Equipment Review No. 2   February 2002

Sima I-Mix I-120 Hard Disk Music Recorder/ Player
$700.

Sima Products Corporation
140 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bldg. #5
Oakmont, PA 15139
http://www.simacorp.com/contact.html
(800) 345-7462 voice
(412) 828-3775 fax


Description

Hard disk based multi-format player/ recorder; Analog input and output (variable); optical output; parallel port computer connection (upgradeable to USB); smartmedia card slot for data storage and playback; plays CD, CD-R, CD-RW with MP3 files; built-in 20 gig hard drive; records at 6x for CD and 50x for MP3 files from CD-R; encodes MP3 at 128 (350 hrs)/ 320 (140 hrs) kbs, and PCM at 1,411 kbs (!); playback of MP3 from 64-320kbs; internal recognition of 280,000 albums as well as CDDB capability; 2 way IR remote with LCD panel and full keypad; headphone output; sound effect control; 17 wide x 11 deep x 3.75 inches high; 90 day warranty.


Storage Capacity

Maximum number of songs/ artists/ albums: 7166.
Maximum number of playlists: 200.
Maximum number of songs per playlist: 250.
128 kbps recording: ~350 hours.
320 kbps recording: ~140 hours.
1.4 Mbps uncompressed PCM: ~31 hours.
Other approximate recording times are listed in the Audio Request ARQ1-20 review. Of course it is possible to mix data rates if desired.


Equipment

Krell KST-100 Amplifier, Meridian 568 Preamplifier, PS Audio P300 Power Plant, Revel F30 speakers, NAD C521 CD player (for comparison), Philips CDC-935 CD changer, MIT, Music Metre, Audioquest wiring.


Basic Setup and Functions

Connecting this player was as simple as connecting a CD player. Excepting the basic operations, using it is an entirely different matter. There was a Quick Start Guide that took care of the basic operations, but I would advise anyone serious about using the I-Mix to take the time to read through the manual. The manual is divided into sections and the left page describes the operation via the front panel while the right page describes the same operation with the remote. There is a “How Do I” section and it is clearly laid out and well referenced. Sometimes there is information on one side that is not on the other, so I recommend reading both sides even if you only plan to use just the remote or control the unit only from the front panel. Everything I could think of relating to the unit was answered in the manual. With the second sample of the unit, there was a second manual that was smaller and more compact. It may be that this will be the finalized manual. It too was well laid out and had everything that I thought to look up in it.

There is a Toslink optical output on the back that I used for most of the listening. The analog outputs are variable and can be controlled with the remote. The main use for the I-Mix is as a music storage device, and I focused on its capabilities with this in mind. It did function as a stand-alone single CD player, and can be used as such if desired. Also, there are analog inputs that can record from any line level analog source. I tested these later in the review—I thought someone might use the machine to archive tapes or other media for storage in the I-Mix.

Right away I was alert to any possible noise issues as this was a concern with the Audio Request ARQ1-20. The Sima is relatively quiet. There is a distinct whirring sound that can be detected in a quiet room with the unit in the open. It seems that the second sample was noisier than the first, as I didn’t comment as much in my notes about intrusive noise. It was hard to completely block out the noise from the second unit in my open rack. If the unit were placed in a cabinet it would probably not be an issue. The display is a bit small, but is clearly visible from a 5’ distance. Beyond that you’d have to be an eagle eye. Fortunately, the remote doubles as a display so that it can be used to see what is happening on the I-Mix. Unfortunately, the display on the remote is quite tiny. In the dark, even with the backlit button pushed, it was hard to see. (Read more in User Interface.)

There is a hard power switch on the back of the unit and a soft switch on the front. After a period of time the I-Mix would automatically go into standby mode (when the unit compresses the info recorded to the hard disk.) The remote is a bit strange in its power requirements as well. There is even a chart in the manual with six different combinations that explain what will happen when the power is pressed once or twice. Because the remote and the I-Mix communicate with one another, it is important to have line of sight between the remote and the main unit. I’m not sure what would be necessary to automate these functions, especially if the unit were operated from another room. Kenwood offers a remote control that is RF controlled. This would have been a much nicer solution (although the cost may have been prohibitive.)

