Reviews of Several MP3 Players

Reviews of MP3 players never seem to touch on the points I care about: whether they remember their settings (such as random/shuffle mode), and whether they remember their position in a song. This makes it very difficult to choose a player; it seems the only way is to buy one from a store which will allow returns if it doesn't behave properly.

On that note, here are some brief reviews of players I've tried.

Radio Shack MyMusix | | SanDisk Sansa e130 | PQI 1GB | GPX MW3816 | Kaser Mambo-BW (YoFun 102)

Radio Shack MyMusix MP3 Player

Radio Shack had these on sale for $80 after rebate, including a 1G SD card. That's a pretty decent price for a 1G player even if it didn't have a replaceable memory card.

Pluses: The MyMusix player is teeny, lightweight, uses standard SD cards so you can have a music collection as large as you like and easily switch by "mood", and uses a standard AAA battery so you have no worries about the device becoming a brick a year from now like players with non-replaceable li-ion batteries.

Showed up as a normal usb-storage device, no special software needed. Worked fine with Linux.

Minuses: To get into random (shuffle) mode takes 6 clicks, and it doesn't remember through a power off so you have to do those 6 clicks every time you start up. I like playing music in random "radio station" mode, so this was a killer for me.

Too bad! In nearly every other respect I really liked this player. One other small minus is that the MyMusix doesn't understand folders, so you have to put everything into one big directory on the SD card.

Update: I'm told that there's a new firmware image that helps it remember at least some settings. See the review for more details. However, it sounds like both the firmware update, and creating the settings file, work only on Windows, so it probably wouldn't have helped me anyway.

Luxpro Super Tangent

Reviews never talk about this little beast, which is a semi-clone of the iPod Shuffle, with improvements: it has FM radio and a voice recorder, and it costs about half what the Apple costs. I paid about $70 on ebay for a 1G model, and there was a 512Mb version for less.

Pluses: Worked great! Put it into random mode and it remembers that forever. The FM radio had poor reception with my Sony earbuds, but then I tried with the earbuds that came with the Luxpro and the reception improved tremendously. They were reasonably comfortable and sounded almost as good as the Sony earbuds, and were arranged in a nice setup where the earbud cords wrap around your neck like a necklace, rather than dangling in space.

Even better, I discovered that the voice recorder feature (which worked okay, but I don't really have a need for it) provided an additional bonus: I could put mp3 podcasts into the /voice directory (the Luxpro, like the MyMusix, can't find music in subfolders, but it does have one built-in folder for voice recording) and play them sequentially, even while music was in random mode. Music, FM, or Voice modes are selected by a physical switch on the back of the device. It's a very nice set-up.

It's the same size as an iPod Shuffle, which means that accessories for the Shuffle work fine for the Luxpro as well.

Showed up as a normal usb-storage device, no special software needed. Worked fine with Linux.

Minuses: No subfolders, no display, so no navigation beyond "Next" and "Previous". If you want to select specific tunes, this isn't the device for you. It didn't bother me very much.

A bigger annoyance is that in music mode, it switches into "key lock mode" (disabling things like the volume controls, so they can't accidentally get bumped) after about 5 seconds. That means that every time you need to change volume, and every time the device jumps to a new song and you decide you want to skip ahead, you must first hold down the center button for five seconds to disable key lock. That only happens in music mode, not in the voice or radio modes.

Also, the random mode isn't as random as I would have liked. In particular, I found that there were three or four songs that got played every time I listened to the device. I got quite sick of them and eventually deleted them from the device. Then it picked three other songs that it played every time.

Turning the device off is slightly tricky. If you just slide the switch to OFF, the Luxpro won't remember its position or settings. You have to slide the switch to one of the other two modes, wait five seconds while it saves, then move it to OFF.

Fast-forward and rewind don't work very well: they're way too slow, and holding them down doesn't seem to speed up. It's difficult to skip over a segment in a podcast, or rewind back to the beginning of the current segment.

I had the impression that the sound quality wasn't as good as the MyMusix, but I didn't have a chance to test them side by side so I was never sure.

This substantial list of minuses makes it sound like I didn't like the device, which is not true. I liked it a lot, and would still be using it if it hadn't disappeared (lost or stolen, I'll never be sure which). I tried to buy another one but couldn't find one (they weren't on ebay any more). So I suppose you could add "Unobtainable" to the minuses list. But if you find one and you're looking for an inexpensive Shuffle clone, I'd recommend it.

Sandisk Sansa e130

Although I liked the Luxpro, I did find that occasionally I wished for the ability to navigate albums or select a particular song. I decided to go for one of the players with that capability.

I was pleased to find that since the last time I'd looked, quite a few new players had appeared which offered both (a) replaceable SD cards, so you can extend your music library or switch by mood, and (b) standard replaceable AAA batteries rather than proprietary ones. The Sandisk Sansa series seemed like the best compromise between price and features, and most of the reviews were positive (and even included a few people who used it in random play mode, so I knew there was at least a chance of that working).

I've had the Sansa for about three weeks now, and I'm quite happy with it, though it has one fairly serious problem that I've had to work around (see below).

Pluses: Although it's bigger than the other two, it's still nice and small. The buttons are big and easy to get to (even while wearing gloves). Volume is on a scroll wheel: some of the reviews panned the volume wheel for being too stiff, but it seems fine to me.

Remembers its settings, like Random mode (which seems acceptably random). Some reviews said it took a long time to start up, especially with external cards. It does take a while, but so do all mp3 players I've tried, and adding a 512M card only increases the startup time the first time after the card is plugged in (while it indexes anything new it finds on the card).

Sound is, I think, a little better than the Luxpro, though it's hard to be sure without a back-to-back comparison. There are lots of different equalizer settings to choose from. Key lock is on a separate, physical "Hold" switch.

