Small Players, Big Sound
Portable audio players may offer eye-catching features, such as the ability to display photos and video clips, but ultimately the devices must be judged by one thing: How good does the music sound?
For the first time, the PC World Test Center has conducted sound-quality tests on audio players to determine which produce the finest sound. For details about these tests, see the audio players section of "How We Test."
Lightweight audio players with flash-based memory are the best choice for listening to music while at the gym or on the go. Their lack of moving parts makes them less vulnerable to drops than hard-drive-based devices are. And if you don't require that your audio player hold your entire music collection (or if you already have a bulky player that stores it all), one of these small flash players makes the perfect traveling companion. In addition, though their capacities are dwarfed by 60GB hard-drive models, flash players have increased their storage space. A 4GB flash player will hold about 1000 MP3s encoded at 128 kilobits per second.
If you want an armband for listening on the move, however, note that Creative's Zen Nano Plus has one, but the iPod Nano's costs $29 extra.
Flash players come in a mix of shapes and sizes--variables that can impact their usability. There is such a thing as too small. Some of the players we evaluated are about the size of a cigarette lighter (too small and narrow to include a thumb wheel). On the other hand, some rectangular models have room for a larger screen, making navigating their menus easier. The lightest player we tested is the 2GB MobiBlu DAH-1500i (also known as the "Cube"). The unit weighs less than an ounce and is so small you could pop it in your mouth. Despite this novelty, it missed the chart due to its lack of features and mediocre usability.
New Audio Tests
Beginning with this issue, the PC World Test Center will evaluate the sound quality of audio players using an ATS-2 analyzer provided by Audio Precision, a maker of audio testing equipment. We conducted several tests on each player. For example, we measured the output level each device could attain before reaching 1 percent distortion, generally regarded as the highest acceptable amount.
We also measured each device's frequency response to ensure that the player could reproduce very high and very low frequencies. All of the players we evaluated earned high scores on this test. We also measured the signal-to-noise ratio and the harmonic distortion of each player's audio output; obviously, noise or distortion will make your listening less enjoyable.
Our tests measure the audio output from each player's headphone jack, rather than from the included earbuds. To get the best possible sound quality, you'll want to upgrade from the basic earbuds that come with these players. We outline some of your headphone options in "First Things First: Ditch the Earbuds." We were particularly unimpressed with the Creative Zen Nano Plus's earbuds, which is a shame because the player's audio quality is top-notch.
Only the Zen Nano Plus and the iPod Nano received a score of Superior for overall audio quality. That and a low price earned the Zen Nano Plus our Best Buy. However, no other player tops the elegant design of the iPod Nano.
Of the players on the chart, the SanDisk Sansa c150 added the most distortion to audio, and the SanDisk Sansa e260 posted the highest signal-to-noise ratio. Two players, the Creative Zen Nano Plus and the Dell DJ Ditty, tied for creating the least distortion.
If you like to crank up the tunes, the iPod Nano is your best bet: In our tests it generated the loudest signal before reaching 1 percent distortion. It also showed the best frequency response, re-creating frequencies across the spectrum with less variance than the other players did. The iPod Nano's sole shortcoming was its average showing in our measurement of cross talk--the blending of the left and right audio channels, which degrades the stereo image. The Creative Zen Nano Plus got the best score on this test.
FM and Recording
All the players we tested, except the iPod Nano, include an FM tuner. Three--the Creative Zen Nano Plus, as well as the SanDisk c150 and e260 players--can record FM broadcasts. Don't expect the tuners in these small players to get the crisp reception you get from your car stereo or to make pristine recordings of radio shows, however; recordings we made with the SanDisk e260 had more static than the original broadcast.
Most players typically store 20 radio station presets. The Creative Zen Nano Plus can store 32 presets, while the Dell DJ Ditty allows you to store just 10. As for equalizer settings, the iPod Nano offers the most, with 22 EQ presets. Aside from the Dell DJ Ditty, which has no EQ presets, the other players we looked at offer between 4 and 8 settings. In our experience, however, using an audio player's EQ lowers the output level and distorts the signal.
A built-in microphone is handy for recording voice memos. Among the models we tested, only the iPod Nano and Dell DJ Ditty lacked a mike. One convenient feature of the Creative Zen Nano Plus is that in addition to its built-in mike, it has a line-in jack you can use to record from, say, a portable CD player.
Some flash players use batteries that you can replace yourself. The Zen Nano Plus and SanDisk Sansa c150 use one AAA battery. Both the SanDisk Sansa e260 and iPod Nano run on a rechargeable lithium ion battery; you can change the Sansa e260's battery yourself, but not the iPod Nano's, nor the lithium polymer battery in the Dell DJ Ditty.
All of the players on the chart are rated to last at least 14 hours on one charge.
Shopping for Tunes
The iPod Nano is the only player here that doesn't allow you to drag and drop music files onto it using Windows Explorer--you're required to use Apple's iTunes software.
Most of the players on the chart support the Rhapsody, Napster, and Yahoo online music stores. With the iPod Nano, you have to shop at Apple's iTunes Music Store.
Support for music subscription services is a slightly different story. All of the players except the iPod Nano carry Microsoft's PlaysForSure logo. But be aware that the Creative Zen Nano Plus supports only downloads under the system, and not subscription services as the other three players do. A list of compatible devices is available at www.playsforsure.com.
A few of the players can display photos on their color screen. The iPod Nano's 1.5-inch screen and the SanDisk e260's 1.8-inch screen are big enough to make photo viewing fun (in theory anyway).
However, you can't drag and drop photos onto either player. To view photos on the iPod Nano you have to use iTunes, and with the Sansa e260 you must use its Media Converter software; the same goes for playing video (the Sansa e260 is the only player here that does so). In practice, the e260's large screen is wasted real estate: Photos we loaded left about half of the screen blank, and the PDF manual offered no help. On the Sansa c150's 1.2-inch color screen, photos displayed smaller than a postage stamp.
Such multimedia features are merely extras on flash-based players, though. What these devices do best is play music. So choose one, and get out and enjoy yourself!
First Things First: Ditch the Earbuds
The earphones that come packed with audio players don't do the music justice. To hear the high-quality sound of a Creative Zen Nano Plus or an iPod Nano, you need better headphones. Here are a few options--one for as low as $8.
Over-the-ear headphones: Bulky headphones aren't as portable as earbuds. But on the plus side, a set of cans tends to block out noisy disruptions. Those with closed cups that surround the ears will shut out more noise than those with smaller cups or only foam earpieces. One good pick is a former PC World Best Buy, the $150 Bose TriPort headphones. If you prefer something smaller, try the $150 Sennheiser PXC250 set, which includes a noise-cancelling feature.
In-the-ear headphones: Standard earbuds are lousy at blocking out sound. However, the $249 Super.fi 5 Pro earphones from Ultimate Ears have tips designed to fit snugly, as do the $500 Shure E500 Push to Hear earbuds, which at press time were expected to ship in mid-June. If these are too pricey, don't despair. We've also been impressed by the $8 Sennheiser MX 300 earbuds.
Find the Very Latest Audio Player Charts
Click the links below for the latest online audio player rankings or a comprehensive list of all audio players we've tested.