ReQuest ARQ2 Digital Music System 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Brian Kahn   
Saturday, 01 February 2003

Introduction
The ARQ2 is ReQuest Multimedia’s second-generation digital music server that not only stores and catalogs your entire music collection on its internal hard drive, but also allows you to easily and quickly access any song from damn near anywhere in your house and beyond. This type of product represents the next generation music server, following the mega-CD changer. The ReQuest exterior is unassuming, industrial in appearance and clearly designed to be tucked away in an equipment rack. The metal-bodied unit is finished in dull black with a simple front panel containing power and status LEDs with the IR receiving window on the left edge, a small LCD display to the right, and a CD tray door and eject button. Lastly, there are small metal knobs on each side of the panel that secure the panel to the units. The side panels are perforated at the rear to provide airflow for the internal fan. The rear panel features a multitude of connections including analog inputs and outputs, coaxial and toslink digital outputs, video out, detachable power cord, keyboard port, RS-232, VGA, USB, IR input and Ethernet connections. The ARQ2 measures 17 inches in width, 14.5 inches deep, one-and-three-quarters inches in height, and weighs 17 pounds. The ARQ2 retails at $3,500 with a 60GB hard drive. The ReQuest also comes with a keyboard and a 64+ key remote control, which is surprisingly easy to use despite the large number of keys.

The multitude of back panel connections described above hint at the flexibility and connection options available to you with the ARQ2. The ReQuest units can be connected to and controlled by Crestron, AMX, Elan or Audioaccess units, or your PC. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be your PC. I took advantage of the ReQuest’s internal web server by hooking the ReQuest up to my broadband connection through my router and was able to access it from any computer on the web. The built-in web server allows you to browse your music catalog over the web and even listen to or download music as well.

ReQuest offers its digital music servers in a variety of capacities up to the recently introduced 960GB model, which should handle even the largest of music collections. ReQuest also offers Zone units. These can be used to either expand your capacity or provide independent playback in different locations. The Zone units use ReQuest’s NetSync process to synchronize the Zone unit to the main unit. This process utilizes the ReQuest’s Ethernet port and can be run over local networks or the Internet. This means that every time you add music to your main ReQuest, the optional Zone unit or units will also have the music ready for you, whether they are down the hall or across the country.

The Setup
The setup was a bit intimidating at first, as the ReQuest is like no other audio product I have owned or even seen. It is important to note that ReQuest products are normally sold through custom installers who will set the unit up for the end user, although that is not always the case. I first used the metal knobs to remove the front panel and slide the hard drive into the unit. I then connected the ReQuest to my music playback system; I hooked up both the analog and digital connections. Next, I connected an Elan via the touch panel. This six-inch touch screen easily connected to the ReQuest through the video out of the ARQ2. The Elan's panel IR emitter was then connected to the ReQuest. The ARQ2 comes with software for most major touch panel control units. Lastly, I connected the ReQuest to my computer, this allows for the unit to be controlled by the PC, swaps files with the computer, goes online to look up CD titles and can even be used as an Internet radio server.

After the unit is physically connected, you need to get your own music onto the ReQuest. You can load your own music, purchase pre-loaded music from ReQuest, or even send your CDs to ReQuest and they will load them for you on one of their high speed "RipStations." Loading your own CDs onto the ReQuest music server couldn’t be easier. Simply open the music tray, insert the CD and close the tray. If the CD is recognized by the ReQuests internal database of more than 750,000 recordings, it immediately rips the CD to the hard drive at approximately four times normal speed. If the CD is not recognized the unit, if connected to the Internet, will go online to get the data. If the CD is too obscure and the data is not available, you can title the CD using the remote. If you don’t want to load the entire CD, you also have the option to choose only the tracks you want. The line inputs also allow recording from any source with analog line level outputs. Lastly, you can copy audio files from your computer to the ReQuest ARQ2 with ease.

Music can be stored in multiple formats, the highest quality being the lossless CD-quality WAV format, but most users will store their music in the MP3 format. The MP3 format provides different levels of compression, from 64 kbps at the low end to 320 kbps at the high end. The ARQ2's default is 320 kbps. The level of compression affects the amount of music you can store on the unit, as well as the sound quality. The 60GB unit reviewed can store 111 hours of uncompressed WAV files, but if you utilize the highest-quality MP3 compression at 320 kbps, you can store 417 hours in the same space. The new 960GB unit can hold an amazing 6,600 hours of music at 320 kbps, or approximately nine months of continuous music, without hearing the same song twice, at a cost of $25,000.

Once you load your music onto the ReQuest, you have the option of creating playlists. The playlist feature allows you to compile various lists of songs in any order you like, a dinner music list, a workout list, a party list, music for the children, etc. These playlists can be easily created from the remote or even from your office computer over the Internet.

