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Background

When I joined a gym, I quickly realised that I needed something to block out the noise of sweaty people killing themselves on a dozen different torture machines. I thought an mp3 player would also prevent me from getting bored so quickly. The requirements that I had for my first portable mp3 player were simple. It had to be small and cheap while providing as much storage as possible. 128Mb is the minimum I thought I could cope with. It had to be cheap too. Not 'affordable' or 'good value'. Actually cheap. I wanted something almost disposable, so that if I dropped it, scratched it or stood on it I wouldn't feel too bad. Ideally, I wanted enough quality in the sound reproduction not to make me actually vomit.

My friend pointed out the AV Plus AV-3202H on sale in Novatech. They had it on special offer, and it was even labelled "Cheap MP3 Player with Smart Media Slot". I bought one on sight, and I'm pleased to say it fills its new role in my life almost perfectly.


The AV-3202H is cheap. In the UK it retails for around £40 (although some stores price it as high as £60) and it is the only piece of kit I have ever seen where the driver disk an unlabelled CD-R. It looks reasonable (urls with images are at the very end of this writeup) but its plastic surface scratches easily and its lack of build quality is quickly revealed by its clunky buttons. These feel just as cheap as you'd expect from what must currently be one of the cheapest things on the market. Luckily, it doesn't sound too bad at all.

AV Plus, whose corporate slogan genuinely appears to be "Let's make human life more wonderful", make a good range of portable mp3 players and home entertainment systems. They are owned by Shenzhen Shengmingxing Investment Development, which specialises in finance and tech investment. Being a Chinese company, the player comes with a great translated Chinese instruction manual. It gives a basic introduction to mp3 players, which have apparently "become a favorite electronic pet of the young" before reassuring me about the build quality of the device "without any mechanical motion parts, it is fully shock resistant and can hardly be worn away".

Features

  • The AV-3202H takes just one AAA cell (2 are thoughtfully provided in the box)
  • My digital kitchen scales say it weighs 46g without a battery and around 58g with one installed. This is the same as three teaspoons.
  • The battery lasts for 4 to 7 hours of play. Obviously, the duration largely depends on the quality of the battery.
  • It has 32Mb of on-board Flash RAM
  • ...but also boasts one SmartMedia slot
  • There is a microphone. The dictaphone function uses ADPCM compression, recording either to the on-board storage or to the SmartMedia card.
  • 5 equalizer modes, in addition to the obvious 0th one ('Normal', i.e. no equalizer), are provided. These are
    1. 'DBB' (DSP Bass Boost) - Rather heavy on the bass. Urch.
    2. 'Rock' - Increased treble
    3. 'Pop' - Ditto on the mids
    4. 'Classic' - Quiet and flat. What is this, everything brought down?
    5. 'Jazz' - Ow. Louder. Heavy on everything. Similar to cranking the volume 5 notches.
  • VBR and joint stereo are both supported.
  • It connects to a PC using a USB cable (supplied).
  • Windows software (on a CD-R) for file transfer is provided. Windows 95 and up.

Review

The headphones that ship with it are predictably dreadful. They are large solid plastic in-the-ear jobs and very painful. With a decent set of headphones attached (I tried my Sony MDR-G72s first) the difference in sound quality is noticeable. Suddenly it sounds good. I bought myself a pair of the fantastic Sony MDR-EX70LP Fontopia Headphones to go with it. These excessively cool earbuds cost nearly as much as the mp3 player itself. In terms of frequency response range and power output they are certainly overkill, except that I expect to get the best out of even much more expensive toys one day. For the technically minded audiophile, detailed specs are at the bottom.
I've seen some minidisc players which ship with lovely, high quality stereo microphones. With these, you could conceivably record a concert (assuming the artist doesn't mind!) and enjoy listening it to again later. The AV-3202H is not like that but it could work as a dictaphone. The "Hi-Fi" microphone conveniently built into the top right corner of the unit is more low-Fi than the press release would have you believe. I have found it acceptable but I don't expect to be doing anything more than using it as a dictaphone. Part of the problem is anything recorded using the microphone is encoded using ADPCM to save space and 32 kbps sucks for anything other than voice. On the plus side, it could be handy for moving audio notes to yourself to and from your PC. Using the software provided, you can unencode-and-transfer the .rec (ADPCM encoded) files to your PC as .wavs. The same process works in reverse, with the ability to drop .wavs onto the device and optionally have them be compressed on the fly for storing and listening later. This sounds like a useful feature, and I can now listen to the Microsoft Sound wherever I go. I expect I might find a better use for it than this one day though.
The unit has several buttons, which let you switch between various playback modes...
  ,--->  mp3 (onboard) ---> dictaphone (onboard) ----.
  |                                                  |
  |                                                  |
  `- dictaphone (smartmedia) <-- mp3 (smartmedia) <--'   
                                                        
By pressing the 'Rep' button, mp3 tracks can be played and repeated like so...
        ,-> Normal --> Repeat -.
       /                        \
      /                          \
     /                            \  
     '-- (Intro) <-- Repeat All --'

Intro doesn't repeat the track(s) at all. It just plays the first 10 seconds of the recording before moving on to the next one. It works with both mp3 playback and dictaphone mode, but can only be used during the first 10 seconds of a track. It can be helpful, particularly if you are trying to find one particular message you recorded and are too lazy to keep pressing Next. Of course, if you're that lazy, you are probably lazy enough to resent being made to listen to a whole 10 seconds of each track, and will end up pressing Next every 2 seconds or so yourself.

