“a consumer reports for the cheap” — the new york times

Cheap MP3 Players Buying Guide

Our favorite cheap MP3 players, and those preferred by consumers, are small, simple, and easy to use. First on the list is the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip (starting at $39), which features lots of audio file support and clips onto your clothing.

Another top choice is the Sony W Series Walkman (starting at $50), which boasts excellent sound and an unusual headphone-only construct. Apple's iPod shuffle (starting at $45) remains popular; it's tougher and smaller than other cheap MP3 players but offers fewer features than the competition. And the Philips GoGear Vibe (starting at $49) is a good cheap MP3 player with plenty of storage and a small color screen.

MP3 Players Review
MP3 Player Memory & Extra Features

We also found a couple of disappointments in the cheap MP3 player pile. The Mach Speed Eclipse 180 (starting at $16) has a confusing control scheme and a tendency to break down. The RCA M6104 (starting at $30) also lags on user-friendliness and durability.

The features stacked in cheap MP3 players vary from one model to the next. These are small devices so only some sport a screen. Those that do may display photos and perhaps even play certain video files, but the screen won't be any larger than 2 inches. Budget MP3 players typically come with 2GB or 4GB of memory, although the Philips GoGear Vibe model we like packs 8GB into its small frame. File support likewise depends on the model. A good cheap MP3 player should support MP3 and WMA files, and some also support AAC, the default audio format for iTunes. Other audio file types a player may support include Audible files, Obb Vorbis, and FLAC. MP3 players with screens usually support JPEG and BMP photo files and sometimes MP4 or AVI video formats. And finally, some cheap MP3 players also come with a built-in FM radio.

The expert and consumer reviews we found indicate that a small device with straightforward functionality is the ideal. Surprisingly, sound quality doesn't stand out as a top priority because users understand that a cheap MP3 player just won't sound like a home stereo. Still, they expect reasonably good audio and devices with noticeably poor sound routinely draw criticism. We also noted that users had little to say about the battery life of their MP3 players unless it was consistently very limited, as is the case with the Coby MP550 player (starting at $17), another model we researched.

MP3 players outside of the Cheapism niche are more likely to boast a screen and extra features, and contain more memory -- often up to 16GB. A version of the higher-priced Sony E Series Walkman (starting at $75 for 8GB), for example, includes 16GB of storage, a 2-inch color display, a voice recorder, and file support for several types of audio, photo, and video files. But if the primary purpose of a cheap MP3 player is to keep you entertained while at the gym, at work, or during a powerwalk around town, these frills aren't of much value to you.

Devotees of Apple should keep in mind that the vast majority of cheap MP3 players are designed to be compatible with PCs, not Macs. Although using them with Macs is possible, the syncing process can be lengthy and complicated.

MP3 Players Review

Compared to any number of electronic devices, low-cost MP3 players are fairly basic. Consumers seem to prefer it that way -- who wants to fiddle with navigation options while running a lawnmower or pumping an elliptical? MP3 players reviews are likewise short and to the point. Most offer up a few words about sound quality, the interface, and features such as memory and file support. For the models on our list, reviewers are satisfied with the total package: MP3 player sound, functionality, and price. Note, though, that we came across a few reports of excessive moisture (i.e., sweat) interfering with the longevity of these models, so do take care.

Review continues below

MP3 Players Sound.

You'd think that high-quality sound would be the top requirement for plugged-in music lovers. But it's pretty clear from MP3 players reviews that thrifty shoppers have reasonable expectations about MP3 player sound from a budget device. Sound quality does matter, of course, but consumers who buy these devices are OK with audio that falls short of surround-sound standards. They often go out of their way in MP3 players reviews to praise models that deliver above-average MP3 player sound and unhesitatingly dismiss models that deliver subpar audio quality.

