The Concert?EUR(TM)s Begun

Published Date
01 - Oct - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Oct - 2005
The Concert’s Begun
Almost every day we see a new portable audio player model being launched. For instance, the Samsung YH-J70. What is that you may ask? Well, it is the latest portable audio player from Samsung. Another one?

Since Digit made its debut, no other gadget related to digital music has gained so much popularity. Traditionally, Walkmans and portable radios upheld the ability to take music with us while on the move, but they were given a much needed rest with the arrival of MP3 players.

The new face of portable music are digital audio players (DAPs), commonly called MP3 players. These tiny little gizmos-once considered too expensive-have suddenly started making more sense than ever before. With the penetration of computers everywhere, these gizmos are the next in line to be accepted by the masses for their dose of music on the move.

In our comparison test, we received players of all shapes and sizes from brands big and small. They were essentially divided into two categories-flash-based and hard drive-based players. This is because there is no direct comparison possible between the two, as the technologies used are different, resulting in disparate features and capacities.

A lot has changed since the last time we compared the portable digital audio players. Capacity, for instance, has increased for flash-based players. Other additions to these players include the ability to display text files, pictures and even video. In fact, some of these devices are already beginning to blur the demarcations between portable digital audio players and the all-in-one portable entertainment handhelds.

Flash-based Players
Flash-based audio players are what most people will buy to hop aboard the portable digital audio bandwagon. This is mainly because they cost less than their hard drive (HDD) based counterparts, are lighter and more portable.

This time around, we received 32 players for our tests. There were some older models from the last test, but many more new models including Apple's iPod Shuffle. The Flash-based portable audio player category offers a huge variety of players to choose from. So, whether you want a vanilla player, or one armed to the teeth with features, they are all here...

Apart from offering you the comfort of music on the move, portable digital audio players (DAPs) can also store data. Beyond this there's really been no other groundbreaking feature on the average DAP.

Manufacturers, however, come out with innovative features, and stuff their players silly with any feature they can pack into these tiny gadgets. In our features analysis, we have categorised the competing players under various criteria to give you an overall view of the features that most players had.

The Samsung YP-T8 is a fine example of doing more with less. This is a small-sized player with 1 GB of solid-state (flash) memory, and a very large screen; in fact the largest in the comparison, in all categories! The screen is a 262K 1.8-inch LCD colour screen-comparable to top-of-the-line mobile screens. Interestingly, some players such as the Transcend and YES featured OLED displays.

OLED displays consume less battery power compared to regular LCD screens. The flip side were the iPod Shuffle and Creative MuVo Mix, which did not provide any display screens on the player at all.

Most players supported playback of MP3, WMA, WAV and ASF files. The iRiver players added support for OGG files to this list, while a few others, such as the Bravish and Creative, supported only MP3 and WMA files. The iPod Shuffle was another player to support multiple formats, including AAC and Audible.

While MP3 and WMA support are bare minimum requirements for players today, its better to buy a player that supports more file formats. Though MP3 and WMA are more mainstream, other formats, such as OGG and AAC, are rapidly gaining acceptance. AAC is a proprietary codec, OGG is not, hence you should look for players that support the OGG format at least.

Battery Type
Most of the players had internal Li-ion batteries, and only two players, the Samsung YP-C1 and the iRiver iFP-799 use AA batteries. Some other players did not contain any internal battery, and generally opted for an AAA battery solution.

Though having an AA battery in the player does increase its weight, it generally provides more battery life when compared to the other battery types. On the other hand, players with AAA batteries generally look much sleeker and less bulkier.

Battery type is an important deciding factor, since internal batteries become weaker as time passes. In the long run, external battery solutions seem to be a the better option-albeit at added running costs.
This is one area where the list of players just keeps on increasing. Starting with the Samsung YP-T8, which has an MPEG-4 video player, FM radio/recorder, voice recorder, photo viewer, motion sensor (for games), and yes, it also features a USB host inside the vertically oriented player! Phew, now that's what we call feature-packed! The colour screen is absolutely vibrant and videos really look good. Flaunt value? It doesn't get better than this-not yet, at least!

