RioVolt SP150

a review


I recently saw a special deal selling the RioVolt SP150 cd-mp3 player for $34 online, plus a little bit of shipping. I had been wanting a cd-mp3 player since years before such a thing existed, and decided the deal was a good excuse to get one. I had avoided it before, since I didn't have a lot of use for one (I'm usually near my computer, so why not just play from the hard drive?), but at this price it was worthwhile anyway. So I got two. Seemed like a great gift to give someone. I haven't given it away yet, but I hope they like it. At least I'll be able to stop hiding mine when they're around. :)

Before my package showed up, I did some research online to see what other people thought of the product. I saw a variety of short reviews, saying anything from "great product!!!" to "doesn't even make a good paperweight". There were a disturbing amount of really bad reviews, stating the product didn't work at all after only a few hours of use. And some reviews which sounded like the buyer wasn't smart enough to use the device. But I hoped it would turn out well instead of getting myself a shiny new brick.

A few days later, my package arrived, and I eagerly opened one of the boxes to try it out. Inside the box was a very basic package; the player itself, some fairly cheap earbud headphones, a couple batteries, and some papers. I didn't expect any extras for such a low price, and didn't get any.

So, being a good little boy, I followed the quickstart directions which basically say to insert the batteries and plug in the earphones. When I turned it right-side up again, it had already turned on and was reading the disc contents. "RioVolt SP150 Version 1.0" it said, on its fairly plain 12x3 backlit LCD. (no annoying animations, btw. I hear the older RioVolts showed a dancing guy all the time, and I'm glad this one doesn't) After another few seconds, it started playing music. I tried out skip and seek, then went to the menu to select a song from the file browser. Everything worked as expected.

Then I went to the settings menu, and found a basic but useful set of options. How long should the backlight stay on after you press a key? How fast should the seek button move you through the song? (the fastest setting is 8X, which I think is still too slow) How fast should the text scroll? What sort of bass and treble boost should be applied? I like a small bass boost with no treble adjustment, for my headphones. I have some decent sony "street style" wrap-behind headphones which cost me $30 but provide rather nice sound and are comfortable to wear for a long time. Not exactly $200 studio headphones, but among the nicer consumer-grade models.

There seem to be quite a few shuffle/repeat modes. Repeatedly pressing the shuffle/repeat button cycles through all combinations of "random", "loop", for "dir", "all", and "one". Nice touch. However, I've since found that "random all" doesn't work very well if you turn the device on and off a lot. Its random number generator tends to pick the same songs every time I turn it off and back on, but it works fine if you leave it on long enough to get through all the songs. It does at least remember what song was last playing, though it restarts at the beginning of the song after being shut off.

There seem to be a couple of button functions which weren't documented, or at least didn't stand out enough that I noticed them in the manual. The main one is how to shut the device off. You must hold the stop key for a second or so, if you don't want to wait for it to time out and shut itself off. Also, holding the shuffle/repeat key will bring up a preset EQ selector. I only use the "user" EQ setting, but I was surprised to find all the other presets there since they didn't seem to be in the manual and definitely aren't in the config menu. Oh, and inserting headphones is equivalent to pressing Play. It automatically starts up when you put something in its headphone jack, which seemed a little odd to me. I leave the Lock switch on most of the time, so I won't accidentally turn it on or otherwise bump keys I didn't mean to.

So. One complaint I had heard was that the device couldn't play mp3's at greater than 128kbps. Or that it couldn't play CDs burned at 4X or higher. And that it skipped constantly, even when sitting still. And that it was otherwise very finicky and worked only in ideal conditions. That it showed garbage on the display. I decided to test some of this out.

I burned a fresh CD of music, at 16X, and packed it as full as I could get it. I accidentally overfilled it even, so that it wrote all the songs but failed when fixating the disc at the end. The disc contained a variety of mp3s, in CBR and VBR, made by different encoders at bitrates from 96kbps to 256kbps. I used Rock Ridge + Joliet ISO9660 extensions. When I put this CD into the player, it played without any problems. Even the high bitrate songs, and a couple of mildly corrupted ones too. I tried shaking the player (not too hard though) while playing, both when the disc was spinning and when it was idle. It didn't skip. No garbage on the display either, and it figured out the long filenames without any trouble. I think the people who reported some of these problems must have been playing very corrupt mp3s, and otherwise didn't know what they were doing.

Note: due to the caching performed by the player, skipping may not occur until quite a while after being shaken. You may not hear the error until a minute after the shock. I suspect this is why people thought it would skip "even when sitting still". They may have shaken it then placed it on a table, and heard the error later.

