RioVolt Review

Major Update –

I’ve recently flashed to the 1.11fr firmware, available from the Rio ftp site. This update adds a slew of features, and fixes many annoying bugs. I’ve indicated where things were fixed or how they differ from shipping firmware to updated throughout the review. Also added photos of the Volt. If you just want to see the Firmware updates, jump to the endSince I grabbed the firmware, Rio has seen fit to replace it with an identically named file that removes the Study mode. If you want study mode, here’s the mirrored original file for your use.

Rio Volt

The Rio Volt, the second major CD player to display ID3 tags, is a giant step up from the first, the Pine SM200C. Here’s a comparative photo of the two units:

As you can see, the Volt definitely had someone with an eye for design make its shell, as opposed to the industrial-looking Pine box.

The Rio has some great features, and you can see the full list at their website, but let me give you a review from a (so far) satisfied consumer’s point-of-view.

The ability to display ID3 tags is a giant step up from the first generation of MP3 players, which showed only the track number. Maybe that works for players with a mere 32 megs of memory, and their 10 or so songs. But, when you’re looking at a CDROM of 100+ tracks, you definitely don’t want to muck about with a paper track list or a faulty memory (was that song 101 or 98?). So, the ID3 feature is great here. It shows the track title, then artist. If the ID3 tag is missing, the display reverts to filename display. Since most people write their MP3 filenames as the track title, that is perfect. If the ID3 tag is malformed, though (i.e., no artist field), the display will show the parts of the tag that are present. So, I have some songs that show up as Track - , with no artist after the dash. That’s operator error, not the fault of the device or its programmers. The display is a little narrow, showing only 12 characters at once. It does scroll, character-by-character, through the song title and artist continually while playing. It appears to truncate the entire scroll at 48 characters, however. So, if you have a long song title and long artist name, it won’t show it all. The entire title tag will display, and the artist will be cut off. As my personal example, many tracks with the artist field of Prince and the Revolution show up as some abbreviated version. The LCD also will display CDtext, if it is encoded on the standard Audio CD you can play as well. I rarely put straight CDDA disks in mine, since I have them in storage right now (middle of a move don’tchaknow).

The navigation through the CDROM is quite transparent, thankfully. After pressing the NAVI button, you see a two-line display of directory names, with [ROOT] as the first one. There is no [ROOT] entry with updated firmware; starts in root directory or wherever you are currently playing.. To enter directories, use the right-arrow on the joypad (also the FF command when in play mode). To go back a directory, use the left-arrow (RWD) or the NAVI button. To exit NAVI mode, just wait and it will time out, or tap one of the Volume keys. In NAVI mode, the +10 key continues to function, so if you have a disk with 100 songs in one directory, you need not arrow down from track to track.

A note about the NAVI display: if you have played the track once already, you see the track - artist name; if you haven’t played it yet, you see the filename. Again, the display scrolls, if a bit slowly for simple navigation. Perhaps some future firmware will include some compressed fonts for the display, which is quite readable currently (picture).

The display is very large and readable, as I noted above. It also is backlit. The backlight would be a battery-drainer concern, but it is only lighted when you first start it or when you tap a button. It stays lit for a few seconds after you use the controls, or is on constantly when the Volt is hooked to external power sources. With updated firmware, the backlight behavior when used with external power can be set to the same as when using batteries.

The Rio page claims a 15-hour battery life for the Volt. That may be true with 128 kbps disks, as the iRiver page claims. I have a variety of different bitrates encoded on my disks, as many people do. Here’s how the battery extending tech works: there is a buffer (I calculate it is 2 megs) which fills with data as the disk spins up for 15 seconds and starts a new track. The disk then stops, and the Volt plays from the buffer until it gets about 30 seconds from empty, at which time it spins for another 15 seconds and refills. This give the Volt a great battery life (only with MP3 disks) and also means that the anti-skip protection is perfect for about 70% of the time, since there are no moving parts most of the time. Here is my experience with the spin-up/down times for various bitrates.

Bitrate Time between spin-ups
192 kbps 60 seconds
160 kbps 75 seconds
128 kbps 90 seconds
96 kbps (god why?) 120 seconds

This is why I assume a 2 megabyte buffer. The drive spins before it is empty, obviously. I guessed it as a 30-second delay, but I could be off a little. With 128k tracks, that is 16 kilobytes per second, with a 120 second buffer, so 1,920 kilobytes, or about 2 megs. Also, the Rio and iRiver docs all say a 120-second buffer, which is at the “standard” 128 kbps encoding rate.

With a CDR of various bitrates, mainly 160 and 192, I ended up with 11 hours of playtime on the set of batteries that came with the Volt (not necessarily the freshest cells around). Of course, I usually use the player in my car, where there is no battery problem.

The playback is quite good, with audio on par with most good-quality portable CD players. The Volt supports a huge array of bitrates, and sampling rates up to 44 khz. The only tracks the Volt has choked on for me are tracks with Mp3 instead of mp3 or MP3 as the extension (a known bug in the shipping firmware), and a track that was encoded at 352 kbps (holy crap! What a disk hog). The 1.11 update fixes the mixed-capitalization bug.

The playback options are quite flexible as well: repeat song, repeat directory, repeat disk; shuffle directory, shuffle disk. The shuffle mode is pretty decent, with the strange effect of RWD not going to the previous track played, but just to another random track. Also, using NAVI mode to choose a specific track will drop the device out of shuffle mode. Not with updated firmware.

