Products & Services
When shopping for an MP3 player, first decide how much you're willing to spend on a unit that you might want to replace in a year or two. Then decide whether you want an iPod or a less popular brand that might offer useful features iPods lack. (See our reviews of the latest Apple iPods, as well as some great alternatives, too.)
Most MP3 players can handle downloaded music videos, movies, and TV programs, but some are better at it than others. An increasing number of MP3 players now offer built-in support for optional wireless Bluetooth headphones for tangle-free listening, and even Wi-Fi capability for downloading or streaming music and other content from online sources.
With Apple's family of players so ubiquitous, and so similar in many ways, it's worth considering the advantages and shortcomings of iPods before going further with your buying decision. iPods are easy to use, thanks to the superb integration of the players and the company's iTunes software. The iTunes Store offers the largest selection of legal digital content on the Web, including virtually all the available downloads of major TV shows. And iPods have an abundance of accessories to extend their use, from boom boxes and clock radios with iPod slots to iPod cases that come in many colors and fabrics. Other brands of players also have custom aftermarket equipment, and generic gear will let you pipe any player's music into a component sound system or a car stereo.
As for drawbacks, iPods typically cost a little more than non-Apple players with comparable capacity. And they have some special limitations, such as the inability to easily transfer music to any other devices that don't run iTunes. iPods require you to open iTunes to transfer music into the player; competing devices let you drag and drop music files without opening music-management software.
If video content is going to be a big part of your entertainment mix, make sure the player's display is large enough (at least 2 inches measured diagonally) to let you watch comfortably for extended periods. Also think about what you'll watch, and how you're going to get it. For example, some models let you record directly from a TV, cable box, or digital video recorder (DVR), either on the fly or on a schedule. Some players have Wi-Fi connections that let you wirelessly swap music, photos, and other files with other players of the same model, or patch into wireless home networks to connect with a PC, or access the Web to browse sites or to download music and videos. Just remember that those special abilities often add hundreds to the player price tag and introduce yet another set of considerations.
These are generally the smallest and lightest types of MP3 players, often no bigger than a pack of gum, and they typically weigh no more than 3 ounces. They're primarily for playing music, featuring various controls for adjusting playback options and enhancing sound. Their smallish screens (1 to 2 inches) are best for viewing playlists, menus, and album art. Many have built-in FM radios and voice recorders, while others add more exotic features such as pedometers, heart monitors, and the ability to work with wireless Bluetooth headsets.
Storage capacities range from 512MB to 64GB, or about 120 to 16,000 songs. (All song capacities listed here are based on a standard CD-quality setting of 128 kilobytes per second, which requires about 1GB per 250 songs. You can fit more music into memory if you compress songs into smaller files, but that will result in lower audio quality.) Some music players also have memory-card expansion slots to add more capacity.
These players have large screens (typically between 2-1/2 and 4 inches, but sometimes as large as 5 inches) for viewing videos and photos, playing games, and interacting with Web-based content. Some have screens as large as 5 inches. Many have Wi-Fi connections for downloading or streaming content from online sources. Some have smart-phone-like operating systems (without the phone functionality) that, when combined with their Internet connections, expand their functionality quite a bit via apps that are either already on the player or downloaded from app stores. For example, you can browse the Web, access Facebook and other social networks, check e-mail, send instant messages, read e-books--even place phone calls using Skype and similar applications. A few have crude cameras for snapping pics, taking videos, and conducting video chats.
Out of the box, storage capacity ranges from 8GB to 64GB, though some media players also have memory-card expansion slots to add more capacity. These typically use Secure Digital cards, whose capacities range from about 2MB to 32GB. Price: $40 to $150 for the player; $25 to $35 for a 32GB memory card.
Most cell and smart phones have controls and on-board storage capacities that rival those of stand-alone MP3 players. What's more, they have the edge of cellular data and Wi-Fi connections, which enable them to download music, videos, e-books, podcasts, and other content from a variety of ad-supported and for-pay services, including iTunes, Amazon, Google, Rhapsody, Internet radio stations, Pandora, Slacker Radio, XM Radio, and others. The downside: mandatory monthly charges of $15 to $30 for cellular data service on top of charges for downloads or content subscriptions.
Common MP3 player features include the ability to play music and video and to display photographs. Some can also be used to surf the Internet, check e-mail, and play games. Look for the features that really matter to you before choosing an MP3 player.