Using the ARQ2
I normally used the ARQ2 with the Elan via touch-screen. The ARQ2 is compatible with all the major touch-screen panels. You can download the software for your panel, greatly reducing programming costs. If you are not going to use a touch panel device, I would connect the ARQ2 to a display device to benefit from the information that would otherwise be on the touch panel screen, such as the name of the track, album and artist you are listening to, length of the track, next track to be played, etc. A future system update will even allow you to display the album cover. If this is too much information, a variety of psychedelic screen savers are also available. The display allows you to fully utilize the ReQuest’s intuitive menu system, which makes finding and playing music a breeze. You can select music from the ARQ2 by artist, album, playlist, song or even use the ReQuest as a CD player.

I found myself accessing my music mainly by playlist or album. Albums can either be accessed by pressing the "Album" key and scrolling through the list of albums, or by pressing the "Artist" key, then selecting the artist desired, which will then display a list of albums by that artist. The playlist feature is similarly easy to operate. If the playlist is already set, simply highlight the playlist and hit "Enter." To create a new playlist, simply highlight the songs you want on your list and press the "Select" button. After you have selected the songs, go to the menu screen and select "New Playlist," then "Selected Songs" -- that’s all there is to it.

The lists can be easily edited at any time. I have used this feature to create playlists for home workouts, dinner parties, and even a few different playlists for different moods. The playlists are very cool as you can create a group of songs for your listening pleasure. It doesn't matter whether the songs are all on one album or each song is on a different album. Unlike a CD changer, ReQuest allows you to place songs in any order, without regard to what disc they came from. In a traditional CD changer it can take up to 30 seconds to go from one track to the next when they are on different discs, yet with the ARQ2, there are no delays whatsoever. This feature reminded me of making my own compilation tapes in high school so I could have my favorite tunes together, except the ARQ2 has reduced the daunting task of the past to a absolute breeze.

I kept the ARQ2 set at the default encoding rate of 320 kbps for all but one album. As of now, I have 2,096 songs or 167 albums on my ARQ2 and still have nearly 70 percent of the 60GB drive available for more music. Using the Ethernet port on the ReQuest, I connected to my Linksys router, which in turn connected it to my computer and the Internet. Through this connection, I could transfer audio files to and from my computer and even control the ARQ2 and create playlists. Because my router is connected to the Internet, I can access, control and even listen to the ReQuest from any computer connected to the Internet. How cool is that? (Not very, if you are an executive at one of the big 5 music conglomerates.) This type of connection is also used to expand the ReQuest through the ReQuest Zone units. While I didn’t have a Zone unit to evaluate, they are a terrific addition. The Zone units are exactly half the height of the normal units and do not have CD trays or displays. The Zone units can be operated independently and placed in another portion of your house or even in an entirely different location. You could have the main ReQuest unit in your house in California and place the Zone unit in your vacation house on the slopes in Aspen. The Zone, assuming both units are connected to the Internet, will automatically synchronize with the main unit utilizing ReQuest’s NetSync feature, downloading all the music from the main unit. The Zone will then also serve as a backup should anything fail on the main unit. If you haven’t gathered from this long-winded description, this thing is the real deal.

In the immediate future the ARQ2 series is being renamed and will be shipping under its new name, Fusion. Other than the name, the only other changes will include a slightly different front panel, higher capacity hard drives (up to 160 GB) and quieter fans. All other Fusion features remain identical to the ARQ2 units.

Listening
I first listened to the ReQuest with music encoded at the default setting of 320 kbps, through the analog outputs. I compared the sound quality of the ReQuest to that of my reference CD playback system, a Theta Data Basic Transport, Perpetual Technologies P-1A Digital Correction Engine and P-3A DAC.

I began by listening to Dire Strait’s Brothers in Arms (Warner Bros.). I first loaded the disc onto the ARQ2 at the default rate of 320 kbps and listened through the analog outputs. As the first track, “So Far Away,” began I felt as through I was listening to a poor-quality mass-market CD player with a rolled-off upper end. Switching back and forth between the ReQuest and my reference CD playback system, I noted that the ARQ2 was recessed in the upper midrange, rolled off in the higher frequencies and lost much of the soundstage depth. The next track, “Money for Nothing,” sounded similar. The opening guitar riff seemed to lack energy when compared to the CD. The dynamic range also seemed to be reduced slightly. The sound from the ReQuest was more than adequate for background listening, but would be disappointing to the discriminating audiophile. I listened to a few albums and the same sonic characteristics remained present, sometimes less noticeable than others. I then connected with the digital outputs. I took the Krell 300iL integrated amplifier out of the system and hooked up a B&K Reference 30 preamp/processor and Parasound HALO A23 amplifier. I then connected the digital outputs of the ReQuest and Theta transport into digital inputs on the B&K.

