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Digital Audio Players

A digital audio player is designed to play music in several different digital audio formats. The first to become popular, and therefore most commonly known of these formats, is the MP3 format. Because it was the first mainstream format to be stored as digital file, the devices used to play them are often referred to as "MP3 Players". However, digital audio players are not limited to the MP3 format and the ones featured on this site all play a variety of formats. We will therefore refer to them as digital audio players (or just "players") since they can also play several other digital formats such as WMA (Windows Media Player), M4A, AAC (Apple IPod Only), and WAV. Keep in mind, they are simply audio files that can all be converted from other sources or purchased. Music is stored into files so that it is much more portable, smaller (since it's only a stored file using no physical space), and also easier to organize, back-up, store, and share. Although digital audio can be played on computers and stereo systems, our site is dedicated to informing the public about portable digital walkmans. We offer free advice on how to choose a player that suits your needs, as well as the best spots to shop for digital audio players, accessories, and software.

How to Choose an MP3 Player

The first question to consider is... what will be the main use of my MP3 player? Will it be used on long trips, during daily exercise, to send music to your car stereo, skiing or some other outdoor activity?

For some the MP3 player will be used for many different activities, but for most there will be one primary use, such as running. As you read on keep your primary use for your MP3 player in mind and it will help you understand your needs and narrow your choices.

Understanding the Technical Terminology

  • MP3

    = MPEG Audio Layer 3, developed in Germany in 1991 by the Fraunhofer Institute, MP3 uses perceptual audio coding to compress CD-quality sound by a factor of 12, while providing almost the same high fidelity.
  • Megabyte (MB)

    = 1,000 Kilobytes (KB)
  • Gigabyte (GB)

    = 1,000 Megabytes
  • Memory stick

    = removable storage media, comes in variety of sizes

  • Songs on a CD are typically stored in .wav format. With the WAV format you can store, on average, 15-20 songs on one 700MB CD. When the song have been converted into an MP3 format, you could store hundreds of songs on the that same 700MB CD! Remember, MP3 is the format of a music file, which means you're not limited to storing the file on a CD. They can be stored on a computer hard drive, a memory stick, CD, MP3 Player, etc. There are many tools to help you rip (convert) your CD WAV files into MP3 or other formats.

    Most songs when converted into the MP3 format will be between 3,000 - 5,000 KB or 3-5 MB, understanding the size of songs in the MP3 format will be important in understanding how to determine the amount of storage you will want.

How does a digital audio Player work?

The player is very simple to use, it connects to your PC via a USB cable (this cable and software are generally included with the player). Players come with software that helps you load and erase songs by simply clicking and dragging from you PC music folder, obviously some are easier to use than others but for the most part they are relatively user friendly. There is also more advanced software which can be purchased seperately. Once your music is stored on the player, you can jump from song to song with the push of a button, just like when listening to a CD. The display will show you the name and length of the song that is playing. Some include the ability to create folders to organize your playlist better. Many players come with integrated features such as a clock, stop watch, FM stereo tuner, and voice/stereo recorder. Whether or not you need these features depends on what you will be using it for. My advice would be to focus on the key elements (the playback of stored music). When you find some models that meet your needs, then check out the additional features.

Key Features

  • Physical Size:

    This is where it will be helpful to understand the primary use for your player. Players range from as small as a lighter to the size of a deck of cards. There are 2 basic types of players: "hard drive" and "flash". Hard drive players such as the 20GB Ipod or Zen Micro are larger, but have more storage and easier, more functional interfaces.

    The thickness of may also matter to you. A thin player may fit better on a necklace, armband, or wasteband. Thickness wouldn't matter much if you'll only play it attached to your car, home stereo, or accessory speakers.

    Also consider the shape. Players can be round, rectangular, or square. Check out the dimensions if purchasing online - some product images can be deceiving.
  • Storage, how much is enough?

    Digital players storage ability ranges from 128 Megabytes to over 60 GigaBytes. The size of a 3-4 minute song formatted in standard MP3 or AAC (one of the common Apple Ipod formats) is about 3.5MB. MP3s can also be created in a better quality format, making the same song about 4.7MB. A 128MB player can hold around 40 songs using standard MP3 or AAC files, but would hold less with higher quality formats. Different formats such as AAC or WMA are larger than standard MP3s. For example, that 3-4 minute song in WMA (windows media) format is about 4.5MB. The basic rule is that you will sacrifice quality for size, the better the quality of music, the larger the file size. Size is not an issue with the larger "hard drive" style players which generally have several Gigabytes of storage.

    If you are using your MP3 player to exercise for an few hours each day and you are looking to save money you can get away with 128MB of storage, this will hold about 16 MP3 songs (16 x 4MB/song = 64MB). However, if you are going to be traveling for several days without a computer, you will get pretty sick of the same small selection of songs. The players with larger storage allow you to not only store more music, but save several different playlists to help you organize your music. If you're unsure, it's better to choose more storage. You will not have to delete and upload music to your player as often since you'll have a greater selection of tunes. Some MP3 players are expandable so as your library and needs grow you can purchase additional memory. This is a good option to have if you're unsure about storage you may want in the future.

  • Usability & Functionality

    Although this is listed 4th it could easily be the most important criteria, there is nothing more frustrating than navigating through endless menus using small buttons to complete basic functions. Also keep screen size, information displayed, and song organization in mind. The physically larger sized players generally have more functionality, but are also bulkier.

Digital Music Sources

There are also many sources for digital audio. You can rip (convert) them from regular audio CDs, but the most common way to find MP3s and other music files is online. There, you can buy them from online music stores, or download them free from music communities such as Kazaa. Purchasing the music generally costs 88-99 cents, and is worth the cost since you are guaranteed good quality, full-length songs, and no viruses (although rare, viruses are sometimes disguised as music files). Good quality songs are becomming increasingly more difficult to obtain from free sources.

MP3 Conversion

CD music tracks are stored digitally, which is great because that's how computers store data also. Standard audio CDs store music in wave format (ending in .wav). Copying those songs from CD onto your hard drive is called ripping. The songs are ripped from the CD and stored as separate wav files. They may also be imported as different audio file types such as mp3, or they may be converted once they are ripped. A CD has about 650 MB of information on it. As you can imagine, keeping the data this way would fill up your hard drive in no time, so not many people bother storing the files in the large wave format.

The mp3 format is much more condensed, removing high and low frequencies from the wave format that are too high/low for the human ear to recognize. MP3 is a compression format for audio that compresses data at an 11:1 ratio. That 650 MB audio CD now takes up under 60 MB of space, and potentially even half that (depends on quality). There are also different compression sizes of the mp3 format, such as 128mb or 192mb. The larger the compression size, the greater the quality. However, the better quality will also use more storage space and result in larger sized files. The program that converts *.wav files to *.mp3 files is called an encoder. Once you have ripped and converted your CD tracks to MP3 format, you can upload them to your MP3 player.

mp3 Terminology:

  • Hard-drive Style Players (including IPods):

    Larger in physical size, but have more functionality and storage.
  • Flash Players:

    Smaller in physical size, but have less memory.

Comparison Shop

The best method of shopping for digital audio players is by utilizing a price comparison shopping search-engine. This allows multiple merchants to be searched simultaneously, side-by-side - so the lowest cost products can easily be located within a single set of results. Try our comparison price search engine which offers the top online sellers in a single webpage!

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