SAN FRANCISCO (11/25/2003) - It all started when I got tired of not being able to identify a song (and its artist) as I listened to the radio. You know how it goes -- you hear a tune you like, and you wait until the end for the DJ to announce the name of the song. Either you're distracted and miss it, or even worse, you wait through three more songs and then the DJ doesn't tell you at all. There had to be some way I could get this info without having to call the radio station or search its Web site -- if I could find it at all.
Coincidentally, I got a call out of the blue from Cambridge SoundWorks Inc. asking if I would like to try out a stereo system, built like a compact table radio, that displays not only the name and artist of a song being played on the radio, but also tracks info on CDs or on CD-ROMs I've loaded with MP3 tracks.
"Would I? I've only been wishing for a product like this for the past month. You must have heard my whines," I replied, not even trying to hide my enthusiasm.
The SoundWorks Radio CD 740 is the latest version of Cambridge SoundWorks' answer to the ubiquitously advertised Bose Corp. Wave radio/CD player. Like the more expensive, sleekly designed Bose, its rich, dynamic sound belies its size, thanks to its built-in subwoofer.
But what primarily distinguishes the SoundWorks from the Wave, other than its lower price (US$400 versus $500), is its brightly backlit front panel, which shows the time, RDS (Radio Data Service) info, and CD and MP3 title info when available. The 32-character display also shows radio functions, most of which are adjusted through a jog wheel that doubles as the volume control.
A digression: RDS -- text information (such as radio call letters, song title, and artist name) that accompanies a sound signal -- is not yet supported by every FM radio station. But once you've experienced it, you'll be as impatient as I am to see its widespread adoption. It would be to everyone's advantage: Radio stations would receive fewer calls, and listeners would have an easier time tracking down (and presumably buying) CDs.
While the text info display is a valued and convenient feature, it wouldn't on its own make a radio worth $400, right? I am impressed with the Cambridge precisely because it is packed with extras, particularly for computer users. You can rip MP3 files and save them in separate folders on a CD-ROM, and the radio's CD folder selection sees and opens each folder separately.
Accordingly, I created CDs with music folders to suit my varying moods -- happy, dopey, bashful, sleepy, sneezy, and grumpy. The credit card-size remote amazingly handles all of the many front-panel functions, including not one but two separate wake-up alarms. The motorized slot-load CD mechanism, like the ones found in cars, is a great improvement from the top-load design on previous versions of the SoundWorks Radio CD, which created dead space on the top of chassis and felt cheaply constructed.
Although created for use in the bedroom or living room, the SoundWorks Radio CD is also perfect for use as high-end-sounding PC speakers. The unit's speakers are magnetically shielded so you can place the unit near the PC or monitor without risking interference or harm to either. A front-panel auxiliary input and headphone jack means you don't have to fumble in the back to find the right ports. Oh, and another thing I just noticed: The display automatically adjusts its brightness to match the ambient lighting of the room. Nice.
Ultimately, though, the quality of the sound makes or breaks the deal with high-fidelity equipment, and the SoundWorks delivers -- maybe almost too much. I see why subwoofer floor speakers are used to create bass sounds. Whether I played Beethoven's Fifth or Coldplay, this box seemed to vibrate my desk more than the last 4.6 earthquake. After I placed some padding underneath the chassis, though, the basso profundo rattling stopped.
The Bose Wave radio/CD is an excellent product. But left to my devices, I will take Cambridge's SoundWorks Radio CD. Like anyone else, I want terrific sound -- but I also want to know what I am listening to -- and this puppy sees that I do.
DVD with web content
The Adventures of Indiana Jones -- The Complete DVD Movie Collection (Paramount Home Entertainment, $69.98)
With Indiana Jones it's all or nothing -- you want one movie, you gotta buy all three. The four-disc package houses the trio of exhilarating movies made by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas from 1981 to 1989 and a disc full of film-specific bonus features. The swashbuckling, rip-roarin' movies stand on their own, but the slew of new bonus features are what make this package unique. And worthwhile, too, as they provide aficionados with previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage from the Spielberg/Lucas archives of what went into the making of each film. Pop any disc into your PC and you're given a DVD-ROM-exclusive Web site link not otherwise accessible. Here you'll find music MP3s, more videos, storyboards, and other visuals not found on the discs themselves.
Make your own light: Excalibur Products' Forever Flashlight illuminates without batteries or bulbs. Instead, the $30 flashlight uses an LED powered by the Faraday Principle of Electromagnetic Energy -- an academic way of saying that you shake the device for about 15 to 30 seconds, and you get a bright light for five minutes. Because it creates a magnetic force, though, it's best not to use this near a PC.
I'm dreaming of a USB Christmas: Not really, but Addlogix's $10 USB Christmas Tree is a geek, er, sleek charmer-a 4-inch-high plastic tree with multicolored lights powered by your PC's USB port. Okay, it's kitschy, but everyone who's walked into my office and seen it groans, and then says they want one. To get yours, go to Addlogix.com for info.
Interested in discussing gadgets? Drop an e-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org.