With its butterfly-style folding design, the Vamp VP-228 ($150) goes for a unique approach. When spread open, it can play music through a pair of built-in speakers; shutting it hides the USB plug. However, given the limitations of the VP-228's speakers--and taking into account that the player is the company's first foray into the U.S. portable audio market--NHJ Limited would have been better off with a more conventional approach for this 128MB flash device.
Like many plug-in players, the VP-228 isn't exactly gracious when it comes to sharing space with devices plugged into a neighboring USB port. The VP-228 measures only 1.26 by 3.27 by 0.77 inches when folded shut, but because you have to fold the unit back completely to access the USB plug, it takes up more room than most plug-in models when transferring music. Though this design affords plenty of extra space, the display is awfully small, and the blue backlighting is dim. Even worse, the control buttons aren't particularly responsive. We had to push down hard on the appropriate keys to access the menu or to play a song.
Copying MP3 and unprotected WMA files to the VP-228 is a simple matter of dragging and dropping through Windows Explorer. Windows XP automatically recognizes the player, while Windows 98 users will have to install drivers from the included CD-ROM. You get the standard shuffle and repeat modes, as well as five predefined EQ modes (Normal, Classic, Jazz, Pop, and Rock) and a user-defined mode. The FM tuner features 10 presets, and you can record files into MP3 directly from the radio by pressing and holding the play/pause button. One warning: The first time we attempted to record from the radio, the VP-228 reported an internal error. We had to format the device before rebooting, erasing the entire contents of the unit. The line-in port, which is situated between the power button and the headphone port, lets you record directly from an external CD player, encoding files as MP3s.
One of the supposed benefits of the VP-228's foldout design is that it allows access to two built-in speakers, so you don't have to listen to music with your headphones. Unfortunately, this feature is basically useless, as the tiny speakers sound tinny and harsh, thanks to the lack of any bass or midrange response. And while you can listen to FM radio through the speakers, the headphone cord acts as the antenna, so you'll have to keep them plugged in anyway to get reception.
Music sounds a bit muffled and flat through the supplied earbuds, but bass and treble response were much better through a pair of full-size Koss UR-40 headphones. Once you swap in a decent pair, a 90dB signal-to-noise ratio provides clean sound, and an output of 10mW per channel supplies sufficiently loud music.
In our tests, the Vamp VP-228 reached transfer speeds of 0.48MB per second, which is good for a USB 1.1 device. The 18.3 hours of continuous playback from the internal lithium-ion battery was also impressive, but the only way to charge the battery is through your computer's USB port. It would be nice to be able to refuel via a wall outlet.