Pump Up The VOLUME !

By Michael Browne Published Date
01 - Mar - 2008
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2008
Pump Up The VOLUME !

Whether road warrior or daily commuter, your journey just isn’t complete without a good dose of music—to soothe your soul, bust stress and relax your nerves. We’ve got 46 faithful companions, just waiting to take that dusty, noisy ride with you...

Silence speaks a thousand words. Poetic but true, though the sheer amount of noise pollution these days means you may well need some silence to hear anything, or be heard yourself. If you’re a metropolitan who spends a couple of hours commuting to work, you’ll probably lament the lack of time spent with loved ones. To make things worse, the couple of hours of mandatory travel are marred by all kinds of pollution. Short of scrapping hydrocarbon-spewing automobiles totally, there’s nothing that can be done about air pollution, but what about all the honking around you, or the din made by fellow travellers aboard your daily 9.30 am local train?
For many of us, the Portable Multimedia Player (PMP) is a blessing sans disguise. The next time you’re travelling, just ask anybody with earplugs stuck in his ears what it means to him. Music soothes, relaxes, and is akin to the daily morning cup of fresh tea. To further testify the popularity of PMPs, just visit any electronics store—chances are you’ll see many such devices—they sell like hot cakes these days. Not only are they immensely functional, but whip out an iPod and a couple of people around you will surely perk up. Add to that the fact that no cell phone can approach the kind of multimedia functionality (camera aside) that a PMP will give you. PMPs in general have bigger, better screens and better music playback quality—that alone is enough to ensure a steady demand from more discerning users.

A PMP is as personal a device as a cell phone or headphones, and no two people will have the same requirements. While someone may want to watch videos in bed, another may need something with exemplary music quality to use as a portable source. Someone else may need a basic player to tune in to music en route to their workplace. PMP vendors have realised this, and throughout this test you’ll see devices specifically designed for a particular use and performing other tasks as well—sort of like a jack of all trades and master of one.

Flash-based PMPs

Below Rs 5,000

Sure, PMPs scale with price, and you get exactly what you pay for, but not everybody wants a high-end PMP with excellent performance and features to boot. That doesn’t mean that a value-based player has to be a compromise.

Apacer Steno AU351
Performance at extreme value

Au contraire, sub-Rs 5,000 players have a host of features that were previously available only on much costlier models. Part of the diminishing cost is due to the sharply declining prices of flash memory—prices have dropped to quarter of their values a year ago. Equally to blame is the increasing popularity of PMPs—nothing mysterious, just the simple laws of economics at work. So, you can get a very good sounding PMP, with features like FM radio, text document support, and basic add-on features like an alarm, stopwatch, and even PIM features like contact management.


Of all the players we received, the concept of a watch that’s an MP3 player as well was somewhat exciting. The Aigo U Watch MP3 is a nice little item—cool and funky-looking with all the settings of a good MP3 player, including an equaliser. It loses out on FM support, and of course, video playback isn’t possible. It’s also let down by an un-intuitive and painful menu system, and the fact that you’ll have a cord dangling from your wrist doesn’t help any. Transcend’s T.Sonic 840 comes in a piano white facia with a solid steel back that is (thankfully) not chrome plated, but matte—no smudges! It’s a full-fledged multimedia player with music, photo and video capabilities, and has a pretty good screen to boot. The buttons seem a little tacky, but not as bad as some of the other players. iRiver’s S7 is another cool looking player—its front surface looks like a magic cube with indented intersecting grooves built into it. The S7 is meant to be worn around your neck—and it’s certainly attractive enough. YES had four players in this comparison—and all their players in this category have been in our labs last year. Creative’s Zen Stone and Zen Stone Plus are very compact looking players shaped like pebbles—the difference being the screen on the Plus.

The Sansa Shaker was another novelty—it looks like a salt cellar (hence the name), and although it isn’t feature rich, it’s good for kids, owing to its tough body. Apacer’s Steno AU581 sports a grey metallic finish that is dominated by a crisp blue OLED screen. Zebronics had the smallest players in test—both the Beta and the Gamma are compact and solidly built, and sport OLED screens. Zebronics’ Gamma has a very nice feature where music fades in if the player is paused and then un-paused, so your ears don’t get blasted. Sony’s Duo—the NWD-B103F and NWD-B105F—are designed to look like large flash drives, and there’s no hassle of a USB cable—you can just plug the player into a USB port. Needless to say, both are built really well despite their plastic bodies. The pearl-white finish is bright, without being overly flashy. Another pen-drive-like player, the SanDisk Sansa Express attracted and held our attention. It’s built like a little brick, and sports an aesthetic pearl grey finish. The front is dominated by a legible OLED screen. Both the SanDisk Sansa Express and the Transcend T.Sonic 840 have very well laid-out menus—the former is very simple and uncomplicated—a boon when dealing with a small screen—while the T.Sonic 840 scores on usability due to its much larger screen and intuitive interface. The Aigo MP-F585 is a well-built and compact player with a smudge-attracting chrome finished rear. The only irritation here are the small and tacky buttons.