Most MP3 players come with software to convert your CDs into an audio playback format that the player can handle. You can also organize your music collection according to artist, album, genre, and a variety of other categories, and create playlists to suit any mood or occasion. All come with software to help you shuttle content between your computer and the player using a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection. All players work with a Windows PC, and some support Macintosh.
On most models, the firmware--the built-in operating instructions--can be upgraded so the player does not become obsolete. Upgrades can add or enhance features, fix bugs, and add support for other audio and video formats and operating systems. This is important for models with video playback because of the evolving nature of video formats.
Many players in our MP3 Ratings (available to subscribers) have built-in volume limiters that take the guesswork out of safe listening. Some models have a preset safety level, which can be activated from the player's menu or an on/off switch. All iPods and some Creative models allow you to custom-set the volume limit, and protect the setting with a pass code--a nice touch for concerned parents. We recommend setting the maximum volume between ½ and 2/3 of the volume bar's full setting. But be aware that the loudness of individual songs can vary significantly, depending upon music genre, equalizer setting, and how the song was recorded.
Most MP3 players have displays that show the song title, track number, amount of memory remaining, battery-life indicator, and other functions. Some displays present a list of tracks from which you can easily make a selection, while others show only one track at a time, requiring you to advance through individual tracks to find the desired one.
Screens can be monochrome or color. Models with color displays also let you store and view pictures taken with your digital camera, and in many cases, video clips.
Most players with color screens can display JPEGs, the default photo format of most digital cameras. Some can handle TIFFs, BMPs, and lesser-known formats. Many let you view your photos in slideshow fashion, complete with fadeouts, scrolls, and other transitions, and with music.
Many players can store and play back video in a format that compresses about two hours of video into 1GB or 2GB of memory space. Popular video content sources include digital copies of films packaged with Blu-Ray discs and DVDs that are formatted for playback on iPods and Windows Media-compatible portable devices, as well as iTunes, which lets you download a wide range of videos directly into your iPod Touch, iPad, iPhone and other Apple devices. You can also purchase software that will make portable digital copies of your DVDs. Some models can connect to an external display, such as a TV, but won't let you play DRM-protected videos on them. Some players won't play copy-protected videos at all. Virtually all video players come with software that converts unprotected movies into a format the player can handle.
As for the viewing experience, MP3-player screens are pretty tiny, even when compared with portable DVD players, and hard to see in outdoor light. Players with larger screens, up to 4 inches or more, are easier to watch for longer periods, and some come with built-in speakers. Also keep in mind that downloading video requires speeds of 1Mbps or faster, and playing it depletes the battery more quickly than playing music.
Expect some type of equalizer, an MP3 player feature that allows you to adjust the tone in various ways. A custom setting through separate bass and treble controls or adjustable equalizers gives you the most control over the tone. Some players have presets, such as "rock" or "jazz," and channel balance control.
Volume, track play/pause, and forward/reverse controls are standard. Most players have a mode that lets you repeat music tracks or play tracks in a random order, also referred to as "shuffle" mode.
In addition to playing music, most MP3 players can function as external hard drives, allowing you to move files from one computer to another. Some players can act as a USB host, letting you transfer images, data, or music directly from a memory-card reader, digital camera, or another MP3 player without using a computer. But a few of these won't let you play or view the files you transfer. Some allow you to view text and PDF documents, photos, and videos on their display screens. Other convenient features include an FM radio tuner, a built-in microphone or line input for recording, and adapters or a line output for patching the player into your car's audio system. Some players let you wirelessly swap music, photos and other files with similar player models. Some can also patch into wireless home networks to connect with a PC, access the Web on a limited basis, or download music and videos.
On some models you can access player function controls by a wired or infrared remote control.
MP3 players revolutionized portable entertainment by putting thousands of songs, videos, and other content into pocket friendly devices for on-demand access. In recent years, smart phones, which have their own built-in players, have tempered demand for these stand-alone devices. But many new models have large touch screens, Wi-Fi access, and run on advanced operating systems, which gives them access to many smart phone advantages without the monthly cell fee. Apple iPods continues to command more than 60 percent of the digital music-player market. Apple's success rests in part on its creation of a self-contained digital-entertainment system. Its iTunes store offers by far the largest library of online music, books and video content.
Apple commands more than 60 percent of the digital music-player market since the introduction of the iPod in 2001. There are four iPod lines: The iPod Classic hard-disk player, the Nano flash players, and the Touch flash players with a large touch screen, full Web browser, and the ability to download content wirelessly over its Wi-Fi connection. Its postage-stamp-size Shuffle player lacks a display.