Even though my initial tests were favorable, I was still wary that the device would fail after a day or two like some reviews had indicated. So I used it, a lot, for the next few weeks. And I learned more about its behavior. For example, it actually does skip fairly easily. I wouldn't recommend it for use while exercising. It skips if I have it in my pocket while walking at a moderate to quick pace. But it seems to work okay if it's in my pocket while biking. (skips occur only when I ride over a particularly big bump, and then only if it was reading data at the time) It also had what I think was a humidity problem when I had it in my pocket for a really long bike ride on a hot, sweaty day. It stopped playing at all until I took it out into the open air, so I relocated it to my backpack and it worked fine again.

The skipping isn't like what my old discman would do, or what most CD players seem to do. When the SP150 skips, it does not pause then resume. Instead, it acts like a record player whose needle was bumped. It skips suddenly to a different part of the song, or even to a totally different song. And it doesn't seem to notice anything unusual. The time counter keeps counting, and if it skipped to a different song, the title info doesn't change. It literally has no idea that it did something wrong. This suggests to me that the CD reading equipment is extremely cheap, because it should at least notice that the laser has moved and attempt to resume reading where it left off. I hope it's better than what they used in the original Sony Playstation. Old playstations get to the point that they are almost completely incapable of reading data, because their laser-moving mechanical parts wear out. Meanwhile, my discman from the early 90's (or was it the late 80's?) still works just as well as when it was new. (which, granted, isn't great but at least it hasn't deteriorated)

But it does work fine if I'm just walking around the house with it in my pocket. I tend to step gently anyway, so it doesn't skip if I'm not hurrying.

Battery life... I haven't measured the battery life, but it does seem much shorter than the box claims. Probably because reading from the disc is the most draining thing it does, and I have been playing high-bitrate songs. In this case, it reads more frequently than it would with low-bitrate songs, and I'd expect the batteries to empty faster. I think I've gotten around 10-15 hours of playback from each set of batteries so far. Which is less than the 20 the box claims, but still not bad. I'd recommend using some high-quality NiMH rechargables, to avoid throwing out lots of alkalines. One good place to find these is at Thomas Distributing. I got some 2000mAh NiMH batteries there, along with a rather nice charger, so I'll never have to worry about power or throwing away toxic, empty batteries. The SP150 seems to like these more than regular alkalines, anyway. It seems to last longer, and the battery meter has been much more consistent. With alkalines, it would sometimes show empty battery while reading from the disc, then show full again when it was finished.

Pros / Cons:

Pro:
  • It's a cd/mp3 player, and it's cheap!
  • Good sound quality
  • Earbud headphones included if you don't have any
  • Decent battery life
  • Basic but decent feature set
  • Plays every mp3 I've given it
  • Handles unfixated CDs, Rock Ridge / Joliet extensions, etc
  • Lock switch is very useful
Con:
  • Skips fairly easily, and skips around like a record player
  • Discontinued? I can't find any reference to it on sonicblue's site, and it's hard to find anything about it on rio's site. I doubt there will ever be any firmware updates.
  • No AC adapter included, and some users report the AC adapter breaks it
  • No remote control included
  • Random play not-so-random after being turned off and back on
  • Doesn't play ogg vorbis
  • Some functions not mentioned in the manual
  • Included headphones are rather cheap
  • also plays WMA files

Overall, I'd say the SP150 is easily worth the $34 I paid for it. I'd have difficulty finding a decent regular CD player for that price, and it's much more than a CD player. It does have some flaws, and those would bother me if I had paid more for it. I think the original retail was $150 or so, which seems far too much. But it's a great buy at the low price I paid. Just don't go jogging with it.

Now, if they'd just release a firmware update giving it ogg vorbis support... (I had to write a small program to convert my oggs to mp3 for use on the SP150, because most of my songs are ogg)

Little sidenote: A friend got an iPod around the same time I got my SP150, and after several hours of messing with it, was unable to get it to play any mpeg1 layer3 (standard mp3) songs. It claims to play only "Format 2, Format 3, and Format 4 files", which doesn't make much sense. (mp3's come in mpeg1, mpeg2, and mpeg2.5, and it apparently can't play mpeg1) They spent most of the day frustrated and unhappy with their $300+ player, while I spent the day enjoying mine which cost only one tenth as much. The iPod seems to have some annoying limitations: Able to store files as a regular hard drive, but unable to play files stored this way (select either playable or copyable, but not both). Plays mpeg2 layer 3, but not mpeg1 layer 3 (which is by far the most common format for songs). Dislikes being connected to more than just one computer, and incapable of connecting to both a mac and a windows box without being reformatted between. Requires firewire (um, why not support USB2???). Provided sync software seems rather bullheaded, making lots of assumptions about how you want to use the device and enforcing those ideas. But at least it looks cool, and has cool zero-force touch buttons and a spiffy virtual spin dial. But whoever heard of a mp3 player which doesn't play mp3s?


