Wear me: Beatsounds EMP-Z II Plus
Measuring just 2.2 by 1.8 by 0.6 inches, the Beatsounds (Eratech) EMP-Z II Plus is an engineering marvel, combining digital audio playback, FM radio reception, a color image display, and voice-recording capabilities in a device that would fit inside a large egg. In spite of this impressive collection of features, the player is quite affordable, with pricing options ranging from $70 (256MB) to $90 (512MB), and reps tell us a 1GB version will be available in the future. To put this in context, Apple's 512MB iPod Shuffle is listed at $100, lacks a display, and does not offer voice recording or an FM radio.
The Beatsounds EMP-Z II Plus will appeal to users on several levels. In terms of appearance, it comes in both red and platinum versions, and it has a unique, undeniably eye-catching, egg-shaped design. The player is intended to be worn as a pendant around the neck and can vividly display a single digital image on the small 0.9-by-0.5-inch LCD screen. With respect to audio playback, the EMP-Z II Plus exhibits a warm timbre and nice bass response, though it will fall short in the eyes of audiophiles looking to upgrade their headphones; most aftermarket headphones are incompatible with the device's jack, which is smaller than the standard 3.5mm, though you can get an adapter for it.
While the player's voice-recording option would be deemed subpar as a standalone feature, considering that its recording potential is far below CD quality (MP3 format encoded at 64Kbps/16kHz), it's a nice addition to the overall package. The device's FM radio, which allows users to set up to five preset stations, is a handy extra and offers decent reception for strong stations. Additionally, the player integrates seamlessly with Windows Me, 2000, and XP as well as Mac OS 9.2 or higher, making file transfers relatively simple. Finally, the built-in lithium-ion battery fully recharges in less than an hour and lasts for around 14 hours under normal usage conditions--that is, music playback at high volume with minimal use of the backlight.
That said, the Beatsounds EMP-Z II Plus falls into the same traps as many other miniature, inexpensive digital audio players. The navigation and control buttons are small, crowded, and inappropriately placed. Furthermore, because space is so limited on the device, the designers were forced to make decisions such as combining song navigation and volume control into two buttons instead of four. These space-saving sacrifices caused confusion to users in our normal and high-activity field tests.
Beyond cutting corners in the interest of space, Beatsounds also skimped to keep the player's price down. For example, the red outer shell is not durable and showed significant signs of wear and tear after just two weeks of casual use. The decision to go with USB 1.1 rather than the more advanced USB 2.0 (which is 40 times faster) for transfers is also indicative of a cost-cutting mentality; transfer speeds came in at a sluggish 0.47MB per second in CNET Labs' tests. Finally, Beatsounds fell short in its firmware development; the device supports playback of only MP3 and WMA music files, meaning that it is not compatible with any other audio codec, including protected WMAs purchased from stores such as Napster.