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iRiver iHP-120 portable hard-drive recorder - Part I

[Italian version]

Products: iHP-120 Hard-Drive Recorder
Manufacturer: iRiver
Cost: see text
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: December, 2003

[iHP-120]

This is the Future. Part - 1

People are always quick to point out that I have a tendency to exaggerate, and so to protect my reputation I'd like to make a bold statement at the beginning of this review "This is the most significant audio component launch of 2003". It's a hell of a statement, but this little player is important not for what it is, but for what it represents - the future direction of audio.

So what is the iHP-120.

It's a 20-gigabyte hard drive from Toshiba wrapped in a cast magnesium case and controlled by some clever chippery and software. It's smaller than a cassette walkman.

Now all you MP3 jockeys are going to be sighing over my ignorance - hard-drive MP3 players have been around for years. Yes I've been totally 'out of the loop' on this, but if the iRiver was just an MP3 player it wouldn't be significant and it wouldn't be on TNT because The Editor has strong (and justified) views on this.

The iHp-120 is significant because it brings together various developments and technologies for the first time (though it's immediate predecessor the iHP-100 was close) to produce a machine that deserves to grace this hallowed organ.

First it's multi codec. This player can cope with MP3, WMA, ASF and the new 'open' (i.e. free and unlicensed) Ogg Vorbis. These are all compression formats designed to squeeze music into files small enough to fit on a portable player because portable players are short on capacity. Um... Hang on a minute, this baby has a 20-Gigabyte hard drive, that's 40x the capacity of a CD. i.e. you could record 40 CD's direct and uncompressed if only the player was compatible. And it is :-) Unusually for a portable player the iRiver recognises .wav files recorded either at CD or even DAT standards. This isn't unique, the iPod pulls this trick too and has featured in a couple of hi-fi magazines on the strength of it. All you need to do with either machine is rip the CD onto your hard drive then drag and drop it to the player (very quickly using USB2) which is seen as simply another hard drive in Windows.

Secondly, and here is where it differs from any other player, the iRiver is also a recorder in .wav! Yes it has a proper line-in, using a mini jack you just plug it into your hi-fi and record CD standard music direct to the hard drive. Want to make a CD of your favourite vinyl? No problem, just hit record and the iRiver chops it all up into bits at 44KHz - 16bit stereo. You then squirt it into your PC and burn a CD - voila! Oh! but it gets better :-) Because you can record at .wav standard, there is nothing to stop you going to a concert, setting up your pro mic's and mic pre-amp and recording direct to your hard drive - just like the pro's, and then burning a CD. The iRiver even has a microphone-in socket, but unfortunately, though level is adjustable, it's a fiddle and can't be done whilst recording, so home taping enthusiasts need that mic pre-amp. Just like DAT, I suspect that in the near future there will be commercial albums released, which have been recorded using a tiny portable player. Live concert? Just plug the little sucker into the mixing desk - monitor levels using 'cans' (this can be done as you record) and then sell the product.

And last - it has a digital 'in' AND 'out'. So you can hook the iRiver up to your hi-end transport and record direct from that. No messing about with cruddy PC CD ROM drives! Then if you want you can bypass the players on-board DAC and drive a high-end DAC, imagine the quality of live recordings that set-up would produce!

All this capability means that in one stroke the iHP-120 kills off a raft of formats. Minidisc? Give me a break! A compressed digital format of around WMA quality (at 192 kbps) which has a total capacity of 128 Mb, (so you'd need 160 discs to match the iRivers hard drive) and has questionable reliability. Portable CD? Well CD was always hopeless as a portable medium anyway, too big, too vulnerable, too unreliable and again, to match the iRiver you'd need to carry 40 discs around with you. DAT? Capacity again, plus the iRiver does everything DAT does, even for a professional, but without the vagaries of tape, and of course it links up with PC powered recording studios seamlessly. The Cassette? Say what you like about cassette, but it's seen off all comers to date as the best portable medium. Sound quality is better than MP3, it's reliable and the carrier itself it tough - but the iRiver really makes it show its age, here we have the spiritual successor to the Sony Walkman Pro. As for in-car use, just bin that massive, boot CD-changer because it's time has come and gone. And if you have a second system why not use the iRiver as the source? The thing even has an FM radio built in.

But beyond all that, the iRiver, for me at least, starts to make the whole download-your-music scene start to make sense even for the audiophile. If now we can choose our own download standard, and thus quality, who needs a disc anyway? True the 20 gig drive will fill up pretty quicky if you download .wav files, but Toshiba already make a 40 gig version of the drive (the iHP-140 will be released soon I guess...), and in a couple of years machines like this will be carrying 200 gig drives for sure. And here the future looks increasingly bright, if capacity is going to double every year there comes a time when compressed audio is obsolete - it's 'raison d'etre' will be lost and so the compromises in sound quality it forces on us will be a thing of the past. But for the moment the iHP-120 allows us to choose the format meaning that quality-critical material can be recorded as a .wav file and less critical material at various compressed rates. On the review sample I currently have 50 rock/pop albums recorded at top MP3 and WMA quality, 6 as .wav files and the entire BBC production of 'The Lord Of The Rings' (14 CD's) recorded at MP3 at 64 kbps. I've now used 9 megs of drive space!

