Rio Karma (20GB) review: Rio Karma (20GB)

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The Good Hand-friendly form factor; great sound; easy to use, outstanding playback features; long battery life; 20GB storage capacity; USB 2.0 and Ethernet; flexible software bundle.

The Bad No carrying case or in-line remote.

The Bottom Line This is the new player of choice for audiophiles and geeks.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

Review summary

Note: More than a few Karma users, including some at, have experienced hard drive problems or even failure after several months of use.

Armed with 20GB of hard disk storage, this beautifully designed portable music player rivals the Apple iPod in terms of ergonomics and ease of use--but at a significantly lower price. It boasts exotic functions not included in any other player, as well as one of the longest battery lives we've seen to date. While it lacks the iPod's intuitive no-moving-parts interface and the iRiver iHP-120's recording features, the Rio Karma's other strengths make it a better choice for many users.

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.

Like most HD-based players, the Rio Karma is intended for users who enjoy the freedom of carrying around thousands of songs (more than 300 hours of 128Kbps music) in a device small enough to clip onto a belt. Just as impressive is the device's tiny form factor and 5.5-ounce weight--less than that of two CDs. Although it's thicker and more voluminous than the Apple iPod, the Karma has a 2.7-by-3-by-1.1 inch chassis and a smaller footprint than even the Apple, and it's quite comfortably operable with one hand.

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The cradle features a clear, rubberized area for the player to rest while it charges, loads up on music, or sends tunes to your stereo.
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The back of the cradle houses stereo RCA outputs, a USB 1.1/2.0 port, an Ethernet port, and a power input for charging.

The device's interface is a marvel of simplicity. It includes the obligatory Power, Volume, Hold, and Menu controls, but a highly responsive thumbwheel and joystick handle all other functions. The Karma's spacious 160x128 blue-backlit LCD can be customized to show different types of playback data (including fully functional analog VU meters), and most users will quickly master the device's intuitive menu system without ever cracking a manual. The display and controllers can even be flipped upside down for left-handed operation.

The Karma attaches to your PC using a built-in mini-USB 2.0 port and an included cable (USB 1.1/2.0); placing the player in its chic, blue-illuminated cradle/charger adds a choice of either USB or Ethernet connections (making this the first Ethernet-compatible portable MP3 player). The cradle also provides stereo RCA line-output jacks that can be connected to powered speakers or to a stereo sound system.

The Karma's liberal selection of bundled accessories includes an AC adapter; a carrying pouch; a set of high-quality Sennheiser MX-300 earbuds; and USB, line-out, and Ethernet cables. The only items missing from our wish list are an in-line remote and a form-fitting carrying case--with belt clip--that could protect the device and allow it to be worn outside of the pocket.

The Karma's rich feature set includes all the functionality we've come to expect in a hard drive-based player. Like many other products in its class, it lacks an FM radio tuner, an audio line-in jack, and a voice recorder, but it compensates with an impressive selection of music-playback and organizing features. You can search for tracks by album, artist, genre, and year of release, or you can generate playlists on the fly by simply double-clicking song titles in any of these lists. Unlike the iPod's similar playlist feature, the Karma's lets you save and name the list for later playback.

In addition to a bookmark option for saving your spot, the Karma offers a comprehensive selection of repeat and shuffle options, a five-band equalizer with presets, and the ability to smoothly cross-fade between tracks. We loved the Rio DJ function that can be programmed to automatically build custom playlists by analyzing your personal playback history; it then plays the songs back with cross-fades--somewhat akin to having a real DJ spin your tunes for you.