How We Tested

We divided our PMPs into two categories:
1. Flash-based
2. Hard Drive-based

We further divided the flash category into price based segments:
1. Flash-based players up to Rs 5,000
2. Flash-based players from Rs 5,001 to Rs 10,000
3. Flash-based players above Rs 10,000

For a look at the features we graded, turn over to our tables. For performance, we tested the audio and video performance of each player. Audio performance has been given greater weightage, simply because this is more of a priority for most people.

On the video front, we judged each player’s display quality in general for multimedia content.

Alongside is a list of the audio tracks used and what we looked at in each track.

Tracks What We Looked At
The lead guitar in the beginning, drum bass, male vocals. There are a couple of places where minor nuances like the the artists hand moving along the guitar body can be heard, something we looked out for

The Corrs—Brid og ni

Very good track for female vocals. Voice timbre, accurate tonal balance and vocal texture is of utmost importance. Accompanying instruments are mostly higher frequencies, soundstaging is also important
Charlotte Church—Bridge
over Troubled Water
Strong female vocals. Charlotte Church has a lot of depth to her voice, and can take low and high octaves equally well
Pink Floyd—Speak to Me
/ Breathe
Sensitivity to low volume sounds, soundstaging, and accurate reproduction of electronically produced sounds
Dire Straits—Sultans of
Guitar work is exemplary here. We look for clarity, and detailing around the 500 Hz mark (guitar frequency)
Guns N’ Roses—
November Rain (Live)
Fast drum attack, good array of instruments, lots of guitar fill-in
Eric Clapton—LaylaMale Vocals, and a lot of intricate guitar work make this one of the best blues songs to check for music quality
Chand Sifarish (Fanaa)Good vocals, and a super hit song, drum and tabla accompaniments make for a melodious number with a lot of nuances to pick up
Beedi (Omkara)Female vocals, and a fast number, gives us a good idea of how the player will perform on most indipop albums

Good music requires equally good gear, and the bundled earplugs aren’t any good if one is to make a comparison. We used a pair of supra-aural Grado SR60s, a circum-aural Audio Technica ATH A900, and Bose’s Intra Ear earplugs for our testing purposes. These headphones allowed us to listen to the finer nuances of each track. Each song was rated on a scale of 1 to 10, taking an average of its performance on each headphone. After that, we tested each PMP with their bundled earplugs and rated their earplugs against the trio of reference cans.


Sony’s duo offered good performance—while the overall bass seemed a little muddy on the Bose earplugs, things sounded just right with the Audio Technica circum-aural cans. One complaint was the volume levels on both these players—not as high as we’d like—far from ringing, our ears barely even got warmed up…

The Transcend T.Sonic 840 suffers from sluggish performance. Navigating menus will cause music to skip—not a good thing at all; keep your hands off it while tuning in to your favourite tunes. Both the T.Sonic 840 and the T.Sonic 610 offer good music quality, but the former is a better player as far as vocals go—a strong mid-range is never bad. The T.Sonic 840 is a decent video player mainly due to its clear screen, but with the issue of processing juice rearing its ugly head again, movies weren’t the experience we hoped they’d be. With its lighter interface and the OLED screen, the cheaper T.Sonic 610 doesn’t have the issues that plague its pricier sibling.

The cute Aigo U Watch MP3 may be fun as a wristwatch, but it wasn’t as much fun to listen to. With boomy bass and a very restricted top end, we were disappointed—novelty is no substitute for performance. Its costlier sibling has overly bright female vocals, with a little extra colouring in the top end of the vocal spectrum. Male voices sound spot on and the mids are strong, even over-emphasised. Both the Sony players impressed us with their sound quality, good highs, and nice instrument detail—unfortunately, they don’t go up to even normal listening volumes, let alone loud volumes. SanDisk’s Sansa Express is an impressive music offering.

SanDisk Sansa Express
A Li’l monsta in disguise

The YES YMP 30 is the best music player from amongst the YES players—the YMP 18 has some issues with female vocals—they sound harsh and the volume needs to be turned down to prevent an earbleed; guitar tones are well-rounded with decent detailing. The YMP 35 scores halfway between the better YMP 30 and the inferior YMP 18. The two Zebronics players—the Beta and the Gamma sound good—comfortably high volumes, good bass, and with a full mid-range.

Apple iPod Touch 8 GB: Thy Palm Over Flo-eth!
When Apple announced a PMP based on their iPhone concept, many of us were excited—for the first time we’d have freedom from menus, complicated sequences of button presses to achieve a simple task, and the ability to navigate a device at our leisure. After all, exploration is a leisurely activity, isn’t it? Now that we’ve used the iPod Touch, we must say it’s an experience that’s been conceptualised exceptionally well and executed with the same panache and finesse that Apple has been known for. Once you play around with the Touch, feeling it and exploring its world, chances are you’re already doomed to shell out the 17,000-odd Rupees that it takes to own one. And people will want to possess such a device with the same fervour that wannabe rich-boys chase Lamborghinis and Playboy Playmates with. And all this even before you listen to what it can do to your senses!

The Touch incorporates excellent sound, with the kind of tonal neutrality that most run-of-the-mill PMPs can only dream of. With a bass response approaching perfection, a deep hit-in-the-gut feeling that can only come with expensive speakers, the Touch sounds equally at ease with Heavy Metal as it does with Jazz or Blues, or even Rock music where liquidity of response is the name of the game. With class-leading vocals and mids, the Touch has a revealing top end that’s clear and precise without being overly bright.

