MP3 Players for Summer 2005 Part I

By Richard Menta 6/03/05

As the Summer of 2005 officially begins this Memorial day holiday digital audio manufacturers are releasing their latest line of toys for the return of warm summer days. All electronics manufacturers are desperate to take a healthy bite out of the exploding MP3 market, one that Apple fed and then dominated with its iPod line. It has been a tough road. If Apple's leading the market despite having only hard-drive based units for its first two years wasn't bad enough, last January Apple created its first flash based player. In just a few months that player, the iPod Shuffle, went from 0% of the flash digital portable market to 60%.

But the market is growing and the iPod can't sustain such high numbers forever (or can they?). Here is the latest batch of DAPs to grace shoppers and audiophiles. Most notable are Bose's first entry into the portable market and Creative's latest model.

Creative Zen Neeon

I guess the Zen Neeon is supposed to be hip by spelling Neon with two "e"s, a dated ode to the dot com salad days when all the dictionary words were already taken as URLs so companies made up their own words. Remember Flooz? Of course, the early Net crowd had to spell cool "k-e-w-l", further confusing the 40-something marketing folk who reproduce these malaprops in their advertising plans.

Released a few weeks ago the Neeon is wrapped in a clean looking black shell that users can cover with "Stik ons", changeable stickers that copy the iPod's tattoo concept. Fun, but ephemeral. To further add to the charm users can change the backlight colors, a unique feature to the Neeon.

The Neeon comes in a 3.1 x 1.8 x 0.63 inch shell, smaller than the 3.6 x 2.0 x 0.5 inch dimensions of the iPod Mini. It weighs in at 2.6 oz, almost a third lighter than the 3.6 oz iPod Mini. For those who appreciate small and light, the 5GB Neeon succeeds among hard drive-based players.

The Neeon possesses those features not available on the iPod, but common to all other players. This includes an FM radio, microphone and line-in port for direct-to-MP3 encoding.

The SanDisk Sansa is available on Amazon

SanDisk Sansa e100

What differentiates the Sansa from most other flash players these days is that it is expandable with more flash. It's a concept that was standard in all MP3 players a few years back, but lost favor once units hit the 256MB mark (because killing the reader slot allowed more flexibility in the size and shape of a unit). The base Sansa comes with 512MB ($140) and 1GB ($190) built-in memory. An extra $75 adds a 1GB SD card to the player.

The Sansa plays MP3 as well PlaysForSure WMA for Napster II users. It also includes an FM tuner. The unit is 1.8 oz with battery and measures 2.165 x 2.913 x 0.551 inches.

Bose TriPort CD Music System

Bose is all about the quality of sound (as opposed to Bang and Olufsen who are all about style and exclusivity). The biggest shortcoming of digital music is that MP3 is a lossy codec. This degradation of sound is further exasperated by the cheap white earbuds that have become ubiquitous on the streets these days.

So Bose set out to design a portable device that makes those MP3 tunes sound as good as they can. I slipped on the headphones for this unit at the Bose store the other day and I can verify that it significantly improved sound quality. It may be big, but for audiophiles its sound trumps the iPod.

Bose eschewed a hard drive or flash unit for a CD-based portable, a scheme that was fairly popular up to the early iPod days, but has now waned. My suspicion is that Bose wanted to avoid going head-to-head with the iPod and found their target audience was more open to a CD-based player. The headphones are pretty imposing too, not exactly a subtle sight walking down the street, but the size succeeds in insulating the music from outside noise. The combo lists for $220.

An MP3 player for grown-ups. Wish list for 2006: a TriPort hard drive player.

Bose TriPort CD Music System

Philips SA-177

Philips SA-177

About $100 will buy you this latest offering from Philips, really just a 512MB version of an earlier digital music portable bumped up and priced to keep pace with the iPod Shuffle.

The unit has an FM tuner, plays WMA (PlayForSure?), and gets 12 hours of play time on its batteries.

Rocbox Digital 15003

Last fall Damon Dash, entrepreneur of Roc-A-Fella Records and the Rocawear clothing line, released his own MP3 line including the 20GB Roc Digital RocBox and a smaller 246MB flash-based player. The players have not been a big seller for Dash, but enough for him to come out with an iPod Mini competitor the 15003. The Rocbox Digital 15003 is a 4GB player with a color screen and yes that is Bono on the display as opposed to one of Roc-A-Fella Records' artists (they had to get that iPod connection in there I guess).

Also announced is a memory upgrade to the RocBox's flash player, which now includes a 512MB model (the Roc Digital 14000) along with the 256MB model 14001.

Rocbox Digital 15003

Creative Muvo Mix

Creative Muvo Mix

When the iPod Shuffle was first released in January, Creative Technologies CEO Sim Wong Hoo ridiculed it for its lack of a screen. This was ironic because the original Creative Muvo had no screen either. I don't believe the Muvo sold all that well for Creative so maybe Hoo was just playing off of experience with his Apple taunts.

Five months later the iPod Shuffle captures 60% of the flash market and Creative fires back with their old sans-screen player, adding a slight name change. At least give them credit for reacting quickly to the obvious. The basic player runs on a single AAA battery and offers a 512MB unit for $89.00, ten bucks less than the 512MB iPod. The Muvo mix is also available in 64MB, 128MB, and 256MB flavors.

Maxfield Diablo Hi-Fi MP3 Player

Bose is not the only manufacturer aiming for a better sounding MP3 player. Still, German maker Maxfield's use of the term Hi-Fi seems more anachronistic than aspiring. The player does start out on the right foot by including a set of Koss headphones with the unit.

The Diablo hypes 3D sound capabilites and supports Ogg Vorbis as well as MP3 and WMA. The player comes with a color OLED screen and FM tuner and 1GB of memory. The Maxfield Diablo displays .JPG photos and also plays video files, though video playback is limited only to a proprietary PFL format. The unit is powered by two AAA

RCA Lyra RD2762

Selling for $180 the Lyra RD2761 is the company's RD2765 minus the color screen and with only 4MB of memory versus 5MB. Past Lyra portables have proven to be decent players, though they rarely offer anything exciting.


The Sony PSP is available on Amazon

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