|Onkyo NC-500 Net-Tunes Audio Network Receiver|
|Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Monday, 01 March 2004|
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Playing your MP3 files isn’t just for sketchy speakers and poorly developed free software on your computer any more. Sales of Apple’s iPod are through the roof and now a new category, the music server, is gaining popularity. Talk of the computer and your home theater being one and the same (AKA: convergence) has been going on for quite some time and, with the NC-500 Nettunes Audio Network Receiver, Onkyo has taken another step closer to making the personal computer a fundamental part of your home theater system. For $399 (or $499 with two D-N3XA 2-way bass reflex speakers), the Onkyo NC-500 Net-Tunes™ Audio Network Receiver gives you powerful access to audio files stored on your computer from a remote location in your home or office. It also provides enhanced support for Internet radio and allows you to listen to both WMA (Windows Media) and MP3-format Internet radio stations. An AM/FM tuner allows you to listen to terrestrial radio through the NC-500.
The NC-500 is fairly small in size and resembles a CD or DVD player that has been chopped in half. At only eight-and-one-sixteenth inches wide, 11 inches deep, three-and-nine-sixteenths inches tall, it can easily be integrated into almost any home theater set-up and, if mounted on a rack shelf, there will be plenty of space on the side of the unit as a temporary space to store a small stack of CDs or a pair of headphones. The front of the unit is primarily comprised of a dark, tinted plastic display, framed by a matte silver border, 15 silver function buttons and an one-eighths-of-an-inch headphone jack. It’s an attractive piece that aesthetically goes with any system. When turned on, the 20x4 dot matrix LED display shows information such as song title, genre etc., which is an attention-getter from friends and neighbors who see the artist and song information scrolling by as the songs play.
Turning the NC-500 around, it looks like a miniature AV receiver. This is because, in fact, it is a receiver. Stereo speaker connectors are built into the back, with standard spring loaded speaker wire connections. A video output is available if you want to use your television or video display device to access the various menu options. An auxiliary stereo analog input is available via RCA connectors for adding a CD player or MP3 player directly to the NC-500. Two different stereo outputs are available. The fixed stereo analog output is used when connecting the NC-500 to a receiver that has its own speakers and volume control. If connecting it directly to a power amplifier that does not have volume control, the variable output should be used and the volume is controlled by the NC-500.
There isn’t a ton of power in the built-in amp: 2x27 watts at six ohms and 2x25 watts at eight ohms. The continuous average power rating is 2x15 watts into an eight ohm load or 2x17 into a six ohm load. However, this is more than adequate for a small pair of speakers if you choose to run the NC-500 outside of your larger home theater system.
The remote included with the NC-500 is very straightforward and well laid out. It’s easy to pick faults with remotes, but this is a case where the remote does not get in your way of enjoying the component. For naming tracks and play lists, the numerical pad is used, with the alphabetical equivalent symbols above them. Just like text messaging on a cell phone, the letter E would be created by pushing the #3 button two times. V would be created by pressing the #8 button three times. You can quickly get the hang of it and can type out full words very quickly after a little practice.
An IR input rounds out the features on the back of the unit. This input allows you to attach an external remote sensor, in case the NC-500 is kept in a cabinet where the front of the unit is blocked and doesn’t allow you to access it with the remote control.
Setting up the hardware for the NC-500 is an absolute breeze. All of the physical connections couldn’t be simpler. If you have ever connected a basic receiver and speakers before, then you should have no problem with the NC-500. Where things get a little more advanced is when connecting it to your computer network and installing the Net Tune Central software. This application is fairly simple and easy to install, as long as you have the correct computer and operating system. On my laptop computer, with Windows XP installed, the installation was flawless. The recommended operating systems include Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP Home Edition/XP Professional and an Intel Pentium III 600 MHz or higher. Sorry Macintosh users, there is currently no Mac version.
After downloading the Net Tunes™ application from the Internet and installing it on the computer, it is necessary to connect the NC-500 to the computer network via DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol). After connecting the NC-500 to the network, I launched the Net-Tunes™ application and it automatically searched for all of the compatible audio files on my computer. I had ripped several discs from CD to my hard drive, including the Deftones new self-titled album (Maverick), A Perfect Circle’s latest effort Thirteenth Step (Virgin) and Keb Mo’s Keep it Simple (Sony), and it successfully found all of the tracks. A few stray MP3 files that I had previously downloaded were found, as were some other files from various programs on my computer, but I was easily able to tell the system to ignore any of the tracks that I didn’t want to access remotely through the NC-500.
I was able to put the songs and albums that I ripped into pre-defined groups so that I could later access them in many different ways. Almost all of my previously downloaded MP3 files had their ID tags already included, so these were already seen by the NC-500. Using this encoded information, I could find any song quite easily using the following categories: Album, Artist or Genre. A fourth option lets you access your custom playlists that you have to assign manually. I decided to make play lists called Metal, Blues, Rock and Soft Rock. You can be as specific as you want and create as many different playlists as you’d like and have hard drive space for using the Net-Tunes™ software by dragging and dropping the files you want into the different playlists. Any song can be in multiple playlists, genres or albums, as these are essentially easily changeable, user-defined options.