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Appeared on: Sunday, February 17, 2002
Freecom BeatMan 8cm MP3 Player


1. Introduction

Freecom BeatMan vs. MP-Zip 8cm Mp3 Players -  Page 1

Review by Elias Hantzakos

Introduction

At first it was the cassette Walkman. Then came Discmans, MiniDiscs, DATs and DCCs. The last couple of years saw the advent of solid-memory-based players and Discmans with MP3/WMA decoding capabilities. And now, the latest trend in portable music players is the so called mini-CD players, ie 8cm Discmans.

Why buy a mini-CD player, one might ask. There are several reasons if you asked us: Smaller size than standard-size Discmans, and great storage capacity (185 Mbytes) at a fraction of the cost of memory-based players. Mini-CD players cost less than 64MB-memory players, and can hold not just 185 Mbytes of songs, but additional 185-Mbyte sets at the cost of empty CD-R or CD-RWs. You would need a fortune to buy 1 GB of memory if you used a memory-based player, but if you buy a Mini-CD player, you can have this size of memory by buying five or six CD-R discs, at half than a dollar each! In our view, mini-CD players are not up against standard-size MP3 Discmans, which are unbeatable in their ability to play standard Audio CDs and their 650/700Mbyte storage capacity; they are up against the solid-memory players, which are still very expensive to buy, and even costlier to expand with more memory.

If you absolutely need the smallest music portable on the market, you'll have to go for a memory-based solution. But if you don't mind a little extra size and weight, go for a mini-CD player. It'll offer hours of portable music pleasure at the most affordable cost.

In this review, we'll take a close look at two mini-CD players that we used for the last month: The MP-Zip by i-emusic.net, and the Beatman by Freecom.

- Package contents

At first, let's examine the contents of the product packages.

The MP-Zip box contains:
- 1x MP-Zip player
- 1x empty 8cm CD-R
- 1x product manual
- 1x AC power adaptor/battery charger
- 1x external battery chamber
- 1x pair of unbranded in-ear headphones

The Beatman box contains:
- 1x Beatman player
- 2x Duracell Ultra M3 AA-size batteries
- 1x empty 8cm CD-R with plastic CD-case
- 1x 8cm CD-ROM with Musicman Jukebox
- 1x 8cm Audio CD with a Rolling Stone magazine collection of songs
- 1x product manual
- 1x AC power adaptor
- 1x pair of Sennheiser MX300 in-ear headphones

- Looks, size & weight

Opening the boxes and starting from the looks, the MP-Zip looks a lot cheaper than the Beatman. It reminds us of every other Asian manufacturers' typical cd/mp3 player, although of course smaller: It is mostly gray, with lots of silver shinning areas that make it look somewhat bloated, and has in general a rather not-so-sturdy feeling when handling it and pressing its buttons.

 

The Beatman on the other hand, looks much more solid and compact: It is smaller than the MP-Zip (roughly the size of the 8cm disc it houses inside), its blue color with the semi-transparent CD cover seems classy, and its build quality seems very good. On the downside, it is significantly heavier than the MP-Zip, in part because it uses bigger AA-size batteries instead of the small AAA-size ones. Being heavier could also mean it is easier to break if it falls. We did drop the MP-Zip a couple of times by pure accident, but it still operate flawlessly! We haven't dropped the Beatman (and hope we never do), but we think it may not have survived a severe crash.


2. Features

Freecom BeatMan vs. MP-Zip 8cm Mp3 Players -  Page 2

Review by Elias Hantzakos

Features

Both players can only be used for playing 8cm discs (either pre-pressed or user-written). They cannot double up as external CD-ROM drives, as some other similar units can (by means of a USB connection to the PC).

One of the most useful features for portable players is anti-skip protection, so that music reproduction does not stop when the player is moving. The MP-Zip has a 45 second memory for both MP3 and Audio CD discs, and also offers the option of turning this feature off, to preserve battery life. The memory seems to be doing a very good job, as it is really hard to make the music skip, plus you always have an indication of the memory usage and on/off status on the player's screen. The Beatman claims to offer memory-based protection for MP3, and mechanical protection for Audio CD, but it skipped so easily and often during our tests that we doubt these features work at all. In addition, you can neither check the memory's status, nor disable the feature.

Both units have screens which can display various info, such as battery status, track/directory playing, repeat modes, equalizer preset etc. As you read before, the MP-Zip's screen also displays the anti-skip memory's status, but that's not all: It can also display the artist and title of the song currently playing, by reading its filename (Joliet long filenames supported), id3v1.1 tag, or id3v2 tag. It is a really impressive feature for such a small device, and works just fine when displaying the filename or id3v1.1 song info. When displaying id3v2 song info, you might get wrong readings, because the MP-Zip supports an older id3v2 version than Winamp and most id3v2 tag editors support. The MP-Zip's manual recommends a certain id3v2 tag editor that works fine with the unit, but having to use a single program is certainly restricting. Even given the MP-Zip's id3v2 problem, the Beatman scores worse in this category, as its tiny screen cannot display any song titles at all.

As far as reproduction options are concerned, both players offer a few equalizer modes, but all these modes are preset, and cannot be edited by the user to suit his or her sound tastes. Another common feature is the Bass-Boost option, which as you should know simply boosts lower frequencies to compensate for small in-ear headphones that lack in this field. Both players also offer music programming options, with the MP-ZIP being a little better in this area, in terms of playlist memory and ease of programming.

