One of my photos

MP3 Player Comparison

December 28th, 2005 · Posted by Skuds in Technology · No Comments · Technology

We now have 5 functional mp3 players in the house. They are:

  • iRiver iHP-120 20Gb (Champagne)
  • Apple iPod Nano 2Gb (black)
  • Sony NWA1000P 6Gb (Pink)
  • Creative Zen Micro 6Gb (Red)
  • Creative Zen Nano 256Mb (Blue)

I have had a bit of a play with all the new ones to see how they compare to my two-year-old iRiver. At the time I bought it the iRiver was the one which best suited my needs but technology has moved on, so lets see how the latest models compare.

Sony NWA100P

A photo really cannot do justice to this machine – it is gorgeous. In photos for adverts and websites it looked OK, but always looked a lot bigger than it really is. If even the professional commercial photographers can't make it look good then I don't stand a chance.

In the pictures it looks about the size and shape of an old cassette walkman, but open up the box and you find a tiny thing which feels very solid and robust. I wish I had taken a photo of it in my hand to show the true dimensions.

The other thing about this player is that it looks like it has no screen, but that is concealed inside it and shows through the outer cover when it is turned on. It is a quirky and unique design feature, but since these machines are all now at a decent sound quality and are getting more common design is the selling point, as it increasingly is with mobile phones.

Here you can see it with the screen on.

One thing which put me off the Sony mp3 players personally was their initial decision to only support their own ATRAC format for music, but now they also support more common formats too.

It comes with Sony's own 'Connect' software for managing music and transferring it to the player. It is similar to all the other programs which do the same job and causes no trouble.

Sound is fine, although its maximum volume is not as high as on all the other machines – it is still loud enough for me but teenagers who like their music at medically dangerous volumes might have a problem.

Power comes from a built-in rechargable battery, which is recharged via the USB port. There is an adapter so you can plug the USB cable straight into the mains and charge without a computer, which is handy for holidays. Unfortunately the USB connector on the Sony is not standard, so lose the cable and it could be expensive to replace, and if you want to charge up at a friend's house you can't just use one of their standard cables.

Apple iPod Nano

I have never really liked the Apple iPods, but this machine is almost as beautiful as the Sony. It is impossibly thin, with a very clear full-colour screen on it, and Apple's ubiquitous scroll wheel.

Like most (all?) of the iPods it is greatly over-priced compared to other products which do the same thing with the same capacity, but you are paying for the looks of it. The scroll-wheel method of control is easy to pick up, even if it did confuse our boy a bit as he was trying to use it like the push buttons on his old iPod Shuffle.

Again you need to use Apple's own software (iTunes) to fill the player up with music, and there is another proprietary music format (AAC) but industry standard mp3 format is accepted too.

The iTunes software is easy enough to use and does a good job of synching music and photos. I have yet to see what happens when the iTunes library contains more music than the 2Gb capacity of the player. At the moment there are 434 songs on it and it is about 80% full.

Like the Sony, power is from built-in batteries, charged via a non-standard USB cable. There is no option for charging other than from a computer, but no doubt there are many third-party solutions for that. 

One accessory which looks like being essential for this is a case or skin. Just look at this picture to see the scrapes, scratches and greasy fingerprints after the thing has been out of the box for just three days.

There is a case/skin which comes with it but our boy decided not to use it. While it might seem fussy to worry about how the thing looks, remember that with Apple you pay well over the odds because of how it looks so maybe its worth preserving what you pay extra for. The irony is that you then hide those looks with a layer of rubber. Catch-22?

Loudness is certainly not a problem with the Apple. It goes way too loud. If someone has it turned up full you can hear it from 10 metres away easily.

As well as playing music, the Nano has a few games, can synch with a calendar/diary, hold notes and contacts, and act as a stopwatch. The games are like 20-year-old computer games except for a music quiz which plays one of the songs on the Nano at random and displays the title along with 4 others from the index so you can select which one it really is.

Being a flash memory player rather than a hard-drive one, the Nano comes on immediately with no waiting for firmware to load into memory or anything.

Creative Zen Micro

For the same price as a 2Gb iPod Nano, you can get this 6Gb hard disc-based player from Creative. It comes in a wide range of colours and I chose scarlet for the Mrs.

Its attractive enough as long as you are not comparing it to the iPod Nano or the Sony, but feels a lot more robust than either. Controls are all on the front with a number of buttons around a touch pad which is like a linear version of Apple's scroll wheel.

