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The Neuros HD 20GB Digital Audio Computer

by Drew Dunn
2003/10/01

The Neuros HD 20GB


See the end of the review for an update!

This review was originally scheduled to be a roundup between four or five different portable digital music players. We had commitments from several different companies to provide samples of their products to run head-to-head against each other, but when the deadline arrived, only one actually submitted a unit for test. Three companies who had committed to submitting review samples backed out at the last minute and two never responded to our review requests.

Thus, Digital Innovations starts with a leg up on the competition. They actually came through with a device to test. Since we can hardly have a roundup with only one sample, we’ll just delve into the Digital Innovations Neuros HD 20GB as a full-featured review!


SkipDoctor

The Company

Until I happened to run across an advertisement on eMusic.com for the Neuros, I thought that I had never heard of Digital Innovations. It turns out that I was already a customer! The company also sells the SkipDoctor, a CD and DVD cleaning and repair tool that seems to be ubiquitous in video rental stores (and my DVD shelf) everywhere I go. The company has been in business since 1995.


The Neuros

Digital Innovations (DI hereafter) sells the Neuros in at least three different configurations. It is available as a 128MB flash memory player, a 20GB hard drive player and a combination of the two. The heart of the device is a small, pocket-sized control unit that fits into a somewhat larger dock that DI calls a backpack. The backpack holds either a notebook-type 2.5 inch hard drive or 128MB of flash memory. DI notes that although the control units appear to be identical, the unit that is sold with the 20GB drive (the Neuros HD 20GB) is not compatible with the 128MB backpack, however the unit that is sold with the flash backpack will work with the hard drive backpack. Naturally, the combo unit will work with either.


With that bit of confusion finished, things get much easier. The player that is under review here is the Neuros HD 20GB, the hard drive-based player. It is a competitor in an increasingly crowded field that includes products from Apple, Rio, Archos and others.


Physically, the unit is rather unassuming. The control unit is a silvery-gray plastic that slides into the larger black backpack. The entire device measures 5.3” long by 3.1” wide by 1.3” deep and weighs 9.4 ounces. This isn’t by any means a giant in terms of size and weight, but it is not a featherweight in this class, either. The LCD display measures two inches diagonally and displays 128 by 128 pixels. The orange backlight presents a very interesting, high-tech look. Control buttons include a four direction rocker button as well as play/pause, fast forward and fast reverse buttons, five programmable buttons, a slider switch to disable inadvertent presses of the buttons and an orange button that controls a feature DI calls HISI, something that we’ll address in a bit.


The requisite connections for power (the batteries are in the backpack), headphones and line in are on the bottom of the Neuros. There is also a port for the built in FM antenna used for MyFi, a method of actually broadcasting music from the Neuros to a radio, a feature that seems to be unique to the Neuros. There is also a microphone built into the front of the Neuros for live recording.


The Firmware

DI calls the Neuros a Digital Audio Computer. It does seem to fit that bill, although not as expansively as the giant on your desktop. The Neuros is upgradeable through firmware modifications and is capable of running custom programs (called scripts), features enhanced by DI’s social computing contract and release of its software under a BSD-like license.


The firmware controls the digital signal processor (DSP), the electronic heart of the Neuros that converts the various music formats into digital signals that can, in turn, be converted into music. Currently, the Neuros supports the popular MP3 format, but support for uncompressed WAV and the open source Ogg Vorbis formats is in beta testing. DI makes beta (and, as they admit, with tongue firmly in cheek, “way-beta”) firmware revisions available for download. I tested the Neuros with both the production (1.38) and beta (1.40) firmware.


The Software

The software supplied with the player consists of a Windows application (the Neuros Synchronization Manager) for managing and synchronizing the audio files on the Neuros and on your computer, along with drivers for Windows 98. Newer versions of Windows have USB drivers built in – to the computer, the Neuros looks like a removable hard drive.

Neuros Synchronization Manager

DI has a refreshing view regarding their software: they use the BSD license, making the software open and free. While it is not quite as free as a license like the GPL would make it, this is a great step forward for both the company and its customers. Benefits are already paying off. Xiph.Org has created Positron, a Linux-based, command line management program that allows the Neuros to be used on any Linux system that supports USB. Positron is released under the BSD license. Additionally, the Neuros does not implement any Digital Rights Management (DRM) controls, so there are no restrictions on how the music files that you place in the Neuros can be used.


Another Neuros program is Sean Starkey’s NeurosDBM, a Java application that will run on any system that supports Java 1.4 and can see the Neuros as a USB drive. NeurosDBM is released under the GPL.