The MP-Zip is also superior to the Beatman in that it supports a true line-out audio output, for connection to a home hi-fi system or any other device that is equipped with a line-in jack. The Beatman is also supposed to offer a line-out connection (in fact, Freecom sells a cable for this purpose), but during our tests the sound output was rather disappointing compared to its headphone output, so we can't really recommend it for users who intend to hook the player to their home hi-fi.

There are no analog rotary knobs on the MP-Zip, as everything can be adjusted using its buttons. The Beatman on the other hand, has a rotary knob for adjusting its volume, which is faster than digital but also looks cheaper.

Both players can run on external power, using the provided AC adapters. The MP-Zip can also charge its batteries, which is extremely useful and economical for a portable player. Also, included in the MP-Zip package is a small external battery compartment that can hold two AA-size batteries and connect to the player, extending its battery life. The Beatman does not include such an accessory, neither can it charge its batteries, which is a major drawback, unless you don't mind buying new batteries every day (or buying a separate battery charger...).

Speaking of battery life, this is an area the two devices have little in common: The MP-Zip can only run for just over two hours on rechargeable batteries, whereas the Beatman lasted for 4.5 hours on alkaline batteries. Running on alkaline batteries, the MP-Zip can run for about three hours, but this still lags behind the Beatman by about 50%. This is obviously a result of the Beatman using bigger AA-size batteries instead of smaller AAA-size, so you will have to choose sides on this matter: It's up to you to decide whether you can put up with Beatman's heavy weight in exchange for longer battery life, or opt for the lighter MP-Zip, whose batteries will die more often.


3. Audio & compatibility tests
Freecom BeatMan vs. MP-Zip 8cm Mp3 Players -  Page 3

Review by Elias Hantzakos

Audio & compatibility tests

There aren't many 8cm pre-pressed CDs out there, apart from a few special-edition CD Singles, but you shouldn't have difficulty finding empty 8cm CD-R media, and most CD Recorders support writing on such small media. For our tests we used CD-R media from MelodyMedia, Princo, Smartmedia and two other unidentifiable manufacturers, and CD-RW media from MelodyMedia.

Both the MP-Zip and the Beatman had absolutely no problem reading any pre-pressed Audio CD, or any of the CD-R or CD-RW discs, so media compatibility does not seem to be an issue. Writing the discs in Disc-at-Once or Track-at-Once modes also causes no problems, although both devices are slower reading TAO discs than DAO ones, as expected.

What seems to be an issue sometimes is disc format: The MP-Zip cannot read mixed-mode CDs that contain both Audio CD music and data tracks. This means you won't be able to play an Audio CD single that also contains a data track (e.g. the song's video), as the MP-Zip mistakes this disc for a data-only disc, and keeps scanning it for MP3 files, which of course don't exist. Any similar combination won't work (for example, Audio CD tracks and MP3 files on the same disc). We admit that such discs are really rare, but we have to give the Beatman a thumbs-up for recognizing and reproducing mixed-mode CDs without problems.

As far as music quality is concerned, both devices perform very well. When listening to Audio CDs or well-encoded MP3s, the sound coming out form the players is really good, crisp and clear, without noise and distortions. Unfortunately, the Beatman proved sensitive to external interference, when placed near a Logitech wireless mouse transmitter, so keep this in mind before buying if you have similar equipment at your premises. The MP-Zip on the other hand, although insensitive to such interference, proved sensitive to some MP3 files, which it reproduced with audible errors and "hiccups". There is no obvious reason why it behaves like this, as it happens randomly while music is playing, and it can only be the player's fault, as the same MP3 CDs play flawlessly in the Beatman, and sometimes in the Mp-Zip itself! We can't really see a solution to this, as the MP-Zip's firmware is not flash-upgradeable, so if you decide to buy it, bear in mind that you may face some music hiccups from time to time (maybe just a couple of times on a full 185-Mbyte CD, but still annoying).

One word of caution before we close the audio quality subject: If you plan to use the MP-Zip with in-ear headphones, consider buying a decent headphone set, as the included headphones are of bad quality and just don't do justice to the player. The Beatman won't put you through this expense, as it includes a pair of high-quality Sennheiser headphones.


4. Conclusion

Freecom BeatMan vs. MP-Zip 8cm Mp3 Players -  Page 4

Review by Elias Hantzakos

Conclusion

Although Mini-CD players are such a great idea, neither of the two devices we tested is perfect, as both of them still leave some things to be desired. This is to be expected, as what we tested is essentially first-generation devices, which will definitely improve over time. However, if you're on the market today and need to buy a portable music device, don't overlook these two offerings, as both of them can fit most users' needs adequately. You just have to decide which one is best for you, by reading the above review and checking the following short list of pros and cons. The choice is up to you!

MP-Zip

Positive (+)

Negative (-)

- Sound quality
- Light weight
- Audio Line-out
- High-performance anti-skip protection
- Large screen with song text display
- Price ($99)

- Short battery life
- Size could be smaller
- Disc format compatibility
- Random music hiccups

Beatman

Positive (+)

Negative (-)

- Sound quality
- Small & compact
- Disc format compatibility

- Heavy weight
- No Line-out audio output
- Inadequate anti-skip protection
- Small screen, no text display
- Susceptible to interference from wireless mice
- Price is higher than MP-ZIP (125 Euro excl. VAT)



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