By Richard Menta 9/21/01
Yes, SONICblue and Creative, the big boys are coming. You know, those major electronic manufacturers who mostly sat on the sidelines while you developed the MP3 portable market. Sure Sony, RCA and Philips were in it early on, but now the next wave coming. All those manufacturers who have portable cassette players lining store shelves now either have MP3 portables in the works or already making their way to warehouses for holiday distribution. Case in point: Aiwa.
Like RCA, who announced they will have over 20 MP3-capable products by Christmas, Aiwa too is shipping out an array of MP3 enabled CD portables, DVDs, boomboxes, and flash memory players. We decided to take a model from the latter category, the Aiwa MM-RX400, for a spin.
The Aiwa MM_RX400 is a nice compact-sized unit, about the same height and thickness, but half the width of the Rio 500. Retailing for $400 -- high when compared to the prices of comparable units -- it comes with 64MB of memory, 32MB on board and 32MB on a MultiMedia format flash card. If you'd like expanded capacity, the Aiwa can read MultiMedia cards up to 64MB, bringing the unit up to 96MB of total memory.
The player includes a remote control and an FM Digital Tuner for use when you have run through all the songs in memory. In our opinion, the best thing about this player is its ability to set up to 20 radio presets automatically with the touch of a single button. Depress and hold the DTP button while in radio mode and the player scans the entire spectrum, presetting the strongest channels for you. A rechargeable battery and a carrying case round out the feature list.
The Aiwa MM_RX400 will play both MP3 and Microsoft's WMA format. Tunes are loaded via a now standard USB connection. When an MP3 file is transferred to the player, Aiwa writes protection code over it that prevents the file from being played or transferred to another portable; the MultiMedia card will no longer function in any other portable, including another Aiwa. Furthermore, MP3 files recorded from your own CDs, using the software provided, can be transferred from your computer to only three MM-RX400 players.
The purpose of this is to prevent file trading -- it's a relic of an organization called the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) that is fading into oblivion as we write this. Quite a few members have already abandoned the organization and are now releasing MP3 players that are unhindered by this technology.
When Aiwa wanted file transfer software for the unit they went to market leader SONICblue, owner of the Rio line of products. Aiwa wanted the best, and they can't be faulted for that. The problem is Aiwa made the assumption that since SONICblue is the market leader they must have the best file transfer software. Sadly, this not the case.
We have used Audio Manager for the various Rio products, the Nike MP3 player and now the Aiwa. For all its good points, the more we use the program the more frustrated we get. The main culprit is that the software forces you to transfer files to your player from the software's database rather than directly from your folders. During installation the software only displayed files from our main song folder. You need to open the File menu in the program and select 'Search Hard Disk for Tracks' to load all of your tunes from other folders into this database.
A while back we expanded the MP3 collection in our test machine by ripping our CD collection to MP3. We put each album in a separate folder on our drive for easy access. The RioPort Audio Manager database essentially throws all those files into one big folder, which can make finding a particular song laborious when you have over 1,000 files.
This is made worse by the fact that the database displays the ID3 track info, not the file name. As many Napster users will find, quite a few songs don't have complete ID3 info and on our system we had a couple of dozen files identified as nothing more than track 1 or track 2. Oddly, you get the file name only when you are in the 'copy to player' mode once you close the database window. This doesn't help you when selecting your tracks though. Overall, we find this drawback with the RioPort Audio Manager database annoying as hell, especially once our song library grew to be a couple of gigabytes strong.
Finally, Audio Manager will not allow you to grab MP3s directly off of a CD. You have to load them to your hard drive first, another annoying step.
The buttons were laid out in a very attractive and symmetrical pattern that had both positives and negatives. On the plus side were the Play and Digital Tone Processor (DTP) buttons, which were large and easily distinguished when you're not looking directly at the unit. The volume and preset buttons, on the other hand, were not only small, they barely rose above the surface of the faceplate making it difficult for big-thumbed folks like ourselves to get a clear shot at them.
The Aiwa has a rocker switch on the side used to change tracks and switch to FM mode. Holding the switch up or down while in Play mode jumps you forward or backwards in the song. Pushing the rocker switch in takes you to FM mode. This worked fine except that it was easy to use too much pressure while searching through a tune, which sometimes inadvertently shifted the unit to FM mode.
The remote that comes with the player was okay, but, as with most remotes, the buttons were small. This requires a design which offers a layout that is not only convenient to operate without accidentally triggering off the wrong controls, but one that makes it easy for the user to tell which button is which without being forced to look every time. Unfortunately, the identical and closely spaced buttons on the Aiwa's remote control offer neither characteristic.
Turn the Aiwa on and the user is greeted with a "hello" by an animated elf-like character. The display has no backlight, but was clear and did the job. One curious point: track elapsed time and song title can not be viewed simultaneously. The user is required to hit a switch on the side to toggle back and forth between the two views. The display seems to have enough real estate to show both; there is a clear space between the file name and the battery gauge that could be used. Toggling was not an inconvenience, but it seemed needless.
Turn the unit off and Elf-boy (girl?) waves goodbye.
The unit comes with a short-cabled set of earbuds that require the user to use the remote control if they want the unit to extend beyond a shirt pocket. The buds were OK, but the volume seemed low at times, even when the unit was turned up. The cable also works as the radio's antenna, an important note.
The sound coming from the player itself improved when we attached better ear gear to them, but we noticed that the volume still didn't rise very high. Because MP3 tunes drawn from the Internet come in varying quality, some tunes need a significant boost in volume to be heard properly. We spent most of our time with the unit turned all or almost all the way up. The player comes with four equalizer presets: Jazz, Rock, Classical, and Pop.
The FM tuner on the unit worked fairly well when we were standing still, but we noticed that it had trouble getting all of the stations our other radio's picked up easily. When we started walking or jogging, most stations would flutter as the unit had difficulty holding them. The problem was exacerbated when other headphones were used, suggesting the importance of using the original factory earbuds as the antenna.
The Aiwa MM-RX400 has all the trappings of a high-end digital music portable, including an FM radio, a remote, a rechargeable battery, and a relatively high $400 price tag. It's a sharp looking player, too, and that great single button auto-preset function for the radio is unique to an MP3 portable. Still, when compared with the top, most competitive digital music players out there, the RX400's performance is mediocre.
The adopted software, Audio Manager, is the bane of an otherwise excellent Rio product line and not up to our standards. The controls are a hit-and-miss affair; the volume level is just adequate and the FM tuner is not all that sensitive. Add a heavy emphasis on the prevention of file trading to that list of letdowns. As more companies pull out of the SDMI and eschew its file security requirements for their products, the Aiwa's security-laden features will make the unit unduly restrictive.
Overall, for $400 this player does not stand out as much as it should. Granted it's Aiwa's first try, but the points they scored for features offered are lost in everyday practical use.
Copyright 2001 MP3 Newswire
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