The sturdy Lyra is a handsome device: its silver case is adorned by a shallow, circular inset with a decent-size five-line LCD in its center. Weighing 11 ounces and measuring 4.5 by 3.1 by 1 inches, the player is relatively bulky, so people will most likely use it in cars, homes, and airplanes. The four rubber feet on the back panel will be handy in those environments, keeping the Lyra from slipping on hard and smooth surfaces.
Just below the LCD sits a pair of soft, depressable four-way joysticks: one for menu navigation and the other for playback control and preference tagging. The Like and Dislike tags, which you assign while you're listening to songs, affect how often they come up in SmartShuffle mode. Having two nearly identical front-panel joysticks was confusing at first. We'd rather trade in the second one for an iPod-style scrollwheel, which does a better job of quickly getting you through thousands of tracks.
The included padded case protects the unit and attaches to your belt with either its clip or its loop.
RCA thoughtfully provides a two-adapter car kit.
Also on the face is the Menu/Lock button. Pressing it quickly calls up the menu; holding it down freezes all controls to prevent accidental activation. We'd prefer a dedicated Hold slider on the side, where you find instead just the small, hard-to-press power and volume-up/down keys.
Along the top of the player are the DC power input, the headphone output, the USB 1.1/2.0 port (protected by a sturdy, rubber flap), and the line-out jack. A pair of clip-on headphones and cables for the last two of those hookups come in the package. The line-out cord attaches to the player with a small, proprietary plug and to the receiving device with a 1/8-inch connector. We'd rather have dual RCAs, which would work with home stereos, but cable combinations available at Radio Shack and other electronics stores can remedy this situation for a few bucks.
Two more accessories ship with the Lyra. The car kit has power adapters for a cigarette lighter and a cassette deck. The padded carrying case is sturdy and hangs on your belt with its clip or its loop. The player feels a bit bulky on the hip but not enough to make the belt attachments senseless.
Setup is relatively simple: you install the included software, then connect the Lyra to your PC's USB port. Your system will recognize the player as a removable drive, onto which you can copy a whopping 40GB of tunes. The bundled Musicmatch Jukebox program will transfer songs and playlists; Windows Explorer will let you drag and drop MP3 and WMA tracks but not playlists. Musicmatch can also rip a CD's contents to MP3, WMA, or MP3Pro. The Lyra supports all three formats but not secure WMA files from paid music services such as Napster.
The Lyra will acknowledge songs loaded via the drag-and-drop method only if you first profile them with one of two tools. The fastest is the Lyra's simple desktop application, but since that (as well as the included version of Musicmatch) is PC-only, Mac users have to rely on the poky, battery-sapping onboard profiler, which can handle a maximum of just 3,500 files.
Once you've loaded and profiled your tunes, the Lyra offers several listening options. While you're browsing, for instance, you can easily add tracks on the fly to the MySelections playlist. You can add a Like or Dislike tag to the current song: in SmartShuffle mode, Like increases playback frequency, and Dislike sends a track to the bottom of the pile. In addition to shuffle settings, there are various repeat modes. And a five-band equalizer, which has four presets and a user-defined selection, lets you punch up the sound with precision.
Another cool extra is LyraSync, a file- and folder-syncing desktop application for the Lyra and your PC. The program is handy if you need to back up files on your system or take work home from the office. However, the Lyra is good for only playing music and storing data; you don't get an FM tuner, voice capture, or line-in recording.
These clip-on headphones are all right, but as with most bundled models, audiophiles will want to swap them out.
The Lyra performed well on the go, delivering excellent audio quality, good detail, and a high maximum volume. We also heard plenty of bass, especially once we'd fiddled with the equalizer. We appreciated being able to clip the bundled headphones to our ears, but audiophiles would be better off with more-expensive replacements; the sound improved considerably coming through our reference Shure E3c earbuds.
We loaded the player with music using the included standard USB cable. A 1.1 connection yielded a rate of 0.85MB per second, and 2.0 transfers flew across at a brisk 5.7MB per second.
In our tests, battery life averaged about 10.5 hours--a little shy of RCA's 12-hour rating but still good by MP3-jukebox standards.
We unearthed two performance anomalies. First, the Lyra's otherwise dependable processor takes slightly too long to switch between screens. Second, pressing the navigation joystick doesn't select items; you have to click toward the right instead. We suspect that RCA will remedy the latter issue with a firmware upgrade.