Long gone are the days when your only choices for portable digital music devices were limited to iPods and a select few competitors. Also gone are the days when you could expect to pay $200 or far more for a good quality model.
Penny-pinchers, listen up: There are tons of MP3 players available for less than $100, from those that simply offer basic music replay, to video-capable units with expandable memory. Here are the five best affordable models.
Best MP3 Players
1. Sandisk Sansa Clip+
Sandisk has been in the MP3 player game for quite some time, turning out hit after hit in terms of good quality, feature-rich MP3 players for a bargain price. The Sandisk Sansa Clip+ is no exception. This little player is a great addition to any music aficionado’s pocket.
- Compact Design. The Sandisk Sansa Clip+ is small, but not “get lost in your pocket” small, which makes this particular unit extremely portable and unobtrusive. The design closely mimics the one found on the older iPod models, and has proven to be highly lauded by digital music connoisseurs.
- Dedicated Controls. Having dedicated access to the most used device control feature, the volume buttons, is great.
- Expandable Memory. The belt clip is a nice addition, and the addition of a memory expanding SD card slot is a stroke of genius. Of course, 2GB of data is a lot, especially when you convert this number into something useful, like the number of songs it will hold (approximately 1,300). But having the added ability to add a removable memory card will allow you to expand the number of songs you can store to much more without having to pay the additional cost of the larger memory units. The 4GB unit costs $50, and the 8GB unit comes in at roughly $70. You can pick up SD memory cards for a few dollars apiece, depending on the storage capacity of the card.
- User-Friendly Controls. I like that Sandisk kept its user controls simple, easy to use, and even easier to memorize.
- Multiple File Format Support. This player is compatible with just about any audio file format that you can think of. The Clip+ supports MP3, WMA, WAV, FLAC, OGG, and Audible, which means that you don’t have to be a computer guru to be able to load the correct files onto this model – they will all play.
- Good Quality Audio Output. The Clip+ is equipped with an exceptional audio chip which translates into some great quality tunes, as long as you upgrade the standard earbud offering to something more capable. The addition of an FM tuner and voice recorder round out a very nice feature selection.
- No Video Support. I wish that Sandisk had added some functionality for photo and video viewing, but at this price point, I can’t say that I expected to see it.
- Short Battery Life. The battery life is lacking, which is disappointing. At this time, the average battery life is about 15 hours.
- Poor Audio Quality Ear Buds. The earbuds that come with this particular model simply don’t do your music, or the audio chip, any justice. Do yourself a favor and use the money you save buying this player to buy yourself some good quality earbuds.
I have just not been able to come up with any reason you shouldn’t buy the Sansa Clip+. This model produces some great quality music, has responsive, easy-to-use controls, and is priced well under some of its closest competitors. I would recommend this MP3 player to anyone in the market for an audio-only portable digital music device.
2. Sandisk Sansa Clip Zip
The Sandisk Sansa Clip Zip is yet another great MP3 player from Sandisk. The main thing that sets this one apart from the Clip+ is its ability to process audiobook files and the addition of a stopwatch function for gym buffs.
- Multiple Audio File Support. Like its cousin, the Clip+, the Sansa Clip Zip offers quality sound that shouldn’t be coming out of an MP3 at this price level and support for a wide variety of music formats, including ACC (which means you can buy from iTunes and load your purchases onto this player).
- User-Friendly Controls and Expandable Memory. You get the same easy-to-use control interface located on the front of the device, a separate volume rocker control for volume control on the go, an expandable memory card slot, and that really cool belt clip.
- Optimized for Subscription Service. Sandisk optimized this particular model to easily accept media from Rhapsody, a subscription music service. This is great news for users out there who like to change up their music often.
- Included FM Tuner. You’ll also find an FM tuner on this device, something that does not exist on many of the high-end MP3 players, including the Apple iPod. This means that hitting the gym early won’t mean missing your favorite morning radio show.
- LCD Display. The larger 1.1-inch color screen will display, albeit somewhat grainy, album art.
- Separate Menus for AudioBooks. There is a separate menu that deals specifically with audiobooks and podcasts which, for people like me, makes it easy to find these files without having to wade through the thousands of songs in my library.
- Cheap Feel. The Clip Zip feels a little cheaper than the Clip+ in your hand.
- No Video Support. You can’t load and view photos or videos, but at this price point, I don’t think anyone’s really complaining.
