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Rio Karma – Digital Audio Player Review


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Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £239.00

I really love the idea of hard disk based digital music players. The ability to have all of your music in your pocket all the time is a pretty compelling argument for the technology. Unfortunately I still haven’t managed to justify the purchase of such a player for myself. The main reason for this is that I drive to work every day, so when I’m travelling I’m listening to the stereo in my car, and when I get to work I’ll play my music directly from my PC. But when I get to play with one of these devices, it always rekindles my desire to own one.

I remember when the very first MP3 player surfaced while I was still working at PC Pro magazine. There was a huge buzz around the office while everyone tried to have a play with the little device that was branded Rio. Back then the manufacturer was Diamond (a graphics card manufacturer at the time), and the name of the player was Rio. But now, many years later, Rio is actually the company name, and there is a whole host of players in its range. So, although Apple can claim to have started the whole hard disk MP3 player revolution, Rio can claim to have started the entire MP3 player revolution.

Looking at the Rio Karma it doesn’t illicit the kind of desire that an Apple iPod does. There’s no denying that the iPod looks fantastic and this is one of its biggest selling points. I bought an iPod as a birthday present for my wife earlier on in the year – a purchase based more on the fact that she loved the way it looked rather than functionality and features. But looks aren’t everything, and once you pick up the Rio Karma you realise that it is far more pleasing than the iPod from a tactile point of view. The square design of the Karma means that it fits snugly in the palm, even if you have small hands like me. It is considerably thicker than the iPod, but with a rubber grip on one side it’s far less likely to slip out of your hand. Also, despite its plastic casing, it feels more robust than the iPod. That said, the screen area is very susceptible to scratches and the review unit that Rio sent me was already well marked. With a weight of 156g the Karma is pretty light, and represents a 20g saving on the iPod.

The Karma is finished in black, grey and silver, with the red four-way joystick standing out. The joystick controls menu navigation up, down, left and right, while pressing it in will select the highlighted option. While playing music, pressing the joystick up will pause/play, pressing down will stop, left will jump back a track and right will jump forward. To the left of the joystick is a silver menu button – this will bring up the menus, and will also jump back a level when you’re in sub menus. In the top right corner you’ll find a jog wheel which does pretty much the same thing as the joystick. With the jog wheel you can move through the menus, while pressing it in will select the options. On the top of the casing is the power button and on the left you’ll find the volume controls and a lock switch to avoid inadvertent button presses. The screen is large 49mm affair, with a resolution of 160 x 128. The text and graphics are clear, and the blue Indiglo type backlight is effective and good looking.

At the bottom of the Karma you’ll find a port to connect it to the supplied docking cradle. Just like with the Apple iPod, the Karma’s docking cradle allows it to connect to your PC for file transfer. The Karma also has a mini USB port on its base, so you can connect straight to your computer without the need for the cradle, and since the docking cradle also has a mini USB connector, you can use the same supplied cable whether you’re connecting via the cradle or directly. Also at the base of the Karma is a power socket for the supplied DC power adapter, so the unit can be charged without the cradle as well.

The docking cradle is the best I’ve seen and has pretty much every feature you could want and more. The design is stylish and the overall effect when the Karma is sitting in the cradle is very cool indeed. The frosted base that holds the Karma glows blue and you can decide whether it glows solidly, pulses continually, or pulses while the Karma is charging. At the rear is a power connector for the supplied DC adapter and a mini USB port for connection to your PC, all pretty standard stuff.

However, what isn’t pretty standard are the other connections on the cradle. First up you’ll find left and right phono sockets for connecting the Karma to your Hi-Fi. This means that if you want to listen to your whole collection of music that’s stored on the Karma while you’re in your living room, you can simply slot it into the cradle, switch your amp to the right input and set your favourite playlist going. Of course the problem with this setup is that your cradle is sitting in your living room and your computer is in your bedroom or study. So, if you want to get music onto the Karma you’re going to need to use the USB cable directly, but remember to place the unit back in the cradle to charge. Well, it might appear that you would need to do that, but Rio is way ahead of the game and has added one more connector to the cradle, an Ethernet port.

