RCA Pearl Music Player
Can a brand that has made its biggest mark in television also muster credible music players? Whether or not you've noticed, RCA has been doing that for several years. The 2007 line includes three flavors: the Jet, the Opal, and the Pearl. I got hold of the 1GB version of the Pearl for review. It plays both music and Audible e-books. With its modest size and rounded shape, this is a player you can easily shove in a pocket before getting on with your mobile life.
The Pearl has a shiny dark silvery finish enlivened by a jaunty black stripe. It resembles a large USB thumb drive--which, in fact, it is. It can be plugged directly into a PC, though if that's not convenient, RCA also supplies a USB extension cable. Capping the USB plug gives the unit a pleasingly rounded shape. It includes a monochome display whose background color changes during boot-up like a mood ring. Though the display is necessarily small, at 0.5 by 0.8 inches, it does give the Pearl an ergonomic advantage over the iPod shuffle.
My first question of any music player is: Do you do Windows? Removing the cap and plugging the Pearl's USB plug into my IBM ThinkCentre, I discovered the answer was yes. The player showed up as another drive in the system, just the way I like it. I wasted no time in dragging a dozen albums to fill the review sample's 1GB capacity. Most of my music files are MP3s ripped at 192kbps. With a lesser data rate, you might squeeze a few more albums into the player. The Pearl also supports WMA and WMA-DRM files. Transfer time was slow.
One thing the USB link does not do is recharge the player. Instead the Pearl accepts a AAA cell, doubling its depth to three-quarters of an inch. Green-minded consumers will immediately visualize landfills full of spent batteries. Others will visualize landfills full of dead rechargable iPods and the bitter tears wept over them. Name your poison.
My next question of any music player is: Will you accept a 1/8-inch mini-plug? I used to take this for granted until an MSI player crossed my desk. Its sub-mini-jack accepted only the supplied earbuds. Getting it to work with a mini-plug required an awkward adapter. Fortunately the Pearl has the standard jack, enabling it to accept my Grado SR60, Yamaha RH-M5a, and a new addition to the family, the Bose earbuds, first described on this site by our own Chris Chiarella.
The Pearl splits controls between its top and bottom edges. On the bottom are the +/-, ff/rew, and play/pause keys, along with a pinhole microphone. On the top are the menu key, a red button for the recording function, and an oblong button that combines two fixed positions (both for the hold function) with a third one that is spring-loaded. When held in place for a couple of seconds, the spring-loaded position turns the player on or off.
Navigation requires the interplay of three buttons: menu, +/-, and ff/rew. The menu button summons two main menus (with one press or two). The +/- button navigates within the main menus. And the ff/rew button navigates within the submenus. The now-playing menu shows track and artist names, track number, total time, and elapsed time. Screen color, which cycles through several hues when booting up, can be set to a default of red, green, yellow, cyan (blue), purple, or white. Backlighting time-out is adjustable and there are other options for DSP, shuffle, repeat, and system info.
Sound is good. None of my earphones or 'buds raised any serious objection to the midrange, which was on the gentle side of average. The voice and string arrangements on "Day Is Done," from the first Nick Drake album, were smooth, sweet, and mellifluous. Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, as performed by the London Philharmonic and Sir Adrian Boult, bore evidence of close miking but didn't make a fatiguing ordeal of it.
Where RCA really has the competition breathing hard--yes, I'm talking about you, Apple--is pricing and capacity. The 2GB Pearl sells for the same as the iPod shuffle, has twice the capacity, and further one-ups the shuffle by offering a screen. It also sells for about half as much as an iPod nano with the same capacity. The 1GB Pearl beats both the nano and shuffle on price, matches the shuffle's capacity, and has a screen.
Apple's sole defense is the user interface. It's still easier to operate a nano than a Pearl. The nano's bigger screen helps and the clickwheel helps even more. But even that advantage evaporates with the shuffle's screenlessness. So while the Pearl may or may not be a nano killer, it is definitely a shuffle killer.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.