Note: More than a few Karma users, including some at CNET.com, have experienced hard drive problems or even failure after several months of use.
Armed with 20GB of hard disk storage, this beautifully designed portable music player rivals the Apple iPod in terms of ergonomics and ease of use--but at a significantly lower price. It boasts exotic functions not included in any other player, as well as one of the longest battery lives we've seen to date. While it lacks the iPod's intuitive no-moving-parts interface and the iRiver iHP-120's recording features, the Rio Karma's other strengths make it a better choice for many users.Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
Like most HD-based players, the Rio Karma is intended for users who enjoy the freedom of carrying around thousands of songs (more than 300 hours of 128Kbps music) in a device small enough to clip onto a belt. Just as impressive is the device's tiny form factor and 5.5-ounce weight--less than that of two CDs. Although it's thicker and more voluminous than the Apple iPod, the Karma has a 2.7-by-3-by-1.1 inch chassis and a smaller footprint than even the Apple, and it's quite comfortably operable with one hand.
|The cradle features a clear, rubberized area for the player to rest while it charges, loads up on music, or sends tunes to your stereo.|
|The back of the cradle houses stereo RCA outputs, a USB 1.1/2.0 port, an Ethernet port, and a power input for charging.|
The device's interface is a marvel of simplicity. It includes the obligatory Power, Volume, Hold, and Menu controls, but a highly responsive thumbwheel and joystick handle all other functions. The Karma's spacious 160x128 blue-backlit LCD can be customized to show different types of playback data (including fully functional analog VU meters), and most users will quickly master the device's intuitive menu system without ever cracking a manual. The display and controllers can even be flipped upside down for left-handed operation.
The Karma attaches to your PC using a built-in mini-USB 2.0 port and an included cable (USB 1.1/2.0); placing the player in its chic, blue-illuminated cradle/charger adds a choice of either USB or Ethernet connections (making this the first Ethernet-compatible portable MP3 player). The cradle also provides stereo RCA line-output jacks that can be connected to powered speakers or to a stereo sound system.
The Karma's liberal selection of bundled accessories includes an AC adapter; a carrying pouch; a set of high-quality Sennheiser MX-300 earbuds; and USB, line-out, and Ethernet cables. The only items missing from our wish list are an in-line remote and a form-fitting carrying case--with belt clip--that could protect the device and allow it to be worn outside of the pocket.
The Karma's rich feature set includes all the functionality we've come to expect in a hard drive-based player. Like many other products in its class, it lacks an FM radio tuner, an audio line-in jack, and a voice recorder, but it compensates with an impressive selection of music-playback and organizing features. You can search for tracks by album, artist, genre, and year of release, or you can generate playlists on the fly by simply double-clicking song titles in any of these lists. Unlike the iPod's similar playlist feature, the Karma's lets you save and name the list for later playback.
In addition to a bookmark option for saving your spot, the Karma offers a comprehensive selection of repeat and shuffle options, a five-band equalizer with presets, and the ability to smoothly cross-fade between tracks. We loved the Rio DJ function that can be programmed to automatically build custom playlists by analyzing your personal playback history; it then plays the songs back with cross-fades--somewhat akin to having a real DJ spin your tunes for you.
The Karma's excellent Windows-based Rio Music Manager 2.0 software combines a straightforward interface with a competitive selection of autosynchronization, music-playback, ID3-editing, playlist-creation, and file-transfer capabilities. It can also rip audio CDs to fixed and variable bit-rate MP3 and WMA, as well as the open-source Ogg Vorbis and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). The latter is especially prized by audiophiles since it sounds exactly as good as the original CD, at a smaller file size. Music Manager 2.0 also includes an auto-update function that lets you upgrade the Karma's firmware with just a few clicks.
Rio also throws in Rio Taxi software, which lets you use the device as a portable hard drive to transport data files and music tracks between any PCs that have the app installed. In January 2004, Rio plans to release an enhanced version of RealOne designed specifically for this player, as well as Macintosh software and drivers. (Linux and OS X users can use the Ethernet port to transfer files to the device, but those operating systems are not officially supported.)
According to Rio, the Karma produces a signal-to-noise ratio greater than 95dB at its very loud power output (about 60mW per channel at 16 ohms). This translates into more than enough power to cleanly drive most full-size dynamic headphones to top volumes. The bundled Sennheiser MX-300s sound great through all registers, especially in the bass range. But like most buds, they can be tricky to fit into some listener's ears and provide only moderate isolation from external noise. Sound improved when we used our Shure E3c reference headphones.
As you'd expect, the Rio Karma's 480Mbps USB 2.0 interface produced blazing file-transfer speeds. On average, it took about 20 seconds to download a 100MB collection of nine music files to our test unit, for a file-transfer speed of 5MB per second.
Another strength is the Karma's long-lived rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Rio claims that the device will run 15 hours on a charge--about twice as long as the iPod. Our tests confirmed this.
Getting the Karma's network interface to work took a little more effort than we would have liked, but once it was up and running, it purred along. With the device in the cradle and connected via Ethernet, we were also able to perform file-upload, synchronization, and device-management functions on the remotely attached player. But the same files transferred more slowly than expected, at 0.53MB per second (about 10 times slower than via USB 2.0). Rio plans to eventually use this same interface to add the ability to stream music from a player to other devices attached to the same network. The company will also add a remote-control Web interface so that you can control the unit from any networked PC while it's attached to your stereo (making the device a de facto digital audio receiver). At that point, the device's Ethernet compatibility could become a major asset.