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Apple's new iPod Nanos are sure to be hot items on everyone's list with sharp color screens and smaller dimensions.  (Source: Apple Inc.)

The Zune 80 GB gives the Apple iPod Classic a run for its money. It sports a larger display and scratch proof glass, among other perks.  (Source: Microsoft)

The Chocolate is a stylish phone take at the mp3 player and provides a solid all around package.  (Source: Verizon Wireless)
Phones and MP3 players, oh my! DailyTech has all the hottest in holiday music and audio, for you or your loved one

Music lovers are living quite possibly the greatest era in history for their passion.  Today the music lover has a broad array of gadgets at his or her disposal with which to carry around a music collection in the palm of one's hand.  With many solid CD releases this year, and a wealth of undiscovered music -- whether you like rock, oldies, indie, rap, techno, electro, metal, glam, punk, funk or anything else -- the world is the music lover's oyster.

For the audiophile on your list, DailyTech's Audio Lover's Holiday Guide will give you the goods on how to give them something that will make their 2008 one rocking year.  This edition features the best mp3 players on the market and the best mp3 cell phones on the market.  It is helpfully broken up into sections, for your convenience.

The MP3 player market is saturated and diverse.  At the top sits Apple, which obviously reigns king, but Zen, Samsung, Microsoft, and SanDisk all have some intriguing offerings as well.  Obviously the biggest choice to make is flash vs. hard drive.  Flash players are substantially cheaper, are typically smaller, but don't have as much memory (usually 1-16 GB these days).  So for a music lover, they might be able to put their top 50 cds on it, but not their entire music library.

As to hard drive players, they are bigger and more expensive, but they sport better screens and the ability to dump a sizable music library into one place.  They typically have capacities of 30 to 160 GB.

Flash MP3 Players

For the flash based players, here are some of the top choices -- the Sansa Clip, Apple iPod Nano, and Cowon iAudio 7 win the highest marks:
  • Apple iPod nano  ($149.9, 4 GB, silver only; $199.99, 8 GB, silver, black, red, green, or blue)
    Apple Inc.'s iPod Nano is the king of the flash player market, but its my no means the best player.  What it is, is a very solid all around player, with a nice set of features, an attractive look and a reasonable price.

    The nano is currently in its third generation and has been shrunk to 2.75 x 2  x 0.25 in. and has added a 2 inch color screen.  Its includes free games, is very light, and has good battery life (29 hours audio, 6+ hours video).  Downsides are the shrunken scroll wheel that may give "fat fingers" trouble and decidedly average sound quality.  It does not support the WMA audio format.

  • SanDisk Sansa Clip  ($39.99, 1 GB, black only; $59.99, 2 GB, black, blue, pink, red)
    The SanDisk Sansa Clip is a favorite of at least one DailyTech writer.  The thing is tiny, but has a firm easy to use scroll wheel and a big helpful clip to make sure it doesn't get lost.  It has a very responsive tactile wheel and a bright led screen.  Other perks are up to 30 hours of battery life, FM Tuner, and a voice recorder.  Sound quality is fairly good, though nothing to write home about. 

    Downsides are the lack of a color screen, the fact that your friends will criticize you for not getting an iPod, and the fact that the little guy is easy to lose.

  • Creative Zen V Plus ($79.99, 2 GB, black/green; $109.99, 4 GB, black/blue; $169.99, 8GB, black/red;
    $249.99, 16 GB black/white)
    This device is a direct competitor to the iPod nano, with a 1.5 inch color OLED display which can be used to view pictures or watch videos.  It features competitive audio, with superb channel isolation and a 5-band equalizer.  It also includes a FM tuner and voice recorder.  It is about twice as thick as the iPod nano, but approximately as light.  Battery life is around 20 hours.  

    While the screen is definitely inferior to the iPod nano's crisp screen, it does feature a video in unlike the nano, so its a mixed bag.  Some will prefer the thicker design, others will not.   For the "I have the biggest mp3 player" crowd, the 16 GB model may actually be a real catch, as the nano currently does not sport this high a capacity.

  • Apple iPod touch ($399.99, 16 GB, black with silver back)
    The iPodtouch is big, is new, and looks a whole lot like an iPhone.  In fact, it is pretty much an iPhone, minus the phone.  The upsides are wi-fi browsing using the built in Safari browser, a huge color screen, and a decent 22 hours of audio playtime.  Some will prefer the touch-screen interface of the Touch, other will prefer the tactile scroll wheels of the nano and its ilk. 