You can organize music in folders either on the device's own 512M internal memory, or on the external card. Folders aren't used for song navigation, though; it uses the Album and Artist ID3 tags for that (and Genre, though its recognition of genres seems a bit spotty). You can select by any of these three and then "Play All", in random or sequential mode (whichever was selected).

The included headphones are neat: in-the-ear types which, while not noise cancelling as some reviewers indicated, do seem to block a lot more external noise than normal earbuds. They come with three sizes of insert and I was surprised to find them quite comfortable. They don't sound quite as good as my Sony earbuds, but will probably be better in high-noise situations.

The Sansa showed up as a normal usb-storage device, no special software needed. Worked fine with Linux. Even better, it uses a standard mini-USB cable.

Minuses: The Sansa's big minus is that although it remembers its settings (like random mode) and the song it was playing, it doesn't remember its position in the song. For music that's not a problem, but when listening to an hour-long podcast it's more serious.

Fast-forward and rewind work well: they start out slow, but if you hold the button they speed way up, and you get a progress-bar indicator plus minutes:seconds from both start and end of the current track. So if you remember where you were in a podcast or ebook, you can get back.

I dislike having to remember, so I wrote a script to break up an mp3 file into 5-minute segments, using the title of the original mp3 as the Album name. Now I can "Play all" on the album (as long as I remember to switch random mode off, otherwise the program becomes somewhat confusing). This isn't perfect, though: it makes for so many voice fragments that random play chooses voice fragments instead of music too often. So I put all my podcasts on a separate card, and don't use random mode when I have the podcast SD card inserted. Also, if the album names are too long and too similar, you can end up with the Sansa thinking that two or more podcasts are part of the same album, so you'll get the first five minutes of the first podcast, then the first five of the second show, then minutes 6-10 of the first podcast, and so forth. Very confusing.

Other minuses (smaller): it's slow to respond to controls (when navigating through menus, you often have to do click-wait-click). I don't like the case that comes with it as much as a lot of reviewers did: the armband attaches at the bottom edge, which seems to make the player flap around. I'd prefer some sort of belt-loop clip in the back middle of the case, which could then be hooked to an armband. I've also had to customize the case a bit with an x-acto knife to open a slot for the SD card (I didn't mind not being able to change the SD card without removing the player from the case, but the case tended to pop the SD card out of its slot) and to open up the area around the volume knob (it made it too difficult to adjust volume).

I finally got annoyed with the Sansa's limitations with podcasts and went looking for a player that would remember its position. Since the Sansa is fine for music playing, I decided the best approach might be to keep my music on the Sansa and use a separate player for podcasts.


The PQI player is so generic it doesn't even seem to have a model name. But the neat thing about it is that it has no built-in memory of its own, and it costs about $30 including a 1GB SD card. So that's about $10 for the player, a great deal. I'd like to see more players like this.

Minuses: However, it doesn't remember its position in a track, which was really my only criterion this time. And it doesn't sort music by name, only by (I think) position on the SD card, so playing tracks in order might be tricky. I considered keeping it anyway and writing it off as an only slightly overpriced 1G SD card ... but I didn't really need another SD card, nor another little plastic gizmo that I wouldn't use, so I returned it.

GPX MW3816 (256 built in, plus SD card capability)

Minuses: This couldn't remember its position in a song either, and had no benefits I could see, so I returned it.

Kaser Mambo-BW (YoFun 102) 1GB

I tried several of the inexpensive players on the shelves at Fry's and eventually found the Mambo-BW. It's quite reminiscent of my old Super Tangent in some ways. It has 1GB built in, is shaped similarly with a built-in USB connector, and includes a voice recorder and FM radio.

Pluses: Like the old SuperTangent, you can keep two separate sets of audio files: your "music" and your "voice recordings". So if you want to keep your podcasts separate from your music, put the podcasts in the from.mic directory and the music in the top level directory.

Power comes from one AAA battery. Battery life seems at least as good as the SanDisk. Construction seems pretty solid and the player looks fairly nice.

I may actually start using the voice recording. I tried it during a short Toastmasters speech: fidelity wasn't very good (because the mic wasn't very near my mouth, and there's no way to use a remote mic) but it did save all the words, so it would be fine for making notes to yourself.

It seems to crank out plenty of volume, louder than the Sansa. This is a plus for me since I often route the player through my car stereo, and the Sansa is barely loud enough for me to hear when the car stereo is cranked up all the way.

I haven't used the FM radio enough to comment on it, but it seems nice to have. I haven't tried the included earbuds yet. A USB extension cord is also included; not necessary but it never hurts to have an extra one.

The player comes in a plastic bubble pack, like most other mp3 players; but it's a nice old style bubble pack that you can easily pull apart, not a wrap-wrage-inducing impregnable package that requires power tools. In fact, the packaging was what induced me to choose it over a couple of other options on the Fry's shelf.

Minuses: My only real beef with the Mambo is the location of the volume buttons. I don't mind that they're buttons and not a wheel, but they're located just opposite the forward/backward skip buttons, and it's very difficult to press the volume buttons without pressing one of the skip buttons at the same time. Fortunately the player doesn't actually skip off the current track when I press both at once (that would be quite annoying when you're 20 minutes in to an hour-long program!) but I'm always worried it will, and it doesn't change volume either. So you have to work out a way of holding the top of the player with one finger (but don't accidentally press the pause button!) firmly enough that you can press the +/- volume controls.

There's no navigation by artist, album, etc. So I think I'll keep the Sansa for listening to music, though the Mambo might be a perfectly good random-shuffle music player.

No manual of any sort is provided. Admittedly, the documentation that comes with most mp3 players is so sketchy that it may be more honest to include nothing at all.