Review Price £129.99
iRiver S100 - Sound Quality, Value and Verdict
The iRiver S100 is a DAB -compliant device, but here in the UK the new standard isn't broadcast. The difference? It's primarily to do with encoding. DAB uses the MPEG2 codec, while DAB uses the more advanced eAAC codec. In short, this means that when transmitted at the same bit-rate, DAB broadcasts will sound much better than plain old DAB ones.
The quality of current DAB broadcasts varies greatly between stations, generally between 64kbps and 160kbps - but some delve even lower. This dilution of the broadcast stream has somewhat ruined the idea that DAB radio offers crystal clear "digital" quality - especially when the same stations tend to be broadcast at higher quality over Freeview.
There are plenty of reasons not to be down on DAB though - primarily the many great stations not available on FM, such as BBC 6Music and Planet Rock. Thankfully, there's generally a correlation between the quality of station and the quality of broadcast too.
As previous DAB users will already know, when the signal of a DAB radio breaks-up, it causes garbled digital noise rather than the fuzzy distortion of FM radio. It's more distracting, making listening to DAB radio with an unreliable signal a frustrating, ear ache-inducing experience. Unfortunately this problem afflicts the iRiver S100.
Using the headphone lead as an aerial, the S100's signal is not strong enough to ensure a consistent, non-garbled sound. Outside, we found it performed reasonably well, with just the odd blip, but indoors or on public transport performance was much worse - barely usable a lot of the time.
This isn't really the S100's fault, as the only sure-fire way to improve signal would be to add a whacking great big aerial. Hardly a practical solution for a portable, pocket device, but it points to one of the key reasons DAB radios haven't taken off in spite of the popularity of home units. They're much less resistant to the rigors of real-life use than an equivalent FM set.
You may have a better experience if the DAB signal is particularly strong in your area, but we tested the iRiver S100 in several different locations and found issues were never far away. As DAB radio also uses significantly more power than MP3 playback or FM radio, you'll only get around 6 hours of it off a charge too. As much as we'd like to recommend DAB radios, most of them just don't cut it experience-wise by today's standards.
Sound quality is, as usual for an iRiver player, good though and there are a handful of customisation options. There's the SRS WOW HD suite (comprised of SRS, TruBass, FOCUS, WOW and Definition), a similar SRS CS Headphone set of options, designed to improve low-quality encodes, and a standard 5-band EQ. Only one of these can be used at a time.
The SRS options range from the useful, like TruBass and FOCUS, which add low- and high-end presence, to those that can make your music sound plain ugly, like WOW. They're not a patch on the options available from Cowon's JetEffect 3.0 engine devices, but more that Apple's players offer. Unfortunately, the standard EQ is weak and inflexible - not a great deal of use.
The iRiver S100 makes a good MP3 player but only an average DAB radio thanks to its poor interface and performance that doesn't rise above the norm. At £129.99 for the 8GB version, it's only slightly cheaper than a previous-gen [http://www.trustedreviews.com/mp3/review/2008/10/20/Apple-iPod-touch-32GB--2nd-Gen-/p1 iPod Touch], and much more than the [linkout:http://www.trustedreviews.com/mp3/review/2009/10/05/Sony-Walkman-NWZ-E443-4GB/p1 Sony NWZ-E443]. These aren't DAB-enabled players, but the quality of DAB experience that's available to the average city traveller just doesn't merit a £100 outlay. Lesser pocket DAB radios are available for under £50, and that price tag feels much more in-line with what you'll get from DAB on-the-go.
The iRiver S100 is a slim, stylish and well-made media player that's technically future-proofed thanks to its inclusion of DAB support. However, a very patchy interface and real-world DAB performance that's miles away from what you'd get with a home set costing half the price it's not the cutting-edge radio solution we've been hoping for. Not enough has improved since 2005 and the [linkout:http://www.trustedreviews.com/multimedia/review/2005/10/25/Pure-Pocket-DAB-2000/p1 Pure Pocket DAB 2000].
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