NeurosDBM running on Sparc

I discovered that moving between the Neuros Synchronization Manager and the GPL programs is not quite as easy a prospect as just firing up an application and moving files. The Neuros Sync Manager stores the Neuros database on the computer, while the other two programs rely on the database being stored on the Neuros. NeurosDBM will scan the database when it is first started. Positron does not appear to scan the database, but does update it when syncing with the Neuros. Thus, if you add files to your Neuros using Positron or NeurosDBM, you will have to rebuild the database on your Windows PC if you wish to use the Neuros Synchronization Manager. Rebuilding the database on the PC takes quite a bit of time, so I actually found it easier to use NeurosDBM since I moved between a Windows computer at home and a Sun workstation at work. Rebuilding the database on the Neuros (using Positron or NeurosDBM) only takes a few minutes, a much more satisfying experience.

Although NeurosDBM and Positron are not DI products, they are talked up quite a bit in the online forums on the Neuros web site by users, DI employees and the program writers.


Using the Neuros

The package that arrived from Digital Innovations contained the Neuros with the 20GB backpack, an AC adapter, a car power adapter, earbud-type headphones, USB cable and manual. It was well packaged and survived its trip from Chicago to Idaho with aplomb.


A bright orange paper advised me to upgrade the firmware in the player before doing anything with it. This was easily accomplished by installing the Windows-based software, then plugging in the Neuros. My computer automatically recognized the Neuros as a USB hard drive, then the software automatically updated the firmware. It was as painless and foolproof a process as possible.


The production firmware (version 1.38 as of this writing) supports only MP3 files. I’ve ripped almost all of my CDs to MP3 files, giving me thousands of songs to choose from. I’ve also downloaded quite a few from eMusic.com, so I had a variety of files to choose from, ripped with different software, at different bitrates and with different ID3 tags.


Copying files from the computer to the Neuros was also quite easy. Simply drag and drop from a folder window to the application, then synchronize. The synchronizing process updates the database on the computer, copies the files to the Neuros, then updates the database on the Neuros. Since the Neuros is a USB 1.1 device, the copying process is not particularly speedy. Moving a typical album encoded with variable bit rate (roughly 60 minutes of music) takes around five minutes. I moved about 5 GB worth of MP3s. It took a few hours. It’s quite a bit of time, but I only had to move significant amounts of music this one time. After that, it’s a gradual process, adding an album here and there.


Once the music was copied, I started listening. I started out using the earbuds that came with the Neuros. I’m not a big fan of earbud headphones – almost every pair that I’ve tried hurt my ears. These weren’t as bad as most that I’ve tried, but they still seemed uncomfortable to me. An awful lot of people like them, so I’ve just come to the assumption that my ears just aren’t compatible with earbuds. So, I used a pair of Sennheiser HD455 headphones, a relatively inexpensive pair of full-sized, open air ‘phones. I also tried the Neuros with a much more expensive pair of Grado SR-125 headphones, but the low impedance of those 'phones presented more of a challenge to the Neuros than it could handle. I could not turn the volume up to anything approaching a comfortable listening level. I wouldn't count that as a strike against the Neuros, though...I normally listen to the Grados through a dedicated headphone amplifier that produces quite a bit more current than any portable device could (and still have the batteries last eight to ten hours). My Denon receiver doesn't even have enough oomph for them. But I will say that through the headphone amplifer and the Grado SR-125's, MP3 files played through the Neuros sound extraordinarily good.


The quality of the sound that I heard from the Neuros was directly related to the quality of the MP3 that it was playing, something that I expected. The best sounding music came from high-bitrate files. I noticed the greatest difference in sound on small jazz groups that were well-recorded. A 320Kb/s bitrate MP3 of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue had much greater clarity and definition than a 128Kb/s version. But the same song recorded with variable bit rate was indistinguishable from the higher bitrate. It also took up about 20% less disk space. Through the Grado headphones and their amplifier, a VBR MP3 sounded very close to the original CD. Yes, the CD sounded better, but not by much. And it strikes me that the convenience of having several thousand songs on the Neuros' hard drive outweighed the slight decrease in sound quality. Generally speaking, it seemed that music that sounded good on CD sounded good on the Neuros. I will say that poorly recorded CDs (one of Pat Benatar's early efforts, for instance) didn't sound so good on the Neuros. But, to the Neuros' credit, it didn't sound any worse. As my grandfather used to say, you can't polish a tu...well, you get the picture. Good recordings sound almost as good as the CD when encoded using VBR and bad recordings don't sound any worse.


