Onkyo Audio System Makes a Net Gain
by Jim Bray
Now that the Internet is making inroads into home entertainment systems, Onkyo
is offering the opportunity to stream tunes into any room of your house.
Any room thats wired for the home network, anyway.
The company currently offers two digital audio receivers, the high end TX-NR900
fully featured home theater receiver and the subject of this review, the NC-500PKG.
Available in two models (with or without speakers; the PKG moniker means it
comes with speakers), the NC-500 is a nice little stereo unit that integrates
with your home network.
As a conventional stereo, the NC-500 is a fairly stripped down model - not
that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. For example, it has no inputs
specifically labeled for CD and/or DVD - though you can use its auxiliary input
for one of these devices and it works just fine. But it does have an AM/FM tuner
built in, as any good receiver must, and it also works fine. The NC-500's real
claim to fame, however, is its networking capabilities and despite a rather
Mickey Mouse interface it interacts with your Windows PC very well.
By networking the NC-500, you can play all the MP3, Windows Media or wave
files youve stored on your home network, though Onkyo says you wont
be able to play WMA files that are content protected. We didn't have any such
files, so can't comment on that aspect of it, though we have no reason not to
You can also listen to Internet radio stations, though there arent many
of these beasts operating as of this writing and the quality of their audio
(and programming) is all over the map.
To use the NC-500 on the network, you first have to download the Net-Tune
software from Onkyos Web site (www.onkyousa.com).
This is relatively straightforward, though the sites interface is also
a tad unforgiving. Once you install the software and run it on your PC the NC-500
truly becomes wired to the world, and that's really nifty.
When we first installed the software and fired it up, it searched our entire
network for files it understood. This was handy, but it also means it found
a lot of crap (such as sound effects and the like that various applications
installed on our system) that you have to get rid from the database of if you
dont want excessive clutter. Still, this probaby beats the unit NOT finding
The front panel on the the 8-inchwide NC-500 looks much as youd
expect it to: and it has a big LED display panel we had no trouble reading from
across the room. The back panel features the Ethernet jack, fixed and variable
audio outputs, the abovementioned input for CD player or whatever, a pair of
speaker connections, and a standard video output that lets you feed the NC-500's
display on your TV.
Most of the units functions can be accessed with the small and straighforward
As a small, bookshelf stereo, the NC-500 performs well. Its no big,
honking home theater receiver, and there are no surround modes offered, but
it doesnt pretend to be a home theater receiver. On the other hand, its
ideal for smaller installations (a college dorm, perhaps?) and if you want it
to put out big honking home theater sound you can patch it into your big honking
home theater (which is what we did for a good portion of our test period) and
run your networked tunes that way.
As a small standalone, the Onkyos 20 watt per channel WRAT (Wide Range
Amplifier Technology) output is adequate for most applications and is a good
match for the speakers. And since the stereo has a built in alarm, you could
even use it as a clock radio - which could come in handy in such applications
as the dorm or bedroom.
We found the networking performance a bit of a mixed bag, probably because
this unit is pressing the outside of the envelope and itll probably take
a couple of generations for the software to mature. Itll also take a while
for Internet radio to take off, if it ever does. The Internet radio shortcomings
arent Onkyos fault, of course, but rather the state of the art and/or
One thing we really missed was the ability to stream real radio
stations Internet feeds. If you like to listen to audio streams of, for
example, your favorite talk show host or sports team, youre out of luck.
This seems to us to be a major oversight, since there are a lot more conventional
radio stations streaming over the Internet than there are Internet Radio
Hopefully this will be addressed with subsequent versions of the Net-Tune software.
Accessing the stations and buffering them can be slow, which is a tad annoying,
and the stations can drop out at times (again, not Onkyo's fault). Not only
that, but many channels werent unavailable and several genres had extremely
limited choices of stations.
A potential drawback to the NC-500 is that you need a wired Ethernet jack
in your dorm, bedroom, garage, or wherever you want to install the NC-500; otherwise
you'll need a wireless Ethernet bridge to use it without a cabled connection.
On the upside, Onkyo says you can plug up to 12 NC-500s into your home network
and have them independently access music without jiggling each others
elbows. This is a nice bit of flexibility.
Sound quality is fine for such a small system, and the unit is very easy to
use - though the shortcomings mentioned above make it a tad frustrating when
networking. Only a tad, though - and the "gee whiz" factor makes up
for any frustrations. We also ran a CD player (actually, it was a DVD player
we use for playing CD's) into the Onkyo and it worked well and sounded fine
both using the Onkyo speakers and patched through the Big System.
We obviously preferred running the Onkyo through our reference home theater
audio system rather than using its own small amp and speakers (the "more power"
syndrome!), but that said we feel the Onkyo's amp and speakers would be perfectly
adequate in smaller environments.
The NC-500s optional speakers are a 2 way, bass reflex design that can
handle up to 70 watts without turning into little black rocks. Frequency response
is an adequate 60 Hz to 35 kHz. The drivers include a 4 3/4 inch cone and a
one inch dome tweeter. The speakers add $100US to the units $400US price
and could come in very handy if you plan to use the NC-500 as your primary audio
The Net-Tune software requires a minimum of a Pentium III/600-compatible with
128 MB of RAM (256 if you use Windows XP), 20 Meg of hard drive space, and an
Were impressed with Onkyos NC-500PKG. Despite its relative dearth
of inputs, but thanks to its networking capabilities, its a flexible audio
solution for those who store their tunes on their PCs. While the Internet
radio aspect is a bit of a waste at this point in the Internets history,
its still nice to have the capability, though as mentioned wed prefer
to see subsequent generations of the software allow you to access the feeds
from any audio source on the Net.
We'd probably get the speakerless version were we to buy such a system, but
that's because we'd use it to feed networked audio into our reference system.
The fact that Onkyo offers two versions, speakerless and "speakered",
is a bonus.
Jim Bray's columns are distributed by The
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