Last year, Archos's original Jukebox Recorder impressed us with its ability to encode MP3s to a hard drive. But after Apple's iPod and Creative's upped the ante with high-speed FireWire connections, Archos had to respond, and it has done so with the Recorder Jukebox 20. While the 20's feature set and design are identical to its predecessor's, it does offer a larger 20GB hard drive and a lightning-fast USB 2.0 connection at a very fair price. Last year, Archos's original Jukebox Recorder impressed us with its ability to encode MP3s to a hard drive. But after Apple's iPod and Creative's upped the ante with high-speed FireWire connections, Archos had to respond, and it has done so with the Recorder Jukebox 20. While the 20's feature set and design are identical to its predecessor's, it does offer a larger 20GB hard drive and a lightning-fast USB 2.0 connection at a very fair price.
A real workhorse
At 4.5 by 3.2 by 1.3 inches, the rectangular Recorder 20 is currently smaller than every except the iPod. However, its 12.3-ounce weight keeps it from being pocket-friendly. Four oversized rubberized corners offer some degree of protection, but don't let that fool you into thinking that this is a rugged unit.
As far as controls go, the player's 10 buttons are arranged for very intuitive operation, which almost makes up for the fact that the in-line remote consists of only a volume wheel. The large, backlit display uses a fairly small font, but a no-nonsense layout and a simple navigation system make operation logical and free of hassle.
Connect the player via USB 1.1 or 2.0 after installing the drivers, and the Recorder 20 shows up on your PC as an external hard drive. This means that you can simply drag and drop your MP3s, music folders, and any data files onto the unit without learning how to use proprietary software. Archos claims transfer speeds of up to 1.5MB per second for USB 1.1 and 60MB per second with USB 2.0, but that's optimistic. Our test machine transferred files at 1.06MB per second over USB 1.1 and 8.43MB per second when using USB 2.0. Still, the latter number--a brisk two songs per second--compares favorably to that of other hard drive-based MP3 players with fast connections that we've tested.
Versatile, yet intuitive
In the menu, you can select MP3 Record, Sound, Play Mode, Playlist, Language (English, French, German), and Hard Disk Diagnose. Behind these choices lie myriad playback and recording options that let you fine-tune EQ using graphical sliders, choose recording quality, and create playlists on the fly, among other things.
The device's inputs and outputs are just as versatile: you'll find an optical S/PDIF in/out, a headphone out (a 1/8-inch-to-RCA cable is included), and a 1/8-inch analog input. This means that you can play back audio over the folding around-the-neck headphones or on a stereo with optical-digital or analog RCA inputs. In addition, you can record from any digital or analog line-level source, such as a digital microphone, a CD player, or a record player via a receiver. However, the built-in microphone is suitable for only voice memos.
The Archos records audio into the MP3 format at sampling rates from 16KHz to 44.1KHz and at bit rates from 30Kbps to 160Kbps--a reasonable range of recording quality and file sizes. We were delighted to see recording levels displayed with a slider; this enables you to change the strength of the incoming signal, which makes it easier to get a than is possible when using the Nomad Jukebox 3. The latter device does not display recording levels but can record to WAV files for higher-fidelity sound.
Nice extras, solid performance
Besides the aforementioned headphones and 1/8-inch-to-RCA cable, Archos throws in an AC adapter for powering the four internal AA rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride batteries every 10 hours, as well as a neoprene belt clip that is suitable for walkers but not joggers. Audio sounds clean due to a 90dB signal-to-noise ratio and distorts only slightly at maximum volume.
Sure, Archos's Recorder 20 is neither as small or sleek as the iPod nor does it have all the bells and whistles of Creative's Nomad Jukebox 3. But not everyone needs special EQ settings for multiple environments, including train travel. With its fast connection, enormous capacity, and ability to record MP3s, the $320 Recorder 20 currently offers more bang for your buck than any other hard drive-based player, and we highly recommend it.
Editor's note: This product is also available in a version.