Frontier Labs NEXBLACK Audio Player

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The gluttony of digital audio players available to consumers in today’s market is mind-blowing. Audio playing gadgets are being produced in every shape, style and color imaginable, and some that are beyond my imagination. So it can be difficult to find the right one for you.

Today, I have the NEXBLACK from the fine folks at FRONTIER LABS. It is one of five digital audio players offered by the manufacturer at the time of this review. Maybe it could be the one to satisfy your needs. Let’s take a look and see what it has to offer.

Features / Specifications:

Body is black in color with silver and white accents
Powered by 2 AA batteries
95dB signal to noise ratio
0.5% distortion rate
Maximum output of 25mW x 2
Size: 3-3/16″ x 2-1/2″ x 13/16″
Type I & II Compact Flash card slot
Supports microdrives
Neon blue backlight with settings – normal, always on or always off
Transfer rate of approximately 1MB/second
Frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz
Upgradeable, flash-based firmware
Built in FM tuner
FM frequency range of 87.5Mhz to 108Mhz
Support MP3, WMA, WMA with DRM 9 and Ogg Vorbis formats
Bit rate range of 16Kbps – 320Kbps & VBR
Supports Win98SE, ME, 2000, XP and Mac OS
Drag and drop file transfer via USB 2.0
5 band user programmable equalizer with 5 preset sound modes – Jazz, Rock, Classic, Dance & Latin
Displays ID3 tags – Duration of song, memory level, battery level, etc…
Interactive LCD
Play functions including resume, random, repeat one, repeat all, repeat random, repeat folder and random folder
Direct line-in encoding in MP3 format with selectable bit rate
Supports multiple languages – English, German, Chinese Traditional, Chinese Simple, Japanese, Korean
Additional functions including sleep timer, multiple folder support, auto shut down and play lists support
Digital voice recorder
Single 5-way joy stick control
Weight: 82 grams (without batteries and card)

Package Contents

NEXBLACK digital audio player
Line-in adapter cable
Software CD
USB cable
64 MB Compact Flash Card (Note: This was included by Frontier Labs for the review, not included when you purchase the player)

First Impressions

The device is packaged in a nicely designed cardboard box with a picture of a young lady lying on some straw outside in front of some trees. Not sure of the correlation between the picture on the outside of the box and the product inside it, but I give credit for the outside graphics being of nice quality. The box also has a small plastic-film window, allowing the NEXBLACK to been viewed from the outside, teasing you to open and try it out.

The box opens to reveal the contents nicely organized and secure in sturdy compartments of a high-density paper-board crate. Furthermore, each item is individually wrapped in small bags.

Grabbing the player, it is sized properly to fit in your hand. I would say it’s about the same size as a standard deck of playing cards, a little bit bulkier than some of the high-end, market leading digital audio players but still not too big as to be an annoyance.

The LCD screen is about 1″ x 1-3/4″ in size and located on the front-face of the player. Below the screen you see the 5-way joystick control. Top of the joystick is volume up, bottom is volume down, left is back/previous song, right is forward/next song and pressing in on the joystick is for the play/pause/stop/select functions. Below the joystick is the function button, where you can access menu options.

I found the location of the joystick and function button to be relatively easy to utilize when holding the device in my hand. My thumb was able to work the controls easily while I was running with the device.

Lastly a microphone is located on the front-face, just to the right of the joystick control.

The back of the device is where you will find the battery compartment and the card slot ejection mechanism. The ejection mechanism is a very simple slide instrument that feels fairly low-tech, especially without a card loaded to provide some resistance.

The earphone jack, USB port and media card slot are located at the bottom of the digital audio player. Again, I get an inexpensive feel from the door to the card slot. The door is just like a flap, without any springs, so when it is not secured via snapping down the sides, it flails around.

The right-side has a record button and a button to switch between FM and MP3 playing options. The ability to switch between FM and digital audio files quickly is a great feature of the player.

The left-side is where you will find a slide-mechanism to control the power. Power options are OFF, ON and HOLD.

