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iRiver H120 (20GB) review: iRiver H120 (20GB)

iRiver H120 (20GB)

Eliot Van Buskirk
Evolver.fm Editor Eliot Van Buskirk has covered and occasionally anticipated music and technology intersections for 15 years for CNET, Wired.com, McGraw-Hill, and The Echo Nest. He is not currently an employee of CNET.
Eliot Van Buskirk
5 min read
Review summary
The versatile iRiver iHP-120 (20GB) is the first hard drive-based MP3 player we've seen that brings advanced features into a casing only a hair larger than the white Apple iPod's. It has just about every input and output that the power user could ask for, excellent battery life, a fully functioning in-line remote with an LCD, and excellent playback/recording quality. This combination doesn't come cheap, but if you're in need of all these features, the iRiver's $399 retail price ($499 for the 40GB iHP-140) is money well spent. Mac users looking for more features than the iPod will be happy to know that this player now features Mac compatibility.
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. The iRiver iHP-120's design is a tour de force, if only because the player squeezes so much into such a small (2.4 inches by 0.75 inches by 4.1 inches; 5.6 ounces) package. Its understated black-and-silver case is scratch resistant, and the overall construction is durable, typical of iRiver's recent releases. The blue-backlit, high-resolution (160x128, 16-bit grayscale) LCD shows off icons and graphical sliders well, but some users might find that the small font causes a bit of eyestrain.
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The iHP-120's padded case affords access to the screen and all the controls. This is the first hard drive-based MP3 player to ship with a remote control with an LCD.

All the durable buttons have contextual functions, so it's worth perusing the manual. We found the multidirectional joystick control on the front easy enough to use for navigating the deep menu structure, but compared to the Apple iPod's scrollwheel, it makes going through long lists of songs a tedious chore.
We're happy to see that iRiver included the first in-line remote control for a hard drive-based player to incorporate a display (also backlit in blue). It doesn't show artist names, but we appreciate being able to access all functions when the player is stowed in a bag or clipped to the hip. The included carrying case has a firm belt strap for the latter option, and its padding offers protection against impact. Every control and most of the ports are accessible while the device is in its case, which also permits a full view of the display. Hold sliders disable the controls on the device, the remote, or both, to prevent accidental operation.
For higher-fidelity mono voice recordings, iRiver includes an external lavalier microphone with a clip; if you want to record live music, pick up a powered stereo mike to use with the line-in jack instead. Many third-party headphones are unusable with the step-down iRiver iHP-100, so this time around, iRiver wisely bundled a four-inch headphone extender that renders them compatible. An AC power adapter, a USB 1.1/2.0 cord, and an installation disc round out the package.
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The main menu gives you a few options for song browsing.

The iRiver iHP-120 plays MP3, WMA, ASF, WAV, and OGG music files, and it shows up as a removable drive in Windows and OS X. Windows Explorer handles all file transfers via USB 1.1/2.0. After loading new music, you can right-click the Database file in the player's root directory to start a scanning process that harvests song information for use in browsing by artist, album, genre, or song title. If you fail to do this, you'll be able to browse only by directory. Since the software is currently Windows-only, browsing by artist, album, and genre is disabled when songs are loaded from a Mac, but iRiver is pledging to release the needed software later this autumn.
The player supports standard Winamp-style M3U playlists, which you create on the PC. Unlike the latest Apple iPods, the iHP doesn't support on-the-fly playlists.
Holding down a single button activates the FM mode. Since FM frequencies differ by region, the player can be set to receive stations in the United States, Europe, Korea, or Japan. The tuner seeks out available stations, 20 of which you can save as presets.
The iRiver iHP-120 has a full suite of recording features. The device accepts both analog and digital optical line-level inputs (for recording from stereos or other devices) for audio recording, and it has both internal and external mikes for voice recording. All inputs can be recorded to WAV or MP3 at the standard bit rates. There's no volume-level meter, and gain can be set for only the external mike, but you can monitor recordings as they happen in order to set the appropriate level at the source.
The playback outlook is equally rosy, with outputs for digital optical and analog line-out--great for connecting the device to any type of sound system. The company includes a full selection of shuffle, repeat, and equalization features. We configured custom settings, then toggled through them (as well as the presets) from the playback screen. The DSP settings were the best we've seen to date. In addition to five EQ presets and custom bass/treble controls, you also get SRS settings for spatialization effects and TruBass, both of which can be configured with extreme precision.
The features list runs too long for us to include everything, but the highlights are: a sleep timer; balance; a hard drive-activity indicator light; automatic gain control for voice recordings from the internal mike; the time; the ability to read any text file on the screen; resume on/off; a patch cable for analog input/output connections; and support for an astounding 39 languages. You can even use the line-out jack for a second set of headphones so that you can share your tunes with a friend.
With a signal-to-noise ratio rated at greater than 90dB, the unit's playback quality was excellent through our reference headphones and average through the included earbuds. All of the recording methods scored high points, as well. Furthermore, the FM tuner produced a clean signal, although--as with other portables that receive radio--headphones or the remote must be plugged in since they double as antennae.
Some audiophiles show a marked disdain for effects such as the SRS processing found on this unit, but like us, most people will love the way it makes their music sound. The power output cranks all the way to 20mW per channel at 16 ohms, so listeners who prefer loud music won't be disappointed.
Files transfer to the player via USB 1.1 at a brisk 0.79MB per second, while transmission over USB 2.0 clocked in at 2.98MB per second--fast enough to fill the 20GB capacity in less than two hours, which is average for that faster connection.
The company claims a battery life of 16 hours on a single charge (via AC only, as a USB connection depletes power), and in our tests, the battery lasted nearly that long. Still, that's about 10 hours more than the latest Apple iPods. We encountered no skipping or freezes during the trials.

iRiver H120 (20GB)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 8