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Creative's tiny Rhomba is stylish. More important, it sounds as good as it looks, delivering excellent audio quality in an eminently pocketable package. This flash-memory MP3 player, available in 128MB and 256MB versions, boasts a full set of features, including an FM radio, a voice recorder, and an equalizer. The Creative Rhomba is gorgeous--one of the best-looking flash-memory MP3 players we've seen. Its silver chassis is thin and light but sturdy, and its face sports an eye-catching, mirrorlike surface, marred by only its susceptibility to smudges. Measuring 3.1 by 1.8 by 0.7 inches and weighing just 1.8 ounces, the Rhomba fits comfortably in a tight jeans pocket.
The LCD, which takes up most of the player's face, is divided in two. Its larger panel lists directory names, track titles, and the elapsed and remaining time. The smaller section tells you whether you're in MP3, FM-radio, or voice-recorder mode; contains the battery-status indicator; and displays music visuals.
The Rhomba's controls are nicely laid out. Side by side on the front panel are the play/pause and A/B-repeat keys; the latter helpfully serves as the Back button when you're navigating folder directories. At the top of the player, which is easy to access with one hand, you can maneuver through the menu with a two-way rocker, adjust the volume, and turn the voice recorder on and off. The Hold slider, for locking the controls, is on the bottom of the unit beside the Mode key.
Our main design complaint is that the Rhomba, like many flash players, can't plug directly into a computer's USB port. You have to transfer files over the provided proprietary USB cable. The only other included accessories are headphones and a neck strap. If you're a fan of streamlined music transfers, you'll appreciate being able to drag and drop MP3, WMA, and data files onto the Creative Rhomba using either Windows Explorer or the Mac's Finder. You can even organize the content into subdirectories, though they go only one level deep. Unfortunately, dragged-and-dropped songs play in alphabetical order; to customize their sequence, you have to prefix the appropriate numbers to the filenames. Loading your collection with the bundled Creative MediaSource (PC) or Apple iTunes (Mac) software is a better idea. Both programs also let you edit ID3 tags, rip music CDs to MP3, and--most important--create playlists.
Once you've transferred your songs to the Rhomba, you tweak their sound with the built-in equalizer, which provides four presets and a user-defined two-band EQ. You also get the usual modes for repeating all the contents, one track or folder, and random tunes. And you can create one on-the-fly playlist at a time.
If you need a break from your collection, switch to the Rhomba's FM radio. With its autoscan feature, it finds the strongest stations in a flash, and it stores up to five presets. To save a broadcast, press the record button while you're listening; the full 256MB will hold 16 hours of programming. Though the Rhomba is useful for keeping up with your talk-radio shows and grabbing sound bites for, say, later reference at the store, the player's 32Kbps, 8-bit mono recording format is unsuitable for music; other models' FM capture is much higher-quality.
The Rhomba takes in up to 16 hours of 32Kbps, 8-bit mono voice recordings via an internal microphone with adjustable sensitivity. The quality is fine for deep thoughts but subpar for live music.
One odd extra is the Rhomba's ability to beep between audio tracks. We find the noise irritating, but someone somewhere might someday find a use for it. Luckily, turning off the option is easy enough. The Rhomba earns high audio-quality scores. Boasting a commendable signal-to-noise ratio of 88dB, the player serves up rich, detailed sound with plenty of bass. Included earbuds are the weak link of other compact models, but music came through great over the Rhomba's, and it improved, of course, when we switched to our reference pair, the Shure E3c. The Rhomba cranks out an adequate volume level of 10mW per channel.
To test the Rhomba's FM recption, we hit the streets of San Francisco. The player performed well, picking up all of the city's stations and some from neighboring towns. Broadcasts stayed clear as we traveled, suffering no interference around tall buildings.
The rechargeable lithium-ion battery lasted a respectable 12 hours in our tests, beating Creative's own 10-hour estimate.
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