Digital Music on the Go
By Jim Bray
RCA has thrown its
substantial corporate bulk into the new digital music fray.
When a giant like
Thomson Consumer Electronics, parent company to RCA, throws its mighty
weight behind a technology, you can be assured it thinks there's a future
for it. So it may come as a bit of a surprise to see Thomson jumping on
the MP3 music bandwagon so quickly in the format's history.
first portable MP3 player, the $220 Lyra, is a tiny gadget that uses compact
flash cards to store your favorite tunes. The Lyra (I tried the model
RD2201) plays MP3 and Real Jukebox files, and can supposedly be upgraded
down the road to take advantage of new formats that come along.
The unit comes in
two main pieces, not including the headphones: the player itself and the
memory card reader (kind of like a tiny disk drive) that plugs into your
computer's parallel port. The flash memory card holds 32 MB of data, which
is enough to store the entire 75 minute "Tommy" compact disc by the Who
- as long as you dumb down the sampling rate (the number of
digital pictures the computer takes of the music each second).
Dumbing down the sampling
rate causes a loss of audio quality, however, to the point where seems
only about as good as an audio cassette. The default sampling rate of
128K gives you appreciably better sound quality, but shortens the playing
time substantially: only about a quarter of the aforementioned CD fit
on the 32 MB card.
Besides MP3 and Real
Audio, you can also play "wave" files (.wav), but these are uncompressed
and take up horrendous amounts of space - so you'd better have a bunch
of extra (and expensive) flash memory cards on hand if you choose to go
Actually, it doesn't
hurt to have a few extra cards anyway, because that's the only way you
can change the music once you're unhooked the Lyra from your PC. My test
unit came with one card, which made for a very limited selection when
I took the thing on the road.
Using the Lyra - which
comes with batteries! - is straightforward. The front panel includes a
small, backlit LCD screen with seven control buttons below it for power,
playback, the LCD's backlight, "mode" (normal, shuffle, repeat, etc.)
and "DSP" (Digital Signal Processor which changes the sound for
various configurations, like "rock," "bass boost," etc.).
There's also a "select/volume"
control on the side, and an AC adapter input.
The headphones plug
into the top, and the memory card is ejected via a little push tab on
The whole shebang
is smaller than a walkman and fits nicely into a shirt pocket. It also
has a removable belt clip, for those with removable belts.
Before you can play
music you have to get it into the Lyra, either from your hard drive or
downloaded from the Internet. The Lyra does this via a CD-ROM's worth
of RealJukebox software you install on your PC.
The software lets
you organize your music and you can create playlists to dump onto the
flash card. You can also include information (artist, track title, etc.)
on the card and it all reads out on the LCD screen.
to the card is drag and drop easy, though the actual download could have
been quicker. Once the card's stuffed with data, you just eject it from
the external drive and slide it into the Lyra.
Since there are no
moving parts, lasers, or other things to drain power (besides the LCD
screen, of course), battery life is quite good. RCA claims a pair of AA
alkalines will last up to 20 hours.
No moving parts also
means no skipping!
I noticed that if
you shut off the Lyra and go back later, it resumes playing the track
at which it stopped. It replays the whole track, instead of picking up
exactly where it left off, which is nice.
include extra memory cards, rechargeable batteries, an AC adapter, an
audio system connector, and more.
Lyra is first generation
technology, so it's still fairly pricey compared to models that'll come
in future model years. In the meantime, however, it's a pretty cool way
to take your music on the road with you.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think