So I hope you now see why I'm excited, why when I knew it was going to be released I hassled every place I could and eventually got the first press sample in Europe into my sticky fingers.

Appearance/construction

As mentioned above it's a pretty little magnesium box weighing 160 grams. You really need to have it in your hands, and have the instruction book to understand operational functions, and I don't want this review to degenerate into one of those "press this and that happens" reviews you'll read elsewhere in the computing press. Suffice to say it's got nice shiny buttons that feel of at least reasonable quality. Minijacks handle headphone/line-in/line out and the line-feeds double as optical digital in/outs. There's a plasticky little remote that the computer-press love but I didn't even get out of the box, if you want to control the thing from your lapel then it's perfect. The kit includes a small microphone, earphones and leads for line in/outputs but no digital lead. There's the USB2 connector - oh and there's a charger and a nice leather case.

Now having read all the above you'll expect a eulogistic review - well first I've some serious complaints.

Complaints

Imagine buying a CD player than plugging it into the hi-fi and finding it doesn't work. Not because it's faulty but because the software needed to run it isn't supplied - you need to go on to the internet to find it. Yes the kit includes the installation CD but this just has the driver and a little piece of program to copy a database onto the player when you connect it up to the PC. Apart from that - nothing. Luckily I have a newish computer with Windows XP - this has Windows Media Player, which will record from CD. BUT only in WMA up to 192 kbps or MP3 fixed at 64 kbps! So no .wav, Ogg etc and no way of going to higher bitrates.

So I read the manual and there they mention 'Winamp' and 'tagging' and some such for the player. So I trawl the net, find the Winamp site and read all about it. But it's not a recording program. So I search for ".wav encoding programs" and a couple of hundred come up. As you are using a computer to read this, you must know that installing random programs found on the net, to see if they work, is a frustrating and ultimately dangerous pastime. So being a clever chap I trawl through some more websites, this time selling MP3 players and find one that recommends 'MusicMatch Jukebox'. So I go to the MusicMatch site and read all about it and finally spend 1/2 an hour downloading the program. Once installed it seems the answer to all my problems and works beautifully to rip, encode and sort songs in .wav (and MP3). So I have happy hours ripping and storing albums, then loading them onto the iRiver.

Then after a trouble-free couple of days something goes wrong. Though MusicMatch plays songs in album order, and Explorer shows track number detail and sorts them, the songs on both Media Player and the iRiver suddenly started to play in alphabetical order! They'd been fine to start with but something-had-happened (this is Windows after all). Any music lover will understand how traumatic it is to have the song order of something like 'Dark Side of the Moon' swapped, let alone Handal's 'Messiah'. What I want to know is what cretin at Microsoft made alphabetical ordering the default for music files! I spent a total of 18 hours fighting hand-to-hand with the computer, player and three sets of software to solve the problem. If I re-recorded the album it would be correctly ordered, but having no idea why it had lost the order in the first place how could I be sure it wouldn't happen again? All the fiddling also seemed to have left a trail of erroneous tags everywhere so that spurious titles would pop up all over the place and albums I'd deleted would show up on the drive. Setting Windows to display all files in track order then made all my folders in 'My Documents' re-sort in 'track order' with all the options for 'view' screwed up - s**t! All this pain and time wasted because iRiver couldn't be bothered to check and approve one piece of free softwear. It's this kind of crass stupidity that puts so many people off anything to do with computers - sort it out!

I wrote to iRiver to ask what possible reason there could be for this problem and for the justification for why they saw fit to sell a product without bundling compatible softwear, but they haven't replied. The whole episode cost me a lot of time, I became increasingly irritable to the point that my wife took the player off me until I calmed down, and in the end I just renamed all the tracks a...b...c...d etc... AAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGG!!!!!

Next moan. I've just searched the net and the lowest US price I found is $339. The lowest price in GB is 344.95 (=$597!!!) this difference cannot possibly be justified. Also it appears that in Britain the iHP-120 is priced well above the iPod (20 gig) whereas in the US it is cheaper.

Next moan. This is a 350 player. The headphones are cheap bits of plastic that would shame a 50 cassette Walkman. They sounded pretty poor and so I used the one's supplied with my 5-year-old Sony Walkman instead. A decent pair of headphones transformed the player.

