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Getting the Right Digital Audio Player

Getting the Right Digital Audio Player

Digital audio players have revolutionized the personal music business. Instead of juggling a stack of cassette tapes or CDs, you can now download your music into a device thats the size of a shirt-pocket and take anywhere just the music you want with you. But, with so many portable digital audio players on the market, what features should you look for?

Support for the Right Music Formats

Originally, "MP3 players" and "portable digital audio players" were synonymous, since MP3 was the first, and for the longest time, the only compressed digital file format designed for music. However, todays digital music scene has changed. Here are the two major formats and how they differ from one another.

MP3 The original digital music file format is the only format supported by some low-end portable audio players, and is the most popular format supported by digital music ripping programs such as WinAmp, which create digital music files from CDs and other audio sources. However, MP3 requires a higher bitrate (amount of data read per second) than other compressed formats to achieve comparable sound quality, and doesnt support features that the recording industry seeks to use to regulate digital music storage and playback. Changes to the MP3 format (MP3 Pro) could doom some players which lack upgradeable firmware in the future to obsolescence.

WMA Microsoft developed the Windows Media Audio file format to support its Windows Media Player program. While WMA had a slow start, widespread use of the WMA format by Internet radio stations has made the Windows Media Player a popular choice for digital sound playback and also helped WMA become a popular file format for use with portable digital audio players. WMA can create decent-sounding music with a lower bitrate than MP3, enabling you to squeeze more music onto your portable audio player, and WMA has features which the recording industry likes for tracking music and (hopefully) preventing piracy of the digital music files you create from your own CDs. Note that while it can play several formats, most versions of Microsoft Windows Media Player can produce only WMA files; third-party digital music programs can often produce both WMA and MP3 files.

Some recorders can also store uncompressed .WAV audio files and other formats, but MP3 and WMA are the two key formats to look for.

Upgradeable Memory

32MB, the average amount of memory in a low-end portable audio player, may sound like a lot of space for your music, but high-bitrate/high-quality recordings will run through such a capacity very quickly, especially with the less-efficient MP3 file format. As the "MP3 Bitrate Comparison" at http://www.pinoyware.com/fliptech/bitrate.shtml makes clear, higher bitrates preserve most of the treble sounds in a given recording, although at a cost in storage space.

What kind of capacity can you expect from a 32MB entry-level digital audio player? With MP3 files, you can store 69 minutes of sound if you use the miserable-sounding 64Kbps sampling rate. Use the default, and mostly adequate, 128Kbps rate, and 32MB of space stores about 34 minutes. Go to the so-called "near CD-quality" 192Kbps rate, and your 32MB holds only about 23 minutes worth of music. With WMA, you can store more music in the same space, and most review sources suggest that WMA at 64Kbps does better than MP3 at 128Kbps.

Regardless of your format of choice, you should avoid players that lack any ability to increase the storage. For more effective use of your storage capacity, look for players that can treat on-board and removable storage as a single logical unit.

What Kind of Removable Storage?

If youre planning to spend less than $200 on your portable digital audio player, your options include

  • Internal memory only
  • Flash memory card
  • Iomega PocketZip (Clik!) media

More expensive units typically have built-in hard drives or may also use recordable CD media.

Most portable digital audio players that have removable storage use flash memory cards. The most common type of flash memory used is Compact Flash, but some players are designed to use the Sony Memory Stick or the MultiMedia Card. Compact Flash memory cards, which are also the most popular type of digital camera storage medium, are also the easiest to find. If you plan to travel with your player and PC and create digital music on the go, you might want to choose a player that uses Compact Flash cards for expansion.

Iomega 40MB PocketZip (originally called Clik!) media is used by Iomegas portable player, the HipZip, but currently no other players use this media. Even though the media is magnetic, not flash memory, players using PocketZip media have battery life comparable to flash memory players. PocketZip media can be purchased for around $10 a disk in 4-packs, compared to around $35-40 for a single 32MB CompactFlash card. So, if youre looking for low cost and high capacity, consider players using PocketZip media. Just remember that PocketZip media isnt as widely available as CompactFlash memory cards, and may be hard to locate on a trip. Also since the Iomega media is a proprietary standard, it is unlikely that very many other players will adopt its use.

For now, Compact Flash allows for the greatest memory storage at the lowest cost compared to any other type of solid state media, and is more widely used than the others. I tend to recommend only players that use CF media, for most applications that gives you the utmost in flexibility, compatibility and expandability. Also the same CF media you use in your player can also be used in most digital cameras.

Purchasing Considerations

There are two interface types used with portable digital audio players:

  • parallel ports
  • USB ports

The only reason to buy a player that uses the parallel port for data transfer is if your computer cant use USB ports because of equipment or operating system limitations (USB wont work with Windows 95 or Windows NT). USB devices are hot-swappable, and if you use a self-powered USB hub on your desk, you dont even need to bend over to attach your player to download the latest music.

If you prefer to have a player that can also double as a normal CD-player, move from the portable digital audio department to the portable CD department and look for models which feature built-in MP3 and WMA decoders. For maximum versatility, insist on models that can read both CD-R and reusable CD-RW media (which requires a different laser than CD-R and normal pressed CD media). To keep these units up-to-date, insist on models with upgradeable firmware.

With the industry moving away from plain-vanilla MP3 digital music files to formats such as WMA and music-protection features such as SDMI (the Secure Digital Music Initiative), upgradability becomes essential. You need to make sure your player can be upgraded to handle new file formats and other features. Otherwise, future music standards could leave your player high and dry.

For More Information

Learn more about how MP3 files in particular trade off quality for file size with different sampling rates at:

Compare MP3 versus WMA sound quality at various bitrates with downloadable samples at:

The following online stores provide comparison shopping for both portable digital audio players and portable CDs with MP3/WMA capabilities:

Rio produces both flash-memory and CD-based audio players in a variety of models. Check out their web site at:

Creative Labs NOMAD series offers both flash-memory based and hard-disk based portable digital audio players. Check out their product line at:

Get more information about Iomegas PocketZip media and its HipZip portable player at:

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