With the introduction of the MP3 file format in the mid 90s the music industry was turned on its head. MP3 refers to MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3. It is an audio encoding and compression format that was designed to reduce the amount of data required to represent audio.
This is achieved by discarding data that is deemed unessential. Taking into account psychoacoustic principals a compression algorithm determines how best to reduce the data. CD music can be compressed at different bit-rates, anywhere from 32-320 kilobits/second. Three sampling frequencies are also available 32, 44.1 and 48 kHz. 44.1 kHz is normally used as this is the sampling frequency of audio CDs. Many people feel that a 128 kbps MP3 offers CD like quality but a good ear can detect the weakness at this bit rate. A more reasonable bit rate for those who prefer higher quality sound is 192kbps. Compressing a file using Variable Bit Rate encoding will lead to higher quality sound while still keeping the file size down. Using VBR, less complex passages are encoded at a lower bit rate while more complex ones use a higher bit rate. Every new MP3 player should be VBR compatible.
You will notice that there is a difference in quality among MP3s even at the same bit rate. This is due to the fact that the MPEG-1 standard does not provide precise specifications for MP3 encoders, so the algorithms used by different programs produce different quality MP3s. To complicate things further, some encoders do a fantastic job of encoding at a higher bit rate but lag behind others when it comes to compressing at lower bit rates. Don’t worry about the decoding though, as it is clearly defined in the standard and all MP3 players will be able to decode your files no matter what encoder you use.
The incredible popularity of MP3s can be mainly attributed to the internet and music piracy. All of a sudden MP3 made it possible to easily share music over the internet. Napster facilitated that process. Napster was eventually shut down by the courts but music downloaders soon found a replacement in Peer to Peer (P2P) file sharing networks. These networks are a much more difficult target for the recording industry. Each individual user would need to be targeted as opposed to Napster whose centralized system was shut down with relative ease. Bit torrents, another form of file sharing, has led to entire albums and even movies being traded on the internet.
However, not all music downloads are illegal. There are many services that sell music online, generally $1 per song and $10 for an entire album. Services that are supported by the major record labels don’t sell you MP3s, they sell either proprietary formats like RealMedia, Sony’s ATRAC , Apple’s AAC or they sell protected WMA files. These files generally come with restrictions in terms of how they can be copied to other computers and how they can be transferred to music devices. There are online stores that sell good old unprotected MP3s. The music at these sites is generally supplied by independent record labels who don’t mind if you share their music. They see it as increased exposure for their artists.
A more recent development is Microsoft’s Janus standard. This is a Digital Rights Management standard that allows companies like the reborn Napster to rent music for a monthly fee. Janus-compliant MP3 players have a secure clock that tracks rented music and disables the files after a time specified by the service provider.
Choosing an MP3 player from the dozens available may seem daunting so being well informed on what’s out there will make the task easier.
Establishing a list of features that are important to you is key. Do you want it to have an FM radio, voice recording, line-in recording, photo viewing, removable batteries? Many MP3 players only support a couple of file formats, usually MP3 and WMA. Some users compress their music using the OGG standard or require ASF, or AIFF compatibility. Another trait to keep in mind is that some MP3 players require you to use specific software to transfer music files whereas others are recognized by Windows as an external drive and files can be easily dragged and dropped into them. Also, not all MP3 players with a recording feature, record at the highest MP3 bit rate. Some top out at well below the 320 kbps max, some record in other compressed formats. And only a few allow you to record uncompressed WAV files. If you plan on digitizing your vinyl collection, be sure to investigate which players have higher quality recorders. Also, some MP3 players, like home audio equipment, offer higher quality sound reproduction. Sound reproduction is also limited by the headphones you use. If you are concerned about quality, the first thing you should do is replace the headphones as few MP3 players come packaged with good quality ones.
Most recently, Toshiba paved the way for mega storage capacity MP3 players when they miniaturized the optical hard drive. As a result, MP3 players have evolved into Personal Media Players. These juiced up units have the ability to play music and video files, display photographs and some even have games and offer organizer functionality.
Flash Memory Players
Flash based MP3 players are what got the ball rolling in the late 90s. The first players were pricey considering they had capacities of only 32-64 Megabytes. Flash-based MP3 players gained in affordability and popularity as the cost of the memory dropped. Cheaper memory coupled with longer battery life has lead to the availability of an overwhelming amount of choice and features in flash MP3 players.
