Multi-Codec Jukebox
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The iRiver H120 is an MP3 player that can record 16-bit, 44.1 kHz uncompressed WAV files. An EM reader introduced me to the iRiver H120 ($399.99) as a potential field recorder. This little MP3 player looked very interesting because of its large internal hard drive, optical digital inputs and outputs, and ability to record 16-bit, 44.1 kHz uncompressed WAV files./td>

The unit offers USB 2.0 I/O and is extremely fast. For example, I transferred a 30-minute stereo recording (16-bit, 44.1 kHz) in about a minute from the H120 to my PC. None of my Macs have USB 2.0, but I was able to read and write to the unit from my iBook and older G4 desktop at the slower USB 1.0 speed. (Although Mac users will not be able to perform an MP3 library genre/cataloging function available to Windows users, they retain full read/write access to the unit.)

The H120's battery life is quite good and the wired remote is superior, allowing full control of all playback and recording functionality. Operation is relatively straightforward, although the user interface relies on short or long clicks to access entirely different functions from the same buttons. I also love the H120's compact size.

Details, Details

Although there is plenty to like about the H120 as a jukebox, there are some issues that make this device difficult to recommend for serious field recording. Less critically, there is about a 5- to 8-second delay when starting and stopping a recording, during which the unit performs some sort of internal hard-drive housekeeping. Additionally, there is no input level control for analog mic or line inputs, nor is there any record level metering. Instead, an automatic gain control (AGC) circuit is always engaged, which varies the record level to avoid clipping. While I prefer to set my own levels, I must admit that this AGC works better than most. It is relatively unobtrusive, and it did not yield the annoying pumping/breathing of the noise floor that I normally associate with AGC front ends.

I wasn't overly concerned with the peculiarities of the analog input section, because I planned to use the digital audio input. Connecting a Denecke AD-20 Inbox, an external mic pre and A/D converter, to the unit allowed me to bypass the AGC and set the levels manually. With this professional-grade front end, I made very nice recordings using an assortment of mics.

A Drop in Time

The main problem with the H120 revealed itself more slowly. I noticed occasional low-level clicks in my recordings. Having heard stories of similar products “dropping samples,” I decided to put the H120 through a test. Using BIAS Peak, I created a stereo test file with a visible “ruler” in the left channel, using a tiny tick every 10 samples, a medium-size click every 100 samples, and a loud pop every 1,000 samples. Next I put a 400 Hz sine wave onto the empty right channel. To check for dropped samples, I played this test file through the optical out of an M-Audio FW410 interface, and recorded it into the optical digital input of the H120.

Playing the file from the H120 revealed occasional loud clicks in the sine wave. I transferred the test recording to my Windows-based computer using USB 2.0 and used the left-channel ruler track to measure exactly what was happening: every one minute and 20 seconds, the H120 dropped about 45 consecutive samples. Depending on the program content at that instant, one might or might not hear a click. But I'm not prepared to take that chance with music or with my sound-effects recording work.

Mixed Media

After field-testing the H120 (with firmware revision 1.17), however, my opinion was decidedly mixed. On the plus side, it does record uncompressed 16-bit, 44.1 kHz PCM WAV files, as well as compressed MP3 files. And its generous 20 GB internal hard drive leaves plenty of room for your recordings, session files, or whatever else you want to store.

While acknowledging the problem, iRiver points out that the H120 isn't designed for professional work. But that's not the standard I'm holding them to. Rather, I compare this $400 device with a $200 MiniDisc (MD) recorder, another consumer device with an optical input. I've never seen an MD that regularly dropped samples, let alone 45 in a row.

If iRiver were to correct the sample-dropping problem — the device does allow user-installable firmware upgrades — I'd happily recommend the H120. Until then, I'll continue my search for the next generation of small, portable recorders.

Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 1.5

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