MP3 players group test review

portable digital audio player
Photo of MP3 players group test
£379

As well as providing the hardware for the Nike player, Rio has produced a new MP3 player itself, in the form of the Rio 600. This is a follow up to its market-leading 500 device (reviewed here, when the company name was Diamond), so it’s interesting to compare what’s different in the new model.

For a start, the Rio 600 is styled in a much more rounded case, nearly all plastic, so it’s lighter, but probably less robust, too. There’s a back-lit LCD display which shows track title, artist and volume settings. A control disk tilting any of four ways provides player control, with three separate buttons for menu navigation. A single socket in the top takes two separate plugs, one for the clip-on-the-ear headphones and the other for a USB connection.

The Rio 600 is claimed to run for 10 hours on a single AA alkaline battery. There’s no power supply, but the unit draws power from its USB link to a PC or Mac when you’re downloading music tracks. Replacing the cell involves removing the back cover, which is connected via a plug and socket with two rows of flimsy-looking pins – not ideal. Optional replacement back covers can hold more memory, too, so you can add another 32MB to the 32MB supplied. Early next year, a 340MB back, based on an IBM Microdrive (which we’ll be reviewing soon), will be released.

Software has been a strong point of previous Rio players, though here it’s the same as with the Nike player, but renamed Rio Audio Manager 3. Overall, then, the 600 is only a partial improvement over the 500.

Our final player is a 128MB memory key from Philips, and in many ways it is a direct competitor to the Creative MuVo. The most obvious difference is that the Philips KEY005 is a single piece of hardware that plugs directly into a USB port on your PC, both to transfer music files and also to charge the internal Li-Ion battery.

You get about five hours of playback time from a single charge which is more than enough to play the couple of CDs that it can store, but Philips isn’t sure that’s enough time so it has provided an external battery pack that houses an AAA cell. This is very considerate but it detracts from the looks of the player and that is almost a criminal act as it is such an attractively styled piece of hardware.

Music transfer is accomplished using either the supplied copy of Musicmatch Jukebox or simply by dragging and dropping files in Windows Explorer. With a list price of £99 and a street price of £79 this is an expensive player when compared with the likes of the MuVo or memory key players from other manufacturers, but that’s not really the point. To our mind you’re paying a premium, but in return you get a very stylish piece of kit.

Later this year Philips will refresh the KEY product range and will add KEY013 which has 256MB of storage and a small display at a price of £149, and also KEY015 which has 512MB, a display and a price of £179.

We’ll have to see how the street prices work out, but the bigger players seem unlikely to prove more attractive than the 2GB HDD070, while KEY005 is tempting, but just that bit too expensive. It does, however, look very good indeed.

Archos has a range of hard drive based players, but it isn’t too happy with them being referred to as MP3 players. Partly – we suspect – because it doesn’t fancy going head-to-head with Apple, Creative and Philips, but in fairness the Gmini has a number of neat features that set it apart from other music players.

The most obvious is the 2.5-inch LCD screen, which dominates the casing. It’s greyscale with a blue backlight, and the idea is that you store pictures as well as music on your Gmini and use the screen to preview them, with no need to plug into a notebook or desktop PC.

In addition the Gmini has a slot for a Compact Flash card, so if you’re out and about with a digital camera that uses Compact Flash there’s no need to wait until you return to the office to check that your photos have come out right. Of course many cameras use another form of memory card and Archos lists an adapter as an accessory that takes the most common cards.

There are other accessories such as a remote control that also adds an FM radio, and naturally you can record from the radio in MP3 format. Archos supplies a copy of Musicmatch Jukebox Plus, which is the version of the Jukebox software for which you usually have to pay US$20 as it allows you to encode MP3s from CD.

The Musicmatch software is functionally very similar to iTunes and allows you to organize your playlists and transfer music to and from the Gmini, which is an important consideration when you have 20GB of storage space to work with: this means you can store some 4,000 tracks in high quality MP3 or 8,000 tracks in Microsoft’s WMA format.

Archos makes the point that the Gmini has a smaller footprint than a floppy disc, although it is rather thicker of course. This claim is entirely correct but you’d be surprised how big a three and a half inch floppy is compared to most consumer products these days.

