Product Review (April 2003) - Neuros
HD 20GB MP3 Digital Audio Computer
Portable devices have become increasingly sophisticated over the years. In particular, MP3 players are smaller and more powerful than ever. The tradeoff is features versus size and weight. We've seen some very small units with decent sound quality, but they usually don't hold much music and anything less than the highest bit rates usually lack in audio quality. Digital Innovations has introduced a couple of new MP3 players they refer to as MP3 Digital Audio Computers. The features offered on these new products are nothing short of amazing. The Neuros 128 MB model comes with 128MB of memory and retails for $249. The more powerful Neuros HD has a 20 GB hard drive built into the pack and retails for $399. We reviewed the Neuros HD and did not have the Neuros 128 MB for comparison. The Neuros HD is a well built product with tactile buttons and an intuitive user interface. Five preset buttons on the left side of the unit provides quick access to a variety of favorite songs, first song of playlist, first song of album, FM stations, etc. While listening to your favorite selection, simply holding down the preset button for a few seconds saves the selection. The next time you want the same selection it's a simple button push. The Up/Down/Left/Right buttons navigate through the menus. The bottom three buttons are used for track or seek selection (FM station selection) and play/pause features. The slide switch just below the orange button is used to lock the controls to prevent an accidental button push during operation.

Songs are automatically grouped by the album when they are downloaded into the player. However, the Neuros also categorizes the songs by Song Name, Artist, Genre and Custom Playlists making it easier to play the songs that you like most. This feature works well and can be improved upon by a simple firmware update should the manufacturer decide to revise the capabilities.

Neuros digitally encodes recordings into the MP3 format from one of three different sources (FM radio, Built-in-microphone or the Line-In inputs). The Preference setting for compression (64kb/s, 96kb/s, 128kb/s, or 160kb/s) determines the quality of the recording. This has nothing to do with the decoding rate, which can be as high as 320kb/s for audio files transferred from the PC. Other preferences can be adjusted including contrast, backlight timeout, and time/date.

Display
The 128x128 orange backlit display is easy to read and has great resolution. As a result, a wealth of information can be shown at any given time. The backlight is very even without any of the hotspotting one sees on some units. The artist, song title, album name and genre are displayed when playing an MP3 file. A bargraph shows the status of the current track along with the track time and playing order (sequential or random). The lower part of the display also shows the memory usage, battery status (charging or remaining capacity) and current time. The layout of the data on the display is well organized and easy to follow. All buttons illuminate with the backlight, making the unit completely usable in the dark. The on-time for the backlight can be set to 10 seconds, 30 seconds or completely off.

FM Radio
The built-in FM radio is a useful features offered on the Neuros product. I used it during the course of the review and found it worked well. Indoor use reduced the sensitivity of the tuner allowing only the strong stations to come through clearly, so your mileage may vary. However, the FM tuner reception outdoors was very good here in the Los Angeles area.

HiSi
The HiSi (Hear It! Save It!) feature is an automatic song recognition system and is one of the best features of this unit. A simple click of the orange HiSi button captures a thirty second segment of a song off the FM radio and stores it in the unit. Each sampled clip gets its own time and date stamp used for the MP3 filename, making it easier to recall when it was taken. The next time the Neuros is synchronized with your PC, the sync manager connects to the Internet and returns the title and artist of the song to your device. There is no charge for this service. The status of each sampled song is returned with "resolved", "best guess" or "not found". During our tests, most songs were returned the "resolved" status and showed the correct information. The "best guess" status almost always returned incorrect Artist/Song information. We even took some samples with the built-in microphone and were able to use the HiSi feature to recognize the recordings.

MyFi
The MyFi (My Frequency) feature has a built-in FM modulator that transmits the audio on an FM band. An automatic search feature scans the FM band for an unused frequency to start transmitting on. The transmitting frequency can be manually changed at any time by simply pressing the up and down buttons. Our experienced with this feature was somewhat mixed. First, we tested the Neuros in Los Angeles, which has a large number of very strong transmitters. This certainly compounds the problem when trying to find a free FM frequency without experiencing some bleed-over from an adjacent station. However, even with these issues working against us, the FM modulator worked well in our test vehicle. We did have to try different frequencies to get the best performance from the Neuros. The MyFi feature also worked well in our home with a Sony executive style audio system.