The volume control worked as advertised, although I did not need to use it for any reason during the evaluation period. The effect mode altered the sound in different ways. The “Normal” setting bypassed the control. The “Bass 1” gives a boost to the bass. The “Bass 2” gives a stronger boost in the bass. The “Classical” setting made everything sound like a bad portable radio! Needless to say I did not use the effect control.


User Interface

The I-Mix can be controlled from the front of the unit or via remote. I found that for basic operations like playback and recording that I preferred to use the controls on the front of the unit. On one occasion I couldn’t get the remote to function and on another the remote display seemed to go crazy. I removed the batteries and everything worked fine.

The remote control is backlit and has a display screen and a full keypad for typing in songs and album titles. It indicates which songs are compressed or are still uncompressed. It has all the controls that are present on the front of the unit plus a few additional features like the ability to mark songs, delete items stored in the I-Mix, search for names of songs, program playlists, display information from the internal database, change the play mode, and give current status on the operation of the unit. It is a bit tiny, but contains several options at once.

After using the remote for a while, it seemed that it would have been more useful if the text were larger, and there were less information in the display. After a few hours I already knew what the selections were, and didn’t need to have most of them in the display at the same time. Another problem was that the remote would turn off after a few minutes. When this happened it was necessary to push the power button twice and wait for it to turn on again. This could be an irritation if you were using the remote intermittently over a long period. Normally, I suppose it would not be that big of a deal. You could always use the front control panel instead. However, navigation through the remote is faster and easier (once it is going.)

The remote displays similar information that is displayed in the main window of the I-Mix. When you first activate the machine the menu options are:
I. CD- This allows you to play the disc that is currently in the machine or select a track from the disc to play.
II. HDD (Album)- This option shows an ordered list that can then be expanded to show tracks.
III. HDD (Artist)- This is the same as II but lists the artists.
IV. Playlist- Shows programmed playlists.
V. Last 20- Lists last 20 songs played.
VI. Top 20- Lists the top 20 songs played.
VII. Line In- Selects this input for recording.
VIII. SM Card- Shows the contents of the SmartMedia card (when inserted.)
IX. System- Has several options.
A. Voice Prompt- Enable or disable the prompt.
B. Capacity- Shows total size, remaining size, space after compression, and remaining minutes.
C. Version #- Indicates version numbers of various machine aspects.
D. Compression Rate- Allows you to select 128 kbps, 320 kbps, or uncompressed for both CD recording and line inputs.
E. Format HDD- Erases the data on the drive.


Playback

There are several playback options on the I-Mix. First, there are the basic modes that most CD players have: repeat one, repeat all, random, and intro scan. Playing back a CD was as easy as pushing play. To play back material that is already on the I-Mix, you just go to one of the main selection modes (by pushing the right arrow until you reach an area where you can push play or right arrow again) to start the machine. CDs and other material recorded on the Sima are NOT automatically identified. You are either required to go to push info and begin trying to find the discs, or connect the machine to the computer and use CDDB. I found that CDDB was far easier and faster than using the rather smallish remote control.


Recording

There are three different recording methods for recording an entire CD. The first thing you want to do is make sure that you have set the recording quality which is accessible from the System menu under Compression Rate. After pushing the record button the choices are:
X. Rapid Archive- Records the CD at 6x normal speed but does not allow you listen to it while it is recording. I found this useful when I was doing something else, and wanted to load a few discs into the machine for testing. Songs do not compress until the unit is put to sleep (standby.)
XI. Play and Compress- Lets you listen and record simultaneously. The I-Mix also compresses the track at the same time you are listening. The problem with this is an occasional skip in the music that usually occurred slightly more than once a minute.
XII. Compress- Works like II but does not play music at the same time; and also serves to compress the songs that have not been compressed from I.
XIII. Compress Bit Rate- Allows you to select the compression rate directly from this menu without having to go through the system menu.
To record a song or two rather than the whole CD, it is necessary to mark the tracks by pushing the “mark” button. I used this function during the listening tests to record a single song at different data rates from the same CD. It is just as easy to record to a SmartMedia card. Just pick a song on the I-Mix and select record. A temporary or permanent playlist will enable copying of multiple songs to the SmartMedia card. Line-in recording is as easy as selecting it from the main menu and pressing “record.”


