Walt Mossberg

A Digital-Music System For Computer-Phobes

The concept of digital music is pretty straightforward: you either copy or “rip” music from your store-bought CDs onto a computer, therefore turning the songs into digital files, or you purchase or rent digital music at an online store such as Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store. Then, if you like, you can transfer these songs to a digital music player like Apple’s iPod or one of its numerous competitors.

But there are still plenty of folks who are intimidated by the idea of storing and playing music on a home computer, or using a portable music player that accepts the computer’s digital tunes. These music-lovers are more at ease pulling a few discs from a tall stack of CDs, popping them into the stereo and sitting back with the remote control.

RCA's Rip & Go

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested a product that attempts to introduce these low-tech consumers to digital music — without ever involving a computer. The $179 RCA Rip & Go Digital Music Studio looks like a typical shelf stereo, complete with a main unit, two equally sized speakers, a five-disc CD player, AM/FM radio and remote control.

But atop the main unit of this stereo, a small indented rectangle and USB port act as a docking base for a bare-bones 128MB portable MP3 music player that comes with the stereo. Once it’s attached, you can copy songs from your CDs — or even from the radio — onto this player as the songs play on the stereo, by simply pressing Record. The player holds roughly 40 songs, according to RCA, a brand of France’s Thomson.

The Rip & Go also has a SecureDigital (SD) memory card slot — another unusual feature for a stereo — on its front side. If you have an SD card loaded with digital music, you can insert that card and play songs directly from it, which I did easily with the SD card that I keep in my Treo 650 smartphone.

We found RCA’s Rip & Go to be a straightforward product with uncomplicated directions that might bridge the gap for computer-phobic folks who want to experience the advantages of portable digital music. But it’s a very basic and limited solution. Other than the included portable player, the Rip & Go has no means of storing your new digital songs. There’s no hard disk, no ability to copy the files to recordable CDs for later use, and no way to record the songs to an SD card that’s in the player’s card slot.

The only place you can put your digital music is in the internal memory of the included portable player. And that player has a pretty low capacity. RCA says the stereo will also work with certain other players with higher capacity, such as other RCA players and some models from Samsung. But these cost extra.

Plus, the Rip & Go doesn’t add the song title, album and artist information to your songs, even though these are an important part of the digital-music experience. When you play your new tunes on the player, they are identified only by techie file names, which makes it hard to select and identify them.

You can’t use the USB port on the top of the unit that connects the player to attach a USB thumb drive or hard disk to capture the songs. And it won’t work with the best and most-popular portable music player, Apple’s iPod. In fact, it won’t work with a lot of Windows-compatible players either, for technical reasons having to do with the way it organizes files.

Also, Katie and I found the memory-card slot to be an odd feature for the Rip & Go because most folks who are tech-savvy enough to load digital-music files onto an SD card already are using their computer for digital-music storage and wouldn’t likely be buyers of this product.

Katie and I set up the Rip & Go in a matter of minutes, attaching each speaker’s black and red cords to the back of the main unit, plugging it in and setting the display’s digital clock by following a few directions in the manual.

THe Rip & Go's dock for portable music players.

We loaded five CDs into the stereo to test playing and copying a few songs onto the little player. Our first CD, the soundtrack from the movie “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” started playing immediately, beginning with “I Say A Little Prayer” by Diana King.

To record this song onto the included portable player, we made sure the player was plugged into the stereo’s USB port and pressed Record. After a brief message on the screen that said “Reading USB,” the current track’s duration and the player’s remaining space (in hours, minutes and seconds) showed on the display screen.

We continued recording for the next two tracks and pressed Record to stop after the third song on the CD. Using the stereo’s Source button to switch from CD player to radio, we then followed the same process to record a classical selection from the FM radio, starting half-way through the song. You can’t set up times to record songs from the radio — you must be present while they’re playing and start recording manually, which makes it hard to capture whole songs.

After recording from the radio, we detached the little player from the top of the stereo. This player was easy to work, and music that came through its attachable earbuds sounded fine. It has a simple unlit screen with buttons below it labeled Play/On, Last, Next and Stop/Off. Buttons on the left and right sides of the player lock the keys, control playback modes and adjust volume. One triple-A battery can keep the player running for as long as 20 hours, according to RCA.

The player’s technology had detected the start and end of our recorded CD tracks, which was a nice feature. But as expected, none of the songs that we copied onto the player were labeled with the artist, song or album title. Instead, the song’s information just included a name that started with the source followed by a number, such as “DISC 1T08 MP3″ or “FM002T01 MP3.” Other information also shows on the screen, including volume, battery life, the song’s duration and the track number (in relation to the total number of recorded songs).

Deleting tracks to make more room on the player was simple. We attached the player to the stereo again, pressed the Select button on the stereo to choose a list of the named recordings, scrolled with the Rip & Go’s volume knob to find the right track and pressed Delete. Holding down the Delete button will give you the option of erasing all tracks on the player.

But certain tracks, which are already cryptically labeled, are tagged differently on the stereo’s display than on the player. For example, we looked for DISC 1T04 MP3 on the stereo-displayed list of the player’s contents, but only found it within another menu labeled CDREC001. This is because the stereo groups tracks into lists of those that were recorded at the same time — but it only muddied up the navigation.

If you can excuse this obscure track-labeling system and want to give digital music a try, the Rip & Go might be a good introductory product. Just don’t expect too much from it.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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