On paper, the 256MB Vamp VP-218 ($179) appears to be a solid, flash-memory MP3 player. It functions as a removable drive, it includes FM and line-in recording capabilities, it supports memory-expansion cards, and it's fairly compact. But decent specs don't always translate into a winning product.
Measuring 1.83 by 3.05 by 0.20 inches and weighing just 1.62 ounces, the VP-218 is small and light enough to carry while jogging. Style-conscious users will find the all-silver face and black trim uninspiring, but the dedicated power button is a functional addition. Unfortunately, the majority of the controls are bunched closely together, making it easy to accidentally hit the wrong one. The seven-line display is large enough to read ID3 tag information without too much of a struggle, though it's tough to make out with the blue backlight activated. Because it doesn't help much in dark rooms anyway, we simply turned it off.
The VP-218 has an impressive feature set overall. The player shows up in Windows as a removable drive, so you can transfer data, MP3, and unprotected WMA files easily through Windows Explorer. When you tire of your digital tunes, you can tune into the Vamp's FM radio, which provided good reception. The device also records from the tuner and supports up to 18 hours of voice recording or line-in encoding from an external CD player (you can choose any MP3 bit rate between 32Kbps and 224Kbps). The coolest feature here is the line-in recording sync function, which automatically divides songs into individual tracks. You can also set this mode to stop recording after a single track.
On the bottom left of the VP-218, you'll find a slot for SD or MMC expansion cards. You can add as much as 512MB of additional storage (about $100 for SD) to bring you closer to the amount of memory found on a minihard drive player--especially if you opt for the VP-318, which comes with 512MB of onboard memory. Vamp also offers upgrades for the player's firmware on the company's Web site.
Regrettably, the VP-218's specs can't make up for its disappointing sound quality. Because the player's signal-to-noise ratio is only 50dB, we could detect noticeable background hiss during playback, especially when using the supplied earbuds. The hiss was less prominent on a set of full-size Koss UR-40 headphones. A headphone output of 20mW per channel means the volume gets sufficiently loud even with the full-size 'phones, but the background noise then becomes louder. Also unfortunate is the Vamp's battery life, which came in at a slim 7.3 hours from a single AAA--significantly less than the rated 12 hours. On the upside, the device's transfer speed over USB 1.1 was an acceptable 0.43MB per second in our tests.