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Plug-in-style MP3 players--that is, those with the USB interface built right in--have been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, as evidenced by the recent release of the SanDisk Sansa Express. RCA has now joined the trend with the Pearl, one of three players in the company's new Gem Line. Like the Express, the Pearl is also aimed squarely at the budget-conscious, with 1GB and 2GB versions retailing for $39 and $48, respectively. The RCA offers decent sound quality, so it could give the SanDisk a run for its money--if not for the bulbous design, funky menu structure, and disposable battery.
The RCA Pearl comes in three shiny color options, depending on capacity: the 1GB player in midnight blue, the 2GB in black, and a 512MB version (apparently not available in the U.S.) in light gray. Embedded into the front of the player is reflective face that's not quite as mirrorlike as that found on the Express. The design isn't ugly, but it won't be winning any fashion awards any time soon. The player measures 3 inches tall by 1 inch wide by 0.8 inch thick, making it reasonably compact but still thick around the middle. A bulbous battery compartment accounts for a quarter-inch of that thickness and takes away from its plug-and-play ease--you may need to free up more than one USB port to accommodate its girth. We'd have preferred a built-in battery. As it stands, the Pearl takes one AAA (included), which is rated for 15 hours.
Upon picking up the Pearl, you'll notice that its smooth feel makes it feel nice in the hand--and the battery compartment even provides a reasonable gripping platform. However, the headphone jack--located on the top right edge of the player--makes right-handed operation of the top controls awkward. It's especially difficult to activate the record button, which is located directly next to the jack. The menu key is to the left of that and is easier to press. There's also a power/hold switch on the top and a microSD card slot for memory expansion--always a nice touch. The bottom of the Pearl houses two rockers--one for track shuttling and one for volume--and a play/pause button. A cap conceals the USB interface is on the left side.
As with the RCA Jet, the Pearl has a quirky menu structure, with two top menus instead of one. Although the interface is easy enough to get the hang of, the wacky menu organization makes certain things take more effort than they should. Also, unlike with the Jet, the Pearl doesn't organize songs into an artist-album hierarchy, which makes it a pain to find a particular track. As a result, the Pearl makes a fine shuffle-play device, but if you require more organization in an MP3 player, you'll want to look elsewhere.
As for features, the Pearl does OK. It offers just a small (1-inch), monochrome LCD (with a rather garish green backlight), so there's no photo or album art display and certainly no video support. However, the player supports Audible and WMA subscription services such as Yahoo Music Unlimited. You also get an on-the-go playlist function, five EQ settings, a voice recorder, and surprisingly good sound quality.
In fact, we found that with a pair of Shure SE310s, bass response was pretty much incredible, and music overall sounded rich, clear, and warm. You probably won't be purchasing a pair of $250 earbuds for a $50 MP3 player, but that audio response capability is something to consider if you already own a good pair of headphones. To RCA's credit, sound quality through the included earbuds was also decent, though bass is considerably lacking. Battery life is average at 14 hours (based on CNET Labs testing).
In the case of the RCA Pearl versus the SanDisk Sansa Express, it's tough to choose. The Sansa is exceptionally easy to use and offers a better design for its plug-and-play purpose, but the Pearl sounds much better. It really depends on the user, but for casual use--which is really what these players are made for--the Sansa is probably the winner.