Digital Music Players

Choosing the perfect MP3 player (May 2001)

A mobile technology-savvy reader such as yourself will be very well aware of all the new ways to carry music with you using digital formats, in particular the ubiquitous MP3. My purpose here it is not to cover every possible alternative when it comes to players and software. My intent is to take you through the steps I went through in trying to find the perfect player for me, with an emphasis on high-end, fully-featured players. As a former professional musician and recording studio engineer, I was not interested in any device that was not up to pro standards when it came to audio quality or control. My hope is that you will benefit from my research and find the ideal device for you.

As there are many online resources available relating to the technologies of digital music creation, I won't spend too much time in this area except where it applies to my choice of hardware and software. There are, however, a few key concepts that it will be helpful to discuss right at the top.

An important thing to know about digital music is that it is not a new concept. Compact Disks all contain audio files encoded into the WAV format. These files can be copied to a computer; however, they are absolutely huge--unmanageably so.

Computer users have been playing around with digital audio files in various forms for as long as there have been personal computers. It wasn't until the creation of our very high-quality sampling technologies, such as MP3 in the early 90's, that a viable, high-quality method of compressing these enormous files into something that could be easily manipulated on a personal computer became practical.

It's easy to become overwhelmed with all of the options presented to you when you want to "rip," or sample, an audio file to your computer. Varying levels of quality, represented by a range of sampling rates, a.k.a. bit rates, are selectable, typically in the range of 96 to 192 Kbps. In general, anything above 128 Kbps is considered "near CD quality." This is highly debatable, particularly if you come from an audio background. Personally, I feel that 192 Kbps offers the perfect trade-off between audio quality and file size. The only downside to using this bit rate is that it takes a bit more disk space on my computers and on my handheld devices. Other considerations for selecting a bit rate include the type of material being ripped. Orchestral music always benefits from a higher sampling rate, whereas pop music usually sounds fine at slightly lower bit rates. I use 192 for everything, but you may find that you are satisfied with the more space-effective 160 or 128 rate.

Making the short list

For this review, I did the same thing you might do: I browsed the web, looking for reviews on the various players on the market. And just to make things more real, I decided I was going to purchase the model I liked best for myself at the end. I had seen one or two that I liked at various trade shows, so I had an idea of what I was looking for. After I had created a short list of products in which I was strongly interested, I contacted the companies and requested review samples for this round-up. Most complied, even though reviewing MP3 players fall just slightly outside of my normal request range for this magazine. Players that I wanted but wasn't unable to obtain due to unresponsive PR departments include models from Compaq, Nike, and RCA.

Though I did not plan it this way, the players I ended up with range from matchbox-sized (Panasonic e-wear) to portable CD player-sized (Creative Nomad Jukebox). I soon found out that size was no indicator of audio quality, though functionality was increased as the devices grew. For example, the diminutive Panasonic produced gorgeous sound—when used with any of my beloved Sony headphones instead of the included Panasonic-branded clip-phones, that is. (See sidebar for more about headphones). At the other extreme, the Nomad Jukebox blew all the other devices away when it came to sound quality when plugged into my car audio system.

The Players

Panasonic "e-wear" SV-SD75

I've eaten pieces of sushi bigger than the SD75. This incredibly cute little unit is so Japanese it looks out of place on my desk full of "small" devices. Miniscule, elegant, expensive products like this virtually never make it to the US market. The Japanese want their tech as small and as powerful as possible, even if it means the controls are so small as to be essentially indistinguishable from each other.

And the less you get, the more it costs. The SD75 streets for a shocking US$360-$380, though it does come well equipped with accessories. You get hip-looking clip-phones, a 64MB Secure Disk card, a NiMH battery charger and AAA cell, a USB external SD card reader (Windows only), an arm/wrist strap, a belt clip, and a neck strap so you can wear it like a pendant. The headphone cord is cleverly designed to be just long enough when worn on the arm or necklace style, yet it comes with an extension cord for those who would rather wear it on their belt or in a pocket.

