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RCA Lyra

RCA Lyra

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.

The company’s 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 that route.

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 back.

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.

Transferring tunes 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.

Optional accessories 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.


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Updated May 13, 2006