MP3 Player Buying Guide

While it may seem like all MP3 players are created relatively equal, there are actually major differences between some of the major brands currently on the market. Since their development and popularization, MP3 players have overtaken the digital music market and dwarfed the previous music power seller - compact discs. Digital audio available on multiple web sites is also cheaper to produce than compact discs and results in music that is often cheaper than purchasing CDs. There are a variety of considerations when buying a MP3 player that range from factors like storage space, portability, screen size and file format support to extras like the capability to store and display other media like pictures and HD video.

If you are thinking of buying an MP3 player, think about the main reason you will be using it. Different MP3 players are better suited for exercise than they are for travel. Some MP3 players are well suited for multiple tasks like recording audio notes and watching business presentations while others are designed to just play music - and are cheaper as a result. You may be surprised to find that buying a new cell phone can also provide you with a high quality MP3 player that trumps many of the moderately priced MP3 players on the market.

Understanding MP3 Player File Formats

One of the first mistakes that MP3 player shoppers make is forgetting to consider file formats. MP3 has become a broad term used to describe a variety of digital music players. However, MP3 (an abbreviation of Motion Pictures Experts Group Layer 3) is just one of the many file formats that are commonly used to create digital music today. One of your most important considerations when shopping for an MP3 player will be the music formats that it supports. For example, another popular digital music format is WMA (Windows Media Audio) which is a digital music file created on Windows operating systems. This format is often considered to be better sounding than MP3 files but uses about the same amount of space.

A WAV file is also quite common as it is the standard format for music on compact discs and can be created using a Windows operating system. The Macintosh counterpart to WAV is AIFF - which work in the same way but are created on Mac operating systems. If you plan to download a great deal of music to your iPod from iTunes, you will encounter another common format known as AAC, a licensed Dolby format common with Apple products. MP3 players also often support an audio book and radio specific format of digital sound files called AA - available almost exclusively from the audio web site Finally, RCA devices commonly use an updated form of MP3 formats - called MP3Pro. This format sounds clearer than MP3 files but does not require any additional storage space.

How an MP3 Player Works

The major technological development that led to the creation of the first MP3 players was high quality sound compression. Theoretically, MP3 player-like devices were possible years before the first digital music players hit the market. However, the size of sound files was the major road block. For example, a single second of uncompressed, high quality audio takes up a considerable amount of disc space - a little more than 1.3 MB.

The average mainstream song length is about 3 minutes and 32 seconds. At that size, a single song would require a hefty 276 MB of space. At this rate, you would need around 2.48 GB of space in order to store a 9 track compact disc on a digital audio player. Considering that the early 1990s saw hard disc space on computers priced at about $1.00 for every MB, an MP3 player in the early 1990s capable of storing about 1 compact disc would be bulky and cost a minimum of $2,480.00 - hardly practical in any sense. Obviously, the development of MP3 players was not hindered by hard drives but, rather, was waiting on music compression technology. The study of MP3 technology had already begun in 1987. However, it would not be until 2001 when the first successful commercially available MP3 player would hit the market and begin a digital music revolution - the iPod.

Basic MP3 files are essentially the same as any other digital file - a sequence of ones and zeros. By default, all sounds are recorded as analog. The file is then converted to digital through a system that measures intervals in the signal and mimic the transmission in a sequence that a music player can understand and recreate. All MP3 files are stored in analog and the actual sound that you hear is a result of the analog to digital conversion process performed by the MP3 player.

When reliable sound file compression was finally developed, it was the result of a study of psychoacoustics or the way in which the human brain receives audio waves. Using this research, scientists were able to develop automatic sequences called codecs to predict how a sound file could be organized to be the smallest possible size while not being noticeably lower in quality than the original. As the technology has improved over the years, the same basic algorithm has simply been fine tuned and improved to allow for better quality compressed music files.

Choosing an MP3 Player

There are a variety of reasons that people buy MP3 players and chances are good that you fit into one of a variety of categories of MP3 uses. Most MP3 player owners purchase the device primarily for a single purpose. Although evaluating any other reasons that you would need an MP3 player is important, consider your primary use when deciding on a specific device.

Exercising MP3 Players

Regardless of your type of exercise, portability is a major consideration. In fact, if you are purchasing an MP3 player to use while running or jogging, you might need to consider a device that comes with an armband to eliminate the need for longer headphones and pockets in your running clothes. The Zune 8 GB Digital Media Player is a perfect choice for exercise users at a reasonable price of around $148.00. The 8 GB hard drive allows you to store enough songs to offer variety during your sessions (about 2,000) and also allows you to store 25,000 pictures of your progress (everyone needs a little motivation from time to time).

Accessories to Consider: The case equipped with an armband for exercise is available for as little as $0.99 and is a solid addition for exercise users. You may also want to upgrade the stock headphones to a more efficient model - especially for running. The Koss KSC 75 headphones wrap around your ear to prevent them from slipping and start at around $19.99.

Traveling MP3 Players

If you spend a great deal of time on the road whether in a plane, train or automobile, you will want an MP3 player that features long battery life (possibly with an easily replaceable battery pack), a large viewing screen for video and plenty of hard drive space for storing a variety of music and video. However, you will also want to look for a device that is small and very portable - enough so that it can fit easily in your pocket and not get in the way of other items - yet durable enough to withstand long periods of sitting or bumpy car rides. For the best overall travel MP3 player, try the Apple iPod Nano 16 GB (starting at around $155.00) with a built in camera and microphone for recording video and audio and taking pictures.

The Nano series include all of the popular features included with iPod devices and is also small enough to fit in your pocket without being so small that videos are difficult to view.