So how does it sound? Through the supplied phones, very good to excellent. Through any of my Sony phones, superb. Your MP3s are "transcoded" into secure AAC files when they are transferred onto the SD card. Though the card is visible on the Windows desktop, you should not write directly to it due to the draconian, SDMI-compliant (Secure Digital Music Initiative) copy protection scheme. You cannot, for example, insert the SD into another device and copy the songs from it. They are "checked out" to that unique card only. At first, this bugged me, but then I realized that I would never want to copy these songs from this little wafer anyway. I'd just check out fresh copies from my computer.

As one of the three designers of the SD (SanDisk and Toshiba are the other two), Panasonic has understandably committed themselves to SD-enabling their entire line of personal electronic devices, including digicams, camcorders, and more. Sony is doing the same thing with the secure variant of their Memory Stick, the Magic Gate. Whether the American buying public will buy into this approach remains to be seen. But the SD75 looks, feels, and sounds so good that you probably won't care and will just buy the little cutie. www.panasonic.com or 800-211-PANA

Iomega HipZip

I've been watching Iomega try to figure out what to do with their cool micro-Bernoulli technology for years. Originally called nHand and targeted to the emerging class of handheld PCs, it also survived the Clik! moniker and a failed attempt to become a storage standard in digital cameras. Now dubbed PocketZip (as it should have been all along, of course), it has finally found a good home in digital music players. The little disks hold a moderate 40MB of data, but they are cheap at US$10 a pop. And of course, they can be erased and reused as many times as you like. They aren't as compact or durable as the various flash memory cards other players use, but they are an order of magnitude less expensive. When they eventually wear out (though I've never actually seen one wear out), you just throw it away and slam in a fresh one. Try that with a US$100 64MB flash card.

Due to the mechanical requirements of the drive mechanism, Iomega's HipZip music player is somewhat bulkier than others in its class. They made up for it with excellent industrial design, with smoothly curving surfaces that fit the hand perfectly. The controls are well-placed and feel like they are built to last a lifetime, and the generous backlit display contains all the information you could possibly want. If you saw a HipZip sitting on the captain's desk on Star Trek, it would blend right in.

How's it sound? Wonderful! Full and rich (with decent phones, of course), this unit's sound is a delight. You would not expect Iomega to take such care when it comes to sound quality, but they did. It is the equal of any of the other models I tested.

Thankfully, Iomega has eschewed copy protection completely in this device. In fact, you don't even need to use any special software to get your music onto the disks. Just plug the supplied USB cable into your Windows or Mac OS computer and drag your MP3 or WMA (Windows Media Audio) files over to the disk. Boom, you're done. You can also use your HipZip as a convenient data transporter for non-music files if you like. As far as your computer is concerned, it's just an external DOS-formatted disk drive. Iomega sells PC Card adapters and dedicated external PocketZip readers to streamline things even further. If you really get into the PocketZip thing, you'll probably want one of these. The HipZip costs US$250-$275 (street) and comes with two 40MB PocketZips, typically so-so headphones, a really nice case by BodyGlove, and the full version of MusicMatch Jukebox. At press time, Iomega announced their new 100MB PocketZip drives and disks, and that they would ship a 100MB-compatible version of the HipZip in Q3 2001. www.iomega.com or 800-MY-STUFF

Creative Nomad II MG

When Steve Jobs stood up in front of 5000 Mac zealots and the press at Macworld in January, he held up a Nomad II MG and announced the release of iTunes, their sleek new MP3 player/ripper. He positioned the Mac as a "digital hub" for devices such as his shiny little Nomad. He then ripped some Barenaked Ladies tunes from a CD and copied them over to the Nomad.

That was enough for me. I had to have one. I was using a PowerBook G3 at the time, so I downloaded the free iTunes, plugged in a Nomad II MG, and it all worked pretty much as advertised.

If you are looking for elegant design, look no further than this little jewel. The case is all silver matte finished magnesium with gray accents, and a porthole-like round LCD panel that's a joy to look at. Unlike some models, the branding is minimal and tasteful. Even the typography is top-notch. I find the size to be just right: small enough to disappear in a pocket, large enough to operate by feel alone. You could easily jog with this unit in your hand without feeling weighed down. In the looks department, it's a slam-dunk winner.

