Review - The RCA Lyra

By Rich Menta- 12/03/99

As you stroll through Sears or K-Mart this holiday season, take a peek in the electronics department. You may notice something unexpected, namely an MP3 portable music player. That is what RCA's distribution muscle can do for the Lyra, the first MP3 portable released by a major electronics manufacturer in the US.


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

Department store visibility has been out of reach for the small companies that produced the first wave of MP3 portables. Until Sony releases its MP3 line early next year, RCA will enjoy a competitive advantage that could push the Lyra past the Diamond Rio for the holiday sales crown. Will the Lyra become the new MP3 king? If so, how does the unit stack up?

The Hardware

The Lyra is relatively large for an MP3 portable. It is double the weight (4.8 ounces) of the Diamond Rio 500 and Creative Nomad 64 with a slightly larger shell. Still, the unit is smaller than the average cassette player, which makes it attractive to joggers.

The Lyra is a straightforward MP3 player without many options. The unit we tested came with 32MB of memory and retails for $199.00. This is rather pricey considering the original 32MB Diamond Rio now sells for under $100 after rebate. Competitors selling for roughly the same money as the Lyra, offer options like an FM radio, voice recording, text/memo features, line in and out jacks, hold switches, and more memory. The Lyra does play G2 files, the only unit to do so to date.

Getting started: B-

The Lyra uses an external memory card drive that attaches to both the printer and keyboard ports using a pass-through cable. The user downloads MP3 files directly to CompactFlash memory cards and then inserts the card into the player. This process is more time consuming than ones used by portables like the RaveMP (See Review), which transfer MP3 files directly into the players internal memory. It took us a moment just to attach the cables.

Loading the software is a two step process. First came the drivers for the external card drive. this went ok, but during installation, the program renamed a conflicting driver in Windows used for tape backup units. If you have a TBU, double check to make sure this won't disable the unit. You may need to contact the manufacturer of the tape player for updated drivers.

Next, we loaded RealJukebox, an excellent software package that rips, encodes, and organizes your MP3 files, as well as serves as the interface to download music to the player. The software does have one minor annoyance. Once you create a music folder through RealJukebox, the software interface will not allow you to look beyond that folder to download MP3 files located elsewhere on your machine. To get around this, the user needs to open the other folders through Explorer and drag and drop MP3 files directly into the Lyra icon in the RealJukebox interface. Why Real designed it this way perplexes us.

After loading the software, we opened the Readme file - usually an important step most people ignore - to get the latest on any bugs, fixes etc. The Read-me file had only one sentence "For more information, please go through the manual of this product". We could not find anything in the Readme file or the manual that mentioned the TBU driver conflict. Oh well.

Files downloaded quickly, about 15-20 seconds per track. The Lyra has no internal memory, using compact flash chips to store all files. Theoretically, as bigger capacity flash chips become available, the unit's storage potential expands, thus avoiding obsolescence due to limited memory. Interestingly, the people at RCA may have managed to partially shoot themselves in the foot as far as obsolescence is concerned.

You see the Lyra doesn't actually play MP3 files. Instead, through RealJukebox, it converts MP3 files to a proprietary MPX format, files that cannot be played on non-RCA units. That really doesn't mean much now as few people will swap flash chips initially, but in a few years, as memory chips drop in price, some experts feel they will replace cassettes in record stores. If such a scenario were to come true, the RCA Lyra will not be able to play these flash chip albums or "Flashes" unless the record labels offer them in MPX format. Remember the Betamax?

Throughout it all, the manual did a good job guiding us through the details of setup, including plenty of "Warning" notes. For example, Windows 95/98 users have to wait 5 seconds (12 seconds for Windows NT users) after the files finish downloading before removing the flash card. Pulling the card out sooner could damage it.

Controls: B

The Lyra has well proportioned and laid out controls, separated adequately to avoid accidentally hitting the wrong key. We particularly liked the side rocker switch used to control the volume and built in graphic equalizer. A hold button would be a welcome addition for more active users as we inadvertently turned the unit off once or twice while jogging.

What we most enjoyed was the addition of a search feature that allows the user to scan within a song. Along with the graphic equalizer, this is the Lyra's biggest plus as most players only let you to jump back and forth between tracks.

We sometimes noticed a lag when we press the buttons to change tracks. Occasionally we had to hit a key twice to get it to switch.

The Display: A

The best we have seen yet. Six lines and a back light that not only display the tracks clearly, but also does a neat job with the Lyra's built-in equalizer. A true pleasure.

Sound: A

Sound quality was fine. The unit has the widest volume control we have ever come across, offering an ample range from very soft to very loud. The 5 band equalizer is a welcomed addition, offering much better control than the 3 or 5 tone presets (Jazz, Pop, Rock, etc.) competing portables offer. The headphones that came with the unit did a good job, though some users may opt to upgrade to low profile, high quality earbuds from Sennheiser or Sony.

Conclusion

The RCA Lyra is a pretty unit with some very nice touches, specifically the excellent display, the graphic equalizer, and the scan feature. We are not particularly fond of it converting MP3 and G2 files to a proprietary MPX format, but overall we find it to be a solid unit.

A 64MB version of the Lyra, with a cassette/cigarette lighter adapter for the car, has been released and sells for about $250. This is in line with the prices of other 64MB units and we recommend this model over the 32MB version for those who plan to purchase a Lyra.

Final Score: B+

Copyright 1999 MP3 Newswire. All rights reserved.


The RCA Lyra has 64MB of memory and retails for $249. Order it from Amazon here.

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