The Volt recognizes full Joliet filenames, so the files are sorted by the “Windows” name, not ISO9660 truncated names. Also, the Volt does not support M3U or PLS playlist files. It will play songs in album order only if they are named with sequential filenames. So, go ahead and make the rip as Jethro Tull – 01 Aqualung.mp3 and be happy. This will require a new mindset for me, since I have always archived my tunes with simple Artist – Track conventions, trusting the M3U file to keep them in order. Ah, well, blank CDRs are cheap. 🙂

The remote control (picture) is decent, but feels a little wimpy in your hand. I don’t have ham fists, and I think it’s delicate. My bud Cory can barely fit his fingers on a standard keyboard, so folks like him will probably hate it. The headphone and lineout ports (picture) are nearly identical in usage, with the only difference the addition of a ring around the headphone port to allow the remote to function. The lineout jack is powered, so the EQ and volume controls on the Rio affect the output. I know stereo purists will insist this causes distortion, but I don’t have good enough external equipment to test that theory. The remote can handle Play/Pause, FWD/RWD, Stop, Volume, and EQ functions. With the updated firmware and using Study mode, the remote does other things. See below.

OK, now you know I like the Volt quite a bit. There must be something wrong with it, right? Well, there are a few niggling things, some of which can be tracked to the roots of the device in Asia, others can be fixed with firmware flashes.

It takes about 20 seconds for the Volt to startup, read its firmware and index the CD before it starts playing. Not a huge deal, but if you want to jump in the car and hit play, it will be a few seconds before you hear anything.

There is a row of the display given over to hard-wired dancing guys and pulsing circles. These are just silly, they don’t seem to have any diagnostic meaning, and they aren’t even accurate beatmeters. I can only assume that when the Volt was designed in Korea, this was considered a cool feature. Anyone who has been to Korea or Japan can believe that the local culture would value cute kitsch over an additional line devoted to better track navigation, or maybe a bitrate display as the new TDK device is supposed to have.

The sorting system sorts capitalized filenames before lowercase files, in a Unix-y touch that may feel odd to Windows users. Simple solution: name your files all lower-case or all proper-case. As an example, ZZ Top shows up before Zapp on one of my 80s compilation disks. The update fixes this bug. Now Zapp is before ZZ Top.

The directory view in Navi mode can be a bit perplexing if you have subdirectories. The structure of one of my disks, for instance is ROOT->Prince->CD1/CD2/CD3/CD4, with the 4 CDs being all subdirectories off the Prince directory. The Navigation display shows Prince as an empty directory, and then the 4 subdirectories under that, rather than within it. This is fixed in the update. Now the directory tree is navigated in the same way as on the computer, with multiple subdirectories. This is supposedly being looked at as a firmware update, and is in fact already available on the iRiver version of the Volt. Whether iRiver firmware works on the Rio player is unknown and, understandably, the various companies selling this player try to avoid connecting the many different versions in any way. Branding über alles.

Finally, the ID3 tag standard allows for non-ASCII characters, such as umlauted and accented letters. The Volt will not display these. I have a couple Björk tracks, and her artist field is displayed as Bjkinstead. If this is unable to be fixed with a firmware update, just use the 127 ASCII characters exclusively. I think she’s used to being listed as Bjork by now anyhow. 🙂

I think the RioVolt is a great device, and the best on the market currently. The problems it has are tiny or aesthetic-only, and it is an attractive, useful player for MP3, WMA and standard CD disks. Sorry I didn’t review any WMA tracks, I think they’re the spawn of satan.

If you can afford the 170 dollars for this player, it is a great deal. If you want to wait a while, there are plenty of competitors gearing up now, and that TDK player is looking pretty decent.

New features available in the firmware 1.11 update: The navigation function has removed the entry for [ROOT] that made no sense, and just starts in the root directory. The directory is now navigable through all subdirectories, rather than putting them all in one big list. Great for those that organize their MP3 archives in multiple layers of subdirectories. Unfortunately, there is no way to play a set of subdirectories together. For instance, I have a set of 4 bootleg Prince CDs in subdirectories under the main directory Prince. If I were using WinAmp, I could tell it to play everything in Prince, and all 4 albums would play in order or shuffled. There is no way to select a directory with the Volt, only a song. So, you can’t have it play everything in a directory, even if that directory includes a song or two itself. All you’ll get is whatever MP3 or WMA files are in the parent directory, but nothing from the children. No big deal, but something that could make it a bit better if there is sufficient demand for that feature.

Resume mode has been added. Like the resume mode on my old Sony Discman, the RioVolt can now resume at a specific location in a specific song, if you enable the resume feature.

Study Mode – I’ve played with this a bit and can’t figure out what it would be good for. You can now set the remote to control other features, in the following manner: stop is “jump back 10 seconds”, EQ is the Prog button. Also, the Prog button on the main unit can select the speed with which you search within a track. I’ve been told that some folks listen to old radio shows of 45 minutes or more, and it takes forever to FFWD through the track; here ya go. The speeds are 1x, 2x, 4x, and 6x. For me, just listening to music and not Berlitz CDs or old radio shows, Study Mode is useless.

Beeping can be enabled or disabled, a nice feature if you want it and annoying as shit if you want the beeps to stop. Unlike the iRiver updates, which turned on beeping and you had no choice, SonicBlue has given us the option.

Backlight can be set to two different modes now as well: On or Off. These are misnomers. On means that it is on all the time when using external power, but it turns itself off when you are not using the buttons if it’s running on batteries. Off only affects the behavior when using external power, and makes it behave like it was using batteries, using the backlight whenever you touch a button but not when it’s being ignored.

There is one undocumented new feature, as well. The +10 button now also can jump forward one directory, when held down for 1.5 seconds. Very flexible. Overall, I like the SonicBlue 1.11 update much better than the 1.10 update from iRiver, mainly because of its ability to choose which features you want. Especially getting rid of beeping.