    The audio quality is fairly good, although their have been some minor complaints.  Many will find that the size of this player, somewhat negates the benefits of going flash, and would simply pick a hard-drive model.

  • Cowon iAudio 7 ($129.99, 4 GB; $219.99, 8 GB; 16 GB, $269.99 -- black)
    This thing has great batteries!  The iAudio 7 features a crisp 1.3 inch OLED screen, which is competitive with that of the iPod Nano.  It is cheaper than the nano, and has phenomenal battery life, weighing in at 41 hours of audio, and 22 of video.  The sound quality is noticeably better than the Nano as is perhaps the best of the flash players in this guide. 

    When you are listening to songs with many layers of sound, such as electronica or modern beat-based pop, the difference is impressive.  It features stereo input, support for many lesser used formats, such as OGG and FLAC, features an FM Tuner.  It can record voice, the line in, or off the Radio.  A bout the only downsides are its size -- its rather chunky, being almost 3 times as thick as the Nano -- and the fact that it smudges easily.

  • iRiver Clix  ($189.99, 4GB, black)
    Don't let the small(er) price tag fool you, the iRiver Clix is more in the class of the iPod touch, rather than the Zen Plus V or iPod nano.  It features a vibrant 2.2" AMOLED display that rivals the iPod touch's and a full feature set.  It manages 24 hours of audio battery life, slightly better than the touch. 

    iRiver includes an FM Tuner, voice recorder and sports acceptable sound quality.  Downsides are that the device has a smaller screen that the Touch, less memory, and is more geared towards video than audio quality.  Positives, again are screen quality and better features.

  • Samsung YP-T9  ($159.99, 4 GB, black)
    The Samsung YP-T9 used to be slim and sexy next to the old-nano, but now it falls as a decent, but not amazing alternative.  It has a 1.8" color screen -- smaller than the iPod nano.  Like the iPod nano it comes with free games.  It has FM tuner/recorder and a voice recorder, both which might come in handy.  It has a well liked interface and decent battery life of about 26 hours for audio and 7 for video.  The screen is also fairly good, and the audio quality is on par with the nano.  Its no iPod killer, but its a solid and nice looking alternative, if it catches your eye.
Hard Drive MP3 Players

For hard-drive based players, here are some of the top choices (the Zune and iPod Classic come most recommended):
  • Apple iPod Classic ($249.99, 80 GB, black or silver; $349.99, 160 GB, black or silver)
    The iPod classic is the big kahuna of hard-drive mp3 players.  It has by far the largest available capacity, with the 160 GB model.  If your music collection fits on your computer, chances are all of it will fit on you iPod, which is after all the whole idea of a hard-drive mp3 player.  The screen is vibrant as always, and the iPod Classic is rather thin, measuring in at 2.4x4.1x.41 in. 

    Video playback is sharp and crisp on its 2.5" (diagonal) screen.  It also supports an upgraded menu interface.  It has middle-of-the-road audio quality, with only 20 equalization presets available.  Battery life weighs in at a solid 40 hours of audio, 7 hours of video in the 160 GB version.   A downside is the lack of inclusion of FM radio support, a perpetually missing feature in the iPod family.   Pick this one if you have a whole lot of music, want the best batter life, or you are looking for a proven choice.

  • Microsoft Zune ($199.99, 30 GB, brown, pink, red, black or white; $249.99, 80 GB, black only)
    The Microsoft Zune is the surly young upstart, looking to take a bite out of the iPod's marketshare.  It really has quite a lot to offer, though whether it is an "iPod killer" really falls to personal preference.  The Zune 30 GB does not necessarily have enough space to satisfy those with very large music collections. 

    However, the 80 GB should do the job for most.  Microsoft has subscribed to the long standing and curious tradition of offering multiple colors for the lower memory player, but only offering the top memory player in ubiquitous black.  The dimensions are 2.4 x 4.3 x 0.5 in., making it slightly beefer than the iPod Classic.  Aesthetics aside the Zune features a much large display, which is 3.2 inches diagonal, with glass, which reduces scratching.  The Zune features built in Wi-Fi and allows you to share songs with your friends.  The second iteration Zune, currently available features a revised navigation pad called the Zune pad, which has been well received for its responsiveness. Overall audio quality is good thanks in part to its support for WMA lossless audio. 

    The video is sharp and responsive.  One downside, however, is that the iPod just looks slightly better, in all honesty.  Even if you get past this aesthetic obstacle, another downside is the battery life.  The inclusion of wi-fi cuts into an already low battery life.  With wi-fi enabled the battery life is 18.5 hours of audio, with it disabled it jumps to 22 hours. 