The iRivers were the only players that bundled Sennheiser earphones with their players. For the uninitiated, Sennheiser is one of the most respected manufacturers of audio equipment worldwide.

The iRiver and Samsung players also featured Line-In encoding, which lets you encode audio from another source directly to MP3 or WAV format using the player. You can convert your old tape cassettes into MP3s using these players!

Then comes the Creative Brat Pack, the brand which has the distinction of making winners instead of players. This time around, the Creative C100 was the player that stood out. It had a distinctive semi-circular shape resembling a stopwatch used in athletics. Actually, it really does have a lap-timer and stopwatch on the player! Though a little bulky, the player is still very functional, rugged and meant for users who have extended periods of outdoor activity in their lifestyle.

Another distinctive feature of this player is that it can read data from memory cards (SD/MMC) which dramatically increases the storage capacity aspect for the player-it accepts SD/MMC cards of up to 512 MB capacity. Another player to offer memory card support was the UMAX Vega203, which was a well built and  rugged player.

The YES 910 portable player had a truly unique feature. This player can also be used as a remote control for some TVs. It makes us wonder what features next generation players will have? Lasers to open safes?

The YES 980 was a real looker, with a slide out cover that hid the controls beneath it. With an OLED display, this player was also packed with features including FM and voice recording.

On the other end of the features spectrum is the small unassuming iPod Shuffle. This player stands as an example to the adage that small is beautiful. It will appeal to those users who want a no frills portable audio player. No display, no equalisers, no radio, no nothing! Just a player with the iPod tag.

How We Tested 
The process of testing the portable digital music players was kept very simple to enable fair judging and ensure that the scores fairly reflected the real life performance of the player.
The test system we used ran a Pentium IV 3.2 GHz on an Intel D850EMV2 motherboard with onboard sound and a GeForce2 GTS Ultra 64MB video card. Two Samsung 256 MB RDRAM memory modules provided the system memory while the all the software and the operating system was loaded on a Seagate 40 GB IDE hard drive; Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 (for USB 2.0 functionality) was used as the operating system used for our tests.
For the tests, we categorised the players into two distinct categories: flash based players and hard drive based players.
In the Features Test, we included all features a player could possibly have including the storage capacity, FM recording, Line-In Encoding, USB 2.0, various audio formats it supported and so on. Features that were unique to a player such as text and video support (which was available on quite a few players) were given extra points to make sure these features added up in the final Features scores.
In the Ergonomics and Ease of Use tests, we allotted the most weightage to the interface and intuitiveness of the button placement on a player. This was followed by the earphone comfort factor that is very important if you are looking for a portable digital music player. Build quality was another criterion that we looked at since the players should be able to handle a fair amount of wear and tear.
The Performance Tests included playing selected audio files on the players and transferring data to the player. For players that supported voice or audio recording, we recorded a small paragraph at the default settings to check the recording quality.
The songs we included for testing included a heavy bass file, a flange and bass track, 'World On Fire' by Sarah McLachlan and two Hindi tracks: 'Dil Haaray Pukaray' and 'Lamhey' by Jal. Both tracks are guitar-heavy with extremely well laid out vocals.
A real world test was also conducted in which files amounting to 100 MB were transferred from the computer to the player and the time taken was recorded. In the case of micro drive and hard drive based players, we transferred 1 GB worth of music to gauge data transfer speeds.
The battery test was another important factor that all the players were made to go through. For the battery tests, we played all the songs in a loop and kept the 'Repeat All' option turned ON while the display of the player was turned ON from time to time.
Ergonomics And Ease Of Use
The iRiver iFP-799 was one of the most rugged players we have seen thus far. Design has been given a lot of attention here, and it is targeted at men. The iRiver T20, on the other hand, is a player that will appeal to the ladies. It is the smallest, and has that subtle feel of feminity.

The user interface (UI) on all these players was more or less the same, and we're not complaining. We liked the UIs of the Samsung and the Creative players.

The UMAX and Orite players were painful to use-their UIs left a lot to be desired, and their buttons were tiny and cumbersome.