Now, the Rio Karma has some great features, but for me the inclusion of an Ethernet port in the cradle is the best feature of all. If you connect the cradle up to your home or office network, it will grab an IP address and be accessible to any computer attached to the network. When you install the Rio Music Manager software onto your PC it will find the Karma and allow you to transfer files to it over the network without the need for a direct USB connection. If like me, you have a wireless network at home you can simply buy a wireless bridge and plug the Karma docking cradle into it, effectively connecting the Karma directly to your network and allowing you to access the device from any computer on that’s connected. So, your Rio Karma can happily reside in your living room, connected to your Hi-Fi and still be accessible by your PC, no matter where it may be. Obviously with a 100Mbit/sec Ethernet connection it will take you longer to transfer music than over a USB 2.0 connection, and it will take even longer over wireless, but this is an ease of use feature rather than a performance one.

In use the Karma is pretty simple and intuitive – ok the controls aren’t as slick as the scroll wheel on the iPod, but the you do have a choice of either joystick or jog dial control. Like most high capacity MP3 players, the music is sorted in many ways including Album, Artist, Track and Genre. Interestingly, the Karma will also sort all your music into years, so if you fancy a bit of an 80s session, you can easily select tracks only from that era. Of course you can create your own playlists, either via the Rio Music Manager software or on the Karma itself.

Sound quality was excellent from MP3, WMA and Ogg Vorbis file formats. Of course the quality of the sound from any digital audio player is dependant on the quality of the files you’re playing back. I was pleased to see support for Ogg Vorbis, since this is becoming a more popular file format, and does generally sound better than both MP3 and WMA. Unfortunately I had to judge the sound quality through Sony and Philips headphones, since I wasn’t sent the Karma headphones with the review sample. However, you are supposed to get a set of Sennheiser ear buds, which should sound pretty good. There’s a five-band graphic equaliser so you can tailor the sound of the music to your own tastes. If you don’t want to mess about with the graphic equaliser you can just adjust the bass and treble, or even select one of the many preset equaliser settings.

There’s not much in the way of extras, but you do get a stopwatch application and the Rio Taxi utility that lets you use the Karma as a removable hard disk. There’s a setting to switch the Karma to left handed operation – this flips the display upside down although I’m not sure how this makes things easier for a left handed user. To test this I gave the Karma to my Product New Editor, Benny, who is left handed and he was just as confused as I was by this feature. Having the display upside down also makes controlling the Karma when it’s in the cradle a bit of an adventure.

With a 20GB capacity there’s a decent amount of room in the Rio Karma for all of your music. Rio states that you can fit 10,000 songs on the Karma using WMA and 5,000 using MP3 – the latter is the same quote that Apple gives for its 20GB iPod. The Lithium-Ion battery will give you 15 hours of play time, which is almost twice that of the iPod. Of course the recently released 4th generation iPod has a quoted battery life of 12 hours, but I’ll have to wait for a review sample before I can confirm that. Now, you may not think that long battery life is that important if you charge your player every night, but if you’re on a long haul flight to the Far East, the eight hours that the iPod gives you just isn’t enough. I used the Karma for a while in a number of environments. Even in the most hostile environment – sticking the Karma in my pocket and running – it performed flawlessly without pausing or skipping once.

When I connected the Rio Karma up the first time it checked for firmware updates and automatically downloaded the latest version. Using the Rio Music Manager software is pretty simple and it will automatically import all of the music that you have knocking around on your hard disk. Creating playlists is pretty easy although moving tracks around in playlists could be a little more intuitive. Unfortunately you can’t drag and drop tracks within a playlist, and if you try this it will simply create a copy of the file at the end of the playlist. Then if you remove the copied file at the end of the playlist, it will remove the original track as well. It’s somewhat annoying at first, but once you get used to it it’s not too much of a problem.

So, the Rio Karma is a well built 20GB hard disk based digital audio player with some impressive and unique features, but how much does it cost? Surprisingly, the Karma is a bit of a bargain, with selling it for only £239 including VAT. With a price like that the Karma is an attractive proposition for anyone looking for a pocket size music library that doesn’t have a piece of fruit embossed on it.


The Rio Karma is a very strong alternative to the iPod. If you’re not obsessed with the undoubtedly stunning styling of the iPod, you’ll find that the Karma has some great features that make it an overall better product.

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