Review: We Test Drive the Rio Volt SP250 MP3/CD player

By Richard Menta- 11/26/01

The Rio Volt SP250 bookends the original Rio Volt SP100 on the higher end of the price range, the basic SP90 being the new starter model. It's identical in size and shape to that excellent player - all three share the same platform - but the SP250 has several improvements that updates and improves the usability of portable MP3/CD players in general. That's what makes this new unit a top choice as we enter the holiday season.


The Rio Volt SP250 has an FM tuner and is available on Amazon

The Hardware

Retailing for about $180, the Rio Volt SP250 runs about $40 more than the present street value of the Rio Volt SP100. Playing both the MP3 and Windows Media formats as well as music from regular CD's, the unit is packed with a genrous array of accessories including an 8 function remote and two sets of headphones, each a different style to accomodate user preference.

The SP250 adds an FM tuner to the platform and the player can be powered by either standard AA batteries or by rechargeable NiMH batteries that are included with the unit. These batteries are recharged inside the player whenever the SP250's external AC adapter (included) is plugged in.

The SP250 also shares these same handy navigation features with its Rio Volt brethren that help the user plow through the 150+ tracks that can be found on the average MP3 laden CD:

+10 button - A thoughtful feature Each time the user hits the button the player jumps 10 tracks.
Program button - Press and hold this button when the unit is not playing a track. This allows you to select specific tracks to create an on-the-fly playlist. Excellent.
Navi/menu button - A scrolling directory of the tracks on the CD. One of the biggest advantages of MP3 tracks over conventional CD format is the ability to display track names.
Mode button - the are 8 options here including repeat, shuffle, and an Intro option that cycles through the first few seconds of every track.
EQ/Menu Mode - This button has a dual purpose. Cycle through the first menu and choose between five equalizer settings. Hold the button down for 1.5 seconds and you enter Menu Mode. Menus Mode allows you to configure your player with some excellent features. For example you can program the player to retain the settings you programmed in after being powered off. You can also choose to display either the file name or the ID3 tag of that file in the display (Tag Control) or select the speed at which you can scan through directories (Speed Scan).

The 40 second shock protection available on the previous Rio model is increased in the SP250 with a generous 8 minute memory buffer, a nice improvement for those who listen to their tunes on the run. We found that the SP250's case did a very good job and held firmly to our belt when jogging. Most who listen to music when they exercise will prefer something smaller and lighter than a CD player, but the increased buffer allows you to make do if you need to. The short buffer on the previous Rio Volt was not enough to prevent skipping and therefore was unsuitable for running.

Getting Started -

Operating any MP3/CD player is as simple as popping in a CD and hitting play. No need to deal with file transfer software and USB connections. All Rio Volts comes with both a 'Get Started' sheet, and a full user manual on an accompanying CD. RealJukebox is also supplied if you don't already have software to rip CDs. Using regular AA batteries we had our player up and running within minutes of pulling it out of the box. The batteries lasted quite a long time too, offering another option when the rechargeable batteries are not in use.

Controls -

Like the controls on all the Rio products we have tested they were fine. Buttons were large enough and conveniently spaced and positioned. The trademark joypad is there to facilitate basic play and scan functions.

The programming features turned out to be a simple straightforward affair that easily allowed us to pull a dozen tracks and play them in the order we wanted. The navi button allowed us to easily select and jump to individual tracks. With 178 tracks on the particular CD we were using, this function coupled with the +10 button allowed us to quickly scan the song menu.

Where the controls in the SP250 excel - and not just when they are compared with the units fellow Volt models - is an improved menu display that gives the user far greater control in personalizing the player's interface. To enter the menu display hold down the Navi/Menu . There you are greeted with seven menu choices, each with several sub menus, that offers more user flexibility than we have seen in any digital music portable to date.

The menus contain adjustments to the general controls, the display, a sleep timer, button configuration, mode adjustments, and equalizer settings. Navigating within the menus and submenus was easy, though we wouldn't say intuitive. The user just has to learn which keystrokes do what and it's becomes simple.

For example, let's say we want to make some changes in the way the screen displays information. Hold down the navi/menu button to access the menu display. At this point, navigating through the menu is all handled through the joypad. Hitting the Forward and Reverse controls moves us back and forth between the main menu choices. Once we have highlighted our menu choice, in this case display, we hit the Play button to access the sub menus.

Here we can adjust back-light options, screen contrast, scroll speed of the song titles, whether the unit should display the name of the file or the ID3 tag informaton of the song, and finally if the unit should display the elapsed time of the file being played or the time remaining. Scroll through the sub menus the same as you did the menus and again hit Play to enter. You do the same same when making a choice within a given menu, hit the Forward and Reverse keys to highlight selections and the Play key to activate them. Hitting the Stop button move the user back up one level. Once all selections are completed, hit the navi/menu button again to return to the active play screen.

Through the menu command you can control such things as the volume of the beep sound the unit emits (four different levels yet), the display's language including Korean and Japanese, scanning speed, and equalizer controls. We thought this feature was terrific, something that should be added to all future Volt models, both high and low end. For now these controls are only available on the SP250 and alone are worth spending the few extra dollars for.

Display -

The display on the SP250 is a significant improvement over the Volt SP100, which was a good one to begin with. Primarily, the new display contains more information and makes navigation easier and more direct, utilizing the space previously taken up by the dancing figures on the SP100. These were animated characters on the display that danced on the screen as the unit played tracks. Except for a little flash, they had no practical use.

Removing the dancers allowed for more usable screen space, allowing the fine menu feature we described above (a feature that relies heavily on the clear and detailed display the folks at Rio have endowed upon the Volt SP250). It looks to be a higher resolution screen also and is possibly the best display we have encountered to date (we have seen several worthy contenders for that honor recently).

Sound -

Like all of the Rio products we have tested, the music sounded great. The volume control had plenty of range. It can get quite loud when necessary, great for music files recorded at lower than the standard 128Kbit rates. The five-tone presets did their job, enhanced by the addition two added features, bass & treble boost and bass & trebel corner frequency controls. The controls for these options are available through the menu command.

The unit already comes with two different set/styles of earbuds, but there are high quality headphones that you can purchase for under $50 that will improve sound quality even more. Connecting the Volt to your stereo will offer the best audible quality when not on the go and we expect most Volt owners will do just that as a way to bring their MP3 tunes to their home audio system.

Conclusion

The Rio Volt SP250 sets the new standard for MP3/CD portables and is another example of how digital music portables are making significant strides with each generation. It's excellent navigation features make it a must have for anyone with a CD burner and hundreds - if not thousands - of MP3 and WMA music tracks to play. The generous flexibility the unit offers in terms of player configuration is something we would like to see in more digital music products in the future. We liked this feature so much we recommend springing the extra $40 for this unit over the fine Volt SP100, which will also give you an FM receiver and rechargeable batteries.

Even if you don't have a CD burner, you should consider any of the Rio Volt units when it comes time to replace your standard portable CD player. You don't have to burn CDs to get MP3-laden discs these days. General Mills has already shipped millions of them in cereal boxes in a past promotion, and sites like MP3.com and EMusic sell them to promote the artists on their site. Add to this friends with burners who would happily make compilation CDs for you and it only makes sense to contemplate a single unit that can read multiple formats. In the end it may save you from having to buy a second player later.

Final Score - 1/2

 


Rio Volt SP100 Portable CD MP3 Player - The SP100 plays MP3 and WMA files from CD and is available from Amazon.

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