The iPod Shuffle and iRiver N10 and iFP-799 players could only be accessed using their bundled software-iTunes for the iPod and iRiver Music Manager for the iRiver duo. Such functionality simply mars the experience of using a portable music player, since you may not have the software installed on every system you want to transfer music from. While this acts as a deterrent for illegal copying of music, it is also a handicap when trying to use the device for portable storage, unless you have the requisite software handy all the time.

Overall, we had quite a lot of players with features that in some cases were utilitarian but in some, absurd. And, how did these players perform against each other? That is what we talk about, next.

The performance department is the place where we pit the best against the best. This test was broken up into Audio Quality, Data Transfer and Battery Life tests.

Audio Quality
In terms of performance, there were three distinct groups-Creative, Samsung and iRiver.

The Apple iPod stood out all by itself, but put on an absolutely stunning performance in terms of audio quality. Going by audio performance, the Creative players were worth the money that they retailed at. The earphones on these players complement the players well. They are perfectly balanced in terms of the tone, bass and treble. Of course, pushing the volume envelope does produce a fair amount of jarring, but if you started listening to music at that high decibel levels, say goodbye to your ear drums!

The iRiver trio were the best when it came to audio quality. When listening to music, you can set your own favourite preset or custom equaliser setting that the kind of music you listen to sounds best on. Technologies such as SRS WOW enhance the whole experience of listening to music.

The SRS WOW implementation in these players is extremely good and the bass couldn't get punchier on any other player except the iRivers.

SRS WOW enhancement was sorely missing on the Samsung YP-T8, which would definitely add to the audio quality of the player. The YES YMP-910 player also put up a good show in the audio performance department.

The SAFA trio was another set of players that put up a good performance. These players also had external speakers, but the speakers are useless in noisy environments. The earphones bundled with these players were of good quality and complemented the players.

FM reception was very good on the Samsung and Creative players, while it was just okay on the iRiver players. For the others, MSI Megastick was very good for FM reception, but voice recording was not up to the mark.

The SAFA and Bravish had mediocre FM reception, but the voice recording was good. The rest of the players didn't really have anything outstanding to talk about.

Data Transfer
When it came to data transfer speeds, no one could beat the Samsung YP-T8. We transferred almost 100 MB worth of data to this player in 13 seconds, the fastest in the whole comparison.

The second in terms of the fastest data transfer was its compatriot, the YP-T7 with 14 seconds. Though sluggish, data transfer speeds on the iRivers were faster than some of the other players in this comparison test.

The worst of the lot was the SAFA M520F that took a whopping 192 seconds to transfer 100 MB of data.

Evolution Of MP3 Players 
The earliest precursors to portable digital audio players were portable CD players and mini disc players. The Eiger Labs MPMan F10, a 32 MB portable digital player, was one of the earliest non-mechanical digital audio players in the American market and was released in 1998.
The first big selling Digital Audio Player (DAP) was the Rio PMP300 from Diamond Multimedia, introduced in September 1998. The huge success of the Rio player brought about a large amount of interest and investment in the digital music sector. Other early DAPs included Sensory Science's Rave MP2100, the I-Jam IJ-100, and the Creative Labs Nomad. These portables were small and light, and could hold around 7 to 20 songs at normal 128 Kbps compression, and had compact flash memories for storage.
By 2000 when USB ports had gained popularity and were increasingly used to transfer data, digital audio players came integrated with them. At around this time a company called Remote Solutions made a significant improvement in the storage problems faced by DAPs by using a laptop hard drive for storing songs rather than the low-capacity flash memory. The Personal Jukebox (PJB-100) had 4.8 GB of storage space, and held about 1,200 songs. This was the beginning of what would be called the jukebox segment of digital audio players. This segment eventually went onto become the dominant one in MP3 players.
Apple computers then released their iconic iPod in 2001, along with the iTunes music download service. They also released versions that could hold over 30 GB of data including images and music files. This opened the floodgates of the industry and the market was soon inundated with players offering various storage capacities and also recording and playback capabilities.
In a reversal of sorts, with advances in flash memory technologies, companies today are heading back to flash storage from solid state storage devices. The recently released iPod Nano has up to 4 GB of flash-based storage capacity.