Using The Device

Upon turning the device on, I was disappointed to see the LCD display is not in color. I understand that color is not a requirement for a device that does not display video or pictures, but a lot of current digital audio players have a color display and it is disappointing to see the folks at Frontier Labs decided not to include one with this device. The LCD does have a blue backlight function that you utilize through different settings.

That said, when turned on you get an initial menu with options: digital audio (from the card), FM radio, line-in and format the compact flash card. You use the joystick to navigate between the menu options and press down on the joystick to enter the option of choice.

All but the FM radio option requires a card to be inserted into the slot. If you attempt to select one of the options that require a card without one in the device, you will get a “No Card!” message displayed on the LCD.
One negative I uncovered, you must have a card inserted to access the main menu where the settings are located. Without a card, you do not have access to the LCD and language options, to state a few.

So, I loaded the card with some random audio files and prepared to jump in.

Probably the biggest plus of the NEXBLACK is the use of the Compact Flash card. No files are stored on the device itself, instead it utilizes the card for storage.

There are many positives to this method. Users are not dependant on the device, if it breaks; you still have your music on the card.

The other big positive is that you can choose the capacity you need regardless of the NEXBLACK player. What I mean, you can buy a 1GB or a 16GB card, whichever fits your needs best and they will work with the player. Of course, the flip-side of this is that you must calculate the extra cost of buying the flash memory when you consider purchasing the NEXBLACK because without a card, you will not be able to listen to your music files.

Transferring files to a card can be done via the player too. Connect the device to your computer using the USB connection, it should appear as an external drive, then just drag and drop files onto the card. Very simple, and simple is good.

NEXBLACK completes file transfers in an approximate average of 2-3MB per second. So basically this equates to 1-2 songs per second, depending on the file size. Length of song and bit rate of recording will dictate the size of the music file.

You can also format the memory card through the device’s menu. So if you want to delete all media on the card, just re-format it and you have a clean slate. Upon selecting the format option on the menu, the NEXBLACK does ask if you are sure you want to format the media. So it makes the chance of accidentally re-formatting the card minimal.

After inserting a card, I select digital audio from the main menu, which takes me to the “My Music” menu where I see the following options: By Artists, By Album, By Genre, By M3U playlists and Unsorted.

I routinely accessed the first three options and found them to always display the information correctly and in alphabetic order. The “By Genre” section sorted the random files I loaded on the card in to buckets of “Country”, “Rock” and “Soundtrack”.

Playing a file on the device, I immediately noticed how loud the music was. When listening to a audio player at work, I like to be able to hear the music but I also like to be able to hear things around me. To do this with the NEXBLACK, I had to set the volume level to 1.

Setting the equalizer seems to assist in reducing the volume but changing the equalizer options seems to have little other noticeable effect, except for making the volume quieter.

Volume under control, the sound quality is good but I did notice occasional hiccups that seemed to occur at random. The song would be playing fine, and then suddenly it would just stop for a quick second then pick right back up at the same point in the song. It was not the file itself because it never occurred at the same point in the song, plus the same file would play fine when I transferred it to my other player. I also tried a different compact flash card, but I still experienced hiccups.

My only conclusion is that something in the device must be causing the brief interruptions in the music. Bummer!

Navigating my music files with the device is simple enough. Utilizing the joystick and function button to hop in and out of segments and between songs is easy but you are limited to jumping one music file at a time. So if you want to go from song 1 to 6, you have to jump to each record, and then access the next. It seems slow and clunky to me.

The built-in FM tuner is a great feature that some of the market leaders lack. The FM frequency range is 87.5 to 108Mhz and you can change the frequency in increments of 01.Mhz. You must manually scan the channels by pushing the joystick control to the left and right.

You can easily add your favorite FM station to the list of preset channels by simply pushing in on the joystick. Once saved, you can quickly flip through your stations.

I tried the recording feature a couple of times but was disappointed in quality of the sound. I spoke directly into the microphone; no more than 2 to 3 inches away, and the recording playback was very low. I also found my recordings from the FM radio to have a lot of static and to be difficult to listen to.