This French company, which introduced its first MP3 player in 2000, has become one of the best-known players in the PVR (personal video recorder) market. Its devices can record video and other content from a variety of sources, including cable and satellite. Archos players handle music, video, photos, storage, and data.
A privately held New York corporation, Coby supplies an extensive value line of flash players that is sold by all major retailers.
Cowon America, a division of the Korean-based Cowon Systems, has an extensive line of flash players, and a large storage hard-disk player that plays music, videos, photos and more.
Creative was one of the first companies to introduce MP3 players. Its Zen players have a full complement of controls for playing music, videos, and showing photos. Its M line of players are somewhat more compact and have fewer features.
Philips manufactures a wide range of MP3 players--all of them flash based. Some of its models are geared for fitness and come with built-in exercise tracking technology. Its 2013 models will be distributed and marketed by P&F USA in North America.
RCA sold its MP3-player business to Audiovox, though players continue to bear the RCA logo. All of its players store their content in flash memory.
Samsung offers a full line of MP3 players--all of them flash--with leading-edge technology, such as the ability to use Bluetooth technology to answer cell phones. Samsung Galaxy-class players have large touch screen displays, Wi-Fi connections, and run on the Android operating system, which gives them access to many of the apps, games, music, and other content enjoyed by smart phone users.
This flash-memory-card maker, which introduced its first MP3 player in 2004, continues to introduce a full line of players. Not surprising, most of its Sansa line of players have card slots for expanding storage capacity using SanDisk’s microSD cards.
Sony is the best-known consumer-electronics brand in the United States, practically inventing the portable-music product category with its Walkman tape and CD players. Sony manufactures a full line of players at all price points that often have volume limiters to protect hearing and can now sync with iTunes.
Consider a flash-memory model (4GB can hold about 1,000 songs) if a lower price, smaller size, lighter weight, and long playback time are more important to you than a vast selection of tunes. Look for flash models that can accept external memory cards if you want expanded song capacity. If you have a large music collection that you want to keep with you, a hard-disk player might make more sense. Players with a 160GB capacity can hold about 40,000 songs and could serenade you for months without repeating a tune. But a hard-disk player can be more complicated to manage than a flash-memory player. For some, navigating through the menus or directories (folders) of songs might also take longer.
New computers shouldn't be a problem, but make sure any player you're considering is compatible with your older Windows or Macintosh computer (including its operating system). Keep in mind that some operating-system upgrades can exceed the price of a player. And your computer must have a USB port.
Whichever type of MP3 player you choose, make sure you'll be comfortable using the device. Look for a display that is easy to read and controls that can be worked with one hand. Because sizes and shapes vary widely, make sure the player fits comfortably in your pockets, and that it's easy to fish out when you need to access controls. Accessories that might be important to you might not be included, such as an AC charger, protective cases, or belt clip, a consideration to you in the overall cost of the player.
While many players can produce near-CD quality music out of their headphone jacks, the headphones they come with can degrade the quality. Most perform respectably, and any performance differences might not be a bother to you in typical, everyday use. But if you're particular about sound quality, it would be worth buying better-quality aftermarket headphones for use with your player.
With any portable device, batteries are a consideration. Our tests found a wide variation in battery life among the players. Depending on the player settings, some will run out of power after only nine hours of play, while others can play music for more than 60 hours before their batteries give out. Flash-memory players tend to have longer playback times than hard-disk players. Playing videos can run down a battery in just a few hours.
Some flash-memory players use AA or AAA batteries and can accept either standard or rechargeable batteries. Other players use nonremovable or nonstandard batteries that charge using a computer USB port. (An AC adapter is typically a $15-to-$40 option.) You can expect a bit longer playback time using standard batteries, but purchasing a charger and using rechargeable batteries will be more cost effective in the long run and more environmentally friendly. (For advice on recycling used batteries, call 800-822-8837 or go to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.'s site at www.rbrc.org.)
Other players use rechargeable nonstandard "block" or "gum stick" shaped nickel metal-hydride (Ni-MH) or lithium-ion (Li-ion) removable batteries, which are more expensive and harder to find. They typically cost $20 to $50 to replace. Many players use a nonremovable rechargeable battery. When the battery can no longer hold a charge, the player has to be sent back to the manufacturer for service--a costly procedure if the product is no longer under warranty.