- Short Battery Life. The battery is somewhat substandard, providing about 15 hours of continuous play, but there’s plenty of juice to get you through your exercise routine without leaving you high and dry.
- Poor Quality Earbuds. You’ll need to throw a good set of earbuds into your cart to replace the ones that come with this unit.
Once again, Sandisk delivers a great portable audio device. If you are looking for a few upgrades to the Clip+ and don’t mind spending a few extra bucks, this player is definitely a great choice. Even though it’s bigger than its predecessor, it still fits easily into your front jeans pocket or hooks onto your belt.
3. Sandisk Sansa Fuze+
Are you starting to see a pattern here? Sandisk just makes good portable media playback devices, and the Sandisk Sansa Fuze+ is no exception. What’s really cool about this one is that you get all the power of a high-end audio/video playback device for less than $100.
- Included LCD Display With Video Support. In an effort to keep you from suffering from déjà vu, I won’t relist all of the pros of the other Sandisk models – but know that they all reside here as well. In addition to those features, however, the Sansa Fuze+ has a brilliant 2.4-inch screen.
- Wide Support for Audio Files and Integrated FM Tuner. Yes, this model does not only handle all of the usual audio formats, audiobooks, podcasts, and FM radio stations, but also displays your photos and has video playback functionality, which is far superior to many of the other portable media devices out there. Not only do you get ACC audio format support on this device, allowing you to load iTunes purchases directly, but it is also Mac compatible, making this device the closest you will get to having an iPod and still keep your out-of-pocket expenditure under $100.
- Menus Are Difficult to Navigate. I don’t enjoy the menu structure. It’s not that menus are overtly difficult to use, but using the touch navigation controls versus the click wheel style controls that come standard on less expensive models requires a little getting used to. It took me quite a bit longer to work through the menus using this technology, which was frustrating to say the least. As a matter of fact, the addition of the touch controls over the click wheel style controls made doing a lot of things by feel a thing of the past.
- Poor Video File Type Support. The video playback function will only work with MP4 video or WMV file formats, and while Sandisk includes a video format conversion software in the Fuze+ package, who wants to wait around while other video formats convert to an acceptable format before loading them?
- Poorer Quality Audio Output. I was also a little disappointed by the quality of the audio output from this device, especially in light of how well the other, less expensive devices fared in this particular category. That’s not to say that it was terrible. Of course, the audio output quality of the competition increases at this price point, but still, I expected better.
The Sansa Fuze+ is a great portable media device that will support just about anything you would want to do on a portable device, sans Angry Birds and Facebook. But at this price point, it will still make a great addition to anyone’s pocket, purse, or belt.
4. Creative Zen Mozaic
Creative Labs is no slouch in the portable audio department, and the Creative Zen Mozaic is no exception. The design is a little funky, which is only one aspect of this little unit that sets it apart from the pack.
- Functional Design. Those pretty tiles on the front of this device are more than just snappy-looking packaging. Nine of these “tiles” are actually device controls that are cleverly integrated into the overall design of the device, which I think is a nice touch. Creative Labs added the ability to customize your display background or wallpaper to this unit, which is something the Mozaic has over its competition.
- Audio and Video Support. Because this is a photo/video/audio capable MP3 player, you can set any of your photos as the background, in addition to being able to select from preloaded images.
- User-Friendly Menus. The menus are intuitive and easy to use, and you can finally create user-defined playlists for those days when only ’80s music will suffice. You can also organize your library alphabetically by song or artist if you so choose.
- Enhanced Photo Playback Features. Back to the photo display function – you can zoom in on any aspect of your pictures that you like. Furthermore, this device can be set up to scroll through a slideshow of either your photos or album art while your music plays, depending on your preference.
- Easy Data Transfer. Transferring media files, except for video, is relatively easy. There is support for a variety of audio file formats, including MP3, WMA, WAV, and Audible. There is a lack of support for ACC, which means that if you purchase your music through iTunes, you’ll have to convert it to a Mozaic-friendly format before it will play.
- Good Audio Output Quality. The audio output capabilities of this device are truly exceptional. The music sounds warm, rich, and inviting as long as you utilize some quality earbuds.
- Long Battery Life. The battery lasts up to 36 hours.
- Microsoft Outlook Sync Capability. You can sync your device to your Outlook application on your Windows-based PC, so you can take your calendar, contacts, and task lists with you wherever you go.