If you want more than a simple music player the Gmini has a lot going for it, but in many ways it’s a solution looking for a problem and that makes its appeal quite limited.

Nike isn’t famous for innovative electronics, but is still happy to spread its brand beyond trainers and crevice-revealing baggy trousers. To achieve this, it’s partnered itself with Rio, part of S3, a brand leader itself in the MP3 player market.

The PsaPlay120 sports (sorry!) more design effort than most MP3s. Like LG’s Soul Digital, it’s a two-part device, with the oval player linked to an oval remote control and thence to a pair of headphones which stick directly into your ears, rather than laying over them. Being Nike, the player is designed to go jogging with you and is rubber-coated, so should have some knock- and water-resistance. It also comes with an armband, so you can wear it over your holiday inoculations.

The main unit has no display at all, but controls are so simple that you can use the player without one. You simply fill the 64MB internal memory (and an optional Multimedia card for extra storage) with music tracks downloaded from your PC or Mac. Playback is simply a question of finding the appropriately embossed control on the player’s front face.

If you don’t like working blind, you can plug in the remote control and use the tiny LCD display to show track and battery life details. Software support comes in the form of the Nike Audio Manager, which can convert CD tracks to MP3 or WMA formats and download them to your player.

There’s no doubt you’re paying something for the Nike name here, but this is a worthwhile machine with useful added features if you need extra amusement while training.

Looking like an enamelled cigarette case, or for non-smokers like an undersized bar of Ritter Sport chocolate, LG’s Soul Digital is uncharacteristically angular for an MP3 player. All the controls are positioned around the edges of the device, together with sockets for a USB connection to your PC and a specialist jack which runs to a remote control, as well as plug-in-the-ear headphones.

The idea of a remote control on something as small as an MP3 player may seem like overkill, but the idea is to put the player in your pocket and to clip the control to a breast pocket, lapel or neckband. The remote has a small, back-lit LCD display and simple plastichrome controls. It feels cheap and plastic, as does the optional AA battery holder which clips incongruously to the side of the Soul Digital to augment the internal rechargeable battery pack.

Software support for the Soul Digital is a bit basic. There’s MP3 Explorer Express which, as its name suggests, is modelled on Windows Explorer. You can drag and drop MP3 files from your hard drive to your player with this, but little else. There’s no conversion software supplied with the device, which restricts you to MP3s from the Internet or to buying third-party software.

This lack of full software is the biggest let down in this machine, though its single 32MB Multimedia card also limits its effectiveness. You really need to budget for something like eJay MP3 Station Plus and an extra 32MB.

The key feature of any of these machines is the way they sound. Creative’s DAP player gives a good, balanced sound, but judging by the pre-recorded tracks on the machine, it doesn’t have a lot of volume. Even at the maximum setting, it could be drowned out by background noise.

The HipZip didn’t suffer from a lack of volume, but there was a noticeable crackle on one channel of the headphones which was apparent on all the tracks on both Pocket Zip disks. This is most likely to have been a fault on this particular sample, though.

The little Soul Digital machine from LG gave surprisingly good sound, though the bass lines were rather thin. The Nike player and the Rio, as you might expect with very similar internals, gave similar sound. Here, there was plenty of definition, though the equaliser settings made a big difference. It’s worth switching settings between tracks.

Of the five players reviewed here, we’d go for the Rio at around £170, as it has a lot of expansion capabilities, including the Microdrive and other removable media in the pipeline. Creative’s DAP is the other contender, particularly if your main need is for music to pass the time while you’re using the UK’s fabulous public transport system. And you can plug it into your home stereo and have continuous music for days on end.

Iomega is a late arrival at the MP3 ball, but its HipZip has a key extra. It stores its music files on removable, £8 Clik (sorry, Pocket Zip) disks. This means you can build up a stack of disks much more cheaply than using memory cards and leave files on disk, rather than having to download new music before every trip.

The HipZip is a chunky, well-designed unit which can easily be operated with your left hand. The menu system controls are on the right side, with playback controlled from four on its front panel. The menu system on the backlit display is straightforward and download is via USB, as it is with all five of these players.

