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Audio to Go

The author lends an ear to three portable devices that combine MP3 and FM radio.

Some people have a tendency to tote tunes on their travels. Perhaps you’re a hopeless music incurable. Years ago you might have had a Sony Walkman. Then you got a portable CD player. If you’re hip, you now listen to your music on one of those MP3 players-a palm-sized device that plays music either downloaded from the Internet or “ripped” yourself from a CD.

I’m not one of you. I like my music, but the sound track for my life informs and educates. I admit: I’m a National Public Radio junkie. I like listening to my news on a tiny FM tuner, no bigger than a pack of cough drops, and a tiny headset that folds away when not in use. But even I can get my fill of NPR, and when I do, I want to be able to play some music.

Basically, I want it all: One device that plays FM radio and MP3s, and lets me-a student and journalist-record lectures and interviews as MP3 files. These wishes must be pretty common, because there are now at least three devices on the market that combine these functions. In my quest for the perfect electronic companion I tried them all. None were perfect for me, but they might work for you.

Archos Jukebox Recorder FM: $299

It’s a MP3 player that holds more than 300 hours of high-quality music. It’s a portable FM stereo. It’s a MP3 recorder that can record from its built-in microphone, from a digital source, or even off the air. And it’s a 20 gigabyte external hard drive that connects to your computer through the ultra-fast USB 2.0 standard.

The Archos Jukebox Recorder (JBR) FM is about the same size as a Sports Walkman (circa 1995) and weighs in 10.3 ounces, making this trendy gem the “must have” MP3 player among the technological elite. Beautifully styled with a light silver case and rubber corners, the JBR does quadruple duty and is compatible with computers running Window, MacOS, and even Linux. Plug this unit into your computer and it appears on the desktop as another drive, then drag and drop MP3 files between JBR and your hard drive.

Playback sound quality is fabulous. Unfortunately, both the FM receiver and the MP3 recorder suffer. The FM receiver had no trouble pulling in strong stations, but gave me lots of static with weak stations and had a hard time playing any public radio stations when I sit in the back of a transit bus. (Why? The bus engine generates electrical noise that the cheap FM receiver has a hard time rejecting.) As for the MP3 recorder, the built-in microphone was good for somebody standing nearby, but it did only a fair job in my attempts to record a lecture. Worse, the microphone picked up noise and clicking sounds from the hard drive. While the JBR FM has a “Line In” jack to record from a stereo, it doesn’t have a microphone input, so you can’t record using an external mike unless you also have a preamplifier.

Still, I must gush about the JBR FM’s user interface. This machine packs a ton of functionality, yet I didn’t need to read the user manual to get excellent results. That’s because the unit has 10 buttons on its front panel, a backlit LCD display that can show 8 lines of text for song information, graphic volume meters for recording and playback, and an easy-to-navigate set of menus. Somebody put a lot of thought into this system, and it shows.

The player has a built-in rechargeable battery and comes with one of those wart-like transformers to charge it up. A full charge easily got me through a whole day of use, which included recording a three-hour lecture. (Archos rates the battery at 12 hours of playback time.) You can even change the recording quality, for a total of 300, 600, or 750 hours of total recording time on the hard drive. The system also has a neat “retro-record” feature in which it will store in the MP3 file everything that the microphone heard 30 seconds before you hit the record button-something that’s only possible with a digital recorder. Overall, the JBR FM is an excellent piece of engineering.

I like the JBR FM a lot-but not enough to buy it with my own money. Gone are the days that journalists got to keep review units as freebies [Don’t even think about it. ed.], so my review unit is sadly going back to Archos.

Archos ONDIO 128 - $150

For half the price of the JBR FM, you can pick up the Ondio 128, also from Archos. Instead of a built-in hard drive, the Ondio 128 has 128MB of flash memory and supports additional memory expansion using the MultiMedia Memory flash card slot on the side.