Accessories to Consider: The battery isn't designed to be replaced by the consumer in the iPod Nano but there are other options to extend your battery life without having a power outlet. For example, the CTCstore 1900mAh External Backup Battery Charger is available for around $13.95 and is capable of fully charging your iPod Nano if you run out of battery life in the middle of a trip. It can hold a single charge for several weeks and is easy to charge and use.

Music/Video MP3 Players

There are a few major factors that you need to consider when looking for an MP3 player that plays both videos and music well. First, hard drive space is paramount and at least 160 GB is a good idea. Next, battery life is an important consideration as videos can drain inadequate batteries before you have even finished the movie. For excellent movies and music, the Apple iPod classic 160 GB Black is very tough to beat. Not only does this device include enough power to watch about 6 hours of video (rivaling many laptops) or 36 hours of music, you can buy new music, movies (or rent them) directly on the iPod while you're on the go at the iTunes store - another reason to pick up an iPod for any category of user.

One of the greatest features of the iPod is the Genius program that will automatically suggest similar songs to the ones you are listening to. This can create a play list directly from your library for any occasion. The Apple iPod classic 160 GB Black is available at about $217.00 (7th generation).

Accessories to Consider: Buying accessories for the iPod classic is a no brainer as Apple itself provides the best 15 item bundle at the lowest price - about $22.00. This bundle includes several skins (one with an armband), screen protectors, a headphone splitter, card audio jack, USB dock, car charger and anything else you need for your Apple iPod Classic to perform well in any situation.

MP3 Collectors - Large Storage Space

If you have so many files that even your computer is starting to struggle with your collection, storing them on a substantial MP3 player might be your best option. In order to justify the investment, you should look for an MP3 player that contains at least 300 GB of hard drive space and allows for both videos, images and audio files is as many file formats as possible. It is also important to look for a device with the most functionality in terms of uses. It will take you a long time to fill up 300 GB in MP3 files and you want to get the most for your money in your MP3 player. One of the largest MP3 players on the market is the Archos 5 Internet Tablet with Android (500GB). Not only does the Archos 5 include a gigantic hard drive, it also can play almost any music or video format as well as browse the Internet and act as a GPS device at a price of around $399.99.

Accessories to Consider: If you plan on taking advantage of the GPS capabilities of the Archos 5 MP# player, you might want to also pick up the Archos Car Mount 501426 for about $30.00. This accessory allows you to mount your MP3 Player on your dashboard, route music into your stereo or use the built in FM transmitter to listen to music. You might also want to purchase a car charger for the Archos 5. There is a 2 in 1 home/car charger available from Archos for around $27.95.

Audio Book MP3 Players

MP3 players are not just for music. In fact, many people purchase MP3 players specifically to enjoy their favorite audio books while falling asleep or in their car on a long trip. Audio books can be large files but, unless you plan to store your entire library on the MP3 player, a 16 GB device should be adequate. One of the best audio book MP3 players is the Creative Labs Zen MX 16 GB MP3 Player at about $79.99. The interface of the CL Zen allows you to customize the layout so you can have a separate screen for your music, videos and audio books. You can also use alarm functions on the device to prevent yourself from getting too lost in a good book and losing track of time.

Accessories to Consider: The Creative Labs Zen MX 16 GB MP3 Player comes with a set of headphones and a USB cable but does not typically include a car charger - something you will probably need for extended car trips. You can buy a Zen brand car/wall/USB charge kit for about $5.00. A clip on case or flap leather case might be useful for using the MP3 player during a walk or keeping the screen safe when it is not in use. The Zen brand clip on case is about $3.50 while a stylish flap leather case for the Creative Zen series is about $13.00.

iPod MP3 Players

By many accounts, iPod MP3 players are among the best devices on the market and there are many models designed specifically for different functions. However, any iPod MP3 player is a solid choice because of the great functionality of each line and how they can be used to perform multiple tasks. All latest generation iPod MP3 players include the new and innovative automatic play list maker program called Genius. In addition, one of the best reasons to buy an iPod is access to one of the best digital video and music marketplaces - iTunes available on iPods through WiFi and on your computer that can then be transferred to the iPod through a USB cable. There are a few iPod models that are very popular with MP3 buyers.

iPod Touch: The iPod Touch is often considered to be a "pocket computer" as it allows users to download all of the apps available for iPhones and access email or browse the Internet with a free WiFi connection. Hence the name, iPod Touch MP3 players allow users to use a touch screen interface to sort through programs and digital files. You can also shake your iPod touch to randomly select a song from your music library. The Apple iPod Touch 32 GB is a perfect model for any category of MP# player user and starts at around $257.97.

iPhone: As smart phones are beginning to get more and more complex and useful, it makes sense to think about simply picking up an iPhone and using it as an MP3 player. One of the advantages of buying an iPhone as an MP3 player is that you get all of the features of the iPod Touch and all of the features of a smart phone in a single device. If you are worried about losing hard drive space, there is a 32 GB and a 64 GB model that will allow you to store your entire music library without losing enough memory to prevent you from exploring apps and video from your phone. You must make sure that your cellular provider allows iPhones on their network if you are already on a contract.

iPod Shuffle: For those MP3 buyers on a tight budget that do not need a great deal of hard drive space might consider an iPod Shuffle device - available in 2 and 4 GB varieties and starting at around $54.99. You should be aware, however, that the iPod Shuffle is a purely digital music device and you cannot view video or perform any other functions using it. The iPod Shuffle is the smallest MP3 player available on the market so, if size is an issue, you might consider this device as it is about 1.8 x 0.7 inches and 0.3 inches thick.