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Digital Innovations

by Drew Dunn
2005/02/08



I always tell my wife that life is a series of tradeoffs. If you want it really bad, chances are you’ll get it really bad. A nice car is usually an expensive car. That free cat that I picked up six years ago just had a $500 vet bill. And if I want my music to be portable, sound quality will suffer. My wife says I’m cynical – I say I’m a realist.

As it turns out, that last may not be entirely true (the music, not the cynicism). Certainly there are plenty of portable CD players that, while not approaching the quality of a high end home unit, hold their own very wall. But as a portable medium, CDs still have a distinct problem – you can only fit so much music on a single disc. Therein lies the appeal of the plethora of portable digital music players on the market. The more capable use a small hard drive to hold, as the manufacturers suggest, thousands of songs. And, while it’s true that you can squeeze some 10,000 average-length pop songs on a typical 20GB hard drive, even my 42 year old ears can tell that something is missing when an aggressive MP3 compressor has had its way with a tune.

Still, in a life of tradeoffs, there is still that possibility of achieving a balance between quality and quantity. The Neuros II Digital Audio Computer from Digital Innovations has attempted that task.

The Neuros II is a portable digital music player that features disk sizes of 20GB, 40GB and 80GB. Other than the hard drive size, features are common across the three models. The 20GB version, reviewed here, is a two piece device with a fairly small control unit that fits into a “backpack” that contains the hard drive, battery pack and USB 2.0 interface. The all-black case is attractively set off with dull orange backlit labels. An LCD screen that measures about 1.5” diagonally is also backlit in orange. The lighting is actually quite soothing and easy to view in the dark.

The control unit is the user interface to the Neuros II. It has a centrally located joystick-like thumbpad that rocks in four directions. The thumbpad’s functions vary, depending upon the mode that the player is in. Three additional buttons control skip, fast forward and reverse, play, pause and power. Five preset buttons can be programmed with various functions. A lock button prevents the controls from being inadvertently activated and a dedicated button is provided for the “HiSi” feature of which we’ll learn more later.

Physically, the Neuros II measures 5.3” x 3.1” x 1.3” and weighs 9.3 ounces. The player’s package includes an AC adapter, car DC adapter, earbuds, USB cable, manual and synchronization software.

The manual, while a little slim, is concise and well-written. The Windows-based synchronization software is also well designed and quite easy to use. It is essentially a drag-and-drop affair that copies the music files to the Neuros II and maintains a database of the music on the host computer and the Neuros II. One slight inconvenience of the software is that it will not allow you to copy a song directly to the Neuros II (which appears as a hard drive to the computer) and then update the database. The software must do the copying in order to maintain its own database. However, a third party software package, NeurosDBM is available that will allow just that feature, although the two programs are incompatible with each other.

Synchronization is quite fast with USB 2.0. I uploaded roughly 3GB of music to the Neuros II in just a few minutes. The synchronization software also supports the “HiSi” (Hear It, Save It) feature. This is an intriguing part of the Neuros’ FM tuner that will save a few seconds of a song from the radio, then attempt to identify it using an online database during synchronization. I found that HiSi was accurate with more popular music, but mostly missed on anything too obscure, particularly with the jazz that I listen to. Nonetheless, it is a clever addition to the Neuros II that can satisfy that “what song is that?” conundrum that we all face from time to time.

The FM tuner is competent enough, using the Neuros II’s display for its digital frequency readout. The player uses the headphone wires as its antenna. I did not notice any difference in reception with the supplied earbuds and any of the aftermarket headphones that I also used. FM radio conditions in southwestern Idaho are certainly not in the league of the northeast, so I was unable to check distant station reception or adjacent channel rejection since the stations in the Boise Valley are well separated in frequency and none is further than about 20 miles from me.

Another interesting feature of the Neuros II is a built-in FM transmitter, something that Digital Innovations calls “MyFi”. This low-powered transmitter enables the Neuros II to broadcast to a nearby (within around 20 feet) radio, removing the need for awkward adapters and connectors. This is particularly useful in the car, since many newer models don’t have cassette players and many people don’t want to fumble with a cassette adapter. The Neuros II can be configured to automatically turn on its FM transmitter if the headphones are not plugged in. In my Volkswagen New Beetle and Honda Accord (both with antennas in the rear), the Neuros worked very nicely via FM, although it didn’t have enough power to overcome a radio station broadcasting on the same frequency. But there are plenty of frequencies from which to choose, so, unless you live in an area that is crowded with FM broadcasters, you should enjoy good results. MyFi won’t win any audiophile competitions – its sound quality is only as good as your FM radio, but it’s certainly convenient.

The Neuros also has an integrated microphone and a line in connector for digital recording in WAV or MP3 formats. As a convenience, the Neuros will also act as a portable USB 2.0 hard drive when connected to a computer.

