We've been waiting for more than two and a half years for a high-capacity MP3 player smaller than the iPod, and finally, we're holding one in our hands. The $369 JetAudio iAudio M3 (with cradle, $349 without) is about 10 percent slimmer than the iPod, though the manufacturer took a few design shortcuts, namely, moving the screen, the controls, and the ports to external modules. If you can picture yourself using only an in-line remote--albeit one with a spacious screen--to control your MP3 player while it's stored out of sight, the M3 deserves serious consideration as an alternative to the iPod.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. Again, the big design story with the elegant yet sturdy JetAudio iAudio M3 is that it's thin--the skinniest MP3 player yet to hold a 1.8-inch hard drive (in this case, from Toshiba). At 4.08 by 2.39 by 0.56 inches, this player is about the same length and width as the iPod but a crucial 10 percent slimmer, and at 4.8 ounces, it's approximately 15 percent lighter. The trade-off is that the main unit is noticeably deficient of controls and ports, and it lacks a display. Instead, JetAudio put the screen and most controls on an included in-line remote, as well as migrated the ports to a bundled travel adapter and desktop cradle for connection to computer, power, or stereo equipment. Although the main player lacks an LCD, it has three lights on the top that indicate whether the hard drive is currently spinning and whether the device is connected to your computer or a power outlet. While this configuration isn't for everyone, those who prefer to use an in-line remote to navigate through tunes will appreciate this setup over that of the iPod, which doesn't have a display on its remote.
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|This remote is smaller than a Zippo, and it houses the device's main interface.|
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|The iAudio M3's case reminds us a lot of the one that fits a certain white MP3 player from Cupertino you may have heard of.|
The iAudio M3 takes about 10 seconds to boot up, during which time the remote's blue-backlit six-line LCD shows a silhouetted dancer, reminiscent of Apple's current iPod ad campaign. After that, everything else you'd want to know about the player's status appears on the screen. Even once you learn how to navigate menus and songs, you'll need to consult the manual to master this device. For example, you can't change the volume while viewing menus; instead, you first need to click back to the screen showing the song that's playing. Once you figure out the basics, such as how the rewind button doubles as a Back key when navigating menus, the sailing gets a lot smoother; you can even customize most display elements to your liking.
As noted, JetAudio includes a cradle and an adapter module for charging the unit, making USB connections, and accommodating a line-level input and output. While the adapter offers a portable option for these connections and the cradle provides an easy way to integrate the M3 into your computer or stereo setup, you'll also have to bring one or the other along on trips. Chances are you won't lose them, but we can't say the same for the little rubber covering that protects the player's proprietary connection port; ours lasted a matter of days before its predicted disappearance.
Bundled accessories include the cradle and the adapter mentioned above, as well as a black-vinyl carrying case (with belt loop), an AC adapter, a stereo line-in cable, and earbuds.
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This cradle (or the adapter module) connects the device to a computer or a stereo.
An excellent bundled program called JetAudio--already popular as a standalone jukebox in its own right--handles encoding and file transfers over USB 1.1/2.0, employing a simple Windows Explorer-like drag-and-drop interface for sending songs and playlists over to the iAudio M3. Again, the cradle or the adapter module is required. JetShell doesn't import songs to a jukebox database; instead, it works with existing folders, subfolders, and M3U playlists. The advantage is that you always know where your songs really live, whether on the device or on your computer, but this approach also means the program can't just scan your hard drive for tunes.
For modifying playback, you get a suite of options in the JetEffect menu, including a five-band, four-preset equalizer; a toggle for MP Enhance (which minimizes the effects of MP3 compression); and slider controls for &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Ebbesound%2Ecom%2Ftechnologies%2FBBE%255FMP%2F">BBE (a sound-enhancing DSP effect), Mach3Bass, 3D Surround, and balance.
For recording music from your computerless friend's CD player or stereo or converting your vinyl and cassettes to MP3, the M3 offers analog line-in recording. Meanwhile, a microphone on the side of the unit (which the carrying case leaves exposed) handles voice recordings. You can also record radio programs received by the iAudio M3's FM tuner, which can be set for use in China, Europe, Japan, Korea, or the United States. The latest beta firmware adds the ability to view text files on the remote's six-line screen.
Music recordings from the line-level input or the FM tuner are saved in MP3 format at 64Kbps, 96Kbps, 128Kbps, 256Kbps, or 320Kbps, while MP3 voice recordings range from 32Kbps to 128Kbps. We love that you can set recording levels for the microphone and the analog line-level input, but a levels monitor would help optimize recordings even further. The JetAudio iAudio M3 rocks in every area of MP3 player performance. First of all, the sound is clean and strong through our Shure E3c test headphones, with an ultraclean 95dB signal-to-noise ratio and ample maximum volume of 20mW per channel. Some of the JetEffect signal-processing features aren't for those who prefer untampered audio, but we found that the right combination of settings added considerable presence to our tunes. As for the included earbuds, they were way too big and slippery to stay in our ear; as with most included headphones, you're better off with a replacement.
At first, we couldn't believe how fast songs transferred over USB 2.0 to the player's hard drive: a blazing 8.12MB per second--the first time any player has bested the iPod in our file-transfer lab tests. But moving files from different machines convinced us that yes, this thing really does suck up songs that quickly.
JetAudio claims a bodacious battery life of 14 hours, compared with the iPod's purported maximum of 8 hours. In our tests, the iAudio M3 fell short of that 14 hours, averaging 10.8 hours--longer than the iPod's record of 7.8 hours and still impressive, considering the M3's slim profile.
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