Download Flash Based MP3 Players PDF File
Battery Life
Some of the players had strange quirks. For instance, the MSI MegaStick would hang when battery power was running out. We should mention that the same batteries powered other players without problems.

The YES YMP-910 was the best in terms of battery life, and scored the highest with 27.5 hours of non-stop play. It uses an internal Li-Ion battery. The Samsung YP-C1 followed it with 27 hours of continuous play on an AA external alkaline battery. This also brings into perspective the question of what is better-internal Li-Ion or external AA or AAA batteries.

While Li-ion offers the possibility of charging from a PC via USB, AA or AAA batteries give you the freedom of keeping a backup when in need. For us, an external battery is much more utilitarian than an internal one. Of course, this is only a general perspective that we are offering, and in no way affects the scores in this test.

Other players that put in a commendable performance included the Bravish, Smedia Butterfly and the MSI MegaStick.

The flash-based portable audio category saw some stiff competition. Almost all the players except the Creative MuVo Mix and the iPod Shuffle had displays. Granted that not having a display does increase battery life, but managing or listening to songs on a player that lacks a display can be quite cumbersome.

Another factor that resulted in the tough competition was the features that are available on all the players. Features, such as video, were exclusive to only one player while features like text and image viewing are available on quite a few.

This time around we have a tie for the Digit 'Best Buy Gold' award-the Samsung YP-T8 and the YES YMP-910. These players performed very well in the audio quality department without compromising on features.
The Digit 'Best Buy Silver' award goes to the iRiver T30. This is one spunky little gadget that packs a wallop when it comes to audio quality. With a price of Rs 4,999, this player is a must-buy.

Hard Drive-based Players
Flash-based players can offer all the comforts of having a portable digital audio player that is rugged and can withstand the roughest of shocks, but it can never offer the capacity of a hard drive-based player. Hard drive (HDD) players such as the iPod can hold your entire music collection, and then some.

We received eight HDD-based players for our comparison this time, including the iPods. All of these were feature packed and proved to be quite a handful in our comparison tests. For all the juicy details, read on…

So what is new in the HDD based portable players scene? Well, a lot, we must say. Let's find out.

Amongst the HDD-based portable players, the Samsung YH-J70 had the most features. It is the elder sibling of the YP-T8 that we checked out in the flash-based players comparison. Only, in this player, the screen is smaller. The Samsung YH-J70 again has a 262K TFT-LCD screen similar to the YP-T8 flash model.

Next up was the iRiver. The player also featured an OLED screen with 262K colour depth. The other players featured the regular LCD screens and some changing lights (which actually look bad) such as on the Creative ZEN NEEON.

The Creative MuVo 2 player's display was too small for its size. The display is a two-line LCD screen. It serves the purpose, but viewing tracks on the player becomes cumbersome since you can only check two track names at a time when scrolling.

In the file support department, none could compare with the iPods. Both the iPods support AAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF, Audible formats. The only player that could come close to them was the Samsung YH-J70 which supports MP3, WAV, WMA, OGG file formats. The other players including the iRiver were regular run of the mill players and supported only MP3, WMA, and in some cases, WAV playback.

Battery Type
The iRiver H10 was a player that featured a removable Li-ion battery, which comes bundled with the player. Removable Li-ion battery packs are available for the iRiver H10 which can be purchased separately.

Another player that had the same feature was the Creative NOMAD Jukebox Zen Xtra-though removing the battery requires you to take off the front cover of the player.

All other players featured regular internal Li-ion batteries.

Jargon Buster 
SRS WOW: WOW is a state-of-the-art technology from SRS (Sound Retrieval System) Labs that uses special algorithms to improve the quality, dynamics, spatial experience and bass tone of digitally compressed audio files. In effect, WOW helps even small speaker systems including PC speakers and television deliver audio with richer bass and an enhanced 3D spatial experience.
Audio Codecs (MP3, WMA, AAC, etc.): An audio codec is a computer program that compresses or decompresses digital audio data so that the file size of the audio data reduces to a fraction of that of the original raw data. There are a variety of audio Codecs available such as MP3, WMA, AAC, FLAC, etc. Codecs can be lossy, like MP3 which results in a loss of detail in the audio quality but a higher compression ratio or lossless, like FLAC, results in faithful reproduction of audio but are not exactly 'high-compression'.
Audio encoding: Audio encoding is the process of analysing the information in an audio file and rearranging it in a format that has been predefined by a Codec.
Bitrate: This is the number of bits of data transmitted per unit time. It is usually expressed in bits per second or bps. The higher the bitrate, the more the information transmitted and the higher the fidelity of the audio.
Compression ratio: Compression ratio of an audio file is the ratio of the file size of the encoded audio file to the file size of the same audio data in raw form.

