April 2, 2001

Review: Mambo-X MP3-CD player (and it works with Linux!)

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

In nearly every screenshot of someone's Linux desktop I see, there is inevitably a copy of XMMS running with a playlist of MP3s. Clearly, it would seem, using Linux and listening to MP3s go hand in hand. However, what can a Linux user who likes to listen to MP3s do on the road? Most of the flash-media MP3 players, such as the Rio 600, have no support under Linux, or flakey support at best. This is where the Mambo-X comes in.
The unit
On the surface, the Mambo-X looks like any other portable CD player. However, combined with a CD-RW drive, the Mambo-X suddenly does not seem so plain. You see, the Mambo-X not only reads standard CDs, but will read CD-RWs and CD-Rs that are full of MP3s. On one CD, for instance, I fit 183 songs, about 10 times as many as would be on a normal CD. This is great when you are on the road or on the run and do not want to carry a lot of CDs with you. Put this player in your pocket with one CD and you have roughly eight hours of music at 192 Kbps, or more music as you drop the bit rate further. The unit gets about eight hours of battery life from a pair of AA batteries, and supports the recharging of either Ni-Cd, Ni-MH or Li-ON rechargeable batteries. On rechargable batteries, the unit gets about six hours of life. Included in the box was a set of earbud headphones, an AC adapter, the romote, the documentation, and the unit itself.

The unit has fairly standard controls on it. On the face of the unit, there are buttons to enable skip protection (which is always on in MP3 mode and can be turned off in CD mode), skip tracks, play, stop and access the functions menu. In the functions menu, you can control play mode (random, repeat), bass and treble controls, and the "hold" feature, which disables the buttons on the player so that when it is in your pocket or in a bag the buttons do not get bumped and interupt play.

The remote
With the incredible amount of tracks you can fit on one MP3-CD, normal CD player controls just will not do -- skipping manually through as many as 200 tracks is just no fun. The people who make the Mambo-X clearly saw this problem, and included a small infra-red remote with bass and trebel controls, random, repeat, play, stop, mute and volume controls, as well as a number pad you can use to go directly to a song, instead of hitting forward 153 times. The remote is not thin enough to fit in a wallet, but will easily fit in a pocket. The remote is especially useful if you use the Mambo-X to play CDs through the tape player in your car (via a tape adapter and car power adapter, both of which can be purchased at most electionics stores).

While this player seems to be very well rounded, there are a couple of issues you should know about that the manual covers, but are not always mentioned at places the unit is sold. The unit supports a maximum bitrate of 192Kbps, which is fine since most MP3s are 128Kbps (near-CD quality) and few are more than 192Kbps (as a matter of coincedence, 192Kbps is what I rip all of my MP3s at, fortunately). Another limitation is that the Mambo-X does not support multisession CDs, so if you want to burn a full CD of music you had better do it on the first try and close the CD when finished, or you can expect the Mambo-X not to read the disc properly. Neither of these are particularly hard limitations to deal with. One limitation that is a bit frustrating is that the Mambo-X does not display song titles as other players do, simply track numbers, which on a CD full of MP3 files is pretty useless. I hope that in future versions of the product this is reconsidered.

Shock protection
Like most other portable CD players on the market today, the Mambo-X has a buffer where it stores audio in case the unit is shaken or hit, causing a skip. For both MP3s and CDs, this shock protection stores 45 seconds worth of music. This really matters when walking or jogging with the unit on, as those activities really shake the unit consistently. Using the Mambo-X under these conditions, I could not produce a skip, which was very impressive compared to my old Sony Discman with 10 seconds of shock protection.

Sound quality
Using my Sony MDR-CD60 headphones, which while not quite studio quality, are good enough for me, I was very happy with the playback quality of the Mambo-X. I am not quite an audiophile, but I did not notice much of a difference between playing the CD and playing the MP3 from the Mambo-X. When played on a higher end stereo, the difference is noticable, but for portable playing, the MP3 sounds, for all intents and purposes, the same.

The documentation included with the unit is well written and easy to read, and was a bit of a shock because I am used to CD players coming with the bare essentials. The manual for this unit goes through how to burn a CD for use with it, as well as useful information such as how the Mambo-X sorts songs that are in subfolders (it reads a folder and the songs inside, then the songs in the first subfolder, and so on). It tell you how to use rechargable batteries as well as the various functions. One interesting flaw in the documentation was that while it told me how to seek through a track, I could not get it to work. Nothing major, just something of note.

Because the Mambo-X uses the standard ISO-9660 format for CDs, any operating system that has software capable of burning a standard CD is compatible with the Mambo-X, and this may be its best feature. Whether you are using Linux on x86, on Alpha, a Macintosh, a Windows machine, or even BeOS, you can use the Mambo-X. This has great appeal, as most of the flash-media MP3 players are not compatible with Linux, or do not have the greatest support. The Mambo-X however, has full support, as all you need is to be able to burn a CD, something Linux does rather well.

All in all, I am very satisfied with the features and playback of the Mambo-X. If you are in the market for an MP3 player, make sure you look at all the features the players have first. The Mambo-X is an OK solution, as it costs less than a lot of the other MP3 players and you need not worry about compatibility, so long as you have a CD-RW or CD-R drive. However, it is far from perfect, with the lack of song titles on the LCD and the limitation on bitrates. However, if you can live with these limitations, the Mambo-X is certainly a decent enough player.

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