High bitrate Ogg Vorbis and uncompressed Wav files came across with the same sound quality as the VBR MP3 files. The Ogg Vorbis files took less disk space than the MP3 files, while the Wav files took up substantially more. With the beta firmware, the Neuros will also record Wav files (in addition to MP3 files, which the production firmware supports). The Neuros Synchronization Manager will not manipulate Ogg Vorbis or Wav files, but the Java-based NeurosDBM will.


The menus and controls on the Neuros are very intuitive. The screen displays textual menu choices that you can select using the four position joystick button. When the music is playing, the display shows information gleaned from the MP3’s data tags: Artist, song, album. It will also display the genre if that is encoded as well. A graphical bar indicates total and elapsed time for the track. Battery status and drive capacity indicators are always visible.

Neuros Controls

Pressing the fast forward or fast reverse buttons move you through the song just as you would expect. Volume is controlled by pressing the joystick button up or down. Pressing the joystick button to the right brings up the Neuros’ extra information (Xi) menu that lets you change the play mode of the tracks (shuffle, repeat), delete the song from the Neuros, adjust the MyFi broadcast frequency and, on the beta firmware, adjust the graphic equalizer.


The Play button also functions as the power switch. Hold it down for a few seconds and the Neuros will shut off. Hold it again for a few seconds and it will turn on. All of the buttons can be disabled with the lock slider switch on the front right of the Neuros.


The Neuros also features an FM receiver. It has a digital tuner and uses the five preset buttons to store your favorite stations. The receiver uses the headphone cord for its antenna. I found that it was not particularly sensitive, particularly indoors. Outside, I had no problem pulling in any of the local Boise, Idaho stations, although we are fortunate here to live at the foot of a mountain range that is about 2500 feet above the city’s elevation. That means that almost everywhere in the area has a line of sight view to the FM transmitters on the mountain.


The FM sound quality was good, about what you would expect from a portable, stereo radio. It was not as good as the tuner in my Denon receiver, but that’s really picking nits since the receiver sold for five times the Neuros’ price.


I was very intrigued by the MyFi feature. DI claims that it will allow the Neuros to broadcast on an unused FM frequency to a nearby (less than 20 feet) radio so that you can enjoy your music sans headphones or cables. This seems like a particularly nice feature for car use. I’m no fan of those cassette adapters. Besides the extra cord that always seems to get in the way, the audio quality is usually very poor.


Setting up MyFi is, like everything else on the Neuros, fairly simple. The “settings” menu will activate the MyFi frequency scanner. With the headphones plugged in (remember, they are the antenna), the Neuros will scan up and then down the FM band looking for the frequency with the least interference, then display the frequency. Just unplug the headphones and start playing music. When the headphones are out, the player automatically turns MyFi on, displaying a small radio antenna icon and the broadcast frequency. When in MyFi mode, the joystick button volume control becomes a frequency control, adjusting the frequency in .2 MHz increments, allowing you to fine tune the Neuros’ frequency choice, if necessary. The Neuros will remember the last frequency selected, so you do not have to repeat the scanning process.


I used MyFi in my Ford Explorer. The Explorer has the antenna mounted on the passenger side front fender. I generally got the best reception with the Neuros sitting on the dashboard in a large change tray that is built in. The audio quality was at least equivalent to that of a strong radio station and certainly better than a cassette adapter.


I also used it in a Honda Accord with the antenna in the left rear fender. Again, the best result seemed to be with the Neuros on the dashboard. My assumption is because this provides a line of sight transmission path. The signal quality was a little worse in the Honda, probably because of the increased distance from the Neuros to the antenna, but it was no worse than an FM station that might occasionally get a bit of static. I still felt that the sound quality was better than that of a cassette adapter.


The Neuros has a jack for an antenna for MyFi. According to one of the forums on the Neuros web site, an antenna accessory is under development and will be released soon.


All in all, I was quite satisfied with the MyFi feature. I found that I did not have to change frequencies on my daily 15 mile commute from the west side of Boise, Idaho to the east side. It’s possible that in a more densely populated urban area the Neuros will have issues of interference with FM stations. Boise does not have a plethora of them, so I suspect that anyone living in a medium-sized city or rural area will probably have similar performance to mine.