But looks aren't everything. The Nomad II MG sounds superb. Crank it up and it'll break up just a skosh on the top end, but you'd never want to listen to music that bloody loud anyway. With 64MB internal memory and a SmartMedia slot for up to 128 additional megabytes, capacity is excellent. Want more? Creative Labs has released a special limited edition with a show-stopping 256MB internal memory. Add in a 128MB (at press time, only Delkin Devices was shipping a 128MB SM card) you get 384MB. At an average of one megabyte per minute of stereo music, that's a lot of tunes!

Creative has taken the high road in the software department by creating PlayCenter II, a full-featured digital music center for Windows that was designed specifically for the Nomad line of music players. It offers high bit-rate MP3 encoding and complete control over your Nomad player or Nomad Jukebox (see review below).

This player has a slot for SmartMedia memory cards, the same kind used in many popular digital cameras. This is a mixed blessing. SM cards are expensive, fragile, and of moderate capacity. I hate these nasty little data-wafers, but I use them when I have no other choice. (See Digital Camera Magazine at www.digicamera.com for more.) I accept them in the Nomad II MG because I understand the need for small size. Delkin's new 128MB card works perfectly, but it's expensive. WARNING: Do not use Olympus-brand SM cards in the Nomad or any other music player. Olympus cards have proprietary software on them to facilitate the creation of photo panoramas in Olympus digicams. If you insert one into a Nomad's slot, the card dies permanently. I lost a perfectly good 32MB card this way.

The Nomad II MG also has a built-in FM radio tuner from which you can record directly if you happen to hear something you like. The Nomad can also serve as a voice recorder for reminders, interviews, or impromptu jam sessions if you are into that scene. The FM tuner uses the headphone cord as the antenna, so reception can be spotty and inconsistent in fringe areas or when you are in motion. Station presets can be saved on the Nomad or from the supplied PlayCenter II software or the included SoundJam MP for Mac users. When you add it all up, it's a versatile, impressive package. Pricing for the Nomad II MG is a little on the high side at US$255-$290, and of course the headphones are a disaster, but this is the state of the art in small digital music players and is worth every penny. If you are a Mac person, this is the one you want. www.nomadworld.com or 800-998-5227

Creative Nomad Jukebox

Unlike any other device that came before it, the Nomad Jukebox packs 6 gigabytes of storage into a unit about the size of a portable CD player. In essence, it's a little Linux computer (don't be frightened; the ugly part is well hidden) that is dedicated to storing, organizing, recording, and playing 100 hours of digital music.

Weighing in at about one pound, you would not want to jog with a Nomad Jukebox, even though it has a five minute skip buffer to keep the music streaming happily. For just about any other kind of environment, though, the Jukebox rules. One of these, in conjunction with an amplifier and speakers, can serve as your audio system, with the added benefit of having your entire music collection stored inside.

Let's work with that concept for a moment. In addition to a standard headphone jack, the Jukebox has two line outputs. They can be configured as either dual stereo into four speakers or a synthesized, real-time surround setup with front and rear speaker pairs. Cambridge SoundWorks (www.cambridgesoundworks.com) will soon ship a rechargeable speaker/amp system with a custom mounting plate and power fitting for the Jukebox—an ideal setup for boats, RVs, or apartments with limited space. Speaking of vehicles, the Jukebox sounded infinitely better than all the other units I tested when piped through my car's audio system. The balanced line-level output is the reason, since headphone ports are biased for high-impedance headphones and not high-quality audio components.

There is also a line-in jack for a self-powered (not phantom-powered) stereo condenser microphone. Sony makes several stereo mikes that would be perfect for this use. This rig will capture stereo recordings from a voice-quality 11Khz to an amazing 48Khz sampling rate. The resulting files are true CD-quality (44.1Khz) to DAT-quality (48Khz) stereo WAV streams. If you are a musician, you'll want a Jukebox for this capability alone.

Serious digital music people will find many things to love about the Nomad Jukebox. I like being able to offload all those MP3 files from my computer's hard drive to save precious space. I use a Panasonic ToughBook CF37, a ruggedized magnesium-shelled notebook computer about which I like everything except its puny 8GB internal drive. At this point, I have 762 MP3 tracks stored on the Jukebox, with a little less than 2 gigabytes left for more. When I eventually fill it up, I'll just delete the least interesting tracks and free up the space.