The  Samsung YH-J70 was the most feature packed of all. Although it has a smaller screen, this player ups the ante when it comes to features. Yes, SRS WOW is right here along with a host of other presets that enhance your listening experience. Not satisfied with the presets, then make your own custom equaliser. This feature of custom equaliser was available on most players, except the iPod.

Download Flash Based MP3 Players PDF File

This Samsung also has a game feature for those boring times when you want to listen to music and do something else as well-you can also play video, view photos and read text files on this player. However, the earphones left a lot to be desired, and a better pair would be a welcome addition for this player. This player can also act as a USB host, which lets you connect specific models of digital cameras directly to the player and transfer images to it.

The iRiver H10 was the only player in the whole comparison, which bundled a premium Sennhieser MX400 pair of earphones with the player as a part of the package. This was another player that had support for displaying text files and photos. No other player in the HDD-based portable players comparison could match up to these two in terms of features.  
Ergonomics And Ease Of Use
The interface of the Samsung YH-J70, again, is similar to its younger sibling and very intuitive. Button placement is excellent and everything is easily accessible for one handed operation. This is one surefire iPod killer from the Samsung stables!

The interface of the iRiver is clean and uncluttered although the buttons are a little less responsive as compared to the Samsung, Creative or iPod players. Again, this device needed to be used with the proprietary iRiver Plus software for transferring music to the device.

However, if you connect this device without installing the software, it still shows up as a removable drive and you can transfer data, which includes music that can be played back. But this transferred music is not categorised under various headings such as Artist, Title etc. which happens when you use the proprietory software to transfer music. Playlist support is present using both software and on-the-fly transfers and you can create custom playlists in the player.

The Apple iPod and the iPod Mini were identical in terms of usability, and the ease of use that is a trademark of Apple devices. The feather touch response of the buttons on these devices makes them a dream to use.

These devices, too, were dependent on the iTunes software for being able transfer music to the device. This whole concept of making portable device software dependent is advantageous to an extent, but essentially destroys the whole notion of plug-and-play.

The Creative ZEN NEEON has a particularly sluggish interface. Button placements are okay, but needed more design thought. The Creative NOMAD Jukebox Zen Xtra was huge. This was a player that had a very primitive interface. It was bulkier, slower and did not even support the creation and use of folders. The only redeeming feature was the interface of the player that was easy to use. The buttons on the player however, can make do with a change in their positions. Considering the features, this player lacks a lot when compared to the other players in the comparison.

Earphone Buying Guide 
The wrong earphones with the right player can cause a lot of heartburn. Earphones play a very important role in your whole digital music player experience. Therefore, to help you out, here is a small buying guide that will enhance your experience. Use these as generic guidelines when purchasing earphones or headphones. Prices may vary from region to region.
  • Settle for the right fit. Some earphones have the tendency of slipping out of your ear. When buying an ear bud type of earphone, check if it fits your ear properly. Regular good quality earphones start retailing upwards of Rs300
  • If you are not comfortable with an earphone, check out a headphone. The downside to this would be more consumption of battery, since the drivers are bigger on a headphone. Good quality headphones start retailing at approximately Rs1,000.
  • Earphones can be either the regular or noise-canceling ones that plug right into the ear canal. Noise canceling earphones cost a bomb and are not recommended for long music sessions. However, the quality of these earphones is impeccable, since the audio waves directly hit the eardrum without any external interference leading to more clearer and noise free sound. The inherent drawback to these earphones is that low bitrate music files sound absolutely pathetic since they are encoded using lossy compression techniques.
  • Headphones are also available in the noise-canceling flavor, and are extremely expensive. You can probably buy another player for the same price.
  • For earphones, check if they have small ports at the back of the buds. These ports give more depth to the sound quality, especially to the bass. Such earphones can be expensive, but its money well spent. Good quality headphones also have small ports on the back of the ear cups.

