Web Informant #253, 26 June 2001:
Playing digital music with Voyetra's Audiotron


Ever since I converted my audio CD library to MP3s on my computer, I have been looking around for something like the Audiotron to play all this music around my house. The unit, from Voyetra Turtle Beach, is a great idea but poorly implemented. It shows you both the power of home networking and at the same time the frustrations of having a really crappy user interface design.

Audiotron is a piece of $300 audio equipment that is designed to grab MP3 files from your Windows computers' hard disks and play them on your stereo. On the back it has four important connectors: a standard RJ45 Ethernet, a set of PhoneLine Ethernet jacks, twin RCA jacks and a SPDIF optical audio output. In theory, you connect the unit to your home network (either topology), connect it to your stereo amplifier and turn it on. In theory, it should find the song files on your computer or computers and catalog them in its memory. In theory, you could purchase multiple units and place them around your home, hooking each of them up to an amplifier and a set of speakers. Gateway also resells the device, and if you buy one of their PCs at the same time you can save $100.

It sounds great in theory, so much so that I was almost willing to purchase one to try it out. Boy, am I glad I didn't. The trouble is that while Voyetra got many things right, they got a few things wrong that are showstoppers. And while I am willing to deal with these issues, I don't think my family is that motivated to work around them.

Let's talk about what they got right. If your PC is located near enough to your audio gear, say within 20 feet, you can string a cable from its sound card to the stereo and have it play the music directly. But any further away and the sonic quality will suffer, not to mention that you have to keep running back and forth between the PC and the stereo to find and play your songs. That's where using a network cable makes sense. You keep the song files digital over the wire, and then decode them over the short distance that they need to travel to your stereo gear. And if you have an optical port on your stereo amplifier, all the better. It would also be nice to have a remote for your PC like an audio component remote control, too. Audiotron comes with a remote control, although it isn't the easiest thing to operate (like many of my remotes).

A great advantage to the Audiotron is that it knows about the track order of your CDs and can play them that way if you'd like. Earlier versions of my PC jukebox MusicMatch program didn't allow me to sort my music library in this fashion (although the latest version 6.1 does). While this isn't important for every CD, I like to listen to some of them (like Abbey Road and most of my classical albums) in the order that the artist recorded them. This seems like a petty thing, but if you want to listen to classical music in particular the correct order of the symphonic movements is hard to capture in the PC jukebox software settings.

If you really want to dig deeper into this, you should take a look at ID3.org's web site, which goes into more details about these specially coded ID3 tags that are part of most music CDs these days. Jukebox programs read the information from these tags, compare the CD with an online database at cddb.com, and automatically fill in the descriptive information about each of your songs so you don't have to type all of this in when you are ripping your CDs over to MP3s. It is a great system, and for the most part it works well. Of course, there are several versions of these ID codes, and of course not every music jukebox program will create or recognize the same tag version. If you really get into ID3 tags, check out special software that can edit the tags directly.

But preserving track song order is one issue. Another is how playlists are created and manipulated. This is one of the drawbacks of the Audiotron. A playlist is nothing more than a list of a bunch of your songs. The jukebox programs all have this ability, and you can have as many of them as you like: they are nothing more than text files that contain the directory entries of the files that correspond to the songs. If you have a lot of music stored on your hard drive, you'll find that you quickly want to create several playlists, so you never have to get up to change a CD if you want to play DJ and program in a few hours' worth of music for your listening pleasure.

The hardware MP3 players like Creative's Nomad Jukebox don't do a very good job allowing you to create your own playlists: I have found it best to organize the song files on your PC, and then transfer them to the player. The same is true for the Audiotron: adding songs to a playlist is far too quirky if you do it with the remote control or pushing the buttons on its front panel. Far better to use the supplied PC jukebox software to do this. I wanted to import playlists that I had already created in MusicMatch's software, but had trouble with that as well. I mean, all we are talking about here are text files, right? Sigh.

But the playlist issue is minor compared to my installation troubles. I was able to connect the unit in my office and figure it out within an hour. My biggest stumbling block was entering a Windows 2000 login name and password, so the Audiotron could connect to my shared music directory. Once I did that, I was able to bring up my music on the device within short order.

However, I had some real headaches with getting it to work on my home network, where I have thousands of song files stored on my PC. I tried to hook it up but it didn't find my songs. A call to tech support told me to reinstall the device's firmware. That wasn't the right advice, and I decided at this point to stop acting like an ordinary consumer and get the right technical people on the line. It took half-dozen emails, several network traces, and lots of detective work before Voyetra's techie figured out that I had the wrong networking configuration for my Windows PC. It helps that the device has a built-in web server that can be used to debug its operations. (It would be nice if the web interface could be used to assemble playlists and do other tasks as well. Maybe Voyetra will figure this out eventually.)

The Audiotron is a real computer as far as your home network goes. It can grab a dynamic IP address if you have a DHCP server, otherwise it needs to have a matching static IP address to your existing subnet. This could be a problem for someone new to networking to deal with, but if you have already gone through the trouble of setting up a proper home network, then everything should work.

Well, let me just say that I thought I had setup a proper home network, but hadn't, at least as far as the Audiotron was concerned. Voyetra includes a piece of software that is supposed to check out your PC and network and make sure everything is up to spec, but it missed the mistake that I made. (If you must know, I didn't bind the Microsoft client to the adapter's TCP/IP interface for security reasons.) It would be far better for the company to produce some software that can scan everything about your Windows networking configuration and determine what the missing piece or pieces are, and far better still to recommend corrective action in clear, prescriptive terms. Given the variations in working Windows networking components (let alone the many permutations of nonworking configurations), this seems critical if the company is going to try to sell these things as consumer audio gear.

Once I made the change to my Windows PC, Audiotron was able to find my music files just fine. I also was able to tune in to several specialized streaming "radio" stations over the Internet that played different kinds of music: you can program this by pointing your web browser here.

The playlist thing notwithstanding, I am not totally satisfied with the unit. Navigating around its built-in LCD display is the pits, quite frankly, remote control or no remote. You have a dial that you turn to move through your list of songs. But you can also press the dial button in to select things. And there are the standard VCR-style stop, play, fast forward kinds of buttons. It is all too much for me, let alone my family, to deal with.

The manual stinks, even for the average consumer who is used to reading manuals that have been originally written in some other language and poorly translated into English. There is a longer version, called a reference manual, available from the company's web site. However, even at double the length of the standard manual it is far too vague on some of the more important points.

I don't recommend the Audiotron unless you have a great deal of patience and are willing to work around the user interface issues. If you have gotten used to playing music on your PC's jukebox programs, you aren't going to be too thrilled to figure out how to navigate around the Audiotron's menus. If you are using an older version of MusicMatch, spend the money and upgrade to get the track order sorting ability. And the networking issues make it difficult to deal with unless you have a great deal of experience with the Windows Network control panel and its idiosyncrasies. (I thought I did, and it took me several attempts to get it right.)

Audiotron is a great idea. But its poor implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

Self-promotions dep't

If you thought storing all your MP3s takes up a lot of room on your hard disk, wait until you get a handle on what a new protocol called direct access file system (DAFS) will handle. An article of mine was recently published in Storage Networking World Online that describes this new protocol and what benefits it will bring to the world of enterprise storage networks.

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David Strom
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