I often debate the merits of using the PC as a music playback device. I have friends who spend their entire work day with music playing on their PCs, and many of these people have invested some serious money in speakers attached to those PCs. The music quality is OK, but hearing a system sound at the same volume as a song that's playing is annoying. I set my PC's volume level as low as possible to let me hear system event notifications. When I crank up the volume for music, the last thing I want to hear is a loud boing from Eudora telling me I have new email.

I really haven't experimented with direct music playback on my PC beyond casual listening to my music collection. Buying an inexpensive stereo system seemed simpler than dealing with a sound card and connecting various peripherals. But after I ripped most of my music collection to a hard disk on one of my network machines, I began to look a little more seriously for a clean way to play back that music that didn't involve a jerry-rigged system with miles of cable connections.

As if reading my mind, Yamaha entered the scene with its Convergence of Audio/Video and Information Technology (CAVIT) product line. CAVIT is what Connected Home Magazine is all about, so I knew I must be on the right track. I ordered the top-of-the-line CAVIT product, the RP-U200 CAVIT External Audio Soundboard Receiver.

You're probably wondering what an External Audio Soundboard Receiver is. Aside from being a complete Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 12-watt, 5-channel amplifier and tuner, the RP-U200 is the only audio playback and recording device that your computer needs. The RP-U200 operates in a pure digital mode, independent of the sound card in your computer (PC or Macintosh). The RP-U200 connects to your computer through a USB cable and installs driver software that tells the OS that the USB device is the sound hardware for playback and recording.

This connection is purely digital from the PC to the digital signal processor (DSP) embedded in the RP-U200, where analog conversion finally occurs (so you can hear the music). This setup means that no analog artifacts—generated by the plethora of cabling you might otherwise have—can affect music playback. The RP-U200 is like a typical stereo receiver: You connect speakers to the RP-U200, and it connects to devices that provide the audio source (it does have a built-in FM tuner). Your PC is the receiver's audio source and control mechanism, and its only connection to the RP-U200 is the USB cable.

Like any stereo receiver, the RP-U200 has various connection options for other audio/visual (A/V) components, so you can connect other devices to the receiver for playback or recording purposes. Because the unit is a 14 x 14 x 4 brick, standing on edge, the back panel supports a limited number of connections. Yamaha has done a good job of selecting appropriate connection types.

Installing the RP-U200 on my Windows 2000 Professional desktop system was simple. I plugged the receiver into the USB connection, turned on the device, and installed the supplied software. The RP-U200 doesn't come with speakers, but Yamaha had thoughtfully provided its NS-U40P five-piece Cube Centric speaker system. These small speakers, designed for desktop use, connected like any speaker with the wiring supplied in the box. Setting up the speakers took longer than installing the RP-U200, but I was ready to play music about 10 minutes after I opened the boxes. I checked the Sound and Multimedia Control Panel applet to make sure the RP-U200 was configured as the default playback device and fired up Windows Media Player (WMP). Music began playing from the speakers, so I had set up everything correctly.

Next, I looked at the application that lets you control the receiver from the PC. The RP-U200 control application is easy to use, but it's also the product's weakest component. The interface is intuitive for some basic tasks, such as selecting the playback device or the DSP mode, and the application has a clearly marked Setup button for core configuration tasks, but it lacks features such as Tool Tips, which means you need to guess what some of the buttons on the interface do. The control software is skinable, and it has a two-mode display—full and minimized—although the minimized display lacks any controls (you need to use the full display to do anything beyond muting the music or closing the application). The control application doesn't let you minimize the System tray, and some of the details in the Advanced configuration screen for the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound field are difficult to read on a 1600 x 1200 screen. The control software does address my loud boing complaint; by default, system sounds play at 50 percent of the set volume level.

The control application software doesn't have to be running for the receiver to work with the PC. The RP-U200 includes a full-featured remote control that can access every function of the receiver (configuring the USB connection and the speakers does require the control software).

Everyone who walks into my office asks me about the RP-U200. When I explain what it is and demonstrate what it does, the reaction is a uniform wow! The suggested retail price of $449 is on the high side of acceptable, but the price likely will come down as the unit enters more retail outlets. If you're looking for excellent sound playback from your PC in a form reasonable for office or cubicle use (it has optimized DSP settings for use with headphones), you won't find a better solution than the Yamaha RP-U200.

Resources:
RP-U200 CAVIT External Audio Soundboard Receiver
NS-U40P 5 Piece Surround Sound Speaker Package