German storage device company TrekStor hasn’t been overly hyped for manufacturing innovative audio players – until they released the Vibez. Coming in sizes of 8 and 12GB and designed by former Rio Audio developers, the Vibez incorporates many features fans of the venerable Rio Karma still dream about: gapless playback, automatic playlists based on listening habits, crossfade, DJ function, and so on. The Vibez could be seen as a reincarnation of the Rio Avalon – the last, unreleased player designed by Rio Audio, just before they got shut down by their parent company, Digital Networks. We’ll try to find out if it holds up to the high expectations – just read on…
- Quick Look
- Memory: 8GB or 12GB, 0.85″ HDD
- Audio: MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA (DRM), FLAC, WAV
- Screen: 1.5″, 16 bit (65000) color, 176 x 132, TFT
- Dimensions: 105 x 50 x 18 mm (4.13 x 1.97 x 0.71 inches)
- Weight: 71 g (2.50 oz)
- Manufacturer rated battery life: 20 hours for music
- Connection mode: MSC (UMS) and MTP
- Other features: Gapless playback, crossfade, fully parametric EQ, voice/line-in recorder (WAV, up to CD quality), image viewer (JPEG EXIF info supported), date/time, stopwatch, bookmarks, various playlist formats, deleting files on the player, user replaceable battery, decent variety of accessories available
Check out our TrekStor forum for discussion and help with the player.
The Vibez comes with Sennheiser earbuds, user-replaceable battery, USB cable, line-in cable, lanyard, software CD, printed manual and quick start guide, a cleaning cloth, some stickers for showing off – and an awe-inspiring, ergonomic, custom made… paper clip, for opening up the player to change the battery.
The Sennheiser phones are really good, as far as earbuds go. They’re better than the similar Sennheiser MX400 or Sony MDR-818, which are already fairly decent for their low price. I don’t know of many players that come with better stock earbuds. Of course, it is possible to get much more satisfying sound out of the Vibez when upgrading to some decent in-ear monitors or portable headphones. Nevertheless, this is the first player for which I’d say it’s not strictly necessary for the “average” user to upgrade straight away.
The software CD contains drivers for Windows 98, the manual and quick start guide in PDF format, and Magix MP3 Maker SE. This application is a free, slimmed down version of the full payware MP3 Maker – it lets you rip your CDs, manage and edit your audio files and playlists. Although I already knew this was an overly complicated and generally sub-par piece of software, I tried to install it for the sake of this review – jumping through hoops for you, the valued reader. I didn’t even manage to get past the compulsory online registration process because the website was down – maybe that was a twist of fate and it’s a good thing Magix doesn’t have my email address by now… Anyway, there are lots of great freeware tools available that most likely do a better job than MP3 Maker at ripping, playing, tagging, and organizing your music library.
Not much can be said about the other accessories: the lanyard is as basic as they come; the cleaning cloth really comes in handy since the back plate of the Vibez is a finger print magnet – and the custom designed paper clip is simply breathtaking, as I already mentioned.
Optional Accessories (Sold Separately)
Of course the Vibez does not have myriads of accessories like the iPod does, but the range of useful add-ons is quite impressive for an underdog player like this. TrekStor obviously realized that it’s not solely a portable audio player many people crave, but also a whole infrastructure around it.
I do not own any of these accessories, nor am I sure if all of them are available yet. Most sites have them listed on back-order, and TrekStor’s own Vibez microsite displays them as “coming soon.” It’s already a little late for such shenanigans, if you ask me…
EU residents rejoice: the FM radio chip is optional, thus cutting down on taxes, obligatory for any radio receiver sold in the EU. Sounds like a great idea, since not everyone needs a radio – and being designed like a SIM card for a cell phone makes it really easy installing the FM chip in the Vibez.
A “skin bag” (well, that just doesn’t sound right) and “stretch bag” are available for protecting the Vibez. The former being a thin skin providing unhindered access to the player’s controls, the latter being a… sock with a lanyard.
