By Richard Menta 9/03/01
By Christmas 2001, RCA will have 20 MP3 products on store shelves including four DVD players and a dozen or so CD players all capable of reading and playing the MP3 format. The K@Zoo is RCA's latest MP3 portable. Selling for around $150, it is the starter model of the line with basic features and a basic onboard memory capacity of 32MB.
Despite being the starter model, the K@zoo might soon have a special ability that will make it stand out from other digital music portables. We say might because as of this writing RCA is still conducting tests on the player to confirm it is capable of this new chore. According to RCA representatives it looks like a simple firmware upgrade may allow the K@zoo to become the first player to read and playback MP3Pro files.
MP3Pro tunes cut file sizes to half of what standard MP3 tunes take up, allowing you to fit twice as many songs on the 32MB the player comes with. We will follow up on this possibility and report on it when it is verified. If it is confirmed, expect the upgrade by Christmas. One more note, the Digital Signal Processors (DSP) on the Lyra and Lyra 2 can't be upgraded to read MP3Pro.
Tunes are loaded onto the RCA K@zoo via a now standard USB connection (printer port players are all but gone in newer MP3 products). Unlike the Lyra and Lyra 2 portables, which store songs on CompactFlash memory cards, the K@zoo uses the smaller MultiMedia flash card format found on the likes of the Nike PSA[Play 120 and the original IJam..
The K@zoo is considerably smaller and lighter than the Lyra models, which tended to be quite heavy relative to other MP3 portables. It's about the weight of the Rio 500, but a little more compact dimension-wise. The unit runs on two AAA batteries.
When MP3 files are transferred to the player, the unit adds protection code over it converting the MP3 to an MPX file. The purpose of this is to prevent file trading, a relic of an organization called the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) that is fading into oblivion as we write this.
This originally concerned us with the first Lyra, but since the files are converted during the upload process we found it didn't make a difference play-wise. Compare this with the Sony line of digital music products which require the user to convert all their MP3 files into ATRAC3 files first! Of course, files stored on the K@zoo's memory card will not play on any other digital music player, but at this point few people actively trade the relatively expensive memory cards.
Getting Started -
Loading the drivers and hooking up the external USB CompactFlash drive was simple and uneventful. Like the Lyra 2, the K@zoo uses a customized version of MusicMatch Jukebox to transfer files. MusicMatch is an excellent MP3 player for you desktop, but like the Rio line of products it makes the user jump through a few annoying hoops before a song can be downloaded.
The first step once you open the program is to add your music collection into the music library window, a process that can take a little time if you have a large collection of music files. The next step is to then select songs and drag them to a playlist window just above the music library window. Only tracks made available in the playlist window can be transferred. The final step is to pull down the Options menu, select Send to Device, and then Download Playlist to Lyra. This opens up the actual transfer window where you can select some or all of the files available on the playlist for download to the flash card. This can be a tedious process, especially when compared to the gracefully easy file transfer programs found on the Rave MP players and the Creative Nomad Jukebox.
The Kazoo's controls were nice and large. Buttons depressed with a solid click and without some of the numb feeling found on other portables. The best news about the K@zoo is that it does not share with the Lyra that lag every time the player switches to the next song.
The display was large and clear, a good consistent trait on RCA MP3 portables. The only disappointment we encountered with the K@zoo was that it does not display ID3 tags that show song titles and artist names. This feature is standard on most digital music portables, but unavailable on cassette or CD, and its ommission is needless in our opinion. Considering that both RCA Lyra portables had among the finest displays we have ever seen, we were surprised to see them leave out such a simple yet useful feature on the K@zoo.
As with the Lyra portables, the K@zoo has a wide volume range that can get pretty loud. Because MP3 tunes drawn from the Internet come in varying and inconsistent quality, some tunes need a significant boost in volume to be heard. We found the sound quality to be just fine.
As with almost all MP3 portables, we recommend ditching the headphones that come with the unit and upgrade to better phones. This act in itself does more to improve sound quality than anything else, so much so the improvement is greater than any difference we have noticed between the hardware of the various players we have tested over the last three years.
If a firmware upgrade for the RCA K@Zoo can indeed turn it the first MP3Pro portable on the market that would make an otherwise basic player stand out quite a bit. Millions have already downloaded the MP3Pro encoder released by RCA last June, a codec that can effectively give this 32MB player the capacity equivalent of a 64MB player. That's a great way to save on relatively expensive memory cards. It's looking good according to our last correspondence from RCA, but nothing has been finalized yet.
The unit overall is a very good player, but apart from the possibility it can play MP3Pro files there is nothing special about it. That's OK as that is what starter players are for. The best news is that MultiMedia card prices have dropped dramatically over the last several months with 64MB cards now selling for under $75. Right now more memory is the best feature to spend your money on and if you get the K@zoo we recommend upping it to a 96MB player off the bat. Then if MP3Pro becomes a reality for this player, you can get the equivalent of a 192MB unit capable of holding about 50 songs at default compression rates.
Final Score: 1/2
Copyright 2001 MP3 Newswire
Other MP3 Portable Reviews:
We Test Drive the Rio Receiver
We Test Drive the Nike PSA[Play 120
We Test Drive the Rio 600