Update: 2003-09-30
My friend opened the SP150 I gave them as a gift. It didn't work. It would turn on, read the disc contents, and play... but no sound came out. The volume was turned up. Headphones would click when the device was turned on or off. I gave it a CD I can play in another SP150, and used the same headphones and speakers. I tried both the line-out and the headphone jack. Even the annoying keypress beep is silent.

So I decided to hold SonicBlue to their 90-day warranty. Unfortunately, that is more difficult than I had thought.

The device comes with warranty info, listing a web site and a phone number to use for help. The phone number (+44 (0)870 870 5727) is disconnected. And the web site simply redirects you to one of three parent companies.

I followed the link to Rio Audio Support and found myself at their new location. There's a section for the SP150 there, with useless tips and a lack of other information. No drivers, software, firmware, source, or FAQs for it. The warranty page explains how to get an RMA, but fails to provide any contact info at all for the tech support they say to contact. The RMA status page also gives no contact info.

But look, there's a "contact us" link! It goes directly to the ReplayTV contacts page, which has nothing to do with the SP150. But I called their 800 number anyway. It lists a few specific models of ReplayTV devices that they support, and indicates they don't support anything else.

So at this point I'm stuck again. I click the "phone list" link. And I wonder what happens if I replace "replaytv" with "rio" in the URL. So I try it.

Bingo! It doesn't seem to be linked to from anywhere, but I managed to guess the address which lists what I needed. For reference, here it is: http://www.digitalnetworksna.com/support/rio/contacts.asp It has a non-800 number for tech support, and an email address. I tried calling the support line, and some confused lady answered. Oops. She had never heard of a "riovolt". So I sent a message to their support email address. ... and waited.

After a few minutes, I got a reply. An automated reply. It sent me the search results for the text in my message. And, hidden in a html attachment, it gave me an URL for submitting a help request to an actual person. So I followed the link, filled out a form, and waited.

A few hours later, I got a message from a real, live human. Oh, happy day! It had a bunch of generic info, and a short note that basically said "call us if you're still having a problem". But it gave no phone number to call. I was starting to submit another request, asking for their phone number, when I decided to try that old number one more time. The one with the confused lady. That's 206-515-1400, BTW. I tried using a different phone, too. And this time, I was greeted by Rio's automated voice answering system!

I had finally found a place I could talk to a person. Joy.

I talked for about 15 minutes with a nice man who seemed to have difficulty understanding the concept of "it's broke, it's under warranty, and I want it fixed". But eventually we came to terms, and he told me what to do to get an RMA. Fax them a bunch of info, like sales receipt, etc. And they'll email me the RMA number and an address to ship my unit to. And, no, they cannot accept the info in any form other than fax.

So, now I'm just looking for a fax machine to use.


Update: 2003-10-02
So, four failed fax attempts later (I don't know what went wrong, except that I had the right number and it wasn't accepting faxes), I called back. They verified that I had the right fax number, then told me an email address to send the data to instead.

They told me a few days ago there was absolutely no way to get around the whole faxing thing. I asked if I could do it via email then. Anyway, here's hoping that it works this time.

I hope I can ship it back cheaply enough to be worthwhile, too. Not much point fixing a $34 cd player if it costs $25 in shipping.


Update: 2003-10-09
I never managed to get the RMA from Rio/Sonicblue. But I did get a quick and helpful response from the retailer, so I sent the player to them today. Hopefully it'll get there before the RMA expires. (shipping was only $5 :) I feel kinda bad, though, making the retailer replace it. It's not their fault the item is dead.
Update: 2003-10-30
I could have updated sooner, but forgot. Anyway, I never got any other response from the SonicBlue/Rio people. Big surprise there. So I returned the unit to the online store I bought it from. And they told me they were out of stock and there were no plans to get more. They gave me a coupon for store credit instead. Woo-hoo. They don't really have anything else I'm interested in buying.

It's too bad I can't use that credit at a different store, like Amazon. They at least have other cd-mp3 players in the same price range. I even found some which seem nicer, and cost less. I found one which the credit would pay for, even including shipping, and it seems to be a nicer player (longer battery life, sturdier, less skip-prone).

I'm not a big fan of Terry Goodkind, but his Zedd character sure knows what he's talking about when he says "Nothing is ever easy." Hrrmph.

Last modified: January 20, 2004 @ 4:25 MST
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