Funk and functionality often work at cross-purposes when combined in a single device, and the success of such a device can be divisive. The Mica, from the Norwegian company Asono, is easily the funkiest MP3 player around, and once you figure out its internal joystick-controlled logic, it's as easy to use as models less intent on aesthetic gymnastics. With an FM radio as well as line-in and voice recording, the Mica, available in black or white, offers functionality that's similar to that of other flash-based players, but at $159 for the 512MB version and $199 for the 1GB, the Mica is a bit pricier. (We computed the prices based on current Euro-to-dollar conversion rates.)
Resembling a tiny modernist plastic pouch or a large pendant, the Mica is a creatively integrated two-piece player that combines the earphones into an around-the-neck design. Its minimalist, futuristic, and decidedly Scandinavian look will attract attention from designers and fashionistas. At 0.8 ounce, the Mica is as light as the iPod Shuffle, but at 1.5 by 1.5 by 0.63 inches, it's about twice the size. The detachable bottom half houses the earphone connector and the USB jack (a USB cable comes with the player). The USB connection also charges the battery, from which CNET Labs coaxed only 10 hours per charge--a subpar figure. The Mica's performance suffered further from the excessively slow USB 1.1 transfer speed of 0.8MB per second.
A tiny joystick on the front of the player controls all the major functions: power on and off, play and pause, volume up and down, and skip/next/last track. The navigational array is as easy to operate as the iPod Shuffle's. Three mode keys labeled with the tiny etched letters H, R, and M on the flip side of the player access the settings and the mode features, including FM radio and audio recording. On the bottom is an aesthetically pleasing three-line, 1-inch-wide backlit LCD--a feature that the iPod Shuffle famously lacks. Moreover, the monochrome LCD can be set to one of seven vibrant colors or made to change randomly.
Minor extra features include OCHE3D sound effects, the ability to turn the display orientation 180 degrees, and built-in karaoke functions that let the user sing over a song and adjust the variable playback speed from 40 percent to 300 percent. We weren't able to test the karaoke functions.
The earphones double as the necklace; you adjust the length either by pulling on the earphone cords like shoelaces or by pulling the sliding joints where the cords cross behind the neck. In terms of style and function, the Mica's funkiness poses no serious operational or usage hurdles. Given its wearability, the Mica is perfect for strolling or stationary exercising; however, it flops around on the chest too much when you're running.
Unusual among non-Apple players, in addition to playing MP3 and unprotected WMA, it reads unprotected ripped AAC files, though not protected iTunes tracks. But that's a mixed blessing; both PCs and Macs see the device simply as a removable drive, and no jukebox or music-store software we tested recognized it by name. iTunes didn't recognize the player at all; Windows Media Player 10.0 saw it as "other media" but listed none of the content; and Musicmatch 10.0 found it as a removable drive but presented menus that we needed to drill down through to find the music. On the PC, we found it easier to transfer tracks with Windows Explorer, and on the Mac, we simply dragged and dropped. In all events, the player's music-management capabilities are basic and a bit awkward.
Asono's design experiments didn't stretch to the earphones themselves, which are virtually identical to the iPod's distinctive ear sticks. With a 90dB signal-to-noise ratio, the Mica's sound quality largely depends on how firmly you stick the phones--which fit as well (or as badly) as Apple's--into your ears. Unfortunately, you need to purchase an optional component to use another set of headphones. With 11 EQ settings and separate base and treble settings, the Asono should let you massage the sound to your liking. FM reception is solid and clean for the most powerful stations, and voice-memo recordings are crisp as long as there isn't a lot of ambient noise. Line-in recording is solid, though it requires a special cable (included).
The Asono Mica's design will be its draw, but the music-management issues will likely spoil the novelty all too soon.