MP3 players reviews reveal that the Sony W Series Walkman (starting at $50) and its upmarket relative, the E Series Walkman (starting at $75 for 8GB), stand out for their excellent sound quality. An expert at Tech Hive gives the 2GB W Series Walkman, with its unusual and practical headphone design, an Editor's Choice nod largely because the first-rate audio belies its budget price. In particular, the reviewer praises the solid bass performance, which is often a weakness in low-end MP3 players. A CNET reviewer also commends the deep bass and absence of distortion. The comparatively pricey and traditionally shaped E Series Walkman earns heaps of kudos from users who posted comments at Walmart and Amazon, again for the impressive MP3 player sound, including deep, clear bass.

Users and experts alike give a thumbs-up to the sound emanating from the multi-function SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip (starting at $39). An expert MP3 players review at CNET raves about the audio quality in light of the very modest price. Although the Sansa Clip Zip can't compete with high-end players, the expert continues, its MP3 player sound is at least level with the performance of an Android smartphone. However, Tech Hive cautions that the included earbuds are "dismal," an assessment shared by some users who posted MP3 players reviews at Best Buy.

The Philips GoGear Vibe (starting at $49) scores with consumers, whose MP3 players reviews at Amazon commend the sound quality -- even when plugged into external speakers -- especially given the price. Experts at CNET likewise approve, and say but for the earbuds, the MP3 player sound rivals what you'd hear with an Apple device that costs at least five times as much. (Tip: Splurge on a good pair of headphones.)

Experts and consumers are of different minds about the iPod shuffle (starting at $45). An expert at Tech Hive isn't terribly impressed with the audio quality and lays much of the blame on the bundled earbuds. And yet, several MP3 players reviews at Target assert that sound from this little device is surprisingly loud and clear. And in comments posted at Walmart, purchasers write that they groove to the MP3 player's sound; one asserts only a live concert could sound better.

The Mach Speed Eclipse 180 (starting at $16) fails to win over users, whose MP3 players reviews at sites such as Newegg and Staples ding a variety of operational factors (e.g., controls and set up) and direct a few disses at the audio quality. We found similar complaints about the RCA M6104 (starting at $30), as well as grumbles about the build quality, in MP3 players reviews at sites such as Amazon. And, for a player that's been around for a while and carries a super-cheap price tag, the Coby MP550 (starting at $17) produces decent enough audio, according to comments posted at Walmart but disappoints users with its short battery life.

Review continues below

MP3 Player Memory & Extra Features

Obviously, the larger the MP3 player memory, the more music you can store. For most users, 2GB is sufficient -- that amount of MP3 player memory holds several hours of audio. (The number of tracks depends on the tracks' file size; higher resolution MP3s take up more space than lower resolution MP3s.) If you buy a device that can display photos or play video clips, however, you'll probably want one with at least 4GB of MP3 player memory because pictures and videos require a lot more space than simple audio files. Also, if you like to carry around a significant chunk of your music library, you'll also need MP3 player memory greater than 2GB. One model we looked at, the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip, comes with expandable memory slots -- an uncommon but much appreciated feature in a budget MP3 player. Note, though, that some consumers report in reviews at Newegg that the Sansa Clip Zip is fussy about microSD card compatibility.

The capacity of MP3 player memory doesn't really affect the size of the device. That is, a player with 4GB or more of storage is likely to be about the same size as one with MP3 player memory of 2GB. The Sansa Clip Zip is available in 4GB and 8GB versions but isn't significantly larger than the slim 2GB iPod shuffle. The (headphone) Sony W Series Walkman comes in 2GB or 4GB configurations, although the latter pushes you out of the Cheapism zone. The Mach Speed Eclipse 180 and RCA M6104 are 4GB players, and the Philips GoGear Vibe is available with 4GB or 8GB of MP3 player memory.

MP3 Players File Support.

Most people who buy an MP3 player have audio files in either the MP3 or WMA format, the two most popular formats outside of the Apple iPod universe. Some devices provide a broader array of MP3 player file support for additional, less common file types such as FLAC or Ogg Vorbis. If you buy an MP3 player with a screen, it will probably support basic picture formats such as BMP and JPEG. A handful of budget players, including the Mach Speed Eclipse 180, can also play video clips in formats such as MP4 or AVI. If your music library consists mainly of specific, less-common file types, make sure the MP3 player file support of your new player suits those files.