    The Zune only can survive through less than 4 hours of video.  Pick this one if you aren't extremely concerned with battery life, if you carry sharp things in your pockets, or if you don't want an iPod but want a relatively proven solution.

  • Creative Zen Vision M ($249.99, 30 GB, black, green, light blue, pink, or white; $299.99, 60 GB black only)
    Fans of music subscription services will enjoy that the Zen Vision M interfaces well with most services.  It is heavier and fatter than the iPod, measuring 2.4 x 4.1 x 0.7 in.  The screen is very vibrant, and although 2.5 inches, the same as the iPod, it offers 262,000 colors compared to the iPod's 65,000.  Some like the buttons, others don't. 

    The player features an FM tuner and recorder, a voice recorder, and Outlook contacts sync-support.  Creative also supports lots of video formats, including DivX and XviD.  Sound on the device is wonderful, thanks to a 97dB signal-to-noise ratio.  The battery life is rather poor, even worse than the Zune, at 16 hours of audio and 4 hours of video.  Pick this one if you don't care about battery life, if you don't want to go with one of the big players, or if you want the best audio quality.

  • Phillips GoGear HDD6330 Jukebox ($279.99, 30 GB, jet black)
    The Phillips GoGear only includes a 30 GB offering, which will definitely turn off some.  The price is not great, either.  Still, the device will appeal to some as it has a stylish look that rivals the iPod's chic appeal.  Again, it is a bit fatter than the iPod 2.5 x 4.1 x 0.7 inches, and it weighs more.  However it has good photo capabilities and is able to keep up decently with the iPod Classic, despite its smaller 2" screen.  It comes with an FM tuner, voice recorder, and WMA support.  

    Audio quality is relatively good, with a 5-band-equalizer that is user adjustable.  There is 16 hours of battery life, which again is rather poor.  It takes 4 hours to charge the battery fully, as well.  Pick this one as a last resort, if you want something stylish but not an iPod and you don't care about excesses such as the size of the screen or battery-life.
MP3 Cell Phones

The bottom line with MP3 geared cell phones is that virtually all cell phones on the market support audio playback of some sort, and most come with miniSD expansions to provide flash memory.  However, there is a vast chasm of quality that separates a cell phone that can play music poorly from a phone that truly shines for music.  Only a few cell phones have managed to make this jump, and most its readily apparent as they are heavily marketed for their music capabilities. 

So what exactly are some of the upsides to buying one of these phones.  One of the most important factors for the music lover is sound quality -- most cell phones sound tinny and awful -- these phones have sound quality that approach dedicated mp3 players.  Another key factor is audio formats and bit rates.  Many cell phones that are not designed as audio players cannot play files with higher than 128-kbps bit-rates, limiting how much of your music library you can listen to.  Many common audio file types are not supported by the majority of audio-poor cell phones. 

So save yourself and your music lover the pain of a bad audio experience, and buy them one of these phones, if they want to listen to music on their cell phone, buy one of these -- the iPhone and Chocolate come most recommended:
  • Apple iPhone ($399.99, 8 GB, built-in flash, black/silver, AT&T)
    The iPhone is one of those iconic tech symbols that people hate to love and love to hate.  Still with terrific sales, there must be something behind it.  Part of the appeal is the stylish design and the well done touch screen interface.  Other well-liked features include the easy to use menu system, many useful applications, and the most full-functioned browser you're likely to find on a phone. 

    The display is large, which is both good and bad.  Measuring in at 2.4 x 4.5 x 0.46 inches, it is thin and mostly touch display.  It uses quality glass to protect its touch surface.  The iPhone supports wi-fi fully, but unfortunately in its current firmware, the iPhone includes no Bluetooth stereo support as most other music centric phones do.  The iPhone's sound is its strongest strength.  It features audio quality on par with the current iPod classic, which is saying something significant.  It also features beautiful video, but most audiophiles will be lost in music before they bother noticing it. 

    The phone features a decent 2 megapixel camera, but has no flash.  Call quality is relatively good and the phone supports 480 minutes of talk time on a charge.  Music lovers will more like be putting its juice to playing tunes, though -- and it will please them, support 24 hours of music playback.  Video playback comes in at 7 hours on a charge. 

    Two major downsides to the iPhones are that it's shackled to AT&T and it uses the slower EDGE network, as opposed to the industry leading 3G standard.  Pick the iPhone if you don't mind AT&T, if you love shiny things, or if you simply want the best possible audio experience in the cell phone at the cost of some extraneous phone features.