It’s a photo viewer well above par, and you’ll love the way browsing through photos is as simple as flipping through an album. As if to prove its “touch” status, there’s a single button on the facia whose sole aim is to return to the main menu, regardless of where you are. It’s a very good video player too, and will satisfy even movie junkies with its large, crisp and clear screen.

The integrated WiFi ensures that you’re connected even while...err...disconnected, even as the Safari Web browser makes a snap of surfing the Internet. Initial firmware issues had us bothered about the sluggishness of the browser, but that’s history with the version 1.1 firmware. With the ability to flash your device online, and the use of the entire storage space as a Flash drive, the Touch also boldly goes where no previous iPod (save the very recent 3G Nano and 5.5G Classic) has gone before.

Its one of those rare must have lifestyle products, like a Nokia N95 8GB, or even a BMW M3—one of those flashy yet functional devices that doesn’t really deserve your hard earned cash, but demands it…


We were quite honestly, (and pleasantly), surprised to see the performance that these minnows put forth. A good product with serious value for money is always a good thing, since one purchase will encourage several more from people who come in touch with the owner and his or her positive experience. The fact that we’ve seen a few of these players in the hands of various commuters aboard buses / trains simply means that market penetration is quite good.

If you look at our graphs, you’ll see a strange phenomenon—the cheaper PMPs in this category offer superb performance for the money, while the costlier players don’t offer a proportional bang for the buck. This clearly means that hikes in price in these sub-Rs 5,000 products come with a minimal hike in value—something we were alarmed to see.

Transcend’s T.Sonic 840 is an impressive offering—all the features and decent performance at an honest to goodness price of Rs 3,750, but one look at the Apacer Steno AU351 will shock you—85 per cent of the 840’s performance at just 46 per cent of the price. That’s value for money! Supercomp’s Semp3-S7A was another such player—very decent music quality at a price of just Rs 1,500, and it even manages a tiny screen—excellent value for someone looking at something entry-level. Digit’s Best Buy is an award few like to share, but we’ve seen enough to award it jointly to the Supercomp Semp3-S7A and the Apacer Steno AU351.

Samsung T10
Slim is good...

Other noteworthy products in this category are the duo from Sony and the Sansa Express. Surprise picks, yet equally good products, were the duo from the Zebronics stable—superb price for the sound quality—Rs 1,650 for the Gamma, and Rs 1,750 for the Beta. YES’ YMP 30 was another excellent performer as far as music goes, and we have no qualms about recommending this to someone who’s a little more discerning with sound quality.

Aigo’s MP3 watch catches your fancy, but doesn’t offer either the performance or the usability to please. If you’re looking for a watch, chances are you’ll look elsewhere. Do the same in case you want a good PMP.

Flash-based PMPs
Between Rs 5,001 And Rs 10,000

Anyone spending more than Rs 5,000 on a PMP had better know what he’s buying, and that’s what we’re here to ensure. In general, these players have more storage space, a better list of features and even better audio and video performance. And not for nothing, because they vie for attention amidst sub-Rs 10,000 multimedia cell phones, which have their own added benefits. Features such as FM radio and better screens are taken for granted. What you need to look at is the quality of audio and video, as most of these PMPs will support movie playback—unless they’re specifically targeted at music only user groups. Also look at photo viewing options—a neat little plus point that much cheaper players—like the Transcend T.Sonic 840 in the previous category support.


SanDisk’s Sansa E280 has experienced a sharp decline in pricing—it’s an 8 GB PMP, priced lower than its 4 GB sibling was last year! The E280 is built like a tank; it’s also very traditional-looking, and has a nice solid metal back finished in matte. The scroll wheel dishes out some feedback, but it’s a scroll-type wheel and not touch-sensitive like the iPod’s. Speaking of which, the new Nano 3G (third generation) is gorgeous! It’s nearly half the length of the previous Nano, and a little wider with a slightly larger and brighter screen. The smudge-happy yet utterly sexy chromed rear makes a comeback, and the new Nano is compact enough to sit in the tightest pockets without fuss. It’s got video playback now, and Apple claims to have upped the battery life as well. Their click-wheel is as good as we remember, and with the controls designed into it, there are no protrusions of any sort on any part of the body.

Samsung’s T10 is even slimmer than the Nano, and lighter, with a fibre body instead of metal. Its sibling, the YP-S5 is very similar to the S3 from last year, with a sideways sliding body that opens to reveal the inbuilt speaker and disable the headphone jack. Both these players feature illuminated touch controls—great flaunt value, but perfectly usable. One irritation was the volume level on the headphone out getting reset to 50 per cent each time you switch from the loudspeaker to the headphones. Very unassuming and un-glamorous the Philips GoGear might be, but it’s a well-built, satin black player that’s replete with features. The only let down is the screen—not as bright or as clear as we’d hoped. Not unreadable, but for a video PMP, we expected better.