Next - Recording levels have to be set at source. That means that you can't use a 'tape out' but rather the output for a headphone. In my case I didn't have a headphone output on the amp so used the one on my tape deck, then pressed "record" and "pause" on the tape deck and altered output using the record level control. In fact the iRiver audibly distorted when the tape meters went into the red (there are none on the iRiver) which was convenient. However all this meant that any signal to be recorded had to go through the cruddy cabling, plugs, tape loop and headphone amp of a 200 cassette player - hardly ideal. The iHP-120 needs 'real-time' recording level adjustment, I cannot see why it can't be implemented in software (which can be updated from their site) and hopefully iRiver will sort it out.

Next... the battery powers the iHP-120 for 16 hours - brilliant - and according to iRiver it'll keep on doing it for 5 years - excellent. After this you throw the machine away because you can't change the battery and neither will the factory, words fail me...

And last of all a 'wish'. Life would be so much simpler if there was an option of a docking-station which provided charging, analogue digital in/out and all the other connections. It'd all be so much neater than the machine trailing wires everywhere.

Sound Quality

As this is a 'first in Europe' and players are gold-dust. I was allowed just three weeks with the player. I had no time to find a DAC/transport with optical connections to see what effect this had, so all recording was in effect done either via my 'Tape-recorder-bodge' or using files ripped from a CD ROM drive on my computer - hardly high-end. If iRiver want the iHP-120 to be taken seriously they are going to be a lot better organised re reviews in the hi-fi press. As it is I can merely comment on its performance in far from ideal conditions, and over an all-too-brief time span. In the end I considered the review so important, and actually found the machine so perfect for my own requirement of portable music for when I'm cycletouring, that I offered to buy the review sample - but no, iRiver wouldn't play ball!

So what follows is a poor review indeed, I'm sorry, but I will be buying a machine as soon as they become available and so in a couple of months I hope to have a full review of the ultimate capabilities of the machine including live recording performance. However as I said before, in view of the importance of the machine I decided to go ahead and publish this taster first - it is longer than most of my articles anyway...

Having said all that the result was pretty impressive. To get things completely out of perspective the system was then the Audiomeca Mephisto CD player (5000e) and 20,000e worth of valve pre/power and horns. Before you guffaw at my insanity in using such a system, remember that in the preamble I compared the iRiver to the Sony Walkman Pro, which for many people was the best sounding cassette player ever made. Increasingly, specialist companies like LAB 47 are rabbiting on about the value of simplicity and short signal paths. Well OK the iRiver has all those attributes, if I played it though a 500e system I'd never know whether it might, just might, be something very special... Plugging the machine into a spare line-in socket on my M3 pre-amp I played some very testing music in the form of Naim Audio's recording of Ted Sirota's 'Rebel Souls'. An audiophile recording with bags of ambience, great imaging and a fierce dynamic range.

Playing the .wav file made from a CD ripped using the computer ROM drive produced a perfectly acceptable result. Compared to the Mephisto some, but not all the ambient detail was gone and the soundstage noticeably smaller and less well defined, depth in particular suffered. Dynamic swings were likewise more limited. But the music was still there. More to the point it's faults were one's of omission rather than a harshness or boom or whatever. In fact I have to say that I preferred the result to a lot of cheap CD players that have passed through my hands. At 500e it made a case as a reasonable front end, especially for the aforementioned 'second-system'. Line output was a little low but this only became a problem if you were careless switching between sources, and as it was variable you could get away with using the iHP direct into active speakers if they were sensitive enough.

Moving on to a .wav file recorded on the iRiver itself the result was a similar performance, marginally better than that from the CD ROM drive/PC but with a similar pleasant but slightly flat and limited result.

As you can imagine I did a lot of frantic recording/testing, but the results were pretty consistent with the above, the more demanding and better recorded the original CD the bigger the lead the Mephisto had, but never did I find the iRiver irritating to listen to and with some material the difference was marginal.

I've got to mention it - sorry Lucio... MP3 performance at 360 kbps was surprisingly good. It sounded flatter again than the .wav, the soundstage collapsed somewhat and if the music got busy it began to harden, but it was OK. In fact with the supplied headphones there was no advantage to using .wav, only with a decent pair, or a good system could you spot the difference. Certainly it matched cassette performance, something minidisc for one struggles with.

But ultimately the results above are deeply flawed, and merely hint at the machines possible performance. Was I hitting the limits of the machine, or just hearing the problems further down the recording chain? As soon as I can get my hands on another player and the required leads, mics, DAC's and transport I will give the iHP-120 the grilling it deserves and you will hear about it.

Conclusion

For all my criticisms this is the most incredible piece of kit I've ever plugged into my hi-fi, with levels of flexibility and ability that could only be dreamed of 10 years ago. When this one dies in 5 years time you'll be able to buy a smaller, better player with a 2000 gig capacity, .wav recording to DVD-A quality, that'll make you a cup of tea in the morning. But here, in the iHP-120, iRiver have really started the ball rolling. If you want a design statement buy an iPod, but if you want a serious recording tool go buy the iRiver, it's the first, and only game in town...

[Go to Part II]

Systems used

© Copyright 2003 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com

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