Naming A CD

There are four ways to name songs, albums, and artists:
XIV. CD recognition database in the I-Mix- This I thought was a cool feature, so I was anxious to try it out. I had about 24 albums that I had recorded and I selected Album 0003. Right away, I realized that I didn’t know what Album 0003 was. The CD recognition feature does not really recognize the CDs. Since I didn’t know which CD Album 0003 was, I had to listen to it first. I was disappointed that this was how the unit functioned. The remote prompts for a keyword or the title of the album. I typed in “Dido” and waited. The search can take up to a minute! In this day of high-speed computers, this can seem like an eternity. The worst part was that it didn’t even find anything! I used option IV to get the info into the I-Mix.
XV. Manual entry on the remote- This allows manual input of all the information. The remote has a small keyboard with symbols as well as numbers. Just for the experience, I entered a title; but it was rather tedious.
XVI. Manual entry on the computer- This is another way to enter the information. If you have the computer already connected, then I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to use option IV that automatically recognizes the information. Possibly, you might still want to customize the titles. Using a keyboard with a computer monitor is much easier than the method in II.
XVII. CDDB database- This is clearly the fastest and preferred way to get many titles recognized in the I-Mix.


PC Control

The software included for use with the Sima is geared toward organization of the songs, albums, and playlists inside the I-Mix. It also allows the transfer of MP3 files from the computer to the I-Mix. Unfortunately, it does not allow the reverse operation. The actual installation was a snap. The unit connects with a parallel cable, although there is an optional cable (that I did not have) that connects to a USB port. Make sure the power of the I-Mix is on before you run the PC software otherwise a connection will not be established.

Overall, the software is incredibly easy to use. On the right are the song name, artist, and album clearly listed and organized. You can put them in any order you like and the software will quickly alphabetize it. If you want to print out the names of the data stored in the I-Mix there is an option to do that. On the left is the computer window, and you can select MP3 files and copy them over. But why can’t you copy .wav files?? This doesn’t make much sense. One of the big advantages of the Sima is the fact that it can store files in a lossless format. Another complaint I have has to do with transfer time. A 4-minute song recorded at 128 kbps will take 4 minutes to transfer to the I-Mix! A 4-minute song at 256 kbps will take 8 minutes! 150 songs averaging 4 minutes apiece will take 10 hours to upload! Perhaps the USB connection is a different story, but I did not have a way to check this.

To use the CDDB function you have to register on the website. Instead of automatically naming the CD’s, it was necessary to select each one from the I-Mix and then do a search. With a few titles this wouldn’t be a big deal, but even with the 24 I had loaded I felt like the process could have gone easier. Once it was completed I was happy.

Another important thing to realize is that it is not possible to actually delete songs off the unit itself via the computer. This is a bit confusing as it seems to do it, but all it really does it take it off the computer screen and the files remain on the I-Mix. This would seem to be the easiest place to accomplish organizational functions with the I-Mix. This was another missing capability that I felt was essential.


Listening- Part I (Anomalies and Difficulties)

There was a problem with the first sample of the I-Mix that I received. While playing CDs or tracks off the IM-120, there were occasional speed variations, stuttering, and popping. I sent the unit back for repair, and was sent a new unit as a replacement. I was told it was a bad chip in the player that caused the trouble and rather than repairing it, they sent me a new one. All listening tests are from the second sample.

On the second unit there was still occasional popping sounds while operating the remote during playback. I was assured that this was normal operation. Otherwise, I did not hear any popping or other strange sounds in normal operation of the second sample.

The unit emits a turn-on thump on start up. There is also the whine that was mentioned earlier when the unit is on (and not in standby.)

One quirk that I discovered related to the pause at the start of the track on Milt Jackson’s Sunflower album. When playing the CD directly in the I-Mix, everything was fine, but when playing off the unit it was as if I missed just a split second of sound at the start. I recorded the track over a few times using different methods. I even went so far as to record another track from another disc four different ways, but the problem did not recur. I did not notice it in the first sample with the many tracks and CDs I had recorded.