  • LG Chocolate VX8850 ($99.99, microSD flash-expansion, black, Verizon; $249.99 with music bundle w/ headphones and 2 GB microSD Flash)
    The LG Chocolate is a much different beast than the iPhone.  It is smaller, thicker, and -- you guessed it -- shaped like a chocolate bar.  It is 1.87 x 3.85 x 0.67 in. and relatively light.  Unlike the iPhone, it has no significant built in flash, you must go out and purchase a microSD card to hold your music.  This is good in that you can expand to high capacities and swap out cards, but bad in that you have to pay for these cards.  The 2.2" display is very attractive and sports an impressive 262,000 colors. 

    Many will prefer its responsive tactile touch wheel (similar to the iPod's) over the iPhone's touch inputs.  The keys are hidden under the screen, which slides up.  Some complain about having to slide the phone open in order to dial a number.  The phone features a decent 1.3 MP camera, but like the iPhone no camera flash.  Talk time weighs in at a decent 250 minutes.  Sound quality is good, but slightly less optimal than the iPhone.  It also has a short audio battery life than the iPhone. 

    The Chocolate supports 3G and EV/DO network, and some users will prefer the Verizon network to the iPhone's AT&T network.  The Chocolate is a really good phone and a pretty decent MP3 player, which at least one DailyTech writer uses on a daily basis.   Also, even with the flash card, it is cheaper than the iPhone.  Pick this one if you are looking for a good phone, which can also double as a pretty good MP3 platform.

  • Samsung Upstage SPH-M-620 ($99.99, microSD flash-expansion, black, Sprint)
    The Upstage's trademark feature is a flip design.  The back features a small LED display, a 1.3 megapixel camera (with no flash) and a full calling pad.  The front features a 1.4" display and a navigation pad.  The phone's dimensions are 1.73x4.07x0.37 in. 

    The device is very good looking and many will be tempted to buy it just based on that.  The backing package is fairly solid as well.  Like the Chocolate, you will need to pick up a microSD flash card, which has its perks and quirks.  Bluetooth and 3G are both included, which gives it some ground on the iPhone.  The music quality on a Bluetooth headset is fairly good, though not as good as the iPhone.  The bass is somewhat lacking in the music output. 

    Talk time on the Upscale is only a mere 150 minutes, but with an extended battery it rises to a reasonable 6 hours.  Music battery life is 7 hours and 16 hours with the extended battery.  The extended battery is included with the package and rests inside a leather wallet, that you can slide the phone into.  One downside for the music lover is that the built in music player is reported to be somewhat buggy. 

    Pick this one if you want a unique phone, on a fast network, and are willing to overlook some music quality issues and a somewhat short battery life.

  • Nokia Xpress Music 5300 ($299.99, microSD flash-expansion, red/silver, unlocked; $99.99 from TMobile)
    The Xpress is a slider phone, much in the same vein as the Chocolate. Its a bit of a mini-brick measuring 3.6 x 1.9 x 0.8 in. but it is a light-weight brick and is very comfortable.  The phone's display is excellent, featuring 262,000+ colors and a 2" size.  The cell phone's standard graphics are very vibrant and attractive. 

    Both sides of the phone are covered in rubber skin, which protects it.  The phone require a microSD flash card, like all the phones aside from the iPhone.  The microSD card is the main complaint as you have to remove the battery to access it, which can be tedious.  The phone features a 1.3 MP camera, with no flash, but video support.  It also supports JAVA for games and other fun stuff.  The phone uses GSM quadband and can access EDGE networks.  Generally it has a rather fast connection, and it offers 3.2 hours of talk time.  It is the only one of the featured phones to offer an FM radio tuner. 

    The best feature of the phone is its music support.  The sound quality is as good or better as any of the other phones, including the iPhone, particularly when you use Bluetooth stereo headphones.  The music player supports a broad array of formats and is very well-featured.  Further the phone supports a relatively hardy audio playtime of 9 hours.  Pick the XPress if you aren't as concerned with looks, but are looking for the best audio quality, and a decent phone.


Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

RE: Earbuds/headphones
By bdewong on 12/3/2007 12:40:29 PM , Rating: 1
I feel that there are some great products that balance price and quality. Because I didn't want to spend $50-$100 on headphones, I bought some koss ksc-75 headphones for under $20. Sure, there are many better headphones but, for me, the balance of price and quality lied there. I beleive there are some great ear/headphones in the $10-$50 range, $50-$100 range, $100-$200, and $200+; it all lies in finding the best sets within the range.


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