But of course, we really want to know how it sounds! The answer, as with many things, is, “It depends.” With the supplied earbuds, even high bitrate audio files were fairly lifeless and felt as though the frequency range was terribly constricted. In fact, listening to my Denon DVD-1000 through the earbuds revealed the same problems. Clearly, the earbuds need some work. Since I did not want to compromise the Neuros II’s potential with the supplied earbuds, I did the rest of my listening with a combination of Sennheiser HD-580 and Grado SR-225 headphones, occasionally using an inexpensive headphone amplifier as well.

Again, tradeoffs reared their ugly heads. The Neuros II was capable of reasonably impressive sonic fidelity with either uncompressed or very high bitrate compressed files, at the expense of eating a lot of hard drive space. I found that the best compromise between sonic performance and hard drive consumption was with the Ogg Vorbis OGG format at Q=8. I used the free programs Exact Audio Copy and oggenc to create several files from a few reference CDs.

Even a high bitrate OGG file is not going to be confused with the CD original, although I felt that the loss in dynamic range, presence and absolute frequency response was a reasonable price to pay for the convenience of being able to pile several thousand songs into the player. Uncompressed WAV files certainly recaptured a substantial portion of what was lost in the compression, but again, you won’t confuse the output of the Neuros II with that of a good CD player. But that’s not the aim of the Neuros II.

Listening to the soundtrack from the movie Gladiator, I was impressed with what the Neuros II captured. Yes, some of the immediacy and sense of being there was missing, but through the Sennheisers, the Neuros II captured the spirit of the music and transported me back to those scenes of the movie without any sense of fatigue or consciously thinking that I was making a sonic sacrifice. The character of the classic guitar was clearly present and the impact of the Holst-derived orchestrations gave me the same thrill that I felt through the same headphones connected to the Denon DVD-1000.

The OGG rip of the HDCD version of Jazz at the Pawnshop effectively spirited me away to the Swedish nightclub when played through the Grados. The atmosphere of the club was present and even if the ambience was somewhat compressed and articulation of the cymbals and bass weren’t quite a crystal clear as through my home system, the Neuros II conveyed the feeling of the music without the feeling that it was being compromised.

Other CD rips produced similar results. I always felt that the spirit of the recording had been captured, even if the output was not the last word in sonic quality. As I mentioned before, the compromise between quality and quantity seemed to be fair in the case of the Neuros II.

What about other formats? The Neuros II supports WAV, MP3, WMA and OGG. The best absolute performance certainly was from WAV files, but the resulting file sizes were significantly larger than even high bit rate OGG or MP3 files. For a given bitrate, OGG files were smaller and sonically identical to their MP3 cousins.

Audio through the FM transmitter was of higher quality than a typical FM radio station, but suffers from the limitations of the format. The frequency response and dynamic range are quite constricted, but, again, this should be balanced against the convenience of not having to mess around with cables. The Neuros II includes a cassette adapter which is a tremendous step up in sonic quality, and it can also be connected to an audio system’s line inputs using the headphone jack for the best fidelity.

Navigating the Neuros II was very easy and intuitive. The display is very clear and its response to button presses is fast. When music is playing, the display shows the album, artist and song names (and scrolls those that are too long to fit the screen) as well as elapsed/remaining time, battery charge state, hard drive capacity, file type of the song being played, genre of the song and the current time of day. It will also indicate what frequency the FM transmitter is broadcasting on, if the player is in MyFi mode.

Obviously the Neuros II, like similar portable digital music players, is competing against Apple’s iPod and a comparison between the two is inevitable. The Neuros II is larger and heavier (its control unit is about the same size as a new iPod), but it is available in larger hard drive sizes than the iPod. Apple’s interface is somewhat sleeker and more intuitive, but not by much. The Neuros features a radio and transmitter, which are available as accessories for the iPod. The battery life of the Neuros II is slightly greater than the iPod’s, between 10 and 12 hours, depending upon the headphones and volume (lower impedance headphones consume more power as does playing the Neuros loud). In fact, adding the necessary accessories to the iPod to match the functionality of the Neuros II results in a unit that is about the same size and weight as the Neuros II. An important note – if you use a Neuros (or almost any other portable music player) with high quality non-portable headphones, you may find that you’ll need some additional amplification. A cottage industry has popped up, providing portable and fixed headphone amplifiers – links are at the end of the article.

The Neuros II is also less expensive than the iPod – the 20GB version, as tested, retails for $249.99. The software supports Microsoft Windows only, but third-party offerings support any platform that runs the Java programming language.

Overall, the Neuros II satisfies. It is not the last word in sonic fidelity, but in a world of tradeoffs and compromises, it is an excellent match between convenience, quantity and quality. Do expect to replace the earbuds with something of better quality, but even with that considered, the Neuros II delivers a fine portable sonic experience, fine enough that I purchased the review sample.

Links

Neuros home page: www.neurosaudio.com
NeurosDBM: neurosdbm.sourceforge.net
Head-Fi: www.headfi.org
Grado: www.gradolabs.com
Sennheiser: www.sennheiser.com

 

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