The grandfather of this device is the headband AM/FM radio that joggers and sports fanatics alike wore during the '80s. The JVC XA-A50CL--which is made of black plastic with the right side measuring 1.8 by 2.1 by 0.9 inches, excluding the ear clip--is certainly lighter than its predecessors at just a hair more than 2 ounces, but its ill-conceived design makes it considerably less comfortable for workout warriors. In its press release for the player, JVC touts the XA-A50CL to be "especially well suited for active use," which, on the surface, is true in that the skipless flash-based player is enclosed in one of the headphones, leaving the user's hands free. However, in CNET field activity tests (jogging), the ear clip's overly flexible hinge caused the ear cup to flop around, irritating our participants. While the earphones sit comfortably on your ears, the fit is not snug enough for even mild physical activity, and making matters worse, the felt headphone covers soak up sweat. Despite the fact that the cord between the two earphones is necessary to get audio signals to the left earphone, as well as to prevent an earphone from dislodging and falling to the ground, it is an annoying presence.
That said, the engineers of the JVC XA-A50CL did manage to get a few things right. The device runs for a rated 20 hours on one AAA battery. In real-world testing, CNET Labs was able to get a little more than 17 hours per battery, which is still acceptable. Additionally, the player has a surprisingly robust sound, with four preset equalizer modes and simulated digital surround sound.
However, the overall product package is quite weak. For one thing, the device is alarmingly expensive, with a suggested retail price of $164.95. This is roughly $15 more than Apple's superlightweight 1GB iPod Shuffle, which offers consumers eight times more storage capacity and a similar feature set--a much better deal if you don't mind headphone wires. In addition, the JVC's quirky Voice Guidance navigation system is bizarre and awkward. Although JVC had the right idea doing away with an LCD in favor of an audible listing of menu and navigation items (in three languages and using a soothing female voice that says, for example, "Menu"), even the most knowledgeable users can get trapped between the various settings of the Voice Guidance system, assuming they can actually find the correct button among the array of tiny knobs on the right earphone. The controls here include forward and reverse keys, volume controls, and the mode button. Once you acclimate to the navigation system, you should be able to create and save up to three playlists without having to look at an LCD--a fine trick.
The device sucks its battery life from the computer during its slow and antiquated USB 1.1 file transfers of 0.6MB per second. The JVC XA-A50CL is a universal mass-storage device, so file transfer is a drag-and-drop process--though you must use Windows Media Player for purchased DRM-protected WMA files. Transfers won't take too long, however, because the puny, 128MB built-in flash can hold, at most, 30 MP3s at a bit rate of 128Kbps.