and don’t feel that good, though in reality you’re most likely going to use the remote 90% of the time. I think styling is best described as “modern retro” (think Alfa Romeo 156). Its narrow width means it doesn’t look great sitting with the rest of the “normal” width hi-fi stuff though.

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

After the ARM software is installed and the network connections are made you can turn on the player. Turning the box on for the first time you get the blue backlit LCD displaying the DELL logo and the message that it’s “Initializing”. After the system has found the server PC I believe it downloads its operating software from it before starting. This way the system can easily be upgraded in the future. For example – at present the remote has a button called “Station” that, according the manual, will allow on-line radio stations to stream to the DDAR in the future!

Pressing the “Menu” button on the middle of the unit gives you several choices. You can choose to access the different screen setup options, or start to play music. You highlight the option you want by turning the knob left or right and select it by pushing it in. Anyone with a Sony mini-disc player will be familiar with this type of control. When you select music you have several sub options. You can select by Artist, Album, Title, Playlist or Genre. If (for example) you pick Abba, you are then presented with a list of all the Abba tracks on your system (the ARM software creates all the indexes automatically from the Tags in the MP3 files). The default option is Play All which will start to play all the Abba track on your system.. Hitting the “Random” button at this point will shuffle all the Abba songs. The repeat button switches between repeat all, repeat individual track and off. The box seems to be able to read WinAmp and MusicMatch Jukebox playlists (at least) which makes it easy to set these up on the PC then import them into the player using the ARM software.

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

There are several different displays available. The “All Info” screen shows track and album name, elapsed time, file format and bit rate. The “Scope View” screen has a small oscilloscope style graphic (didn’t photograph well as it’s moving) along the lines of the one in WinAmp. The Scope view is available in reverse (blue on black) as well. There’s also a larger format screen which gives you a better chance of reading the display if you’re any more that 4 feet away. The second picture down from the top of this page shows a much more graphical display which in reality is not available. I can only assume this was an early prototype or mockup of the product. Perhaps future software upgrades will bring new screen layouts too.

Dell Digital Audio Receiver

One of the most useful features looks to be “Lists”. There are 100 memory locations available for lists (00-99) and a list can point to a track, an album or a playlist. So by simply hitting “List, 00, Enter” on your remote you can kick off your favourite album or your Party playlist.

Hitting the “Search” button brings up an alphabetically sorted list of all your tracks. Using the remote buttons the same way you do your mobile phone you can hit the “2” key four times to get to the tracks beginning with “C” (ie 2,A,B,C). The List and Search functions are available from the remote only.

Dell Digital Audio Receiver Remote with Pronto

The unit will play MP3s, WMAs and I believe straight WAVs too (although I haven’t tried this yet). So far I have around 90 of my CDs ripped to the hard drive on the MP3 server. At 192kbps these 1,700 tracks equate to around 9.5 Gig. That’s over four days continuous play without hearing the same track twice! In the short time I’ve used the player I have heard so many great songs I had forgotten about (and I’m proving to myself that I really am a Child of the 80’s!) I’m going to end up needing a total of around 25 Gig by the time I’m finished which should be well over a weeks worth of music.

Dell Digital Audio Receiver House Plan

The printed manual is around 70 pages and there’s also an on-line version on the CD. The remote is best described as “functional”. But hey…you’re going to teach it’s functions to your Pronto and then throw it in a drawer…right?

You can use multiple DDAR off one MP3 server but exactly how many before the playback become choppy is unclear. According to Dell you can use the server PC normally while serving several DDARs although I cannot vouch for this.

Others to Consider – At the time I ordered the Dell box the 9 “Gateway Connected Music Player” had still not been released. However it has been now and looks an amazing product! It does streaming straight out of the box and has the added advantage of having a optical digital audio out and being “proper” hi-fi component width. The Gateway player seems to be a re-badged version of the Turtle Beach AudioTron.

Conclusion – In the future as more and more of these type of products emerge I can see the Dell moving to the bedroom to make way for an even more feature rich player in the AV room. However, as a certified (some might say certifiable) early adopter I have to say I love the DDAR. It has suddenly given me access to my entire music collection in a convenient and relatively inexpensive way.

UPDATE. The DDAR and the Rio Receiver are both out of production, check out the Sonos system.

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