The unit utilizes 2 AA batteries for power. The positives of this source of power are that it is non-proprietary and anyone can find AA batteries when needed. I was able to get over 20 hours of non-continuous play from the batteries, which I found impressive.

The negatives of AA batteries are the weight and bulkiness they add to the device. Plus the cost of replenishing the batteries once they have depleted. Of course, you could always invest in rechargeable AA batteries as companions to your NEXBLACK.


The NEXBLACK is a fair digital audio player whose biggest plus is the flexibility provided by the utilization of compact flash/micro-drive storage media. That along with the built-in FM Tuner could make this digital audio player the one for you.

The biggest complaint was the interruptions that I experienced while listening to my music, which I theorized was link directly to the device.

For the money, remember you have to consider the player + storage card + batteries, I think I might consider looking at another device, maybe some of the other fine offerings from Frontier Labs.


Product Information

Manufacturer:Frontier Labs
Retailer:Frontier Labs
  • FM Tuner included
  • Utilizes CF/MD cards
  • Ability to format CF/MD cards
  • Unable to access main menu without card inserted.
  • Music occasionally hiccups
  • Recording sound is poor
  • No color screen
  • Some hardware components have an inexpensive feel

About The Author

7 thoughts on “Frontier Labs NEXBLACK Audio Player”

  1. Gadgeteer Comment Policy - Please read before commenting
  2. Lucking Fovely? It that supposed to be somekind of funny wordplay? :wacko: In my eyes/ears it doesn’t give very professional impression about the FL as a company.

  3. ripardi:

    I would have to agree with you. I think they are trying to be cute, but it is pretty annoying to me.

  4. It looked promising as a cool mp3 player, until I saw that it takes AA batteries!

    The next time I want to deal with buying batteries, or worse, take them out of devices and charge them in a separate charger and put them back in is ….. NEVER !

    One would have thought that all mp3 player vendors would have gotten the memo that you recharge your players by plugging them into a usb port or communication cradle. I guess lucking flovely missed it with this device.

  5. I like removable, rechargable NiMH batteries in a player because I listen to AUDIO BOOKS not music for 99% of the time I use a player. Nothing is more irritating while out on a walk or whatever than to have the batteries die in the middle of an action scene. I would then have to wait until I got home, then plug it into something and be tied to that piece of hardware for hours of waiting. So I wouldn’t buy a player that DID NOT use batteries which I could swap in an instant to continue my listening.

    My NEXBLACK arrived today. I am a bit disappointed in that the battery door is a poor fit with the case when closed. Also the surface has a zillion micro-scratches as if it has been in somebody else’s pocket with loose change. I am wondering if it is truly new or they gave me a refurb.

    When I went to the format function it asked, “Are you sure?” and I clicked “No”, but it formatted anyway.

    Also it does not seem to recognize any OGG tags. And since I don’t have any MP3 at all, only OGG, The tag-related menus appear to be useless.

    On some Ogg files it seemed to play back poorly, high and squeaky, in the human voice frequency range recorded at Ogg Q 2.5.

    And three times now it has locked up so that I had to yank the batteries to restart it almost as if it ran on Win32 or some such.

    One unreservedly positive feature is that uploading to the 8GB CF is very fast.

    All in all this is, for the present, a poor replacement for my Cowon IAudio5 2GB player which I was completely happy with until it got dropped one too many times after more than two years.

    Maybe there will be a firmware update before long. I’ll hang onto it long enough to give FL a shot at fixing these problems. If they don’t, I’ll toss it into the trash. If it comes to that the only good thing I’ll have to say afterwards is that the 8GB CF memory, being removable, can serve me in other purposes.

  6. I kid you not, all of you who are thinking of getting the newer black mp3 player, DONT BUY IT…I own the earlier one and NOTHING works except the mp3, and it is touch and go with the CF cards, this company is not right on quality or design, something is really wrong with theses units…DONT GET ONE, you have been warned….Jimsi777

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