YES’ YMP 45 is a neat PMP, made attractive by a strip of red plastic that runs around the screen and adds a touch of pizzazz to a rather ordinary black body. Mitashi’s MWI-4GA has a chrome-finished posterior, but it seems to be plastic and not metal. Although the player is attractive, build quality is mediocre and the tackiness of the buttons is unacceptable. Creative’s Zen is a plain looker with a black glossy front and matte-finished plastic rear that’s been moulded to look like ripples in water after a splash. Note that the Zen has a large-ish screen, and is targeted at video aficionados. Cowon’s iAudio 7 is another neat looker—very compact and very well built. The screen isn’t as good as some of the other players, particularly the Samsung models, the iPod Nano, the Sansa E280 and the iRiver X20.

The Sansa E280 has all the features you need—music, photo and video support, FM radio, text support and even expandability (should 8 GB not suffice). The iPod Nano has most of these features (excluding FM radio and expandability), and the addition of nifty add-ons like a stopwatch, alarm, calendar and contacts make the Nano a superbly converged device. Unlike older Nanos, this one can also be used as a pen drive. Both Samsung PMPs also have Bluetooth support, which can be used to transfer music to (but not from) other devices—that’s taking anti-piracy nuttiness to the limit, in our opinion.

Sony’s NWZ-615F also impressed with its feature list, the only thing missing is expandability (and Bluetooth, which was exclusive to the Samsung PMPs).

Cowon D2: A Different Beast
When we think wild, performance uncontrolled, we think Touch. When we think features, power, usability we think D2. The Cowon D2 was last year’s winner, and the reason for making it two in a row is as complicated as it is simple. Why improve on perfection, or as close to it as is possible in this imperfect world?
The Cowon D2 is a very unassuming player—as small as a Nano, but twice as thick—and with very unappealing lines that make you go “Yuck!” at first. By then, you quickly realise that first impressions aren’t necessarily the last, and it’s more a device that you can live with daily rather than admire from a distance, much like the neighbourhood belle when compared to a supermodel.

You want features? How does FLAC support, inbuilt FM radio, expandable memory, a touchscreen, text reading and notepad support sound to you? This device is an amazing music player as well, and although the screen is on the small side, it offers a fantastic movie experience as well. It’s very powerful, and offers more features and performance per cubic inch than any other device we can think of.
The D2 is all about functionality and features, and you will find lots of settings to play with while playing music and even movies. In fact, we were surprised at the equaliser options, where cut-offs can be set for each frequency range—for example, you can set the first equaliser from 40 Hz to 80 Hz or to 110 Hz. Our only possible issue with the D2 is it’s a little thick for its small dimensions, and may not gain popularity as an in-pocket jogging companion as the iPod Nano 3G. We’re sorry not to find anything else to nitpick, but it’s the way of a class A device to deliver all the goods with nary a hint of bad in sight.


Our first major fight for top spot sees the excellent Samsung YP-S5 and the T10 slug it out with the Apple iPod Nano 3G, the SanDisk Sansa E280 and the Cowon iAudio 7, with the iRiver X20 neck and neck with everyone. Both Samsungs aren’t flawless, however—closer tests reveal what seemed like a slight roll-off for lower frequency sounds in the first couple of octaves. The highs sound excellent, however, and female vocals are delivered outstandingly. If we were to choose the two best-sounding PMPs from this excellent lot, the laurels would rest with the iPod Nano and the iRiver X20. From the lower to the upper bass ranges, low frequencies are defined and tight, yet the thump is very apparent—something that is as important for bass-heads as it is for audiophiles. The mid-range is well-defined, smooth and full bodied, and guitar detailing will knock your socks off. A glorious top-end awaits you at the upper echelons of the audible sonic spectrum. The Cowon iAudio 7 loses out by a hair’s breadth, but bass on the iAudio 7 is astounding—a deep hit-in-the-gut feeling that was especially noticeable with the circum-aural Audio Technica reference cans. Once again, we must caution you—such detailing is only possible on good headphones. The default earbuds that ship with even some of the best players are atrociously short of any kind of aural experience, and if you’re serious about sound, you’ll chuck them out.

Apple iPod Nano 3G 4 GB
Pocket audiophile

The YES YMP 45, Philips GoGear and Mitashi MWI-4GA just aren’t in the same league as the above mentioned PMPs, and the Sony NWZ-S615F and Creative Zen 4 GB fall slap-bang in the middle of the best and the rest.

If you’re looking for primarily a video player, then you should look at another category. The YES YMP 45, Creative Zen, and the Mitashi MWI-4GA have the largest screens—and size matters when you’re talking anything visual. The Creative Zen will win the race for the best video PMP, because it’s got a better screen, and has excellent music quality to begin with.

Samsung YP-S5: The Power Of A Touch
Samsung’s been known to make excellent PMPs—our only issue has been their atrocious pricing, thanks to which hardly anyone is seen toting a Samsung player. Someone in Samsung’s top brass must have heard our not so silent plea, and here goes—the YP-S5 has more features than the YP-K3 we tested last year, and costs just a fraction of its predecessors’ price of Rs 18,000, at just Rs 6,600. An amazing deal, this, considering the S5 is a potent all-round PMP. It has an amazing LCD screen—that at first glance appears to be an OLED screen—and soft touch controls that are backlit in very pleasing colours such as cool blue and light yellow. We can guarantee looks from just about anyone if you just whip out this player, because chances are people will figure it for being at least thrice as expensive.

