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Ntribe Monolith (256MB) review: Ntribe Monolith (256MB)

Ntribe Monolith (256MB)

John Frederick Moore
4 min read
Ntribe decided to mine the film 2001: A Space Odyssey for inspiration in naming this flash-based MP3 player. Let's face it, hal doesn't adequately convey the image of strength, so the company chose monolith instead. What lies beneath this minimalist brushed-aluminum rectangle, however, won't inspire a sense of awe in potential customers. Even though it boasts a bunch of coveted features and excellent sound quality, the Monolith's relative bulk and confusing controls make it ideal for only a few. At first glance, with its built-in battery and solid-state, rectangular design, the $160 Ntribe Monolith seems to be a mini hard drive player. To find out that it's only a 256MB flash player (also available in 512MB and 1GB capacities) is a major disappointment. Neither as petite (1.6 by 3.1 by 0.6 inches and 2.2 ounces) nor as stylish as the current generation of high-end flash-based players, the Monolith is just what its name suggests: a chunk of material. The eye-pleasing OLED screen, which functions as a mirror when the player is off, lends the one bit of pizzazz to the design, with ID3 tag information scrolling across the display in blue text, while file format, track number, and battery indicators display in yellow at the top of the screen. Though the text is attractive on the main playback screen, some menu options are so small and fuzzy that they're unreadable.


Ntribe Monolith (256MB)

The Good

Line-in, voice, and FM recording; solid playback quality; upgradable firmware; pretty OLED screen.

The Bad

Internal battery recharges only when connected to a PC; bulky for a flash player; tiny menu-text display; cluttered button layout.

The Bottom Line

A sleek but frustrating design obscures some good features and performance.

The Monolith in its carrying case.

On the right spine of the unit, you'll find a volume scrollwheel; pressing and holding this button during playback accesses your music folders. The play/pause/stop button, which sits between the fast-forward/rewind jog controls, is extremely small and difficult to press. Although some of the buttons serve more than one purpose, they are poorly labeled. You have to press and hold the Menu button to access menu options, and a quick press shuttles between MP3 and FM modes, but you'd have no idea unless you read the manual. Similarly confusing, to adjust the tempo of a song, you have to press and hold the Tempo button; a quick press marks A and B loop sections.

All of these buttons are crammed together so closely that it's easy to accidentally push one of them when retrieving the Monolith from a pocket or a briefcase; you'll want to activate the Hold switch often when using this device on the go. Overall, the construction doesn't feel quite as solid as the device's imposing name suggests. The buttons in particular feel a bit flimsy. The small, rubber protector plug for the line-in jack comes off completely, just begging to be lost the first time you remove it.

The biggest design flaw is with the built-in lithium-ion battery, which must be connected to your computer's USB port to charge. Because MP3 players by nature are designed to be used while on the go, the lack of a power cord is a huge minus.

The Monolith comes with a USB cable, but you can also use the included USB dongle to connect the device directly to your PC's port, effectively making the device a plug-in player. The package also includes a carrying case and a neck strap, although it's doubtful that you'd want something this large dangling from your neck.

The Monolith and its accessories.

Like many flash-based players, the Ntribe Monolith handles file transfers through Windows Explorer (the device supports MP3 and unprotected WMA files), so you don't have to install any additional music-management software, although Windows 98 users need to install drivers on the included CD-ROM. The Monolith appears as an external drive in Windows so that you can drag and drop songs into the player's Music folder.

You get six predefined EQ settings (Normal, Rock, Pop, Classic, Live, and Bass), as well as a five-band user-defined mode. You won't find SRS 3D or TruBass effects, but if you're in need of a laugh, you can adjust the tempo to play music as slow as 75 percent or as fast as 140 percent of normal speed. While the DJs in the house got excited about the pitch-adjust feature, it's really not that practical since adjustments can't be made on the granular level.

The Monolith includes many of the features we've come to expect in higher-end flash-based players, although the implementation at times comes off as half-baked. The line-in recording feature encodes music from external sources in MP3 format between 32Kbps and 256Kbps at 32KHz, 44.1KHz, and 48KHz. But there's no automatic track-marking option, so if you want to encode an entire CD, you'll have to manually mark each track by holding the play/pause button for a few seconds to stop recording, then begin another recording for the next track.

The FM radio stores up to 30 presets. Reception is average for an MP3 player--that is, not great--but you can record directly from the radio in MP3 format. You can also schedule recordings from the FM radio, much as you'd program your VCR. One nifty feature is the ability to enter the name of stations with Windows Notepad. Type in the station frequency and the call letters, save the file as broadcast.txt, then save it in the player's System folder.

Music playback is the one area in which the Ntribe Monolith isn't a disappointment. Music was sufficiently loud with a set of full-size Koss UR-40 headphones, thanks to an impressive output of 20mW per channel, and the 90dB signal-to-noise ratio resulted in only barely perceptible background hiss at the highest volumes. And with the available EQ options, we were able to tweak the sound to match the genre of music.

The Monolith transferred music files at an average speed of 0.43MB per second, which is middling for a USB 1.1 device. The player scored an average of 16.9 hours of playback on a full charge, in line with the company's claim of 17 hours.


Ntribe Monolith (256MB)

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 8Performance 8