The main benefit of these units is the lack of moving parts of solid state flash memory. This means that flash players are much more resistant to shock and wear, which makes them perfect for bringing along when exercising. Battery life is also aided by not having to spin up a hard drive. Some manufacturers are claiming a charge will last up to 40 hours. Many MP3 players use AA or AAA batteries while others take removable Lithium Ion or Lithium Polymer batteries.
The amount of features available in flash players ranges from none, in Apple’s iPod Shuffle, to everything, in Samsung’s Yepp YPT-7.
Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting flash memory-based MP3 players you can buy today. Creative’s Rhomba NX allows you to play MP3 and WMA files, record voice, enjoy and record FM radio. It also has a line-in jack so you can connect a CD player or any other audio device that has a line-out and record the music directly to the Rhomba NX. The player will encode what you’re recording to the MP3 format. Its display shows the name of the folder you are inside, the name of the file this is currently playing, playback time, volume level, selected equalizer, type of file, compression quality and has a battery life indicator. Creative’s Rhomba NX is powered by two AAA batteries offering up to 14 hours of play time and comes in 128, 256, and 512 MB versions.
Creative also offers the MuVo Micro N200 MP3 player. The N200 has all the functionality of the Rhomba NX in a slightly smaller package. As a result the display is also smaller displaying only essential information including the track title, playback time, selected equalizer and remaining battery life. It is powered by a single AAA battery, offers up to 15 hours of playback and comes in 128 MB, 256 MB, 512 MB and 1 GB configurations.
Samsung’s YP-MT6Z offers the same functionality as both Creative players above (minus the equalizer) but boasts the playback time up to 45 hours using a single AA battery. In addition to playing MP3 and WMA files, the Samsung also plays Secure WMA, OGG and ASF music files. Its four-line display shows the song title and time, volume level and remaining battery. Most of the player’s functions are accessed via a joystick-type button, minimizing the number of buttons. The YP-MT6Z also features SRS WOW sound enhancement and is available in a 1 GB version (a 512 MB version is also available, model number YP-MT6X).
iRiver’s iFP-799 has 1 GB of storage and plays MP3, WMA, ASF and OGG files. It has a built-in FM tuner and recorder as well as a voice recorder. A line-in jack enables the user to record to the iRiver from any audio source with a line-out. A back-lit four-line display shows all the necessary information. It also features a joystick-type button to access common functions. The iFP-799 runs off a single AA battery for about 40 hours.
Hard Drive Players
Apple turned heads with the introduction of the hard drive based iPod a few years ago. Since then, a slew of companies have released their own hard drive players. Capacities range from 10 to 60 Gigabytes and most are laden with features. You can store days upon days worth of music, pictures or data files. You can be reasonably active while listening to hard drive based players as they are shock protected and have enough of a buffer that even jogging shouldn’t be much of a problem. That being said, subjecting one of these units to prolonged jarring is not the best idea. Not only do you risk damaging the hard drive but battery life will suffer as the hard drive will be constantly spinning up to re-buffer the memory.
Apple’s marketing machine has led to many people not even considering anything but an iPod. While the iPod may be all some people need there many other players with added functionality. The “Click-Wheel” menu navigation interface has always been Apple’s trump card, but other manufactures are moving towards touch sensitive navigation, such as Creative’s “Touch Pad” and iRiver’s “Touch Strip.” Photo capability first became available on the iRiver H320 and was quickly followed by the iPod photo. Today, more and more players are offering colour photo displays.
Micro Drive players are the smaller siblings in the hard drive family. Typically these are available with 1 to 9 Gigabytes of storage. They are an excellent solution for those that require more storage than flash players offer but find the bigger hard drive players too bulky. The features in this segment range from Rio Carbon’s no frills it’s all about the music approach, to players that are just as feature rich as their bigger cousins. The iRiver H10 even incorporates photo viewing
Some hard drive based players like the Creative Zen Micro have removable, and thus replaceable, batteries. Hopefully more manufactures start offering this feature because as anyone who owns a cell phone knows, no matter what, a battery’s capacity will eventually diminish. Apple’s own battery woes have been widely reported and it now offers to swap the battery in its iPod mini (for approximately $99) if after a couple of years the user isn’t satisfied with battery life.
Generally, hard drive based players incorporate larger LCD screens that allow for displaying larger, more detailed amounts of information, even pictures.
Olympus, better know for its cameras, breaks the mold with the innovative m:robe 500i. It features a built-in 1.2 mega pixel camera and a neat-o touch screen. A 20 Gigabyte hard drive means you’ll have plenty of space for music as well as pictures. Its 3.7 inch VGA screen has the ability to display pictures as a slide show accompanied by music.