The docking station most certainly provides charging and connectivity, both via USB and line-out, but further details are sketchy. The docking station comes with a wireless remote, which could prove quite practical for home use.
A wired remote for the Vibez might also be released, with a second headphone jack output as a bonus.
Of course Trek
Stor also offers replacement batteries separately, so you never again run out of juice on the go.
Quibblers might imply the TrekStor Vibez looks like someone grinded an iPod’s edges off with a belt sander, but it looks and feels nice in the palm of my hand. It’s actually smaller and thinner than the specs would suggest. Due to the curved design it’s only thick-ish on two spots, at the center of the screen and scroll wheel. The polished stainless steel back (no cheap chrome) and rubberized front have a quality feel to them. The downside to the neat back plate is that it scratches as soon as you look at it – mine got its first blemish not five minutes after I took it out of the box. So if you’re compulsive about the neatness of your gadgets, it’s highly recommended to put the Vibez in a protective skin or case right away.
One flaw in the Vibez’ appearance might be the really small screen – the only element in the player’s design that is not curved. It’s a minor flaw, granted, but to me it looks awkward, sitting there in the middle of the circular protective screen cover. “Protective” should actually be in quotes, because the plastic scratches almost as easily as the back plate. Due to the convex nature of the screen cover, it might not be possible to apply a screen protector. So once again a case or skin might be the best choice to keep the Vibez’ appearance shiny and in mint condition.
A special touch in these times of fashionable blue LED overuse is TrekStor’s decision to have orange LEDs illuminating the scroll wheel. This makes the Vibez a lot more pleasant to look at and emphasizes its unique organic design among the various competing players.
All in all, I don’t care about some minor cosmetic faults or scratches; in my book the Vibez certainly is a fetching piece of plastic.
I don’t like the scroll wheel at all. There, I said it. It is actually the one thing I like the least about the Vibez. Sure, it feels like a high quality controller, actually being magnetically mounted and rubberized for a good touch. But it is highly sensitive, and the motion is too fluid with little friction. It’s easy to overshoot the menu point one was aiming for. Due to its convex design it’s impossible to put the Vibez into a pocket or bag without changing volume or skipping tracks when the scroll wheel isn’t locked. The middle button on the scroll wheel feels mushy; pressing it sometimes gets wrongly interpreted as a navigational press instead of an “OK”.
The volume control is implemented in a slightly absurd manner: it exists twice. On the main screen, turning the scroll wheel acts as the volume control, same as the up/down buttons on the triangular aluminum plate. Sure, once you’re in a sub-menu, the scroll wheel acts as the navigation control, while the up/down buttons still act as a volume control. The scroll wheel might be faster to operate than the dedicated volume buttons, but I can see some better use for the wheel. For example, let the user change the default function to fast forward and rewind, since there is no option to adjust forward/rewinds speed on the left/right buttons of the wheel. There are already additional features selectable for the wheel (seek in a track, pitchbend, screen brightness) – why not let the user select a default? Let’s hope TrekStor releases a firmware update to address this issue.
Locking the player is also implemented in a slightly awkward manner: the scroll wheel’s middle button and the power button need to be pressed simultaneously. This means it’s impossible to lock or unlock the player single handed – you need both hands for that, similar to the way the key-lock is implemented on many cell phones. A basic slider, as used on the majority of other players, would have been a lot more comfortable to operate.
Too bad the high quality feeling of the Vibez’ controls doesn’t translate to an easy-to-operate device. It is certainly possible to get accustomed to the way the Vibez works, but there are more user-friendly players out there.
Graphical User Interface
The GUI certainly makes up for some of the shortcomings of the navigation controls: it is logical, consistent, and well thought-out. The main screen displays almost any info one could wish for: metadata (artist, album, title), play time (or a VU meter), track number, album art (or a background image, or one of several cheesy animations), volume, shuffle, repeat, realtime clock, battery status, and USB connection icon. Clicking the center button on the main screen brings up the current playlist, showing upcoming and recently played tracks.
