ReQuest Multimedia AudioReQuest
All your music in one black box
ReQuest Multimedia
The debate over digital music has, at times, raised the issue of what constitutes a "true" music lover. Is it someone who buys all their CDs in order to support the artists they like, or someone who gets the music they love by any means available, bootlegged or otherwise?

While a definitive answer is unlikely, we can all agree on one thing: we have a lot of music, digital or otherwise, and that's a pain. If you've got tons of audio files, they're eating up a huge chunk of hard disk space, and you probably can't listen to your music outside of the computer room. If you've got tons of CDs, vinyl, audio cassettes, and/or minidiscs, storage is a nightmare and you spend as much time searching for music as playing it. And heaven help you if you have both.

You'll be happy to know that salvation has arrived in the form of ReQuest Multimedia's black-box stereo component called the AudioReQuest. To all appearances, it looks very limited: its near-featureless face sports a small LCD display, a CD tray, and two buttons labeled Power and Eject. But if you push the power button and listen carefully, you'll hear the sound of a hard disk drive and fan spinning up. The AudioReQuest is actually a specialized computer, designed to store and play back all the music you can stuff into it.

The AudioReQuest stores MP3 files on its hard disk (20, 30, or 60 GB, depending on the model), which represents an awful lot of music--on the 30 GB model, that's about 525 hours at 128 kbps, the minimum standard for near CD-quality encoding. You can squeeze more on at bitrates as low as 64 kbps, or if you're an extra-finicky audiophile you can sacrifice quantity and go up to 320 kbps.

It's easy to get music into the AudioReQuest. The quickest way is to encode MP3s from an audio CD in the CD tray, or from any other audio source connected to the line or microphone inputs. Alternatively, you can copy MP3 and Windows Media (WMA) files from a CD-R or CD-RW, or by using any of the ports in the back (parallel, USB, and Ethernet) to connect to your PC. The AudioReQuest is also smart enough to read ID3 tags for song and artists information, or to ferret through the CD Database (CDDB) online if you're connected to a network. Failing that, it can use an MP3's file name, or you can enter the information through the remote or by typing it in with a standard AT keyboard or wireless keyboard.

Look carefully: that's eight different ways to get music into the AudioReQuest, and six ways to enter information. It's an admirable display of flexibility that is both rare and refreshing coming from a hardware manufacturer. That flexibility carries over into its user interface as well: you can either use the cramped but usable LCD screen to read or enter song information, or sit back and use a television (using either composite or S-Video outputs) or VGA monitor.

The prospect of having all your music in one black box no bigger than a regular CD player probably makes you salivate, but be ready for sticker shock: the 20 GB model currently lists for $799 US. In one sense, that's cheap: it's twice the price of a Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox for three times the storage space, plus the aforementioned flexibility (though not as much portability). On the other hand, that's an awful lot of money to lay down purely for the sake of convenience. ReQuest Multimedia have got a great product here, but the price tag might just make you hum a different tune.

A Critical Eye exclusive (January 9, 2001)