Power is from an internal lithium ion battery which can be easily removed and replaced – just like a mobile phone battery, which it closely resembles – or you could carry a spare one. Charging is from USB again. An AC adaptor is available but not included. For a change, the USB cable is standard.

To fill this up you can either use the supplied Creative software or just drag & drop or use Windows Media Player and as well as mp3 the wma and wav formats are also supported.

If 6Gb of music just isn't enough there is also an FM tuner built in which can be recorded from and recording can be made from external sources or the built-in microphone.

The list of features for this is enormous. Apart from the music files and radio there are tasks, contacts, calendar and various timer functions. The menus can be customised, but I found them easy enough as they are.

As you can see from the picture, it really is small. Nowhere near as slim as the Apple, but a lot more compact. You can also see how all the buttons and the edge of the player light up when the screen backlight is on.

Sound quality is as good as you would expect from the company which invented the whole concept of portable mp3 players and made made the famous JB2 player which is still regarded by the best-sounding machine by some.

Creative Zen Nano

Subject of a small legal battle between Creative and Apple over the name I think, the Creative Zen Nano is basically the same as the old Muvo Micro machine. Its a flash memory player available in a variety of capacities and colours. We got a blue 256Mb one for the younger boy.

I don't have a photo of this one, but its really tiny – a little taller and narrower than a Zippo lighter. Power is from a AAA battery and data transfer is from a standard USB cable. Like its big brother, you can transfer with Creative's software, Windows Media Payer or drag & drop.

Sound quality is surpisingly good for such a small device. We plugged it into a set of Creative speakers and it sounded as good as any of the other players. There is also an FM radio and the ability to record from external sources, the radio or from a built-in microphone. With such a small capacity you would not really do any recording, but I have seen someone use a higher-capacity Muvo as a makeshift dictaphone in a meeting and it worked well enough.

The LCD screen is necessarily small and limited but shows the name of the current track and EQ options. The biggest advantage of this player is its size.

iRiver iHP-120 

Not the most attractive player in the world, but then looks were way down my list of priorities when I bought it. It spends most of its time in the leather case which came with it anyway so this is a rare exposure to the open air for it.

Power is from a built-in lithium ion polymer battery and charging is from the mains using an AC adaptor. Data transfer is via a standard USB 2 cable.

Music is transferred from the computer by drag & drop within windows. Having transferred files you can use iRiver's utility to build the iHP's database. I don't bother as I don't use the database function. Any spare capacity on the 20Gb drive can be used for other files. there is an FM tuner built in, but you can't record from it. You can, however record from external sources in either wav format or with on-the-fly encoding to mp3 and you can do this with either a normal 3.5mm audio connection or via an optical line in. (There is an optical line out too, even if it is not a true line out). Formats supported are wav, wma, mp3 and ogg.

Sound reproduction is acceptable with 64Kb wma files through the headphones but higher bitrates are needed if you want to play through speakers. The lower bitrate does mean you can store many more files – I have had over 9000 songs on it at a time.

The best thing about the iRiver for me is the remote control. It has buttons which can access every feature of the player, and a display screen as well. It means I can put the main player's controls on hold and leave it in my pocket.

Its a bit plasticky compared to the solid metal of the main player, but its still undamaged after two years so it must be better than it looks.

The verdict

There is no way I could swap my iRiver for any of these, for the sole reason that I actually use all the 20Gb storage and could not now drop down to anything less than 8000 songs. The fully-featured remote control is also a huge benefit to me: I like to keep the player in an inside pocket and the remote clipped to a buttonhole or lapel. I don't think I would want to keep fishing out the player to change tracks or volume.

The portability of the Creative Zen Nano is great. If I could live with a maximum of 1Gb storage I would have one of those. Unfortunately I have broad tastes and a large music collection. I can't deny that all the other players look better than the iRiver, but looks count for nothing when something is in a pocket. I do covet a few of the features from the other players. I would love the music quiz from the Apple Nano for example, and the playlisting facilities from the Apple, Sony and Creative Zen Micro.

Having played with all the competition I can only say that I am truly impressed, but not converted. The machine which impressed me most was the Creative Zen Micro, for its ease of use and huge number of features. The FM tuner was especially easy to use compared to the iRiver.

If I was starting from scratch now (and bearing in mind that the iHP-120 is no longer made) I would go for a 20Gb version of the Creative, but would always feel that it needed a remote control.

Tags: ···

No Comments so far ↓

Like the collective mind of the Daily Mail, comments are closed.