The menu items are animated, but there’s no need to wait for the animation to finish. The Vibez reacts to most button clicks immediately – except for some sluggish options where it has to access the HDD. Those are mainly the ones dealing with saving or loading presets, playlists, and so on. Accessing the music library and other important functions are very responsive.
The interface is available in 11 languages, and text encoding can be switched between Western, Eastern Europe, Greek, and Turkish, to ensure ID3 tags are being displayed correctly.
Transferring Files / Removable Disk
Both popular communication protocols – MSC (aka UMS) and MTP – are supported by the Vibez. Depending on the operating system of the connected computer, the player switches automatically between both protocols: MTP for Windows XP and Vista, MSC for older Windows versions, Mac OS X, and Linux. The player can be used as a removable storage device in both modes, so there should be no problem transferring any data between varying operating systems. In MTP mode, the Vibez supports WMA-DRM9 and DRM10 infected, er, protected tunes bought from online stores.
Audio files are displayed on the Vibez’ interface in both ways, either by metadata (ID3 database), or by a regular folder/file list, like in Windows Explorer. Transfer and sorting of files is as open and unrestricted on the TrekStor Vibez as it gets. Everyone should be happy, ID3 browsing fans and file/folder aficionados alike.
Rated by TrekStor at an optimistic 20 hours of playback time, real life usage of the Vibez gave me closer to 12 hours. This isn’t really great for an audio player nowadays, playing standard VBR MP3 files with EQ enabled. No wonder, since the Li-Ion battery is rated at a wimpy 510mAh/3.7V. It needs about 3 hours to charge over USB.
The good thing, though, is that the battery is user replaceable, similar to the batteries found in cell phones. If one really needs longer playback time, the Vibez’ batteries are quite small (smaller than a Compact Flash card), it should be no problem carrying a spare one around.
One feature worth mentioning – which most other USB-charging players lack – is that the Vibez can be used for playback while charging, as long as no data transfer is initiated with the connected PC. This, however, only worked for me on Windows XP (and would work on Vista too, I assume), where the Vibez is automatically switched to MTP mode. It didn’t work in MSC mode on Windows 2000 or Ubuntu Linux.
Line-In and Voice Recording
Both line-in and voice recorder work very well. Recording quality for both modes ranges from space-saving 16kHz mono IMA-ADPCM WAV, mid-quality 16kHz mono WAV, up to 44.1kHz stereo WAV, CD quality.
Record gain can be manually adjusted with the scroll wheel in a +/-11dB range, even while recording. This is a very professional and practical feature not found on many other players.
Using line-in recording with the high quality setting really results in great sounding recordings. They are clear and without any background hiss, providing an easy and hassle-free way to digitize old vinyl records or cassette tapes, for example. The low- and mid-quality settings sound nowhere near as good as the CD-quality setting, but they’re better suited for the voice recorder anyway. Of course one might need to convert these uncompressed files to MP3 or Ogg Vorbis, since WAV takes up a lot of space on the player – and since the Vibez doesn’t do the conversion, it must be done externally, on a computer.
Similar praise for quality goes to the voice recorder, but only for close distance recordings. Once the sound source is farther away from the internal microphone, the background noise gets rather obnoxious. Nevertheless, voices are still audible in most cases.
Kudos to TrekStor for providing an almost professional digital recorder with the Vibez, supporting manual gain control and uncompressed WAV. Most other companies’ solutions feel half-baked and limited in comparison.
Image Viewer / Screen
Let me get this straight right away: the image viewer is depressing. “Why depressing?” you might ask. I’ll come back to that in a moment, bear with me…
Well, the image features are among the best I’ve ever seen on an audio player. Photos are included in a similar database as the audio files, utilizing EXIF info stored in the JPEGs: it is possible to sort by camera manufacturer, camera model, description, or date. The date option, especially, is overly nifty; it displays a monthly calendar with tiny thumbnails on the day a certain picture was taken. It’s even possible to view slide shows with transition effects. Audio playback continues while viewing images. One of the few missing features is the option to zoom into images. Furthermore, I can’t understand the lack of an USB On-The-Go function, since all these great EXIF info features just scream for a digital camera connected directly to the Vibez – to transfer photos over, using the player as an image tank.
