Fans of AM radio have largely been left out in the cold by MP3 player manufacturers. The excuses are many, but the main reason most device makers avoid the feature is due to the relatively large space required of an AM antenna, thus inhibiting the overall compactness of the final product. PoGo Products briefly came to the rescue with a line of AM-friendly MP3 players, but the company ceased production of the line after only a few years. Filling the void is the C. Crane Witness AM/FM MP3 Player, a basic radio-cum-MP3 player reminiscent of the Radio YourWay LX. Even with its throwback design and monochrome display, the Witness will cost you a pretty penny--$229.95 for 2GB--but AM radio fans have little other choice, and will likely be plenty pleased with the features on offer.
True to its AM radio roots, the CC Witness player has a simple, utilitarian design that feels sturdy in the hand. The case is matte black with a metallic sheen and silver trim wrapping around the edges. The right side offers up a dedicated volume rocker and hold switch, while a look at the left reveals a built-in mic, a line-in port, and an SD-card expansion slot--a necessity, given the paltry 2GB onboard storage. Two external speakers live on either side of the device as well, while a boatload of shiny plastic buttons deck out the front of the device. There are dedicated keys for accessing the menu, stepping back through functions, adjusting the play speed, setting A/B looping, recording, editing, and playing/pausing. A four-way control pad surrounding the play/pause button allows for hassle-free navigation through the extremely basic menus.
There's not much to the CC Witness's screen. It's only 1.8-inches diagonally, which is small, given that the player measures nearly 4 inches tall, 2.2 inches wide, and over half-an-inch thick. It's also monochrome, so you won't be seeing any album art or photos here. On the plus side, you can see the font quite clearly without the backlight engaged, and the menu options are simple: AM, FM, Files, Settings, and Timers. Music--accepted in MP3 format only--is organized into folders under the File menu. There's also a Playlist folder here, although even after reading the manual, it is unclear what it is for--M3U playlists transferred through drag and drop or Windows Media Player did not appear on the device. Also odd: You have to switch views in the settings menu depending on how you want to listen to music. The folder view lets you listen to albums in a folder, while the file view will allow you to play all your music straight through (there is a random option, also). It's definitely not the most intuitive way to listen to MP3s.
Really, the CC Witness is an AM/FM radio and recorder at its core, while MP3 playback is a bit of not-so-tasty icing. Still, there are some limitations on the radio of the player, as well. Each of the bands only offers 10 preset slots, and the AM radio reception is practically nonexistent inside of buildings with plentiful concrete or metal. On the plus side, you can record from either AM or FM at varying qualities from 64kbps to 256kbps MP3. You can also set up to 20 timed recordings--with recurrence, if you so choose. In addition, the Witness can record via the built-in mic or the line-input (both up to 256kbps), and it can automatically detect silence and split tracks. You can also monitor recordings through the headphones.
During our testing, the CC Witness performed its recording functions admirably, working off the timers and detecting silence when we set it to do so. Mic recordings were decently clear, but had an excessive amount of background hiss. Line-in recordings sounded great (with the bit rate set to 256kbps). Predictably, the quality of the AM/FM recordings depended a lot on the reception, but those with a solid signal were more than adequate. C. Crane includes some relatively decent in-ear 'buds that offer reasonable sound quality for MP3 playback. Of course, swapping in a set of Shure SE310s still improved things. Overall, music sounds clear with nice warmth and a decent amount of detail. Audio isn't stunning, but it's good on the whole. The 18.3 hours of playback is also plenty adequate without being overly impressive.
In final analysis, our opinion of the C. Crane Witness AM/FM MP3 player is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, it includes an AM tuner and plentiful recording options, but the file playback is convoluted, which ultimately cripples the MP3 player aspect of the device. It seems more rational to just get a well-designed MP3 player and a separate portable AM radio, but if you must have the two wrapped into one--with all the recording trimmings you could want--the Witness fits the bill.