It features Bluetooth, a rare but useful feature in case you want to transfer music from it to your cell phone or even PC, but the S5 itself requires to be synced with a PC to transfer music. While on the topic, sound quality is very good, and the S5 approaches the quality of costlier players easily. Its got a very clean and crisp sound to the vocals, and both male and female vocals seem to come alive. While it doesn’t go as low as the Cowon D2 or the iPod Nano and Touch, the bass definitely can’t be termed as deficient in any way. It also provides sufficient volume to drive most headphones properly, and we didn’t notice any issues on our two reference models.

If you’re looking at something extremely usable at a great price, but you want something that stands out and feels far more expensive than its price, the S5 is a tailormade fit. It represents the best value amongst the sub-Rs 10,000 PMPs and is one of those rare products that actually offers more satisfaction for the compensation it demands.


Our graphs reveal two products standing a little taller than the rest—amazingly, the Apple iPod Nano 3G and the iRiver X20 score exactly the same, even after having slightly different features and a bit of a performance gap. While its sheer audio quality, compact build, looks and extensive feature list are enough to make the Nano stand out in any company, the more suave iRiver matches it very closely. The Nano is especially recommended for those looking for something compact yet powerful—it offers the smallest footprint and the best performance (albeit by the smallest of margins). But if you take a look at the third dimension—the price—things begin to change. The Samsung YP-S5 offers the biggest bang for the buck—it’s a marvellously well built device, the touch controls are as precise as clockwork, and it comes very close to both the Nano and the X20 in terms of performance. We find no serious reason to nitpick—it’s even got speakers! Our Best Buy award belongs to the second-cheapest device in the entire category—the Samsung YP-S5, it’ll just about be the best Rs 6,600 you’ve ever spent.

Feature rich ‘n flashy

Cowon’s iAudio 7 and SanDisk’s Sansa E280 also have a nice mix of quality, storage space and features—highly recommended as well.

If you’re looking for a video PMP with good audio quality, look at the Creative Zen—it offers the best of both worlds: good music quality and a superb screen. The YES YMP 45 and Mitashi MWI-4GA could also interest you, but audio quality takes something of
a nosedive.
Flash-based PMPs

Above Rs 10,000

By now, all memories of tonal colouring, recessed mid-ranges and boomy bass have gone (but not forgotten), the pockets are a little deeper, the audience more discerning and expectations skyrocket. If you’re part of the small but growing group of consumers who are willing to shell out in excess of four figures on a PMP, you’ll probably grin at the above statement. Such PMPs have an uphill task ahead of them—they should excel a couple of things, while still retaining excellence for all other areas of functionality.

Apple iPod Nano 3G 8 GB: Tiny Dancer
If you thought the older model was compact due to its slimness, wait till you lay eyes on the new one. It’s shrunk to nearly half the length of the previous Nano while getting a couple of millimetres wider, and also getting a better, bigger screen in the bargain. The conscious attempt at space-saving is unabashedly evident, and the 3G is more “nano” than ever.

It’s a very well built device, although the smudge- and scratch-prone rear will have you using a case whenever you take it around. The 3G Nano supports video playback, and with this move, Apple has just raised the bar for the compact PMPs—no other model in this class has comparable features. Why no FM? Simple…why listen to radio stations when you can listen to your favourite numbers with four (and eight) gigabytes of storage space?

Audio quality is class-leading and the Nano is within a hair’s breadth of the quality of the iPod Touch, which for us was the best sounding PMP, period. Second place is not a bad place to be, especially when both are flying the same colours. The Nano approaches the same kind of deep, pounding yet lively bass that the Touch has, there’s no hint of flab or colouring of any sort, and in tracks like Hotel California, the drum score in the beginning will cause you to close your eyes and sigh with satisfaction. It gets better with the mid-range, as guitar harmonics have that very live feel, there’s no over-emphasis on tones like some players—if there’s a sound in the recording, you’ll hear it the way it was produced—accurate to a fault. With a fully revealed top-end, the Nano will satisfy lovers of high frequency instruments like saxophones and violins. We got the chance to audition a couple of Yanni DVDs—we daresay the maestro himself would be pleased.

The other little utilities like a calendar, alarm, contacts and stopwatch are all present as are three engaging little games, with more stuff downloadable from the iTunes store (which isn’t available in India, unfortunately).

The Nano positions itself in a league just below the iPod Touch in price, but serves a very different audience. We don’t see anyone (for example) working out with the Touch in their pocket. In fact, a user who could afford to would buy both PMPs—so different are they from each other. What they share in common is brilliance of design, usability and performance. If you’re looking for something that’s compact and powerful while retaining stellar performance—and that too under Rs 10,000—you’d be daft to even consider anything else.