Now back to my initial statement about the image viewer being “depressing”: the screen is a paltry 1.5″, 16 bit color, 176 x 132 pixels, with a very narrow viewing angle. Images look almost disgusting on it – they appear tiny, washed out, in low contrast, with blocky color gradients, partially solarized. All the excellent features of the image viewer are wasted on this bad TFT screen. This only confirms the position of the TrekStor Vibez: it is a pure audio player. The visual features on it are just superfluous trinkets – no matter how elaborate they appear to be on paper.
Don’t get me wrong, the screen works well enough for displaying song information and the various menu options. It’s even viewable in direct sunlight – something that can’t be said for many players with a TFT color screen. It just isn’t made for displaying images. On that note, it’s probably a good thing TrekStor didn’t implement video playback on the Vibez – not many people would be happy with the available visual quality.
Other features found on the Vibez’ current firmware are “update database,” “restore factory defaults,” and “delete bad tracks.” While the first two are self-explanatory, the third one puzzled me a bit. Sure, it is great the Vibez detects and skips so-called defective audio files and gives you the option to delete these from the disk. The problem with that is that these “defective” files play fine on any of my other players. No other player complained about any corrupted files or made errors during playback. My conclusion would be that TrekStor’s firmware programmers should spend less time on implementing these error check routines, and more time on improving their audio decoder or metadata interpreter functions…
TrekStor also included a stopwatch with the Vibez. It’s really decent, with a lap counter and average time calculator. The stopwatch keeps on running while listening to music and even after the player has been turned off. It should come in handy for any sports activities – but then again, the Vibez is a hard disk player, so it should be treated with some more care than flash based players.
Audio quality is very good, and the Vibez sounds very rich and natural. The bass extends deep; I didn’t notice any roll-off. Mids and treble are precise, but never harsh or fatiguing. The soundstage coming out of the player sounds wide and realistic – provided that good headphones are used with the player, of course. The Vibez and its Sigmatel STMP3650 chip certainly doesn’t pale in comparison to most other good sounding players (Cowon, Meizu, Sony, …) available at the time of this writing.
The amplifier is a little on the weak side, unfortunately. With its 7.5mW + 7.5mw (measured at 32Ohm, not the usual 16Ohm) amp it won’t drive big, inefficient phones very well. Using any in-ear phones or earbuds should be no problem, as long as they’re fairly sensitive and efficient.
I noted a slight hiss and clicking noises coming from the Vibez, but it is only noticeable when no music is playing. The clicking probably comes from the hard disk. This is nothing to be concerned about, since you only hear it when you really want to, and it doesn’t affect the perceived audio quality on normal listening levels in any way.
EQ and Sound Options
Users can choose between a simple bass/treble slider interface, adjustable in a +/-6dB range – or a fully parametric 5-band EQ, which is among the best I’ve ever seen on any portable device.
The parametric EQ lets you choose center frequencies between 20Hz and 20kHz for all five bands, next to a Q-factor between 0.2 and 4 octaves. The bands are adjustable in a +/-12dB range. This should give even the most discriminating audio engineers enough ways to tweak the sound to their liking, and it sounds good, with little to no distortion when used properly. It is possible to store as many custom presets as one likes and name them accordingly.
Also implemented is an auto gain control feature. It tries to automatically adjust different audio tracks to the same volume level. This seems overly aggressive for my tastes, even on the lower of the two selectable levels. It boosts quiet passages in songs to high volume levels, and “ducks” loud ones. In my opinion most music sounds more natural and enjoyable with this feature turned off.
