Aireo Wi-Fi MP3 Player

Aireo from SoniqCast, first shown at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in January and now generally available, opens up another new Wi-Fi product category. It’s the first pocket-size digital music player with a built-in Wi-Fi radio for copying files to and from a networked host PC.

Transmitting large media files over an 11Mbps 802.11b wireless LAN when you could do it a lot faster over 400 Mbps USB2 or FireWire connections does smack a little of wireless for the sake of wireless, but if nothing else, the Aireo’s Wi-Fi capability differentiates it in the marketplace.

The product has a few other attractive if not unique features, including dual headphone jacks, a Secure Digital (SD) flash memory card slot, and integrated stereo FM receiver and the ability to play stored music on any car or home stereo FM radio using the integrated FM transmitter.

Better yet, the Aireo works well. It was easier to set up and use than many Wi-Fi products I’ve tested. Battery life is very good. According to the specifications, the non-removable Lithium Ion cell is good for eight hours of continuous play.

The trouble is, at 2.68 x 4.58 x 0.87 inches and 8 oz., the Aireo is way too big, and at $299 it’s too expensive. Given that it only offers 1.5 GB of storage on an integrated micro hard drive, it’s difficult to see how Aireo can compete.

Consider the 15 GB Apple iPod, for example. It costs the same and offers ten times the storage, it’s smaller and lighter at 4.1 x 2.4 x 0.62 inches and 5.6 oz. — and more elegant, too. The 1.5 GB Nomad MuVo2 from Creative uses no-skip flash memory rather than a hard drive — making it better than the Aireo for those who want to listen while jogging. It also sells for less (between $220 and $280) and is much smaller than Aireo at 2.6 x 2.6 x 0.8 inches and 3.2 oz. Both these products connect to host PCs via super-fast Firewire or USB2 cables.

Still, the Aireo may find an audience. The product is nothing if not flexible. You can play stored MP3s and WMAs or FM radio over the included behind-the-neck headphones. You can also set up the FM transmitter function to play stored music files through a channel on the FM radio. Just unplug the headphones and place the unit close enough to an radio to get playback. Most other MP3 player require extra transmit hardware to play on FM.

SoniqCast gets around the slow wireless network speed — sort of — by including clever software that allows you to set up scheduled uploads over a Wi-Fi LAN.

Most people wait until just before they leave on a trip or when they get tired of listening to the same stuff over and over and select a bunch of tracks from a PC music library and copy them to their MP3 device. The Aireo idea is that you refresh the selection of music on the device regularly and automatically so there is always at least some new music on it.

With the included SonicSync software, you set up music mixes — collections of standard (Windows Media Player, Musicmatch Jukebox) playlists. You tell SonicSync how much of Aireo’s total capacity you want to devote to a particular mix, how much of the mix you want to change on each refresh and how often you want to refresh. You can also select the time you want to refresh, the idea being to choose a time when computer and network capacity are readily available.

SonicSync automatically logs on to your Wi-Fi network at the days and time you set. It uses the rules you establish to automatically select new files from the mix to upload and others to delete from the device — then goes ahead and refreshes all the mixes with new material.

It’s a cool idea, and no doubt some will see a benefit in not having to be continually plugging and unplugging a USB or FireWire cable, or thinking about which files to upload and delete (unless you’ve got a big enough hard drive to store everything). It’s not clear to me, however, that using Wi-Fi for this application offers a strong enough value proposition.

In terms of setting up and using the Aireo, it was a dream. All the software you need comes loaded on the device’s hard drive. When you first turn the unit on — at this point it is connected via the included USB cable — WinXP automatically sets it up as a hard drive. To start, you open the drive folder in My Computer and click on the Setup program.

Aireo includes the SonicSync software, plus recent versions of Windows Media Player, MusicMatch Jukebox and software for downloading audio books and radio programs from Audible’s Web site.

The setup program will install them all in one go. If you already have any of the programs installed, it detects that and tells you. Once the installation is complete, the Aireo software automatically goes out to the Web and downloads software and firmware updates and installs them. All of this worked flawlessly on my install.

The Wi-Fi set up is simple enough. In the SonicSync dialog on your PC screen, you select the Aireo unit in the list of installed devices, click the Preferences button, select the Wireless Networks tab, click Add and enter the SSID for your Wi-Fi LAN and TCP/IP settings in the dialog that appears.

The Aireo does not stay connected to the network at all times like most Wi-Fi devices, only while it’s actually copying files. If you want to listen or perform other functions, you have to disconnect.

There is also a Wi-Fi detection function selectable from the device’s six-line, 1×2-inch monochrome LCD screen. It lets you scan for hotspot access points or other Wi-Fi devices with which the Aireo can associate in an ad hoc network.

The FM transmitter function was also fairly simple to set up. By default it transmits at 88.1 on the FM dial. You can choose a different frequency if that one is in use in your area by a broadcaster. Disconnecting the headphones from Aireo automatically puts the device in FM transmit mode.

I found when testing it with my stereo system that I had to place the Aireo unit right on top of the receiver or there was static in the background, and sometimes no sound at all, even though the specifications say it will work at up to 15 feet away. It worked better in my car, where I could place the Aireo on the console and get clear sound.

The sound wasn’t terrific in either case, though. That said, it’s probably no worse than the sound you get when using one of those wired adapters that plugs in to your car cassette player. I also didn’t like the sound from the headphones — thin and a bit muddy — and the headphones themselves were difficult or impossible to adjust and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Of course, you can plug in any headphones — any two sets of headphones, in fact.

Sound quality, while certainly adequate for this type of device, is in general not the Aireo’s strong point. On the other hand, it’s unlikely you’ll do much critical listening with an Aireo.

This is, for the most part, a well designed and executed product, but perhaps not so well conceived. Unless you buy into the notion of music mixes and regular partial refreshes of mixes, which is not entirely intuitive, this is probably not the digital music player for you.

Wi-Fi in this case just doesn’t deliver enough added value.

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