The black-gloss-and-metallic-silver player has a small, 0.5-by-1-inch, but adequate four-line text display with blue backlighting. The main controls (play/pause, next track, previous track, stop) reside below the display; the menu and record buttons are situated on the left-side panel, the volume controls on the top panel. The one notable extra is a fixed-level line output for connecting the player to multimedia speakers or a home stereo. For the standard headphone jack, JVC supplies basic earbud-style headphones. We were able to comfortably stash the lightweight XA-MP101B in a track-pants pocket while jogging, but JVC also includes a lanyard so that you can wear the player like a necklace. JVC doesn't provide a case or a carrying pouch.
The player's user interface is mediocre. To change tracks, you can simply press the next-track or previous-track button, but there's also a mode that lets you navigate the unit's musical contents by directory trees. The XA-MP101B doesn't support playlists or allow you to navigate music by ID3 tag-based categories such as genre and album. Those features would make it easier to manage the large number of tracks--approximately 500 WMAs--that you can store in the nonexpandable 1GB memory.
The XA-MP101B supports MP3, WMA, and WMA-DRM files purchased from services such as Napster or Rhapsody. Unfortunately, it can't play Janus-protected WMAs downloaded as part of a subscription plan such as Napster To Go or Yahoo Music Unlimited. In fairness, only a few flash-memory players (the iRiver T10 and T30) currently have that capability, but it's worth holding out for at this point. The XA-MP101B is a universal mass-storage device, so file transfer is a drag-and-drop process, though you must use Windows Media Player for purchased DRM-protected WMA files. Unfortunately, transferring is a tedious process, coming in at 0.9MB per second; although the packaging asserts that the player is USB 2.0 compatible, it transfers files at the antiquated USB 1.1 rate. Essentially, it's not a high-speed USB 2.0 device--a glaring oversight nowadays.
The XA-MP101B can record both voice and FM, but like competing models, it saves captured audio as low-quality WAV files. Although voice memos we recorded via the built-in mic were perfectly intelligible, the low, nonadjustable bit rate was most evident in recordings of FM music broadcasts, which sounded quite grainy and riddled with artifacts. In addition to the requisite EQ presets, the player has a programmable EQ mode that allows adjusting five different frequency bands for soup-to-nuts tonal control.
The XA-MP101B has an 18-bit audio converter and sounds good, but you'd never know it from listening to the brash earbuds JVC supplies. When we donned better 'phones and conducted informal A-B comparisons with Oregon Scientific's MP210, we preferred the XA-MP101B's sound by a hair. For instance, the Everything But The Girl track "25th December" sounded slightly clearer and livelier through the JVC, but the difference wasn't stark. The player's battery life is competitive; we got a little more than 16 hours of playback from one AAA.