The iRiver H320 may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the iPod photo but it is loaded with features. It plays an assortment of music files including MP3, WMA, protected WMA, OGG, and ASF. It also displays BMP and JPEG images. It can record from FM radio, voice or its top notch line-in that allows for 320 kbps MP3 recording. Unfortunately iRiver has taken one step back from the H120 which allowed WAV recording and had an optical line-in that recorded at a whopping 1.5 megabits/second.
The fashionable iPod mini is now available with a 6 Gigabyte hard driver which is being sold along side the 4 Gig version. Its genius Click Wheel offers feedback and a satisfying click. The body is constructed out of a single piece of aluminum which is hollowed out then anodized in a variety of colours.
The Creative Micro’s 5 Gigabyte hard drive comes wrapped in a nicely designed case. Creative has developed a “Touch Pad” for navigation which seems to be the trend. It has an FM and voice recorder. The Micro can sync to Microsoft Outlook, give the user access to the calendar, to do lists and contacts.
Samsung has recently redesigned its MP3 player lineup. Their 20 Gigabyte player has what is becoming de rigeur JPEG display ability. It also has a line-in for recording that many users demand.
Digital Networks offers two Rio players that are worth a look at. The 5 Gigabyte Carbon is a simple, cleanly designed music player. Its backlit display isn’t flashy but it conveys all the essential info and saves battery life. The 20 Karma is geared more towards audiophiles. It is one of the few players that supports the FLAC format which uses lossless compression.
Personal Media Players
Personal Media Players is an emerging category. These devices not only play music and display photos, but they also play video. The more mainstream approach is to use Microsoft’s Mobile software. This allows for quick and easy integration for Windows users but is more restricting in the formats that it supports. Samsung’s latest Yepp YH-999 and Creative’s Zen PMC are two Microsoft enabled devices. The iRiver PMP 120 and Archos PMA 400 offer much more flexibility by using a Linux based operating system.
Creative was the first company to introduce a media player called the Zen Portable Media Center allowing you to take your digital entertainment anywhere you go. Zen puts your favorite music, videos and pictures at your fingertips. Zen is based on Windows Mobile software providing the easy to use, familiar Windows interface. Its 20 GB hard drive grants enough storage space for a large amount of any type of media and can also be used as simple file storage. Most of the player’s functionality is accessed through two multi-direction pads (synonymous with video game control pads) giving it a simple and clean look. The built-in lithium ion battery supplies enough power for up to 22 hours of continuous audio playback and 9 hours of continuous video playback. The Zen has a 3.8″ back-lit LCD display with a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels and a built-in speaker. Files that can be played on the Zen include WMV, ASF, MP3, WMA, WAV, JPEG, DVR-MS, MPEG and AVI.
iRiver’s PMC-120 is very similar to the Creative Zen with a much more attractive appearance. It uses the same Windows Mobile software, has a 20 GB hard drive and plays all the same file formats as the Zen. The PMC-120 has a slightly smaller screen at 3.5″ and offers 14 hours of music playback or 5 hours of video playback with its removable lithium ion battery. It also has a built-in speaker for sharing your media with others.
Another notable media player is Samsung’s YH-999 which has a different look compared to the above to players but shares all of the same features. Keep an eye out for Samsung’s YH-J70 media player due out soon with some additional capabilities and more storage space.
Perhaps the media player that shines above all is the Archos PMA400 or Personal Media Assistant. Unlike the above players, the Archos uses a Linux Qtopia operating system and offers additional storage space with its 30 GB hard drive. The touch-screen is 3.5″ in size and has a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. The PMA400 offers playback of all the common audio, picture and video formats mentioned above. What really sets this media player apart from the competition are its many added capabilities. On top of having a voice recorder, the PMA400 has a video line-in which offers video recording. The Archos can be connected to a TV, VCR, cable box or satellite receiver with a composite video cable and function as a simple personal video recorder (PVR). The PMA400 comes preloaded with a variety of Qtopia games and more games can be purchased and downloaded from the Archos website. Built-in 802.11b WiFi capability allows the unit to access the Internet and emails from any wireless hotspots including your wireless home network. An on-board USB port means you can connect digital cameras, USB-powered hard drives or an external keyboard for easy text input. To top it all off, the PMA400 includes personal information manager software offering a selection of applications such as an address book, agenda, calendar, PC synchronization and a PDF viewer.