All the MP3 players we researched, but for the iPod shuffle, support both WMA and MP3 files. Some players are more generous yet in terms of MP3 player file support. For example, the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip supports Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, and Audible file types and podcasts. The Philips GoGear Vibe supports BMP and JPEG image files, as does the Mach Speed Eclipse 180 in addition to its MP3 player video file support noted above. The iPod shuffle, being an Apple player, supports copyright-protected AAC files, the preferred format for iTunes audio files, as well as MP3 files (no WMA files); additional MP3 player file support with the shuffle includes MP3 VBR, Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV audio formats. MP3 player file support with the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip and both the W Series and E Series Walkman models also includes AAC files. The RCA M6104 supports JPEG photo files and claims to support video playback but doesn't specify which video file types.

MP3 Players Interface.

Given the way most budget MP3 players are used, simplicity is essential; you want to listen to your favorite music without a lot of fuss. Some players, such as the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip, Philips GoGear Vibe, Mach Speed Eclipse 180, RCA M6104, and Sony E Series Walkman, feature a screen that visually guides you through menus and song lists. Others, like the iPod shuffle and Coby MP550, forego a screen and rely on a few buttons to control the player. The Sony W Series Walkman is built into a pair of headphones, so there's no need or room for anything but a couple of buttons on each earpiece. Regardless of the design, user-friendly minimalism is the order of the day.

Most of the MP3 players we researched earn at least some applause for their interfaces and usability. An expert from Tech Hive says the Sansa Clip Zip's little 1.1-inch color screen makes navigating the device a cinch and consumer reviews attest to its user-friendly qualities. Tech Hive cautions that controls on the Sony W Series Walkman can be hard to use at first because you can't see the buttons when wearing the player (that would be the player-as-headphones), but after some trial and error, you should get the hang of it. The iPod shuffle has no screen, of course, but it does include a voice-over feature that tells you which song, artist, or playlist you're on, a feature that an expert at Tech Hive considers useful.

The RCA M6104 and Mach Speed Eclipse 180 are two examples of players whose interfaces don't meet expectations. In comments posted at Newegg, users slam the Eclipse 180 for counterintuitive controls and menus that are hard to navigate. We found many buyers at Staples who likewise grumble that usability is not this model's strong suit. At Best Buy several consumers gripe about the M6104's challenging navigation and at Walmart they go on about the difficulty downloading audio and video files; managing playlists is also a bear, users assert.

The Philips GoGear Vibe takes a few knocks for its interface, as well. A CNET review says the navigation pad is counterintuitive and awkward, and one user finally gave up on the Vibe, according to a post at Amazon, because getting it up and running proved too frustrating. Consumers who posted comments at several sites report the instructions are close to useless.

MP3 Players Extras.

It's pretty common for manufacturers to throw in a couple of extra features with their MP3 players. A built-in FM radio is a popular extra, and you'll find that feature in the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip, Philips GoGear Vibe, Coby MP550, RCA M6104, and Sony E Series Walkman players. Some models, such as the Sansa Clip Zip and Mach Speed Eclipse 180, include a digital voice recorder and the RCA M6104 can record what's played on an FM radio.

Other frills sometimes pop up in the budget range. For example, three minutes of charging the W Series Walkman yields 60 minutes of playback, and five minutes of charge time gets you 90 minutes of playback with the GoGear Vibe. The W Series Walkman also has a "Zappin" feature that plays a song for a few seconds before automatically forwarding to the next song until you find a track you want. The aforementioned expandable memory slots in the Sansa Clip Zip and are a rare but nice extra that users often mention in their reviews, noting that it affords nearly limitless capacity.

The Coby MP550, a low budget MP3 player, comes with the fewest features among the products we researched. (It supports only WMA and MP3 files and includes an FM radio.) The iPod shuffle has wider file support but not much to offer in the way of extras besides the voice-over function to help you navigate.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap MP3 Players
  2. Discount MP3 Players Features Comparison Table
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