Right off the block, Apple’s iPod Touch duo (8 and 16 GB models) impresses with just a glance. The rear, chrome plated and buffed to a mirror-like sheen will only make the black front—devoid of any buttons save one large and dimpled menu button—stand out. A large and crisp touchscreen (identical to the iPhone’s) greets you. Menu navigation is a snap, and the much-vaunted Touch-flo isn’t just hype—it really works! You’re never lost too deep in the Touch’s menu subsystem, a press of the aforementioned button and you back on the main menu. Icons are bright, well laid-out and everything seems designed with usability in mind. Browsing is fun with finger swipes, particularly when resizing and zooming in on photos with your fingers onscreen. The inbuilt gyroscope means the Touch reorients its screen for your viewing convenience when it’s tilted.

The Apple iPod Nano 3G makes another appearance in an 8 GB guise, as does the iRiver X20 (4 and 8 GB). Creative’s Zen was another familiar face, and the 8 GB version finds itself amongst the upper echelons of the Flash-based players. The only real newcomer is the Cowon D2, a device which won our Best Buy award last year. The Cowon has a nice crisp touchscreen; though the screen icons don’t look too clear, this is a 16 million-colour LCD and it makes its presence felt later. It also supports text and PDF, besides the usual features like voice recording and FM radio.

Cowon A3: One PMP To Own Them All
A shiny off-white pearl finish, a contoured body with sleek steel buttons down the front side of the facia in a neat row, and with dark grey trimming on the outer bezel, sporting powerful hardware under the hood, a brilliant view to the action, and a look that’s in a class of its own. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re writing an advertisement for the latest Aston Martin or something. It is the proverbial Bentley amongst PMPs though, and the moment we laid eyes on it, we knew we beheld something special.

To power itself, the A3 uses a DaVinci dual-core processor. If your wondering where that came from or why Cowon decided on overkill, let us tell you that this device is the first of its kind to actually support 720p HD content natively without any transcoding. Imagine dragging huge .VOB files to a PMP and enjoying skip-free video. Or imagine playing a 50 MB audio file in all its FLAC splendour without a hiccup. The A3 does it all. About the only trick Cowon missed is the gimmicky and “in” touchscreen, but we’re told they have another A3-like PMP called the Q5W lined up, which addresses “touchaholics”.

The A3 is a very good music player, and does everything right if it’s all you listen to. The iPod Touch and the Nano highlight the sonic limitations of the A3, unfortunately. Another little niggle is the volume level of the A3, which isn’t satisfactorily loud. But once you fire up a video on this baby, prepare to be blown away—the A3 is all rampaging performance, a video player on steroids that delivers quite a wallop for the money you pay. It’s got an AV-out cable as well, which means you can take the action-onscreen. We tried a 720p movie on the A3 on our 32-inch LCD screen and the experience was as good as any HD DVD player. All the regular features—Cowon’s full-fledged equaliser, FM radio, photo viewing, and voice recording—are also present, should you need them.
Quite simply put, if you need the best video PMP around, this is your safest bet. It’s also your cheapest bet, as both 30 GB and 60 GB versions are cheaper than Creative’s sole challenger, the Vision W. Do remember that its bulky, and also heavy, so its not something you’ll slip into your denims, its intended as a micro home theatre, so please keep it there.


Up front, the Apples were clearly distinct from the oranges and everything else, and with the exception of the stalwart Cowon D2, Mr Jobs’ offerings would hog the limelight. Cowon’s D2 is really a superb performer and sonically very nearly nirvana. A full extension throughout the audible spectrum—an excellent low-ends and fully revealed mid-range coupled with a very transparent and tonally accurate upper range means the D2 is at home with almost any kind of music. It does have a whopping output of 74 mW, but surprisingly doesn’t seem to drive either the Bose or the Audio Technica cans as well as the iPods do.

The iPod Nano is hardly superior to the D2—it offers slightly higher volumes, (which doesn’t mean a lot unless you’re a decibel junkie), what is perceptible is a marginally better extension in the lower bass. The Nano also seems to do a little more justice at detailing the higher frequency ranges, but this is a close comparison, and noticeable only if you’re looking for it. As far as video playback goes, both the Nano and the D2 have good screens, but the D2 sneaks ahead with greater picture clarity, a slightly larger viewing area and significantly better colour.

The iRiver X20 4 and 8 GB kept very close to the D2 and the Nano as far as sound quality goes. The real revelation proved to be the none other than the exquisitely designed iPod Touch, which simply blew us away with the sheer music quality. If you want absolutely the best sound, this has to be it. The Touch seemed slightly brighter than the Nano, but some more time spent auditioning both 8 and 16 GB versions convinced us of their sonic excellence: there was a little more detail high up the frequency ladder that the Nano missed out on. Also noticeable to the careful listener was a tad more texturing to fine guitar-work on Eric Clapton’s Layla—certain chords sound a little richer and somehow more full bodied. There’s also a barely perceptible (but perceptible nonetheless) increase in depth and detail to Charlotte Church’s incredible vocal chords in Bridge Over Troubled Water. Both the Nano and Touch offer similar bass signatures, and a nearly similar mid-range—all the micro-improvements seem to have gone into frequencies higher than 4 KHz.

Apple iPod Classic 80 GB
80 Gigs of nirvana

The iPod Touch makes a good video PMP too, with its large and crisp 3.5-inch screen, but the D2 pulls one over here, and makes for a better micro-theatre.