HDD-based portable audio players generally have to be used more carefully than flash-based players. This is because the HDD based players not only cost more, but are also more fragile due to moving parts. However, the newer generations of players that we tested were out to prove this wrong.

Audio Quality
The Samsung YH-J70 is at the forefront of this race. This baby has motion sensors to prevent accidental damage to the drive from jerks and falls.

To test this, we used this player when commuting on the roads of Mumbai, using public transport. Not once did it skip or restart-and some of the roads we traveled across are the worst in the country, especially after the terrible monsoon this year!

The Samsung gave us rock solid performance when it came to using it as a "portable" player. FM radio and audio recording quality was acceptable-though the FM reception quality could be improved upon.

The Creative Zen Micro was another player that not only looked trendy, but also performed well in our tests. Using a micro drive, even this player delivered good scores in our listening test. The earphones that accompany this player are more like tiny speakers that scream their hearts out at high volume. Voice recording is good, but Line-In encoding would have been a welcome feature.

Its counterpart, the Zen NEEON, was another player that performed very well in our audio quality tests. The Creative ZEN Micro and NEEON followed close behind. The new earphones, which Creative bundles with its ZEN series, are mostly responsible for this.

Software issues apart, the iRiver was one of the best players that we tested. Listening to music on the iRiver was pure pleasure. The voice recording quality and FM reception quality was also good.

The Apple iPods that we received were a generation older, and did hold their own against the competition, but there have been a lot of improved and feature packed players from other companies after them. The iPods, as usual, sailed through the listening tests but did face heavy competition from other players.

The worst of the lot was the NOMAD Jukebox ZEN Extra, which, for all of its bulk, did not even have folder support! Any song that you transferred stayed put in the root of the drive without the folder.

Data Transfer
The Creative MuVo2 was the fastest in our data transfer tests, clocking 185 seconds. The Apple iPod duo followed close behind while the other players were just average in these tests.

The black sheep in these tests was the Creative NOMAD Jukebox ZEN Extra with excruciatingly slow data transfer speeds.

Battery Tests
The Samsung lasted a solid 20 hours, which is 5 hours less than its rated battery life, but hey, we are not complaining.

The Apple iPod Mini, followed by the Creative Zen Micro, suffered from low battery life malady with only 7.5 and 8.5 hours of battery life respectively. The other players put in at least over 10 hours in the battery tests with Samsung taking the top honours.

The HDD-based player comparison saw some stiff competition this year. Not so surprisingly, the iPod duo lost out on features such as FM that came standard on the other players. Of course, the audio quality of the iPods is excellent, but they need to add more features to their players' repertoire.

The Samsung YH-J70 was unanimously adjudged the Digit 'Best Buy Gold' winner not only for its sterling performance, but also for the features it bundled. All this at a price that is just a tad more than the iPods!

The iRiver H10 was awarded the Digit 'Best Buy Silver' winner for its superb audio performance and also the features that it has. The Creative Zen NEEON did give the iRiver H10 a run for its money in the audio quality department, but sadly lost due to its clumsy interface.

In The End
The competition just gets better and better each year, with players having more features packed into them.

The Samsung duo border on being called portable digital media players rather than just audio players. Moreover, this is a trend that is fast catching up. Users today have become more demanding and manufacturers are listening to them. With cut-throat competition in the market, there are myriad options available for us users to pick and choose from.

While the capacities on the hard drive-based player keep increasing, this is also a category that sees the most innovations. Motion sensor technology for instance is one of these innovations.

The flash-based players category on the other hand is extremely dynamic with every other manufacturer selling an "MP3 player." For users, this is a boon since they can purchase a no-name portable digital player for rock bottom prices, never mind the quality. The premium manufacturers, however, provide more in terms of features that justifies the price they retail for.

The test this year is just a glimpse of what you can expect in the future. Rest assured, we will be there to help you make the right decision.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.