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The One Has Arrived—And it isn't Jet Li

A PC-based CD/DVD Transport That Wipes the Floor of High-End Audio

Francis Vale

 

Big surprises come in small packages, or so the cliché goes. Usually, though, the surprise lies in getting something you thought you desperately wanted only to discover that more tears were shed over answered prayers. But in this Lilliputian case, specifically, an Antec Aria MicroATX Cube PC enclosure wrapped around a tiny Epia M10000 motherboard from Via with an RME Audio HDSP 9632 sound card, the results were more than a small sonic surprise. They were simply astonishing,

To save the tedium of your reading this whole review, the bottom line is this tiny, run silent, mini-me rig, which costs less than $1,000, beats the bejeesus out of most high-end audio CD transports costing thousands more. As icing, you also get a top class DVD transport with awesome multi-channel surround sound.

The Antec Aria MicroATX Cube case, part of Antec’s “Lifestyle” line of PC enclosures, accepts motherboards up to MicroATX in size (9.6" x 9.6"), and offers room for 4 full-height PCI expansion cards. It has a street price of about $100. The Antec Aria case has a 300 watt power supply and a 120mm rear case fan that are so quiet they require your bending your head down close to the case to hear if the thing is actually turned on. Although I am not a particular fan of the PC enclosure decorative lights currently all the rage, the two dark blue LEDs on the Aria’s front panel are worth hooking up to see if the PC is actually on or not. It’s that quiet in operation.

The Aria has four drive bays, including one external 5.25" and three internal 3.5" drives. There is a flip-up metal cage that houses all the drives and two of the 3.5" drive mounts include thermal tape for improved heat dispersion.  In practice, though, the Aria drive cage is a pain in the ass, at least on the review unit I got.  The working room tolerances of the cage, and the Aria case in general, are just too tight. The 5.25” drive bay almost required my taking a hammer to the DVD drive to get it to go in. I had to do some sheet metal bending to get the DVD drive to slip in, which is now wedged in so tight it ain’t ever comin’ out. 

Moreover, when dropping the drive cage down into the Aria enclosure, the IDE cable at the rear of the optical drive hit right up against the power supply enclosure, which led to a stream of curses, grunts, and much needless screwing around to get the cage assembly to finally drop down into its case slots. The Aria case top cover was yet another exercise in frustration as it refused to slide in all the way and sit properly.

On the good news front, the Aria is feature rich. It has two front panel mounted USB ports and one IEEE 1394 port (AKA, FireWire, i. Link) and an 8-in-1 card reader that accepts all popular formats (CF I/II, MS, MS Pro, SM, SD®, MMC, and MicroDrive), plus audio ports. The quite good-looking Aria case measures 7.9"(H) x 10.6"(W) x 13.2"(D) and weighs 10 lbs. Overall, despite the install problems, the Aria’s coolness rating is an easy 8 out of 10.

Published August 2004

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21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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