One other feature of the Neuros that intrigued me was HiSi. This is activated by a bright orange button on the right side of the front of the player. It will record a 30 second sample of a song playing on the radio. When the Neuros is connected to a computer, the synchronization software will query an Internet site that will respond with information about the song. It’s touted as a feature that will allow a user to identify an unknown song by constructing a sort of digital “fingerprint” that is matched against a database. DI claims a 95% accuracy rate. I confirmed that when listening to fairly mainstream radio stations that played pop, hip hop and rock music. HiSi correctly identified 18 out of 20 songs. On somewhat more obscure stations, like our local college jazz and classical stations, it did not fare so well, identifying only two of ten songs. That seems to be attributable to the breadth of the database that the software is accessing. The owner’s manual says that the database size is being constantly increased, so perhaps time will tell. For me, HiSi wasn’t such a great feature, but for those who listen to popular music, it seems to work quite well.


The only problem that I encountered with the Neuros HD 20GB was when I was testing it with the third party applications and a Sun workstation running Solaris UNIX. The instructions are very explicit that the Neuros must be unmounted as a drive before disconnecting the USB cable. The one time that I forgot to do that and disconnected the cable while the Neuros was still mounted caused the player’s database to become corrupted. Fortunately, both Positron and NeurosDBM anticipate that kind of trouble and will rebuild the database by reading all of the files stored on the player. Thus, the only thing lost was a few minutes of time.


Another issue that concerned me was durability. Obviously, the Neuros is a portable device. Since it contains a hard drive, I was worried about what might happen if it was dropped or somehow abused. Now I certainly wasn’t going to drop it on the floor while it was playing…I'm not that curious! Fortunately, another opportunity presented itself. The Neuros fell off the dashboard of my Explorer as I was going around a corner. It slid half the length of the dashboard, flew off and struck the passenger window, then fell to the floor, about 32 inches. All this while playing through the radio using MyFi. The music did not skip or misbehave in any way. And the Neuros was completely undamaged. Thus, it satisfies my concerns regarding durability.


Product Support

I did not have the opportunity to use the toll-free technical support line. I did, however, make liberal use of the Neuros forums because I found a number of messages posted from members of the company. As I mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to make a complete hash of the database on the Neuros by unplugging it from the Sun computer before unmounting it. I discovered the solution to that problem with a five minute scan of the forums.

Web-based forums are a two-edged sword. Obviously they are a great way to share information, both amongst users and from the staff. They also present an opportunity for some pretty scathing messages from frustrated users. To DI's credit, the few disgruntled posts that have been made have not been removed or glossed over. It looks to me like Joe Born, DI's Chairman and CTO, tries to respond to all of them. Some problems are resolved, some are not, but overall, DI seems to use the forums as a very effective communications tool.


The Neuros is covered by a 90 day labor / one year parts warranty.


Overall Conclusions

I’ve been using the Neuros HD 20GB for about two weeks. I’ve listened at home, on the road and in the office. Other than problems that I caused myself, the player has performed exactly as advertised. Digital Innovations says that it’s not intended to be an “iPod killer”, and I agree. It seems to be intended for a different audience – one for whom features and performance outweigh appearance. Its strong points are an easy to use interface, excellent sound quality and extra features like MyFi and HiSi. The synchronization and database management tools are well designed and do a fine job. The Neuros plays a wide variety of audio formats, including the open Ogg Vorbis format. As an added benefit, since the Neuros appears to your computer as USB disk drive, it can serve as a portable storage device!


Perhaps the best feature of all is that the Neuros will work with any operating system that can mount a USB hard drive.


The only weak points that I found was the slow USB 1.1 interface, but DI will soon release a USB 2.0 version that will remove that hurdle (and existing customers can purchase a new backpack that will take advantage of USB 2.0). Also, physically, the Neuros is larger and heavier than several of its competitors, but only by a few ounces and fractions of an inch.


Overall, I highly recommend this product. It is available directly from Digital Innovations for $199.00.


The Neuros webpage: http://www.neurosaudio.com

The Positron webpage: http://www.xiph.org/positron

The NeurosDBM webpage: http://neurosdbm.sourceforge.net

October 23, 2003 - Update

In my review, I said that the Neuros didn't quite have enough oomph to drive my low impedance Grado SR-125 headphones. After I wrote this review, I noticed a message in the Neuros discussion forums on Neurosaudio.com web page from somebody who was using a pair of SR-80s. They are very similar to the SR-125s, which made me wonder why I couldn't get good performance out of mine.

The answer was simple...my headphones were defective. There was a short in the headphones that was causing the impedance to drop well below 32 ohms! So, after replacing the headphones under warranty (kudos to The Stereo Shoppe here in Boise, Idaho for great customer service), I tried the headphones again. They sounded great and the Neuros easily drove them without any problem. That says a lot about the quality of the output driver in the Neuros - Grado headphones do require quite a powerful output for them to work well, and the Neuros not only drove them well, it sounded pretty darn good doing it!

 

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