Irritatingly, there is no random function.
The sound quality is generally excellent. One highly irritating feature is a soft 'click' at the start of each track. This click is most assuredly not part of the mp3, but something introduced by the player. It seems to be a consistent volume, regardless of the volume or equalizer settings. It's not loud enough to be annoying unless you are falling asleep listening to mp3s. When turned down to low volume, listening to restful music, you are often rudely awakened between songs.
Other than the clicking, the biggest disappointment with this player is the software. Much like a graphical ftp client, it consists of two sections which allow you to browse both your hard disk and the contents of the mp3 player. A drop down lets you pick the file store on the player to use (either the onboard flash or the SmartMedia card). Sounds good so far? Just you wait. What's appallingly wrong with the software?
  • Sorting the file store views is impossible. Even the 'detailed' file view mode, which shows file size and date, does not allow the view to be sorted by any of the columns. Even worse, it usually sorts the files alphabetically, but not always. My Tenacious D album, when viewed on my hard disk, doesn't seem to use any of the obvious choices for ordering the files in the viewer. It's not alphabetic, it's not ordered by date, it's not by size, it's something else.. something that introduces a seemingly random element. The Explorer style disk browser, which also seems to use this seemingly random method for listing directories, is especially infuriating if you are looking for one particular directory out of many. You get used to it of course. I quickly learned that it was most efficient (time-wise at least) to copy an album (or selection of songs) for upload into a particular directory. A directory on the desktop is particularly helpful because Desktop shows up as a special icon in the root level, as in Explorer.
  • Reordering of the files already on the device is not supported. The player does not support directory structure and the order in which the mp3s are played is determined entirely by the order in which they were uploaded to the player. It's not possible to change that order without either getting it right in the first place or deleting and re-uploading the files in the order you want.
These features, especially when combined, can make the software highly frustrating to use.

Should the CD-R that comes with the packaged product become damaged, you can get the software from the AV Plus website [1]. The version currently on the web is actually older than the one on the included CD though, so don't hold your breath for regular updates and bug fixes.

Detailed spec

Novatech [2] (the local company which sells them) and AV Plus [1] disagree a little over the player's specification. Here, and including my first hand experience of the one I purchased, I will settle some of the confusion.

  Novatech            | AV Plus website              | My one
  --------------------+------------------------------+--------------------------
  Backlit Graphic LCD |                              | Not backlit
  1 AAA battery       | 2 Rechargeable AAA + charger | 1 regular AAA. 2 included
  75mm x 50mm x 15mm  | Size: 76x52x16mm             | 75 x 50 x 15 
  20Hz-20KHz          | 60Hz-16Khz                   | (manual says 20-Hz - 20KHz)

Of course, that doesn't really help. AV Plus might well be selling
the same thing (with the same model number!) with slightly different features.
Another review I found [3] agreed that it is powered by 2 rechargeable AAAs
and comes with a charger. Somewhere there must be a rechargeable AV-3202H.
If I ever find one I'll sort this mess out.

On the surface, the AV Plus AV-3203H might remind you of a Creative NOMAD MuVo [4]. Both are 1 x AAA battery operated ultra-small mp3 players. They both use USB for data transfer and Play is even held down for a few seconds to turn each of them on. To its credit, unlike a MuVo, the AV Plus' limited storage can be easily extended using the SmartMedia slot. Since SmartMedia is fairly cheap these days, and adding an additional 128Mb (making 160) is still less than half the price of the non-extendable 128Mb MuVo.

Where the AV-3202H falls down is in flexibility and freedom of file transfer. A MuVo splits off from its battery and mp3-playing housing to be a compact, cable-free USB keychain device, which works as a removable drive. The AV Plus sadly uses a proprietary file system, meaning the user is tied to using the shoddy software which comes with it and can't just take the card out, drop it in a card reader and copy mp3s across. This seems to be quite unusual for a portable mp3 player, and is the biggest drawback of what is otherwise a charming and inexpensive toy.


References

  1. www.avplus-china.com/products/mp3.htm
  2. www.novatech.co.uk/novatech/specpage.html?NOV-MP3S
  3. www.losaltos.co.uk/enter.html?target=p_75.html
  4. www.nomadworld.com/products/muvo/