By Richard Menta 3/12/02
One of the annoyances of purchasing an in-dash MP3 unit are how vendors tier-price file capacity when all they are using is a standard PC hard drive. For example, say a player costs several hundred dollars with a 10GB drive for storage. For only $300 more you can double it to a 20GB drive!
The Dension DMP3-A1
The thing is $300 is what it costs as of this writing to buy a 160GB hard drive at the local CompUSA.
A company out of Hungary, Dension Audio Systems Ltd, has come up with a solution similar to that of the Neo Car Jukebox that is well worth a look by techies, geeks, and even the less technically inclined with a large MP3 collection. What they offer is to simply sell you the player without the hard drive. You then buy the drive yourself at whatever configuration and price point you want, insert it into the player and install it into your car.
The base Dension DMP3 without hard drive runs around $250 US. It is a fairly straightforward accessory for your car to supplement your existing stereo with a case slightly larger than an average hard drive and a faceplate containing the player's electronics. The player comes empty, all you need to add is a drive that you will later format to the FAT 32 file system and it's ready to be connected to the CD or casstte unit you already have installed.
The Dension DMP3 supports all standard IDE/ATA hard disk drives. This means that a 160GB drive can be used up to the maximum addressable capacity, which is 137GB. Those who prefer to compress their MP3s at the highest possible bitrates will most appreciate the ample capacity potential of the Dension.
Bundled with the basic version of MusicMatch for ripping, the DMP3 also comes with Dension DMP Manager, which handles file transfer and playlist chores.
Parts of the DMP3 internal specifications have been made public. This includes the file format of the playlist (.PLY), message (.MSG) and logo (.LCE) files for those who want to hack around inside the unit. The communication protocol on serial line is also public to facilitate the connection of 3rd party external keyboards, displays, etc. All of this should prove compelling to the geeks among us who relish any opportunity to noodle into the workings of any device.
The unit can be set up in your vehicle in one of several ways.
The first way is a direct hardwire to your car stereo using the included CarHost frame. The frame is a sleeve that slides over and clicks into the player, serving as both a holder for screwing the player into the dash as well as a conduit to the stereo through the jacks in back. This includes right and left phono (RCA) jacks, the CarPort connector with audio and power wiring, and jacks for two options, one for the satellite display and the other for an FM transmitter. The DMP3 easily slides out of the CarHost frame when you need to take it back to the PC to add new tunes or, if you wish to connect, it to your home stereo.
The second way to connect the unit is for the feint of heart who don't feel comfortable mucking under the dash. They can tap the unit into the car the same way many hook up their portable jukebox MP3 players, using a cassette adapter and a cigarette lighter adapter. This is accomplished using power and headset jacks located on the side of the unit. This method is of course a bit more unwieldy and ugly with all the wires hanging about the cabin, but it works.
This option also allows the user to conveniently hook the Dension DMP3 to the stereo system in the house by replacing the cassette adapter with the proper audio cabling and replacing the cigarette lighter adapter with an AC adapter. The DMP3 comes with the AC adapter.
The third way to access the music stored on the DMP3 is through a new option called the FM Radio Modulator. Just released, the modulator takes the signal from the DMP3 and converts it to an unused FM frequency selected by the user. The signal is then broadcast to the car's radio where the user turns their radio to that frequency when they want to listen to the DMP3.
The modulator snaps in between the antenna and the car's stereo. Just pull the antenna out of the radio, plug it into the FM modulator, then take the modulator's antenna plug and stick it into the stereo for a direct line connection that reduces signal loss. As the FM modulator only just came out, it was unavailable for our tests. The FM Modulator is a fairly inexpensive option for those who want to avoid a lot of wiring. As some vehicles can be truly miserable to work inside of, this option may prove to be a blessing for some.
Another option is the Satellite Display. Connected by a single cable, the display is a second DMP3 control panel that can be placed anywhere on the dash allowing the main unit to be hidden away elsewhere in the car. The display is identical to the faceplate on the DMP3 and available in several chromatic schemes.
