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May 25, 2010

Archos PMA430

Calling the Archos PMA430 a digital audio player is like calling a Swiss Army knife a can opener. It's all that, but it's much more, too. In addition to digital audio, the PMA430 also does video and is a photo viewer. It records line in or microphone, and records video, complete with a timer to catch your favorite show or movie. It also has a fairly functional PDA, and the color screen is touch-sensitive, with handwriting input and a pop-up keyboard. It's also a USB host, so you can download pictures from your digital camera.

And if that weren't enough, it has built-in WiFi and an Opera browser, so you can download new songs, check the news, and do your email while you're sitting in Starbucks! But this is the Serious Personal Audio site, and if the PMA430 didn't do great audio, I wouldn't be talking about it--or at least not in such positive terms.

As you can see from the list of capabilities, the PMA430 is in a different class than music players. It's bigger and heavier (10 ounces instead of the usual 4 to 6), but the color screen is large enough and sharp enough that you can watch movies enjoyably, and the touch screen beats buttons, scroll wheels, and all the other audio player user interfaces. It costs more, too. But the extra features may make the $600-plus price worth your consideration.

The display screen while music is playing is complete and informative, without silly animations such as those on the the Toshiba gigabeat, and you can pop up the EQ window at any time, browse to another selection, or use PDA functions.

Overall audio performance is impeccable, with lots of power on tap. Headroom is important in audio for realistic performance when peaks and crescendos come along. It's also critical to good bass performance because low-impedance headphones tax the player heavily. The PMA430 drove my loudness test track to an undistorted 107-110dB through the provided earbuds, with peaks of 118dB. That's painfully loud, and nobody turns it up that high (at least I hope not). But the extra power is there when it's needed, and lets the PMA430 sound lively and unconstrained.

Freequency response is reasonably flat throughout the range, although with the usual bit of droop at the bottom end from headphone loading. Still, the droop is less than any other portable player I've yet encountered:

You can also see a little wrinkle in the midbass performance, a 1-2dB boost which adds a slight warmth. It's not perfect performance, but it's not objectionable either.

The PMA430 is one of those rare players that adds no harmonic distortion when you boost the tone controls or use the EQ presets. This spectrogram shows the performance with the EQ set flat:

And this one shows bass boost:

The bottom end basically gets louder, period. That's the way they should all be. These spectrograms also reveal the source of the additional warmth in the midbass--a bit of harmonic distortion that's around 50dB down, but still adds up to the small bump in frequency response. As I said before, though, it doesn't detract in the slightest from the listening enjoyment you get from this player.

Another way of looking at the bass performance is with the 40Hz square wave test. This one pushes players to the wall, asking their output sections to provide large amounts of current accurately.

Here's the PMA430's raw performance, with no headphone load:

This is about as clean a square wave as you could hope for. It's the product of good audio engineering and a well-regulated power supply.

When I plug in the 32 ohm earbuds, the waveform droops, but less so than in any other player I've encountered. This is confirmed by the octave band sweep and by listening tests--the bass performance is delightful!

The PMA430 is also unusually quiet. As you can see in this sweep test with the sweep active, the inactive parts of the spectrum are down at the noise floor, 100dB below the signal.

Thus the sounds you hear emerge from a background of silence, not hiss or burbles or some of the other noises that plague digital audio players. Again, a testament to good design and construction.

If you're an iTunes devotee, you can download a plug-in from the Archos site that lets iTunes recognize the PMA430. It can't play AAC files, but you can use iTunes to manage your MP3 music. iTunes organizes the music slightly differently than the Archos default, but it's not a problem. Frankly, it's easy to just drag and drop WMA and MP3 music to the Archos and let it sort things out; I drag music right out of the iTunes folders rather than letting it write to the PMA430.

Audio geek or not, I can't ignore all the other things that the PMA430 does, especially since it does them so well. As a photo viewer, it's one of only a few (the Archos Gmini 400 and the Epson P2000) that can zoom in on photos and pan around. It's a great feature, very useful for showing others details and points of interest in your pictures.

When you want to record TV, you drop the PMA430 into its AV dock:

The dock has a short umbilical cord that plugs into the side of the player. Everything else plugs into the back of the dock--line in/out, video in/out, S-Video, power. The dock has a nifty swivel base that holds the PMA430 straight up or angled back for best ease of use in your installation.

The PMA430 records video at 512 by 384 pixels, in MPEG4 format. Playback looks roughly the same as VHS on a TV, and looks pretty darn good on the LCD screen. The picture above was captured from the evening news. That's a tiny speaker grille on the front, and you can direct audio through it without disabling the headphone/line output, which can be useful. The dock also comes with a remote control, which gives you complete control over the personal video recorder functions. You can choose manual or scheduled recording. It includes an infrared emitter, which you position in front of your cable or satellite box to change channels. It's programmable from the PMA430, of course.

WiFi connection and setup is straightforward. The PMA430 will find open connections, and will connect to WEP-protected access points if you provide the password, but it can't connect to stealthed access points.

Using the PMA430 as a USB host is easy, too. Just connect any camera that functions as a USB mass storage device, and you're all set. With 30GB, you can put a heck of a lot of vacation photos, even at full resolution onto the 430, and save yourself the trouble of toting a laptop or limiting your photos to the amount of camera memory you have on hand.

The PDA functions are the usual calendar, to-do list, contacts,

More to come....

Posted by machrone at May 25, 2010 08:13 AM

Comments

Excellent piece Bill. Now, why not just sign-up for Vonage, use the PMA430 like a C-phone, and put yourself out of telephony misery? And, not to be too impertinent, but when will all of you digi-ears finally concede that every little gadget flaw you nitpick over is not a hardware failure? They don't work better because they can't. Period.

Posted by: Ed at July 11, 2005 07:24 PM

thanks for the extensive review, my only question
when you record tv, don't you need a built in tuner?
(oh and by the way, it is still 2005
hans

Posted by: hans de vente at August 16, 2005 04:23 PM

Yes, you need a tuner. But the PMA430 can control it--you can program the infrared emitter to change channels.

Posted by: Bill at August 16, 2005 05:28 PM