Sugg. Retail: $349 (CAN, 64 MB Version)
Distributor: Thomson Consumer Electronics
6200 Edwards Blvd., Mississauga,
Ontario, L5T 2V7
Like most of the first wave of MP3 players to hit the market, the RCA Lyra is a very compact portable device, smaller than most cell phones, aimed at dethroning the discman style CD player from portable supremacy. Whereas some portables, like Creative Labs’ Nomad, use computer style hard drives for file storage, the Lyra falls into the smaller, less expensive category of players using small, removable chip based memory cards. In the Lyra’s case it’s a system called Compact Flash memory, encased in a tiny plastic square maybe one quarter the size of a credit card that slots into the side of the machine. One disadvantage compared to CD portables is that without a computer, a device like the Lyra is about as useful as a car with no gas, making the players more popular with the already technologically inclined. Specifically, the only way to get music onto the flash cards is via the supplied USB cradle (parallel port versions are also available), which hooks up to your PC or Mac. Then, using a (free) program like Windows Media Player or the supplied Music Match Jukebox, you can load up the card with as much music as you like, assuming that it consumes less than 64 megabytes of data space.
Pop the card into the player and you’re ready to rock. At 128 Kb/s, the standard for MP3 files on the internet, this gives you about an hour of music. While perhaps not sufficient for your next trans-Atlantic flight, it will probably cover your next workout. Unlike many portables, the Lyra will also support Real Audio and Windows Media Audio file formats in addition to the ubiquitous MP3. RCA also claims a measure of upgradability, allowing the possibility of accommodating future audio file formats as they become available. In terms of hardware, the Lyra comes standard with over the ear headphones (better than average, but the sonically discriminating will want to upgrade), memory card, car kit, and computer cradle.
When it comes to music to accompany sports or a commute the Lyra has some very strong points in its favor. Not only is it very small and light, there’s the random access people have come to expect from digital audio, aided by a large, backlit LCD screen displaying track information. There’s also the flexibility of playing whatever songs you like in any conceivable order, including random.
Like playing DJ? Every time you load up a Compact Flash card can be another customized mix. If you make use of playlists on your PC this process becomes even easier: just download one of your many pre-configured playlists to the card, and away you go. Also, skipping CDs become a distant memory, the Lyra imperturbable even during the most vigorous run. With no moving parts to spin, battery life is also superior, the Lyra subsisting on its original pair of AA’s during the entire time I had it. Battery life is officially estimated at about 12 hours.
It doesn’t lock you out of your CD collection either. Encoding CDs to MP3 on a computer an easy and quite speedy process. Once on your hard drive tracks can then be sent over to the flash cards, which, via the USB cradle, takes only a few minutes for a full hour of music. Combined with a service like Napster, the breadth and variety of music available becomes practically limitless. For someone like my wife the Lyra is ideal. A regular runner she loved the size and light weight, the skipless playback, and the fact that she could put all her favorite running tracks, and only those tracks, on the memory card.
MP3 Sound on the Road
Whereas with a home player like the Audio ReQuest ARQ-1 sound quality is a major factor, portables can get away with a lot more in this department. When listening through earbud style headphones, as I suspect the majority of users will, the sound was not significantly inferior to that produced by my wife’s Panasonic SL-SX500 portable CD player, and could often be improved with judicious use of the 5 band EQ; a rarity on any portable audio player. On more serious headphones or through my main system, the MP3 artifacts described in my review of the Audio ReQuest unit could be heard, but it sounded like the Lyra was applying some kind of DSP to compensate, adding a slightly unnatural, but not unappealing airiness and spatiality to the sound and a slightly tipped up treble. If you’re serious about your portable hi-fi you’ll still want a CD based system with quality phones and some kind of Headroom style preamp to drive em’. For basic commuting and workout duties, however, the Lyra sounds just fine.
My biggest problem with the Lyra turned out to be the LCD display. Fine at first, it made it very easy to navigate through the tracks stored on the Flash card. As time wore on, however, the display would gradually go completely black, returning to normal only after the unit was powered off and then on again. By the end of the test period it was completely black, all the time, and the player became essentially useless. I haven’t heard about this happening on any other Lyras so I’m willing to assume that it’s an isolated case and that the problem would be covered under warranty.
Don’t Junk that CD Portable Just Yet
Even with all it’s strengths, there are several factors keeping players like the Lyra from usurping the position of the portable CD player just yet. First and foremost is price. Not only is the Lyra expensive to begin with, extra memory is very pricy, another 64 megabyte Compact Flash card costing more than most portable CD players alone, at US $249.95 (cards with less memory are also available: 16 mb is US$99.95, 32 is US$149.95, and 48 is US199.95). Playback time is clearly another factor, the Lyra being unsuitable for the long trips so many people buy portables for in the first place. To get serious data storage in a portable you have to jump up to the Nomad, from Creative Labs, which, with 6 gigabytes of storage holds over 100 hours of music. This, naturally, comes at a price, the Nomad listing for US$749 (at the time of writing, however, Amazon.com was selling it for just US$419. I also found the 64 megabyte Lyra for as little as US $199). Finally, if you’re not inclined to spend any more time futzing with your computer, it may not be the solution for you. As with the Audio ReQuest home unit, as well as software MP3 players used with personal computers, a certain amount of time and energy is required to organize, name, and transfer files. The more files, the more work. On the other hand, if you love making mixes, then you’ll probably enjoy this process and won’t see it as work at all.
Like the AudioRequest ARQ-1 home player, portables need a little more time to evolve. As they continue to exploit the ever increasing competitive advantage of continuously falling data storage costs, I suspect we’re going to be hearing digital music in file form just about everywhere.
For more on MP3 Audio and its implications for Audiophiles have a look at these other stories:
MP3: The Death Knell for High End Audio?