The supporting PC software comprises MusicMatch and Iomega’s Iomegaware. MusicMatch handles download of files from the Internet and converting them from CD, as well as copying them to your HipZip.

There are three hang-ups with the HipZip, which may slow its adoption. First, it costs a lot, not much less than the Creative DAP and £100 more than any of the other main contenders. Second, £8 per Pocket Zip disk may look cheap against memory cards, but it doesn’t measure up against MiniDisc, where blanks cost around £1.50 each. Finally, if you want decent audio quality, a 40MB Pocket Zip disk only holds around half a typical album.

The HipZip has a lot of potential, but the player should cost no more than £199 and an 80MB Pocket Zip disk (Iomega’s working on a larger capacity) should be no more than £3. Sales would then fly.

Philips didn’t pick the 85mm x 54mm dimensions of the HDD070 player by chance, but instead it chose them carefully as they give the player exactly the same footprint as a credit card, but rather thicker of course.

That’s not much smaller than the Archos Gmini but it sounds dead impressive, and if you haven’t already reached for a credit card to do a visual check then your geek credentials are sadly lacking.

The HDD070 is a 2GB update of the 1.5GB HDD060, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. Philips tells us that it uses a magnesium case, presumably to save weight, but the HDD070 weighs almost exactly the same as Creative’s MuVo² which doesn’t make any claim of using exotic materials, so it would seem to be a bit of a red herring.

Thankfully the HDD070 uses ID3 tags to organise your music, and although 2GB is a little on the small side for a hard drive player you can cram plenty of music into it. Finding the track or artist that you want is quick and simple thanks to Philips’ Superscroll feature which steps through your playlist by alphabetical letter, rather than track by track.

We weren’t that impressed by the Philips software, which you are obliged to use with this player, as it’s not very user-friendly. Apparently the software is locked to the player to protect musical copyright, so it would seem that it’s not just Creative that is playing this particular game.

That’s a real pity as everything else about the HDD070 is excellent. Audio quality is particularly good and the bass boost feature really makes a difference. Even at the full ticket price of £169 this player is a bargain.

The vast majority of portable digital audio players use either Flash memory or a hard drive to store the MP3 or WMA files that you transfer from your PC. There are also a few players that use removable media such as SD, but then we come to a fourth – more obscure – type of player.

Generally when you burn an audio CD from MP3 using your CD writer, your PC decodes the MP3 files and converts them back to regular CD format so you can play the CD in your car, on your hi-fi or in a portable CD player. A CD MP3 player (they don’t seem to have a specific name) can read a CD that has MP3 or WMA files on it and can then decode them as it plays the music.

That means you can get about ten albums onto a single CD, and you can also take out one CD and replace it with another as the media isn’t fixed. Of course that means that the player has to be large enough to accommodate a CD, but the Panasonic SL-CT810 is almost exactly the same size as a CD jewel case.

As CD players go it is quite expensive because it supports HighMat (High-performance Media Access Technology) which is a technology that was developed by Panasonic and Microsoft to help you manage your media files using metadata tags.

The Microsoft involvement means that HighMat favours Windows Media Player 9 and Windows XP over other software, but that is no surprise. The in-line remote control includes a small display, and if you use HighMat the track data will scroll across it.

This is a stunning CD player but it is necessarily quite big compared to the other players in this group. However, it offers very fair value for money.

Creative has just announced a new member of its MuVo Flash player family, and that has had an impact right down the line. The new MuVo TX has 256MB of storage and a USB 2.0 interface for faster transfer with a street price of £120.

The 128MB MuVo NX, which has a small screen, now sells for £85 and this 128MB MuVo (which we first reviewed here) is available for less than £70. You can also get a 64MB MuVo but that’s really too small to be of much use.

The hot word is that Creative will be dropping the price of the 128MB MuVo in June to less than £60 to bring it into line with the rest of the range and while that’s only slightly lower than the current street price it means that you can expect to buy this player for little more than £50.

