By Richard Menta- 12/07/99
The Soul MP3 player by AVC Technologies is arguably the prettiest portable we have seen to date with its oval display and sculptured face plate. Alas, aesthetics are subjective.
What makes this portable a contender is what's clearly spelled out on the specifications page. Available with 32MB, 64MB or 128MB built-in flash.
The Soul, which runs on a single AA battery, is about the size and shape of the original Diamond Rio 300. It comes with the built-in flash specifications mentioned above as well as a slot for additional memory. The Soul uses a SmartMedia type memory expansion card as does the Rio line.
The player comes with a parallel port cable which plugs directly into the unit via a PCMCIA connection. We find this is preferable to the parallel port card drive units found on the RCA Lyra and the I-Jam.
The body of the player had a cheap feel to it. It felt more like a $50.00 player than a $300.00 player
Getting started: A-
It only took us a few seconds to attach the parallel cable to the PC. The unit display immediately confirmed we were connected by presenting us with with the word CONN in large clear letters.
The software, likewise, loaded without any problem and we had the interface up and working shortly thereafter. The interface is a simple instrument, a virture more often than not in our experiences. The user simply opens a window with the MP3 files they want to transfer and drag-and-drop them into the interface. The files loaded rather quickly for a unit with a parallel cable. The software allows you to select whether songs are loaded onto the flash card or the built-in memory.
One annoying thing about the interface, a bug actually. The interface always remains on top, even when another window is active. To transfer files we had to move the window with the MP3 files out from underneath the interface to read the titles and grab them.
The contols on the Soul are a hit and miss affair. A rocker disc, similar to the one found on the Rio 300, handled the play-pause-stop functions as well as track changes. It worked fine. The Soul also has a search feature, a nicety not found on most players, which allows you to scan within a song.
The problem came with the four buttons located in the groove of the faceplate. We found them to be too small and close together. Worse yet, because the buttons were recessed in the groove, their tops were almost even with the faceplate making it a little harder for those of us with big thumbs to fully depress them. This became most evident when we tried to activate the hold feature which required us to hold the menu button while simultaneously pressing stop.
The volume switch on the size worked Ok, but this too could have been bigger and a bit less numb to the feel.
The Display: B-
The display is big and clear, we had no trouble reading any of the information shown on it. The problem is it doesn't show enough. It's not that they have the room, they do, it is just that they take a minimalistic approach to what they put on the screen. Most conspicuously missing are the track titles. Whenever a song plays, the display shows a track number and the elapsed time of the song. That's it, no ID3 tags, no file names. This was one of the disappointments of the original Rio, a disappointment that continues with the Soul and the I-Jam, the I-Jam a fine unit marred by the worst display we have seen to date.
The sound is excellent. The player offers 4 tone presets (Jazz, Classic, Rock, and Normal.) which works Ok, but we prefer either a Tone/Bass control or, even better, an equalizer.
The earbuds that came with the Soul did the job, but there was a significant improvement when we shifted over to the Sennheiser MX-4 earbuds. Most of the manufaturers we tested package their usually expensive players with inexpensive earphones. We recommend upgrading the ear and headphones on all of the units we have tested so far, and rather than count against it in the scores, we simply suggest buyers incorporate the cost of a pair of Sony or Sennheiser buds, about $15-$20, when pricing units.
Think of the 128MB version of the Soul as a Ford Pinto with a V8 engine. In other words, as a spartan vehicle that can really move. 128MB is double the built-in capacity of the Rio 500 and that will save any user a lot of trips to the PC to reload tunes. It is the only unit to date to offer that much built-in flash memory.
The problem with the Soul is that its creators focused too much in mimicking the functions of the original Diamond Rio 300 without taking into consideration the evolutionary process that would eventually lead to the Rio 500. What they got was a unit with twice the capacity of the current crop of second generation portables in the body of a first generation portable.
Still, for the right price, we'll take memory capacity and deal with a display that doesn't show artist or track names. The convenience of a large capacity and good sound outweigh the inconveniences (though we do wish those buttons were a bit larger and less cheap to the feel).
Of course, this only applies to the 128MB version of the Soul. Drop the memory down to 32MB or 64MB and you lose the one thing that sets this unit apart from other players. At that point, the niceties ARE the only difference that sets these units apart and that's when the Soul falls behind. Nothing wrong with the unit, it just pales when compared to the more progressive designs of the 32MB RCA Lyra and the 64MB Rio 500.
Final Score: B- for 128MB / C+ for all others
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