Thursday, February 07, 2008

Stuff 01 : Rio Karma Music Player

I suppose it's inevitable that when you think about .mp3 music players the first one that springs to mind is the Apple iPod. So deeply has this item entrenched in our culture that it has become a generic term in itself, just like in the UK all vacuum cleaners are Hoovers and all vacuum flasks are Thermoses.

It's a pity because there are some other good, and I dare say, even better .mp3 players out there. Linda got a Zune for Christmas and I think it's a pretty good job. I'd like one myself except for one important feature. A large percentage of my music collection has been digitised using either the .ogg codec or the .flac lossless compression codec and currently the Zune cannot play those codecs, although there are rumours of firmware updates in the future ... yeah! right!!!

.ogg is a superior form of lossy codec, similar to .mp3, but with advantages in the performance / listening area. .flac is the hifi of digital codecs and when used with clients such as ExactAudioCopy and addons such as AccurateRip provide computer music files which enable rendition as good as the original source material. More about this in a future blog ...

So it was as much as by luck as good judgment that several years ago I bought a Rio Karma .mp3 player. Luck, because at that time I was not aware of developments such as lossless codecs and gapless play. At first it seemed quite clunky compared to the iPods then available. But as a piece of ergonomic design it sits in your right hand and as well as playing music files enables you to compile play lists, adjust the 5-bad equalizer and lots of other refinements unique to the Karma all without interrupting the music.

Added to the equation is its excellent amplifier which can even drive my Sennheiser HD-580s to high volume and 15 hour battery life, this was a compact device with seriously hifi credentials. For sure it had weaknesses, especially in its software interface and Hitachi HDD. This saw the death of my first two Karmas. Touch wood my current example is lasting well.

Naturally, everybody bought iPods and the Karma remained a cult item until it was stopped being manufactured a few years ago. However, you only have to listen to one rendering a .flac encoded track through the very best headphones to realise this really is a little gem.

Now the few remaining working examples are much sought after and also the subject of fairly extreme modding in order to keep them going.

For a long time it looked as if we'd never see the likes of it again, but about a year ago a German company, TrekStor introduced the Vibez which utilised and built upon much of the electronics and firmware it had acquired from Rio.

By all accounts it is excellent and a big improvement in many areas, although I hear the amplifier is not in the same class as the Karma, necessitating using an additional headamp for critical use.

*See my hifi / media index here.