The MuVo comes in two parts; there’s the actual player, which you plug directly into a USB port to transfer music and then there’s the battery pack that accommodates a single AAA cell. The two halves plug together using the USB connection, and the whole package is a reasonable size. It’s slightly shorter and fatter than the Philips KEY005, and it weighs the same.

The battery lasts for well over a week of regular use and although you have to buy replacements it shouldn’t be a major expense.

We aren’t great fans of the Creative software as it fails to organise your music by ID3 tag, and of course there is no screen to tell you what’s going on, but that’s not a major problem on a player with a relatively small capacity.

Audio quality is perfectly acceptable, even with the standard ear pieces, and although the MuVo isn’t a great player – not by a long chalk – it is perfectly adequate, and at the new, lower price, it’s hard to resist.

Long story sideways, the Philips HDD070 is the player for you. The thing is, a digital audio player really is more than a piece of hardware. Like it or not it makes a statement about you, even if that statement is ‘Please mug me for my iPod’.

In addition we have to admit that we have really fallen for the new generation of mini hard drive units which combine a tiny case, barely larger than a Flash player, with a decent storage capacity and all at a very fair price. Why spend £100 on a small solid state player, or £170 on a BenQ 150, when you can score 2GB of Philips goodness for less than the latter?

The kicker here is the Creative MuVo. We love the MuVo NX and no doubt the MuVo TX will turn out to be wonderful but the basic 128MB MuVo is falling in price at a rate of knots and at £60 or less it’s worth having just to drop in your pocket when you need a spot of music on the move.

No doubt in time we will be able to store a decent amount of high quality music on our mobile phones, and will have the battery life to back it up, but that won’t be any time soon. Until then you need a dedicated music player and the Philips HDD070 should be it. That or the Creative MuVo.

MP3 players are absolutely everywhere, and that’s despite the fact that it is illegal to rip a CD to MP3 in this country, even if you paid full retail price for the thing. Naturally, people tend to ignore that quirk of the law and many have got huge music libraries stashed away on 100GB+ hard drives.

It may help to bring MP3 out of the shadows if the iTunes and MusicMatch music stores were available in the UK, but as yet only Napster has arrived, and that only recently. In the meantime, MP3s are a bit dodgy, whether they come from CD, your mates or that there Internet.

Apple has just announced its latest quarterly sales figures and it turns out that it has sold more iPods than computers. Mind you, practically everyone has an iPod while iMacs and iBooks are relatively rare, but even so it’s a surprise. We reviewed the new iPod ages ago (in June 2003) and we’re still waiting to see the mini iPod here in the UK. Unfortunately shipments have been delayed until the summer as the US market is buying all the mini iPods that Apple can produce, so you won’t find any Apple products in this group.

What you will find is a mix of players that use different ways to store your music files, ranging in price from £59 to over £200 and from 128MB to 4GB. We could have included players up to 60GB in size and £349, but we reviewed the 30GB version of the Creative Zen Jukebox Xtra in March, and the gorgeous 20GB Philips HDD120 is damned expensive at £299, so instead let’s have a look at the coolest kit to make your journey to work that bit more pleasurable.

Prices quoted here are the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices – if you shop around or use our price comparison links you should find the players available at considerably cheaper prices. Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

Far from dying as a fashion fad, MP3 – the ‘renegade’ digital music format which makes solid-state music possible through heavy compression – goes from strength to strength. All kinds of new devices keep popping up, including those storing music on fixed or removable disks instead of memory cards.

Going back to moving disks might appear a retrograde step, but mechanical drives still offer a much higher byte per penny ratio than any form of solid state storage. A CD, for example, can store around ten times as much as a typical memory card-based MP3 player. That’s around 80 tracks…

As well as new forms of storage, the other recent development is a rival for the MP3 format itself. Microsoft, always one to get in on any new act, has developed the Windows Media Format (WMA). The compression in WMA files is even greater than in MP3 and the recording industry likes it more, as it incorporates copyright protection. Although it goes against the ‘free music’ approach of MP3, it’s a strong competitor and portable players need to support it – along with other new formats in the wings – to stay useful.