This machine uses four conventional AA NiMH rechargeable cells that are charged in the unit whenever it is plugged in. Creative thoughtfully included a second set of four cells for a total of 8 hours of continuous play time.

Other interesting features include a large, 7-line backlit display for easy navigation, a parametric equalizer, and a "spatialization" feature. I've never been very hot on parametric EQ. Originally designed to find specific frequencies to cut or boost as needed in live concert sound reinforcement, they have an unnatural sound to them that I dislike. I'd have preferred a good 10-band graphic EQ instead. The simulated acoustic effects offered by the spatialization presets, such as Hall and Cave, are also a bit on the artificial side for my admittedly minimalist taste. I just leave this and the parametric feature disabled. Younger ears may dig them, though.

The Jukebox uses the same excellent PlayCenter II software as the Nomad II MG, so everything I wrote above applies here as well. Where it all comes together to create some synergy is when you use the two Nomads together with your PC as your Jobsian hub. Moving dozens of tunes from device to device is extremely simple and very fast via full-throttle USB. Grab the playlist, album, or individual tracks you want, hit the Transfer button, and a few seconds later you're out the door.

Speaking of Macs, the Nomad Jukebox ships with the full version of Casady & Greene's excellent SoundJam MP ripper/player, or you can use Apple's superb iTunes software since it supports Nomad devices natively.

Creative Lab's Nomad Jukebox is a monster product for the serious digital music freak. It's got a big price tag (US$425-485 street) but an even bigger satisfaction quotient. Even the headphones are somewhat less awful than the others. www.nomadworld.com or 800-998-5227

Compaq iPaq 3650 Pocket PC

Readers of this magazine may already have the perfect music player in their possession. Any Pocket PC on the market can serve up MP3 and WMA files using the built-in Windows Media Player. If you have a large CompactFlash card, you can easily load and store many hours of music. The only downsides to using Pocket PCs as music players is that it runs the batteries down in just a few hours and mass CF storage is expensive. Nothing can be done for the first problem except to carry spare power packs, but transcoding (there's that word again!) your MP3 streams into Microsoft's WMA streams can pack many more tunes into a smaller space. I'm skeptical of Microsoft's claims of zero audio degradation from transcoding into WMA, so I never do it. Then again, I have stacks of fat CF cards lying around from my work at Digital Camera that I fill with whatever MP3 streams I like.

The sound quality from my Compaq iPaq 3650 is good to very good. It would get a better rating if it did not skip and pause occasionally, but considering that I may also be using the unit to balance my checkbook or read my email while listening explains the processor load that causes such hiccups. Again, headphone quality is the key factor here. Don't skimp. If you paid less than US$30 for them, you have loser phones. www.compaq.com/ipaq or www.pocketpc.com

Think digital music system

Digital music players are far more than just another way to truck your personal tunes around. This is a whole new way of living with music, a more flexible and customizable approach than any that have come before. (Remember DAT machines?) The advantage of having no moving parts means extremely high reliability for digital music players, while the semiconductor and/or magnetic memory storage technologies lighten our load and eliminate the worry of tape wear or CD scratches. The CD becomes the "golden master" from which you rip your music to whatever device pleases you. For music of fleeting interest, you can eliminate the CD entirely, download the stream into your computer, then trash it when you can't stand Who Let The Dogs Out? anymore.

What did I settle on? I already owned the iPaq 3650, so that didn't count. I almost picked the Panasonic SD75, but the tiny controls bugged me after a few days, and the Big Brother-feel of the required SD transcoding concerned me. The HipZip was a serious contender in every way, but the more elegant size and large capacity of the Nomad IIMG swayed me into the Creative camp. Once there, I found that I could not part with the Nomad Jukebox either. With Creative PlayCenter II on my notebook running as a hub, the Nomads form such a well-oiled system that I just could not put them back into their boxes. And in the event that I switch back to a Mac, these Nomads are totally Mac-compatible.

If size and capacity are important, get a Nomad II MG. If low media cost matters, get the Iomega HipZip. They both rock.

David Macneill

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