I, for one, would welcome an option to adjust pan/balance, but this certainly is a feature most people would only find marginally useful. Maybe TrekStor’s firmware coders might look into that in an upcoming firmware version, just to please my eccentric whims…
Audio Playback Options
This is where the Rio Audio heritage of the TrekStor Vibez shows the most. This player sports the feature found on almost every serious listener’s wish list: gapless playback. It works as expected for most audio formats I’ve tried – perfect for WAV and FLAC files, and also for most MP3 files, as long as they have been created by a decent encoder, like the popular open source LAME MP3 codec. Some very old MP3 files, encoded with dubious programs, gave me some slight pauses or clicks between the files, but no problems with anything recently encoded.
The playback modes include shuffle, repeat (one/all), and crossfade. Crossfade is a feature I found myself using quite often. The Vibez can fade between tracks for up to 5 seconds; it also fades when manually skipping to the next song.
DJ mode is a very practical tool for listening to one’s audio collection in various entertaining ways. Among the many different modes one finds “Entertain Me!” (playing most listened to tracks for a predefined amount of time), “New Music” (that loaded onto the Vibez within the last few days), “Memory Lane” (tunes not listened to in a certain
amount of time), “Sounds Of…” (songs from a certain decade), “Forgotten Gems” (older popular tracks that haven’t been listened to in a certain amount of time), and several others.
Besides the nifty DJ modes, the regular ID3 browsing interface is very well thought out, logical, and easily accessible. Music can be sorted by artist, album, tracks, genres, years, and cover versions. For people preferring to organize their music the classic way, TrekStor didn’t forget to implement file/folder browsing either. Supported playlist formats are standard M3U and Windows Media Player’s PLA.
Bookmarking is supported in a slightly different, but clever way on the Vibez. Bookmarks are called “sessions” – these store the current playlist and the position in the currently played track. Those sessions can be named and – if one wishes to – even updated later on, instead of starting a new session.
Furthermore it’s possible to pitchbend audio tracks in a 50% to 150% range, in 1% steps. This might be useful for audio books or voice recordings, but I can’t imagine anyone performing a live DJ set with only two Vibez on stage.
The only option I’m seriously missing on the Vibez is a sleep timer, so other than that the player’s feature set feels really complete. Maybe in the next firmware upgrade, pretty please?
Packed with tons of nifty features, superb audio quality, a logical interface, and a virtually bug- free firmware, the Vibez is a great device for the serious listener.
TrekStor managed to get it right for almost everyone: MSC vs. MTP mode, file/folder vs. ID3 browsing, 5-band parametric EQ vs. bass/treble slider, open source codecs (Ogg, FLAC) vs. DRM support. No one should feel left behind: the Vibez works for the hardcore Linux hacker and the Windows Vista-toting businessman, for the tinkering sound engineer and the audiophile purist alike. Kudos to TrekStor for following this highly non-restrictive path.
If overly great battery life, a huge screen, or flash memory are not the most required features in a player, or if one learns to cope with the scroll wheel, then the Vibez certainly might be worth considering. It sure does what it’s supposed to do – playing back audio files the quality way.
- Very good audio quality
- 5-band parametric EQ, option to save profiles
- Gapless playback, crossfade
- Supports a large variety of audio codecs
- MSC and MTP modes, works on any operating system
- File/folder browsing and ID3 browsing
- Line-in recording in CD quality, manual gain control
- Player can be used while charging (only in MTP mode)
- User replaceable battery
- Screen is visible in direct sunlight
- Decent stock earbuds by Sennheiser
- A variety of useful accessories available
- Scroll wheel can be awkward and imprecise to use
- Real life playback time is closer to 12 hours than the advertised 20 hours
- Hard disk instead of flash memory
- Tiny low-res screen, microscopic fonts on some menu points
- Low output volume, doesn’t work well with higher impedance phones
- GUI can be sluggish at times
- Back plate scratches easily
- No firmware updates on a regular basis