Here we look at five new players, some using cards, others using disks or even hard drives, which offer the facility to store a lot of music for little outlay. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

At first glance the BenQ Joybee 150 model seems relatively large for a Flash memory player thanks to its boxy shape. In fact it isn’t particularly large, as it is slightly smaller than the Creative Muvo² which has 4GB of storage, yet the BenQ has only 256MB.

Well we say ‘only’ 256MB, but that’s enough space for four CDs in MP3 format or eight CDs in WMA, so as long as you’re prepared to update your playlist every so often it’s not as bad as it sounds.

On the down side this player connects to your PC using a USB 1.1 connection and that can be a real bore as it takes nearly ten minutes to fill the player using the supplied Qmusic2 software. This is a similar application to Musicmatch or iTunes, allowing you to rip MP3s, pool your music files, create playlists and then transfer them to the player.

BenQ includes an FM radio with 30 presets and a microphone so you can record verbal notes or your mates’ indiscretions down the pub, but those are welcome additional features rather than a reason to buy the Joybee 150 in the first place.

It’s a fairly complicated player to operate as BenQ has squeezed plenty of buttons into the available space, but the large screen helps you to work out what is going on. Compared to, say, the iPod it is far more complicated than it needs to be.

Audio quality is good, but we find that most MP3 players sound very similar even with decent headphones. There are eight EQ settings for MP3 and three for WMA which are fun if you like to tinker around.

This is an attractive player that has all the features that you need and while we were unimpressed by the data transfer speed our biggest problem was the price. For the same amount of money you can have a Philips HDD070, and that’s not a tough choice to make at all.

Creative’s DAP is a different creature from the rest of the MP3 devices in this group. It’s an MP3 jukebox and its main advantage over a conventional player is that you can record over 100 hours of audio (around 150 albums worth) on it at one time – more than many people’s entire music collections.

DAP uses a 6GB hard drive to hold and play back MP3 or WMA format music files. This has two immediate consequences – three if you include the price. First, the DAP player is much bigger than most MP3 players, close to the size of a portable CD player. Second, it needs reasonably careful handling; using a hard drive, with its delicate moving parts, instead of solid state memory, means you should handle it with the same care as a notebook. Finally, it costs nearly as much as two conventional MP3 players.

The device is easy to use, with an eight-line, back-lit LCD display showing details of your music. You can set up your own playlists and view track names and artist details using an array of 11 buttons on its top surface.

The PC-based software consists of Play Center, which converts CD tracks, manages your music and downloads it from Internet and to the DAP, Lava, which displays 3D visuals for your music, and MediaRing Talk which, rather incongruously, is an Internet phone utility.

Overall, this is a great system for those with a lot of music and no desire to go jogging. Treat it gently and you can take all your music with you.

Creative is showing Apple the way forward in Europe by shipping its 4GB MuVo² (MuVo Squared) MP3 player, where Apple has failed miserably to supply the mini iPod outside of North America.

This 4GB hard drive player is only slightly larger than the 256MB BenQ 150, and it falls into a sort of limbo in terms of its capacity. You can fit around fifty CDs worth of music onto the MuVo², which is a decent part of the typical person’s collection, but it certainly won’t be all of your music, or even the majority of it.

That means you’ll have to choose which music you transfer to your player, unlike a 20GB player where you can probably select your entire library. It also means that you’ll have to be able to navigate around the contents of your player as 4GB is a great deal of music, and this is where we hit a problem.

Creative supplies the same Mediasource software that you get with an Audigy sound card, and it’s not very good. The main problem is that it ignores ID3 tags and lists tracks alphabetically, which is a pain, but there is another factor as Creative is fully behind the drive to prevent music piracy. This is laudable, of course, but it can be irritating when your music is flagged as copy protected and you can’t then transfer it from your MuVo² to another PC.

The ergonomics of the MuVo² are adequate, but no more than that. The screen displays two fairly small lines of text, while the main four-way control pad is a bit fiddly. The rechargeable AA-sized battery has a claimed life of 14 hours of playback, but you are more likely to get ten hours of use in the real world before you have to plug in the charging cable.

As you would expect from a company of Creative’s pedigree, audio quality is very good, but that doesn’t make up for the awkward file handling.

Company: Creative

Contact: 01189 344322