Media player quality test

For our first test we invited our panel to listen to a selection of music files on four portable players. To put each player properly through its paces, we chose three clips with very different audio characteristics.

We began with a Britney Spears song with highly compressed pop production, moved on to an AC/DC track showcasing a classic rock sound, and ended with a passage from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, which grows from a quiet string phrase into a full orchestral crescendo.

Naturally, we included the A-Listed Cowon iAudio S9, as well as the Apple iPod nano. Our volunteers also heard the clips as played through a Samsung Jet smartphone and finally the bargain-basement 2GB Reddmango Angora, purchased on the high street for the insultingly low price of £12.79.

Our volunteers heard the players in random order with default audio settings, and were asked to give each a score out of ten for sound quality without knowing which devices they were rating. Since we wanted to focus on the inherent quality of the players, we used a standard set of Denon AH-D2000 audiophile headphones throughout this test.

The results

The results don’t show a huge variation in sound quality between the cheapest and most aspirational players. On average, only a single point out of ten separates the lowest scoring player from the highest.
But we did see some clear trends.

Of our 20 respondents, 12 said the iPod nano was their favourite/joint favourite player, with several saying it gave the music a presence and immediacy that was lacking from other players. That’s an impressive score card compared to the Samsung Jet: eight people gave this device their lowest score, describing its sound as “dull” and “plasticky”.

Our recommended Cowon player also struggled. While some judges praised its transparent tone, only four put it at the top of their list, with a handful declaring they’d prefer a punchier sound. The surprise performer was the cheap Reddmango: a few said it sounded tinny, but others praised its clarity and eight respondents gave it their top mark.

Samsung verdict: “The music sounds flat and distant and the high notes seem buzzy. It reminds me of a cheap car stereo.”

Apple verdict: “This one has the fullest sound. It just sounds somehow bigger than the others. If feels more like you’re really there.”

Cowon verdict: “I’d like more oomph, but the highs and lows seem well balanced and you can pick out the individual instruments.”

Reddmango verdict: “Compared to the others it sounds tinny, but it can handle the music. I’d use this one in the gym.”

Media players graph

Conclusions

Although the iPod was the most popular player, the contest was tight, and this experiment confirms that people don’t all enjoy the same type of sound.

For example, three judges used the word “muffled” to describe the Samsung player, while four others praised its clarity. For every listener who felt the Cowon had an unexciting sound, there was another who found it “vivid”.

The lesson is clear: before you invest in a media player, give it a listen. No-one else’s ears can tell you what you’ll enjoy, and a high price is certainly no guarantee of subjective quality. It’s worth remembering, though, that the player itself is only one contributor to sound quality, as our headphone test proves.

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