Onkyo NC-500 Net-Tunes Audio Network Receiver 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Bryan Dailey   
Monday, 01 March 2004

Introduction
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.

Set-up
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.

Playing Audio Files from your computer
Beginning with the NC-500 wired up to my Kenwood VR-5700 receiver and Paradigm 5.1 system, I cued up some Deftones on MP3. The dynamic drums and guitars of this nu-metal band came ripping through my speakers with an impressive quality that I wouldn’t have expected from an MP3. Although not as clean and loud as the CD version that I was easily able to A/B directly through my Kenwood DV-5700 player, the MP3 version through the server couldn’t fool anyone with a decent set of ears, but it would pleasantly surprise the skeptics who don’t think of MP3 as a viable audio format.

Other formats supported by the NC-500 include WAVE (PCM) and WMA. WAVE files are non-compressed digital audio files. WMA, which is more compressed than MP3, has better sound quality than MP3 files, according to the file type’s creator Microsoft. Listening to the track “The Outsider,” which I had ripped to my computer as a WAVE file, I was even more impressed by the ability of the NC-500 to take a signal that routed from my computer, through about 45 feet of Cat 5 wire, into the NC-500, into my receiver, then to my speakers, and still make it sound musical. I was prepared to hear much more digital compression and digital-to-analog issues than I did.

I found that rock music worked the best on the NC-500, as blues and other types of recordings did not shine as much as their original CD counterparts that had supplied the tracks for the device. Former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha’s guitar tone and Tool singer Maynard James Keenan’s sonically meld together on the most aggro track on the new A Perfect Circle album. The soulful guitar of jazz blues artist extraordinaire Keb Mo was just a hint less emotional yet still quite listenable. The NC-500 will never be used for critical listening, but it adds one more way to enjoy the music on your computer in your theater is worthy of your consideration.

Internet Radio
Like Pirate Radio before it, Internet radio has been very controversial. These stations generate essentially no money, yet the RIAA and other recording company interests have made bold moves to enforce payment of royalties to artists whose songs are played on Internet radio. Whatever the future holds for Internet radio, the fact of the matter is, the NC-500 allows you to access a wide range of Internet radio stations. Using the Net-Tunes™ software, the NC-500 can pull in a wide range of Internet radio stations, ranging from ultra-hip to incredibly lame. This can also be done without the Net-Tunes™ software and without even being hooked up to a computer. The sound quality of the stations is all over the map. Some stations have more commercials than songs and some stations will play long extended sets of music. For channel surfers, it’s good fun to hunt around for something interesting to listen to, but don’t count on always being able to find something great.

The only other Internet radio tuner that I was familiar with before reviewing the NC-500 was the one that is built into Apple’s iTunes. The iTunes software and interface is a little slicker, as most Apple applications tend to be. However, I didn’t have any problem navigating with Net-Tunes™ and the front panel of the NC-500. It’s not the biggest selling point, but having Internet radio at your fingertips makes for yet another option that adds to the available source material in your home theater.

AM/FM Tuner
Although the NC-500 puts all of the songs on your computer network easily at your disposal, there are surely times when you’d rather just tune in your favorite AM or FM radio station. It is easy to forget than the NC-500 is essentially a small receiver with a few specialized tricks. From my townhouse on the backside of a hill facing away from where most radio signals are broadcast to the Los Angeles basin, I tend to not get the best reception from terrestrial radio stations. With the NC-500 connected near my main home theater system in the bottom floor of my home, there was a small amount of static on a few of the radio stations that I listen to. However, with the supplied AM and FM antennas, the NC-500 was able to pull in stations slightly better than my Kenwood VR-5700.

Upstairs, the reception was much stronger, especially in the AM stations. I was easily able to pull in some basketball games from the local AM sports station that I had trouble with downstairs. The radio tuner controls are fairly straightforward and you are able to choose up to 40 AM and FM presets.

Killer bedroom, Office or Dorm Room System
As previously mentioned, I decided to pull the NC-500 out of my main theater and try it upstairs in a bedroom system where the Audio Network Receiver became the main component, actually acting as the receiver for the system. I took a Sony Discman and plugged that into the auxiliary input, then ran an Ethernet cable into the back of the NC-500. Because it has its own amplifier and speaker outs on the back of the unit, I hooked some small Sony satellite speakers that I had from a Sony surround system. I wanted a small system that could be played at night in my room without disturbing anyone and didn’t take up much space on the shelf above my bed.

The Downside
You must not confuse the NC-500 with much more expensive music servers, such as those from Escient or Request that feature built-in hard drive storage for your music collection. This means that, in order to access your music, your collection has to be stored on your computer. It also means that your computer has to be turned on and has to be on the network for you to access your audio files. This was a little inconvenient for me, since my computer and home theater are on opposite sides of the house with 25 stairs in between. I also don’t like to leave the computer running all the time to conserve electricity, so when I feel like listening to my MP3s downstairs, it requires a trip upstairs to boot up the computer.

The biggest weakness is the fact that Onkyo does not yet make or support a wireless connection for the NC-500. This means that you will have to plan ahead and make sure that a hardwired connection from your computer networks router or hub is available wherever you want to NC-500 to exist. For my situation, this meant running a very long Ethernet cable under the carpet from my computer upstairs to the living room downstairs. An aftermarket wireless ethernet adapter may work but for the time being there is not an OEM unit from Onkyo that is fully supported.

Conclusion
You may ask, why do I need this product? Can’t I just install a program like iTunes or Win-Amp on my computer, run an audio output from it to an input on my receiver and listen to the songs on my computer that way? Technically, yes, you can, but the NC-500 allows you very powerful navigation options and access to files on your computer from a remote location that are simply not possible without it. You could play your songs from the computer without it, but to pause, play, rewind, change playlists, etc, you’d have to go back to your computer and make these changes there. You can even use up to twelve NC-500 units or Net-Tune equipped receivers to the different systems in your home to access your music collection throughout your entire home.

Audio purists may scoff at the thought of playing MP3 files or Internet radio through their high-end audio systems and, yes, the inferior quality of these formats will be detectable on your reference system. However, this isn’t where the NC-500 excels anyway. I found it to be most beneficial. Since it is not a surround sound processor and is small in size, the NC-500 has found a happy home on a shelf in my bedroom; it makes the most sense as a bedroom audio system. I can listen to the songs on my computer or pop in a CD or find a good station on Internet radio and let it play in the background. With the sleep timer and the ability to use it as an alarm clock, complete with the ever-popular snooze feature, the NC-500 makes a compelling centerpiece for a stereo audio system in your bedroom or office. Just remember that whatever song you cue to play as your “wake up” alarm song will probably be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
Manufacturer Onkyo
Model NC-500 Net-Tunes Audio Network Receiver
Reviewer Bryan Dailey





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