Compared with the JBR FM, the Ondio’s FM tuner has more static on weak stations and a user interface that’s harder to use. The display is not backlit, making it hard to see in low-light environments. Instead of a rechargeable battery, it takes three AAA alkaline batteries, which get sucked dry after about 12 hours of playback time. My unit had some problems with the battery contacts: I had to bend them a bit so that the batteries would stay in place and make proper a proper connection.

Like the JBR FM, the Ondio has a built-in microphone and a line-in jack. Attach the Ondio to your computer and its memory shows up as an external USB drive, once again making it easy to move music back and forth.

Weighing in at 3.4 ounces and with an all-plastic body (the more expensive unit has a metal one), the Ondio feels flimsy. Nevertheless, I would probably purchase one, given the price, if the FM receiver was better. But FM reception is really important to me, so I’ll pass.

Samsung YEPP YP-700: $199

The odd man out is the Samsung YP-700 MP3 player. The size of a short stack of credit cards and weighing 3.3 ounces, the Samsung has a brushed aluminum case, a three line backlit LCD with a Spartan interface, and a non-standard battery that must be removed to be recharged in the wall-mounted charger. It also has a crazy “external battery pack” that takes a throwaway AA battery, just in case the rechargeable doesn’t last you through the day.

As an MP3 player the YP-700 is serviceable: the sound quality is good, although some users complain that the amplifier isn’t loud enough to overcome city noise. The user interface suffers from a tiny 3-line LCD display and hard-to-press buttons. But my main gripe is that when you connect the YP-700 to a computer, it doesn’t appear as an external USB drive; instead you must use proprietary software to upload music onto the player and download recordings that you make.

The YP-700’s FM receiver is among the best that I’ve ever used: it’s clear, it has excellent noise immunity, and it pulls in even faint public radio stations. Unfortunately, to use the radio you must connect a funky “remote control,” increasing the player’s bulk. There’s no obvious way to record MP3s from what’s playing on the radio, which I suspect is because the radio is actually in the “remote control” and not in the YP-700 itself.

Recording is somewhat disappointing with this device too. There is a tiny built-in microphone that worked fine for voice memos, but picked up noise from my handwriting when I tried to record a lecture. Like the Archos units, there’s no provision for an external microphone-but unlike the Archoses (Archoi?), there’s no “line-in.”

The YP-700 comes with a nickel metal hydride battery covered by a door that looks flimsy, unlike the door covering the proprietary USB connector. (Carrying cases protect the USB connectors of the Archos units, which don’t have doors.) Besides the 128MB of built-in memory, the YP-700 has a slot for SmartMedia flash card, allowing you to add another 128MB for about $75. The unit also supports for SecuMAX, a copy protection system that lets protected music play on your YP-700 player but nobody else’s. According to the SecuMAX Web site, the system includes various “reporting functions” that seem like a bad idea; fortunately, unless you download SecuMax-encoded music, you’ll probably never have to deal with it.

I should like the YP-700, but I don’t. It seems very first-generation and not well thought out. The PC software gave me a JavaScript error when I tried to register the product; the battery save feature keeps turning the system off when I’m trying to figure out what to do next; and the finish on the aluminum case doesn’t feel good in my hands. It works as advertised, but somehow that’s not enough for me. I decided to pass on this one as well.

End Game

In the end, I’ve come up dry. Although there are three very stylish MP3 players on the market that include both MP3 recording and FM radio capabilities, I didn’t like any of them enough to actually buy one. Instead, I’m using a five-year-old Sony FM/AM walkman to listen to my news, I’m playing MP3s through my Apple PowerBook, and on those occasions when I want to record a lecture, I’m using a free application I downloaded from the Internet called Audio Recorder 1.2. I can make fabulous recordings with an external microphone, and halfway decent ones using the built-in Microphone that’s present on my PowerBook. (On a PC, you can make pretty good recordings using MusicMatch.)

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