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Technology Review

the Riovolt Portable MP3 Player

Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets, will the barrage of consumer technology never stop? Some of us can't get enough of them, but personally I am only interested in a device that is going to be useful, I mean really useful. Case in point: All the marketing and media attention of mp3's has not driven me to acquire one of those much-hyped solid state portable players. They are great in principle, but I have a problem with the technology. Limited memory (64MB max for most), tedious downloading from a PC every time you want to change what's stored in there. What good is that? I really don't need fussing over coms links more than I absolutely have to you. Don't get me wrong, I am big fan of mp3 as a format - and I have been accumulating megabytes of DJ sets (most of which I have recorded myself). Playing them on a PC is easy enough, and a Line Out link from the PC Sound Card to the Hi Fi and into those phat bass cones adds considerably to listening pleasure. I really couldn't be bothered making or downloading mp3 of commercial CD's - if I like an album, I will buy the CD. It's the sound megabytes that are not on the shelves that interest me.

Now I like to listen to my music when I am on the move - particularly during those long bike rides. I got a neat 7th generation slender and slick Sony portable CD player, and it's served me well, what with it's 72 hour battery life. For the record, I got the first Sony Portable CD Player when it came out way back when. So been there, and still doing it. So guys, what's the problem updating the software on these things so they can read mp3 files? After all, it's not a hardware problem -same data storage format on the CD. Surely the digital hardware can handle it - it's all software driven. Perhaps it's because Sony publishes music and all the (traditional) record industry got in a totally pathetic frenzy over mp3's flying in all directions over the net (the death of Napster being one sad casualty). Or perhaps it's a big capitalist plot to sell more gadgets. Sony have a portable solid state player that uses their ‘Memory Stick' technology, something they are trying to get entrenched as a portable data storage format. You see, it's all about technological lock-in, and perhaps they are trying to make up for lost Beta $. The popular perception is that you need one of those small devices to play mp3 files. But it's just bits and bytes in a stock standard data files, and all the decoding is done in software, as anyone who had downloaded or traded mp3's will know.

So here I have been patiently waiting for a portable CD player than can also play mp3 files. It was just a matter of time before such a convergence, I have keenly anticipated. And now, here it is - the Riovolt portable CD / mp3 player. The specs looked good, and I got me one which I have been using for a while. I have given it a good off-road test and so far, so good. It looks and works like a bog-standard portable CD player - round in plan, curved profile and as thick as a three CD Jewel Boxes. It takes two AA Batteries (aka Penlites) and comes with a remote control on the headphone lead. It has a LCD panel on the player, but not on the remote. Light enough to hang off your hip on a belt.

It's dead easy to work - you write all your fav mp3's onto a CD-R via a PC (not included), and then play it like any CD. This way you can store about 20 hours of music on a standard CD-R disk, of good enough quality (for me anyway although audio puritans will disagree). The names of the mp3 files comes up on the players LCD, and you simply browse down the list, select one and play. You can navigate through folders, if that's how you have organised you files. Simple enough to work out, sans having to read that dreaded manual. It's got various other buttons which I haven't even used yet. Like most portable CD players, it's got shock protection, adjustable between 10 and 40 seconds. This is just a memory buffer, the disadvantage of the longer is a delayed silence after pressing play. The headphones it comes with are standard in-your-ear types, but I opted for my familiar Sony's which plug into the remote via the standard mini plug.

The time came for the low down and the shake down. I decided to do my rough'n'tough route, which is about 30 kms along the ridges, valleys and polluted stream of the Eastern Joziburg Metropolis. Lots of off-road bumpy high speed sections, were my Sony has held up well and others have failed. But could the Rio Volt match up? I scrolled down on the backlit LCD to Carl Cox's recent BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix, select, and hit the road. By the time he found his tempo, I was finding my pace and warming up in the pre-dawn twilight with only a blazing Venus for company. I have learnt to enjoy early morning cycles. In the past I have been the antithesis of the proverbial early bird, but the probability of getting mugged on the streets at this time are minimal, so that's when I cycle now. I guess its been a case of adapt or emigrate, dying not being a conscious option.

Once Cox get's going, there is no stopping - no fluffy breaks or spacey feel-good moments - it's a barrage of rhythms to which I never fail to resonate. As a jumped my bike over a traffic calmer, I got blipped into silence. What the funk? Closer examination found the remote had unclipped itself from my belt and the pause was knocked. No problem, this time I slid the ‘Hold' on, which deactivates the controls.

The player did well during the really bumpy bits - and I am talking really bumpy. The kind that the only reason your hands are still on the bars is that pulsating Headshox, together with sheer human determination. For the next 90 minutes on more mundane stretches, the Riovolt kept the Big Black Cox's relentless beats coming my way, and before I knew it, it was time for a coffee stop. Here I discovered it's first limitation - when I was done, the Pause had timed out and it did not pick up where it left off (this is what my Sony does). Anyway, time for a change and what it is to be spoilt for choices - Sasha live from the Gatecrasher Summer Sound System? Speedy's SpinOut set? How about Fergie's Essential Mix? Nah, I had done banging for the morning and it was Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva's smooth techno that glided me back home up the last stretch. It's not fussy about it's remote being unplugged while playing because I had to pull this out to take it out of it's (plastic leather) holder on my belt when I plugged it into my home hifi, so the party could continue over breakfast.

It's rated for over 20 hours playback, and after about 15 hours on the first cells, it still doing well. It's got some other features, like it will play Windows Media (WMA) files as well. This is useless to me - I would have preferred support for Real Media .rm and .ra files since I have lots of music in that format. But here's the good news - this nifty device has a feature for the user to easily upgrade the firmware. All you have to do is access the home page, download the latest revision OS, drop the file onto a CD-R and put it in the player, push play and it auto- uploads to the FLASH PROM. Now that's ‘neat'. And here's hoping they include code for a RealAudio player soon.

The Riovolt seems a decent enough product for it's price, and certainly does the portable mp3 job. More than that, it comes with a mains adapter making it a very feasible component for any home hi fi system, saving you having to deal with Windows every time you want to play a mp3. You can also plug it a car sound system if you have a Line In socket or if you care to use one of those cassette adapters. Even though the Riovolt plays standard CD's as well, I will be hanging onto my Sony, since the quality of finish is a planet apart. Now if only I could get some decent Internet bandwidth so I can source more mp3's of my liking. And where is the next Napster?

- Bruce Gillespie
18 July 2001

 

The Riovolt is available here on-line from SpinOut's sponsor, PCB Technologies