A CD Changer emulator ia available. If the car radio handles CD changers, then the radio will operate the DMP3 as if it was a CD changer with the help of this interface (note, it's vendor dependent). An ALPINE version of this emulator was demonstrated by the company at the CeBIT exhibition in Hannover Germany this week (March 13-20)
We are not going to go into the detail of actually hooking the unit up to your car's stereo for the obvious reason - they are all different. Some head unit's have auxillary input jacks, many don't. Some vehicles require you to massage convoluted wiring, some you're lucky if you can get your hand to fit in back of the dash to do the work. You get the idea. That is the main reason we would have liked to have tested the unit with the FM modulator as that option avoids all but the most straightforward wiring, which is the power feed to the unit. That task is usually no more than a single wire tapped into the back of the head unit or directly to the fuse box under the dash and then attaching the ground wire.
The Mobile Rack Frame
The great majority of digital music players connect to PCs via a USB connection. That's adequate for players under a couple of GB in capacity, but when you have to transfer tens-of-gigabytes of information it's not fast enough.
Dension's solution is again a simple one. The DMP3 uses a removable frame mobile rack that is installed in an open bay on the PC (be aware before you make your purchase, you need an open bay). Once the rack is installed, you slide the DMP3 into the slot where it is now connected directly to your system. Transferring files to the player are now as quick as transferring them to another drive.
The beauty of the mobile rack setup is that it allows the DMP3 to be slid in and out easily making it very convenient to reconnect the unit back to the PC when new tunes have been acquired. Once loaded, you simply slide it back into the CarHost frame in you automobile.
The mobile rack frame can be picked up at any computer shop or ordered with the player.
Getting Started -
The top of the DMP3 is easily pried open using a flat head screwdriver in specified slots. The opened unit reveals an empty bay with four silicon rubber shock absorbers to protect the drive from rough roads. Our test unit already had a formatted drive in it, but we had to remove it to check that the Master/Slave jumper settings on the drive were correct. The settings you select depend on which slot the mobile rack uses. Since most PC have the CD as the master, most will set the drive as a slave device, which was the case with us.
The drive connected easily enough, but it took a little effort to line up the retaining screws and shock absorbers with the screw holes on the drive as the shock absorbers blocked our view of those holes. It took us a few minutes using a second flat head screwdriver to maneuver the drive, but we got it.
Installing the mobile rack was uneventful and quick. We slid the DMP3 in to the rack and fired up the unit. Dension DMP Manager recognized the drive right away.
Transfer Software -
Dension DMP Manager is similar to other Windows Explorer type programs. They do the job - simply drag and drop the tunes from one drive into the other - but pale against the better transfer programs. Beyond the basics it was not one of the most intuitive programs to use either. Dension should look to the Intel MP3 line's "Intel Audio Manager" for an example of a more elegant transfer program.
DMP Manager allows you to create virtual directories (VDIR). This lets you to sort music beyond the folder structure as it is physically laid on the drive. VDIR can only group MP3 files, hiding any other files you may have loaded into the unit's directory.
Transfer Speed -
It took us about 6 minutes to transfer a 1.2GB folder of music to the player's drive. That blows away USB. Only FireWire can compete here and right now only the Apple iPod uses it.
The buttons on the DMP3 faceplate are located on the left side of the unit for easier access for the driver. This includes the "I" knob, which looks like a volume knob, but actually handles much of the navigation for the unit (It can handle volume too when adjusting the output settings of the unit, but for general use volume is controlled through the car stereo).
The remaining buttons are of ample size and depress with a solid click. The problem is they are all the same size and shape which makes it a little more difficult to correctly identify them by touch alone while your eyes remain on the road. Also, these buttons are too close to each other, which is a problem for big thumbed people like ourselves.
The forward and rewind buttons are self-explanatory when working within a song, but they too handle navigation within the directory structure, as does the stop button. When to hit which button when is not always the most intuitive, but we picked it up quick enough with a little use.
The fourth button uses the universal symbol for the record button, but it has no such use and confused us at first. This key instead is the button that opens the configuration menu where the user will find a plethora of adjustments and settings. This includes ample sound settings including a built-in equalizer and DynaBass settings, as well as hardware settings that control LCD and HDD operations.