When listening to the ReQuest through the DACs in the B&K, the differences between the ReQuest and Theta became much smaller. The sound quality of the ReQuest went from mass market to high fidelity. The sound quality of the 320 kbps encoded music was not as good as that of a CD on my reference system, but it was still much better than one would expect from any MP3 system. I listened to “Money for Nothing” again. The soundstage opened up and was nearly identical to that of the CD. The energy returned to the upper midrange and the guitar came alive. The high end was still a bit rolled off, but only slightly. The CD had marginally better imaging and a sense of air surrounding the individual instruments that was not present with the compressed music on the ARQ2. Using the ReQuest connected through the external DAC had definitely improved enough to become a primary listening source. The difference between the encoded music on the ARQ2 and CD system were minimal.

I then loaded Elvis Presley’s Elvis Is Back (DCC) onto the ARQ2. This time, I set the compression to zero and encoded the CD in the WAV format. I began listening to Elvis through the ReQuest’s analog outputs. The WAV encoding music preserved more detail, especially in the upper midrange, when compared to the MP3 encoding. Despite the WAV format, the ReQuest’s analog outputs still fell short of the sound I obtained from my reference CD system. The first track “Make Me Know It” had less energy in the upper midrange, making the piano lose much of its richness. There was also a slight decrease in detail that I noticed, especially in the background singers. I then listened to the ReQuest through its digital output. The sound quality was again nearly identical to that of the CD system. The lack of ambience and detail that I noticed on the MP3 encoded tracks was gone. The ReQuest still exhibited a slight roll-off in the high end as noted earlier but was only readily noticeable on the “Fever” track. On “Fever,” when heard through the CD system, there was a noticeable amount of tape hiss. The hiss was greatly diminished when played through the analog outputs of the ARQ2. Other than this slight roll-off, the WAV encoded music on the ReQuest came extremely close to the sound quality of my reference digital system.

During my time with the ARQ2, I used a friend’s portable MP3 player and noticed numerous artifacts from the encoding/decoding process. While listening to the ReQuest, I never noticed any artifacts, which is a sign of the solid engineering and programming that went into the ARQ2 unit.

There is, however, a downside to encoding all of your music in the WAV format: space. On a 80GB system, you can store 550 hours of 320 kbps MP3 music, but only 125 hours of uncompressed WAV files. A solution for some people may be to use MP3 for most music, and use WAV on only those discs that you want to hear at their absolute best.

ReQuest has also announced an operating system update that should be available by mid-December, 2002. The new 1.8.0 operating system will work on all ReQuest servers and contains Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC). FLAC encoded music is said to require half the space of WAV files without “any loss” in audio quality. System software updates can be easily accomplished via the ReQuest’s Internet connection or from a CD-ROM.

The Downside
Expense and initial intimidation top the list. Those who are technically inclined may scoff at the $4,000 price of a 80GB ReQuest unit, feeling that they can make their own computer-based music servers for much less. This may be an alternative for those who are computer savvy, but those who take this route will miss out on a lot of functionality and performance.

As I mentioned before, the ReQuest was a bit intimidating initially. When I opened the box and found computer cables, a keyboard and a 64+ key remote, I was not anxious to continue. Once I got through the initial setup, I quickly became accustomed to operating the ReQuest and my fear subsided. This is one of those products that you should definitely purchase from a dealer who will assist you in the setup.

Last and most important is overall sound quality. The internal DACs are sub par when compared to the rest of the unit. If you use the internal DACs, you will never get sound comparable to any high-end system CD system. Thankfully, this downside can rectified by using the ReQuest’s digital outputs into a surround receiver or any other external DAC. Obviously, this is at additional cost, and at $4,000, one might argue there is no room for excuses or cheaper parts.

Conclusion
The ReQuest truly represents the next generation in music storage devices. The ReQuest allows you to store your entire music collection in one place and make your music instantly available to you without having to search for the disc you want. The software interface makes it extremely easy to organize and find your music. The ReQuest’s optional Zone modules make all of your music instantly available and provides playback independent from the main unit anywhere you want. With the Zone modules, you can even have your music available at your vacation home, office, or another zone in the house. This flexibility is fantastic. Imagine that your entire music collection can be with you, anywhere there is a computer.

The ReQuest isn’t for everyone. Audiophiles seeking mind-shattering resolution from their playback systems will be disappointed with the sound. However, the convenience of the ARQ2 outweighs its sonic imperfections that accompany the digital compression process. I never felt limited as I could always walk to the shelf and pull out the CD for critical listening sessions. This product can bring you closer to your music. No more searching through countless jewel cases, seeking that disc that you forgot you owned and wished you could find.

Welcome to the new millennium - George Jetson would be stoked.
Manufacturer ReQuest
Model ARQ2 Digital Music System
Reviewer Brian Kahn





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