Listening- Part II (Analog/ Digital/ Comparison)

I was very interested in testing the options that impact the audio performance. First, I compared it with an NAD C521 CD player (Retail $300) via the analog outputs on both players. Volume was slightly different, so I had to move it up and down to get the fairest comparison. I used track 1, “For Someone I Love” from Milt Jackson’s Sunflower album. I happened to have a guest over and asked her which she thought was better. She picked the NAD though she had trouble putting the difference into words. For me, and most critical listeners, the difference will be obvious. With the NAD, the sound was more distinctive, there was clearly better high frequency extension, and the presence of the instruments was much improved. There were other differences, but at this point I would recommend using the optical digital output if possible (or even using a separate D/A converter with the I-Mix.)

I connected an optical cable, and preceded to switch between the analog and digital connections while playing a track I had recorded on the I-Mix—“Calling All Angels,” track 2 from Jane Siberry’s When I Was A Boy. There was an immediate improvement in fidelity with the digital connection to the Meridian 568 preamplifier employed.

Another thing that should be mentioned is the access time. This is where the hard disk machines run circles around your typical mega-changer. When I switched from one song to the next it would take less than a second to start. Wow! The fact that there is no big carousel or arm that picks up CDs should mean much improved reliability as well.


Listening- Part III (Compression Rate Comparison)

The I-Mix supports multiple compression rates, including no compression! The unit itself allows three rates: 128 kbps, 320 kbps, or CD Quality. If it were not for the problem of storage, I would opt for the highest rate every time. But as you can see from the Storage Capacity section, choosing CD Quality limits you to only about 30 hours of recording time. You get more than 10 times this when using the 128 setting. It is possible that a more advanced algorithm would give better performance than the stock settings inside the Sima, but this would mean doing all mp3 compression on a computer and then transferring it to the I-Mix. This would defeat some of the advantages of the I-Mix over other players, but would still allow full compatibility in playback.

When I used a rather old recording—track 1, “My Funny Valentine” with Dinah Shore and Andre Previn from Blue Valentines—the compression rate difference was obvious. At the 128 setting, much of the hiss on the recording disappeared, but so did other high frequency sounds and sense of space. There is definitely a compromise when using this setting as I have discovered when working with other machines like the I-Mix. The difference between the 320 setting and CD Quality is harder to hear. Some will still notice the difference easily while other people may find it more than acceptable. The key is to take some time to record the same material with different compression rates and determine what is best for you in your system.

I used the same Milt Jackson recording for this comparison as well. It was easy to hear the loss due to the 128 setting. With the CD Quality vs. the 320, the guitar sound was a little better and width and depth seemed to improve. Everything became more fleshed and believable in size.


Listening- Part IV (Line-In Recording)

For Line-In recording I used the Philips CD changer with its outputs connected directly to the input on the IM-120. There is no way to adjust input level, which is too bad, but I did not have problems from the CD changer. The touch of a button and recording begins. To start a new track you push “record” again. I recorded about a minute’s worth from track 2, “I Just Wanna Stop” from Gino Vanelli’s Ultimate Collection. It was easy and sounded pretty good. It would be a good way to archive non-CD material such as tapes, or possibly even older records (with the addition of a phonograph preamplifier.)


Conclusion

When I began this review about three months ago, there were only a few (reasonably priced) machines like the I-Mix on the market. Now it seems that just about every mass-market manufacturer either has one on the drawing board or is about to release their own machine. There are still a few areas in which I would like to see improvements made: (1) an end to the physical noise generated by the machine that made it hard to listen in quiet; (2) a network connection to the PC that would make transfers lightning fast; (3) a remote that is easier to read and is RF, and (4) recording capability so that I could make CDs off the unit. Another thing that I don’t understand is why every unit still has a 20 GB hard drive?! I mean, it would only cost $100 (or less) to put in an 80 GB drive! Perhaps it would be possible to swap out the drive yourself and quadruple the storage? I did not try it.

Convergence is happening as we speak, and the Sima is another example. Mostly, I was very happy with the I-Mix. It solved the worst problem that I had with the other machine I reviewed: it allowed recording to the machine while I listened at the same time. This clearly makes transferring the songs to the unit a much better experience. It was also easier to operate, and the remote worked more effectively. Is this the answer you’ve been looking for to store your growing music collection and allow playback from a single small unit? Of the hard disk recorders so far, the Sima is closest to the kind of piece that I’d like to own.

- Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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