It is through the configuration mode that you can activate the Jukebox setting for the unit, allowing you to create a playlist directly within the unit on the fly. We found this to be an easy procedure, just highlight each song, depress the I button, and that song is added to the list.
Display - with satellite display. without satellite display.
Staring directly into the unit, the display was large and clear. But most radios are located down and to the right of the driver and the display could be difficult to read from an angle, forcing us at times to tilt our body down to a position closer to the unit for a clear view. Sunglare during the late afternoon made things worse, almost completely washing out the display. The display settings in the configuation mode helped some, allowing us to improve the contrast and increase backlight intensity. We recommend the satellite display as this will allow users to position the screen closer to the eye level of the driver.
Sound - 1/2
Good - Volume range was pretty wide and the unit's configuration mode offered ample settings to fine tune the output signal to the car's stereo. Best of all, with a large hard drive it becomes practical to store songs at 192kbit or 320kbit compression which means improved sound quality. Signal to noise ran at > 80dB. Most MP3 jukebox players including the Archos Jukebox, Nomad Jukebox, Rio Riot, and the Apple iPod run at > 90dB, but the DMP3 sounded good to us, especially when listening to songs above 192kbit.
The DMP3 has its shortcomings, but as far as bang for the buck goes it is still a compelling piece of equipment. The Kenwood Excelon Music Keg costs $900 for 10GB of capacity. The Sony MEX-HD1 is also a 10GB unit and runs $1,500. Both units are no doubt considerably more refined than the Dension DMP3 and are already integrated into the head unit, but the DMP3 can give you 15 times more capacity for much less money. As we have said before, capacity is the most convenient feature you can spend you cash on when deciding on a digital music player. The DMP3 offers plenty of capacity for compressing all your tunes at 320kbit, offering improved sound from the standard 128kbit compression most users trade at.
Geeks will love the low cost assembly options including the right to put in their own drive and to hack into the unit's programming. As the unit taps directly into the board, file transfers are handled very quickly. Far quicker than the USB connection used by the Excelon Music Keg (the Sony MEX-HD1 doesn't connect to a PC. Files are burned into the internal hard drive direct from a CD place in the head unit). We recommed getting the satellite display and mount the main unit out of site of potential thieves. We haven't tested the FM radio modulator, but it's probably worth a try as it is a solution for those who don't have a line input on the car's head unit and don't want to go the cassette route.
Not everyone needs to stick a 160GB drive in this unit. A 60GB or 80GB will do fine for most and cost less. Still, we recommend maxing the puppy out if you can afford it. The company just established a US subsidiary called DENSION USA in Los Angeles to improve stateside distribution. That means this unit should start showing up in auto accessory showrooms soon.
Final Score -
Size of the DMP3 box: 215x120x42 mm 995g
Size of the Car Host frame: 216x125x45 mm
Voltage: 12-15V DC
Active supply current (with HDD): HDD current, max. 1 A
Standby electric power: max. 10 mA
Operating temperature: 0 - +50 C
Storing Temperature: -20 - +70 C
Compatibility: PC IDE, ATA Mobile Rack, UDMA, FAT 32
Display: 128x56 blue graphic LCD, white LED background lighting inverse and turned away displaying modes
Decoding: MPEG 1/2 layer 2/3 (MP3 files up to max 384 kbps speed, VBR) M3U playlist file
DAC: 18 bit, 0.01% THD
Signal to noise ratio: > 80 dB
Line/Phone output: 0 dB = 775 mV RMS (adjustable with the volume)
- Volume -between -60 dB and +12 dB
- Balance between +- 9 relative value
- Treble between +- 12 dB Bass between +- 12 dB
- EQU pre-programmed tones: Pop - Rock - Classic - Jazz -Flat
- Loudness on/off
- DynaBass Off - Soft - Medium - Hard
- Program - playing pre-selected elements
- JukeBox - playing elements arranged in a row
- MyRadio - random playing according to set weighing
- Off - no repeating
- Track - repeating 1 track
- All - repeating the whole selected program
- Random - random replay on the selected program
- Log-in picture
- Text messages
- Playback displaying
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