The iPod Touch is an excellent PMP, and offers good value for its price. After all the hype surrounding the iPhone, this is one player that will satisfy your sense of flair, and you’re virtually a show-off for just taking it out of your pocket! As with any sensational product, pricing is always a deterrent and Apple never meant for every aspiring PMP owner to buy an iPod Touch—if music quality means the most to you, and very good video playback capabilities are as important as the large screen and touch-flo, just close your eyes and stop searching. If you decide you can do without the extra screen size and the flash factor, look at the iPod Nano or the Cowon D2. The former is an excellent music PMP and its compactness makes it an ideal workout companion. The D2 is a very different beast—it has a lot of features, and a brilliant screen, and the added advantage of it being touch-sensitive. It’s also something of a novelty with the ability to scribble in a notepad—a perfect conglomerate of performance, features and price. And yes, the D2’s 4 GB of storage is also expandable thanks to an SD card slot.

We’re conferring our Best Buy award on the Cowon D2 for its superb music quality and overall brilliant features and functionality. At Rs 11,000, it’s quite a bit cheaper than the iPod Touch—although the Touch is more of a lifestyle device than the D2 can ever be. Nonetheless, the D2 offers unbeatable features and performance for its price.

The iRiver X20s offer similar features and pricing to the iPod Nano, but don’t sound as good, and although the difference isn’t very significant, it is noticeable. The Creative Zen 8 GB finds itself up against the wall with the other brutes in this category. Completely outgunned, this PMP cannot really be recommended to anyone, though it’s a good device in its own right.

Headphones: Do They Make A Difference?
Most definitely! “But how, and will I notice it?” you might ask. Well, good sound is quite like good food, or even a nice car—it’s habit-forming, and going back to something archaic after something neo isn’t an easy thing to do. A simple example—if you listen to any of the award-winning PMPs in this test on their bundled earplugs, you’d go “Wow!” Listen to them on our reference headphones (the Bose Intra Ear, Grado SR60, and the Audio Technica ATH A900), you’d go “Damn! I didn’t even know this track had that little sound in it” and “Wow! Listen to that guitar…awesome!” You have just come a little closer to becoming discerning—a trait of audiophiles—those evil men and women who spend more than a third of their disposable income on audio equipment.

Headphones make a resounding difference, and even two very good headphones will sound quite different due to the fact that they have different sound signatures, or in common terms, are endowed by their manufacturers with different acoustic properties. Remember that a headphone is a miniature speaker, with two little drivers, and will respond favourably to changes in the music source, amplification, and basically anything which cleans up the sound signal being fed to it. Most high-end headphones can’t even be used with PMPs, simply because such sources don’t provide enough juice to properly drive the headphones’ drivers. Most earplug-type headphones make do without amplification—they’re intended for portable use. If you’re serious about sound, ditch the stock earplugs as soon as you can, and buy a decent set of earplugs—we recommend Creative’s EP630—which, at Rs 900, is superb value for money. If you want something better, the Bose Intra-ear is available for Rs 5,000—and will give you more clarity in the highs than the EP630.

If you’re listening at home and you don’t mind something bigger, (like circum-aural headphones), look at the Sennheiser HD201 and HD202—at Rs 1,400 and 1,800 respectively. Stick to known brands and you should be all right. Costlier headphones don’t make much sense, because they need a much better source than a PMP is ever going to be. For those who are interested, higher-end models from the likes of Sennheiser, AKG Acoustics and Grado Labs are also slowly becoming available in India. These headphones range in prices from Rs 2,000 to Rs 35,000, and with such a wide price range, there’s literally something for everyone.

If you’re spending anything over Rs 8,000 for a PMP intended for long music sessions, take our advice and invest in a good set of headphones. Shell out big and cry once, but forever have world class audio at your disposal.

HDD-based PMPs

Unlike Flash players—which are mainly geared towards music with a few exceptions taking a stab at a more video-oriented device—HDD-based PMPs have colossal amounts of storage at their disposal, and are geared more towards video-watching than anything else. Chances are HDD-based PMPs will have larger screens, and of course have a larger footprint—something that won’t be very unobtrusive in your pocket. Such players are also useful for people who have a gigantic music collection and like to carry all their music with them. Quite honestly, very few people would carry more than 16 GB of music with them, but if you happen to have a 20-odd gigabyte MP3 collection that you want at your fingertips, along with a dozen or so movies, then Flash players aren’t going to cut it. Hard drive-based PMPs also have the advantage of cost per GB—which is ridiculously low compared to Flash-based players—comparatively still an expensive storage medium.


One look at the beautiful Cowon A3 duo had us all as excited—while music is definitely cool, what could be cooler than a personal cinematic experience? The screen has got to be as close to the real thing as possible—with a 24-bit LCD that measures four inches diagonally and can display a whopping 16.7 million colours, the A3 is geared towards being a proper video player. Its even got a dual-core processor, so it can play .vob files (DVD movies) without resampling or downsizing! What’s more, even 720p is supported—once again a drag-and-drop away. It goes without saying that the A3 plays all other major video formats. Absolutely amazing, considering we’ve seen some notebooks stutter with 720p content. On the audio front (like its cousin, the Flash-based D2), it supports FLAC files, so diehard audiophiles who constantly complain about the pitfalls of lossy formats can finally hold their peace. The icing on the cake has to be the superb build quality and upmarket look—with pearl white as a base and a dark grey bezel, the A3 is a stunner.