I/O
The bottom of the unit has a mini USB 1.1 port, 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, 3.5mm stereo line-in jack, power input (AC or car adapter) jack and a stereo RF jack for an external antenna. The RF jack is not currently supported, but has the potential to be used for improved RF capabilities. The tab in the lower left is a lock to undock the unit from the base. While some may complain about the USB port not being 2.0 compliant, I found the 1.1 USB port to be adequate for my music downloads. USB 2.0 or Firewire would have been optimal for this product, but it wouldn't keep me from buying the unit. Serious users, who frequently load large amounts of music, may have a problem with this slower interface.

Sound Quality
Any portable device usually has some limitations in terms of sound quality. The sonic performance of the Neuros HD was much better than we expected for an MP3 player. We always used the highest bitrate (320kb/s) to maximize fidelity. The MP3 decoder in the Neuros worked very well with good separation and excellent fidelity without sounding compressed or swishy. In fact, we ran it through a HeadRoom Little headphone amplifier and a pair of Sennheiser HD-600 headphones for some critical listening and were amazed at how good it sounded. We also tried out the SHURE E2c headphones connected directly to the unit and the results were impressive. The internal headphone amplifier used in this unit had no problem producing high volume levels when using the SHURE E2c headphones.

Updating
The Windows based NSM (Neuros Synchronization Manager) software can easily be updated using the user interface. In addition, the internal Neuros firmware is also a simple process. The NSM software can check the latest versions at the Neuros website and let you know if an update is needed. In our case, firmware version 1.29 was released and so we decided to update our current version of 1.25 as a test. The NSM Windows software updating is simple to use. The updates can be checked automatically or manually by the user. Part of Digital Innovations' commitment to improving the product is the periodic updates available at the website. These updates not only fix bugs, but also improve the capabilities of the player. We've seen three NSM updates and four firmware updates since the release of the product. The latest 1.29 firmware release fixed some clicking sounds we heard between tracks, so we are very satisfied with the latest release.

Conclusion
The Neuros HD 20GB MP3 Digital Audio Computer is an amazing product that is well designed while providing consumers powerful value-added features. The construction of the unit is excellent with a high resolution, easy to read backlit display. The HiSi (Hear It! Save It!) feature worked fairly well and while not perfect, the Neuros was able to figure out a large percentage of the sampled recordings without a problem. Even priced at $399, I consider this product a deal considering all the capabilities it offers. The size of the unit may be a problem for some wanting a small lightweight player, but for most people including myself, this isn't an issue. In fact, it fit nicely in my front shirt pocket. The Neuros is a lot of fun to use and is currently my favorite portable audio player. The bottom line is that the product has been well thought out and has excellent audio performance.
- Kevin Nakano


Review System

Laptop - Sony PCG-GRX550, Pentium 4, 1.6GHz, Windows XP Home
Vehicle - 2000 Toyota Sienna LE
Headphone #1 - Sennheiser HD-600 used with the HeadRoom Little Amplifier
Headphone #2 - SHURE E2c


Review - At a Glance


Neuros HD 20 GB

Features

  • Intuitive navigation
  • Go anywhere size: 5.3" x 3.1" x 1.3", 9.4 oz.
  • 20GB hard drive holds up to 5,000 songs (encoded at 128kbps)
  • Use as a portable hard drive to hold any file you want to take with you
  • Digitally enhanced FM tuner
  • Recording to MP3 format from internal microphone, FM tuner, and line input
  • High resolution, backlit LCD display and button controls
  • 5 programmable preset buttons
  • 10 hours of continuous playback with rechargeable Lithium Ion battery
  • Automatic firmware and software upgrades

    Includes

  • Earphones
  • Car power adapter
  • Wall power adapter
  • USB cable
  • Neuros Synchronization Manager Software

    System Requirements

  • Operating System: Microsoft® Windows 98SE/Me/2000/XP
  • Processor: Pentium 233MHz or higher
  • Memory: 64MB minimum
  • Hard Drive Space: 160MB
  • USB Port

    Source: Manufacture loan
    Model Number: 4010200
    MSRP: $399
    Weight: 9.4 ounces (266 grams)
    Size: 5.3" (13.4cm) x 3.1" (7.8cm) x 1.3" (3.3cm) (HxWxD)
    Warranty: 90 Days - Labor / 1 Year - Parts

    Company Information
    Digital Innovations, L.L.C.
    2 N. Riverside Plaza
    Suite 200
    Chicago, IL 60606

    Phone: 312-601-6501
    Fax: 312-601-6504
    Web Orders: 866-5-NEUROS (866-563-8767), 8:00 am and 5:00 pm (Central Time)
    Email: support@neurosaudio.com
    URL: www.neurosaudio.com

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