The other large-screen PMP was the Creative Zen Vision W, with an even bigger screen (4.3 inches). Despite the fact that the Creative doesn’t seem to have the specifications on paper that the A3 does, it manages to impress with a very simple menu layout, exceptionally good build quality, and a screen that despite displaying only 262,000 colours doesn’t look the worse for it.

Creative Zen Vision W
Pocket Theatre

Apple has upped the storage on their 5.5G iPod Classic to a massive 80 GB, and an even more colossal 160 GB. The fact that the Classic manages to fit in nearly six times the data of the Zen Vision W at nearly half the footprint itself says a lot for Apple’s design. The screens on the 5.5G iPod Classics somehow seem slightly bigger than their predecessors, and definitely brighter. The Classic utilises the same kind of chromed rear that the Nano and Touch do. A neat feature in the Classic and the Nano is the scroll. Previously, you would need to scroll through tracks alphabetically, so getting to a track that starts with, say, R would be a pain. Now, once you do a couple of fast scrolls, an alphabet is displayed and the scroll list now becomes alphabetical—scroll through the alphabets to get to the one you want, and find your track from there. A neat feature, and one that people who use the colossal storage options provided will fully utilise.


The Creative Zen Vision W is a superb music player—a fact which became apparent just a few minutes into our MP3 tests. It’s even better than the iPod Classic, which is a superb PMP for music in its own right. Once again, when you’re talking about brilliant PMPs, a few points of difference is hardly a big thing, but the fact is that the Zen Vision W is one heck of a PMP—it scored well because of its superb screen, which made movie watching and navigation a fun-filled affair. The Cowon A3 is another excellent video player; in fact, the slightly smaller screen is, if anything, even crisper than the Vision W. We tried watching a 720p movie on the A3, and were blown away by the extent of immersion that such a small screen can bring.

In comparison, the two iPod Classics don’t seem to make as big a splash with their diminutive 2.5-inch screens, but make no mistake, they are potent video oriented PMPs as well—it’s just that their aural roots are a little more evident. Musically, the Vision W scores slightly more due to its very strong mids and vocals, both of which are the most important component of any genre of music and usually the highlight of any track. The iPod Classic rules the high frequencies where the detailing is very close to the iPod Touch. The Touch and the Nano are an extra inch better than the iPod Classic for music, and both are also better at mid-range frequencies than the Cowon D2 and the Vision W.

The Cowon A3 takes a backstage when it comes to sonic performance—there’s no comparison even between it and the cheaper D2, which is noticeably superior in the music quality department.


The best video performance would have to go to the Cowon A3—a brilliant screen, very good music performance, and a very decent all rounder to boot. The Creative Zen Vision W occupies the pinnacle of the audio tests, an outstanding product, considering that the other Creative products didn’t make such a splash. But the Zen Vision W is costly, and at Rs 29,999, it’s nearly double the price of the Apple iPod Classic, which has 98 per cent of its musical capabilities, 40 per cent of its video capabilities, nearly the same features, and half the price (Rs 15,500). Then there’s the small matter of nearly thrice the storage space. For its brilliant all round capabilities, we’re awarding our Best Buy to Apple’s iPod Classic 80 GB. It’s also a brilliant music player for the price—go with this if you want a great looking, excellent sounding, feature rich, and large capacity PMP.

If you’re looking for a colossal amount of storage, you may consider its older brother the—the iPod Classic 160 GB. For video, go with the 30 GB version of the Cowon A3—it’s available at three fourths the price of the Vision W.

Contact Sheet                                                          MP3 Players

Brand Company Phone E-mail
AigoBridgeOne Technologies Pvt Ltd0484-4049450contactin@bridgeonecorp.com
ApacerApacer Technology Inc.080-25702208suraj_raina@apacer.com
AppleApple India080-25744646indiasales@mac.com
CowonLipap Systems Pvt Ltd.9819917440iaudio@lipap.com
CreativeIndia Digital lifestyle Distributors011-46096400contactus@idldpl.com
iRiverSALORA INTERNATIONAL011-29207100 / 01taku.rajeev@salora.com
MitashiMitashi Edutainment Pvt. Ltd.NAvishal@mitashi.com
PhilipsPhilips Electronics India Limited9833033804a.k.mathew@philips.com
SamsungSamsung India Electronics Pvt. Ltd.011-41511234jitender.c@samsung.com
SanDiskRashi Peripherals Pvt Ltd022-67090909sandisk@rptechindia.com
SonySony India Pvt. Ltd1800-11-11-88sonyindia.care@ap.sony.com
SupercompSupertron Electronics Ltd022-23881397 / 23881924info@supertronindia.com
TranscendMediaman Infotech Pvt Ltd022-23818100 / 3200sales@mediamangroup.com
YesIndia Digital Lifestyle Distributors011-46096400contactus@idldpl.com
ZebronicsTop Notch Infotronix India044-26616201enquiry@zebronics.info

Michael BrowneMichael Browne