- Integrated Speaker and FM Tuner. The integrated speaker means that you can listen to your favorite tunes or watch a video without using earbuds – at least, as long as you aren’t disturbing your neighbors. You also get an FM tuner, as well as audiobook and podcast support.
- Small Internal Memory Capacity and No Expandable Memory Capability. What you see is what you get in terms of storage capacity. This is due to the fact that Creative Labs decided against adding an expandable memory slot.
- Limited Video File Format Support. Video format support is very limited, so most videos will have to be converted using the included video conversion application before loading.
- Limited OS Compatibility. There is no Mac support for this device, and even PC users are limited to having to be on a Windows platform before using this one.
- Poor Quality Earbuds. The included earbuds, while better than anything Sandisk is offering, still aren’t great. This means that you’ll likely want to purchase a better set in order to enjoy the quality of the audio output capabilities of this model.
The Creative Zen Mozaic is a very capable device – capable of producing great quality audio output, capable of displaying your photos and videos on a bright, vibrant, and large (1.8-inch) screen, capable of helping you stay organized by syncing with your computer’s Outlook application, and capable of keeping you entertained for hours on end. While there are a few flaws with this particular device in terms of video conversion requirements, memory storage restrictions, and computer interface issues, this is still a stellar option for the price.
5. Apple iPod Shuffle
There is absolutely no way to create a “best of” portable audio device list without including an Apple product on it, but it may come as a surprise to many that an Apple device found its way onto a list of portable audio players for the budget-minded. The Apple iPod Shuffle is by far the smallest and least feature-rich model in the Apple lineup, but the audio quality is exceptional.
- Compact Design. The fourth generation iPod Shuffle is the latest iteration of the smallest MP3 player on the planet. Its small size has been both its boon and the bane of its existence in previous generations, but I can honestly say that the redesigned model has returned to the larger, easy-to-use function controls.
- Smart Playlist Support. You get playlist support, direct iTunes compatibility, audiobook and podcast support, and something called VoiceOver.
- Voice Menu Feature. The VoiceOver feature allows you to activate a synthesized voice that announces songs by title and artist while playing. Press the button twice to hear an audio interpretation of your remaining battery life, and by holding down the button, the voice will enter into the Menu Zone, where it will list off your menu options for skipping to other songs, audiobooks, or playlists. The one cool feature is that this voice is custom configurable in iTunes to speak one of 25 different languages. To some, this is a feature, to others, it’s an annoyance. You can be the judge of that.
- Separate Menu System for Music and Audiobooks. I like the fact that the Shuffle organizes your audiobooks separately from your music library and podcasts. The reason for this is that when in shuffle mode you don’t want random chapters showing up in your music list to interrupt whatever you’re doing. Conversely, you want to listen to your books sequentially, so they are exempt from the shuffle feature.
- No Video Support and Limited Audio File Support. The Shuffle is as straightforward an audio playback device as there is. There is no support for photos or videos. You are limited in audio file formats to ACC, MP3, WAV, or Audible. You either have to convert other formats or forgo adding them to your Shuffle.
- No FM Tuner. There’s no FM tuner, so if you like running in the morning to disc jockey chatter, you had better look elsewhere.
- Poor Earbud Quality. The included earbuds don’t do this device’s audio output quality any favors, so go ahead and plan on buying a quality pair before you leave the store.
- Small Size. The small size of this device means that you really don’t own it as much as you are really just borrowing it from the universe. At some point, it will probably make its way into the dark recesses of your couch, the favorite hiding place for escaped french fries in your car, or your washing machine.
- Proprietary Charger. The charger is proprietary, so if you wind up losing the one that comes with the device, be prepared to spend a few bucks at your local retail outlet for one that will fit it instead of snatching the cord that charges your phone.
- iTunes Library Support Only. The iTunes library interface is the only way to load or configure your audio files.
The iPod Shuffle is a nice device. The audio quality is great, and the organizational capabilities integrated in both the device and iTunes is second to none. However, the Shuffle has a lot of limitations that simply don’t exist in other manufacturers’ devices even at this price point.
While MP3 players are slowly being phased out in favor of multimedia-capable smartphones, they will never truly be gone. Why? Because it may make perfect sense to use your phone as an audio playback device at your desk, but it doesn’t make much sense in the gym. Plus, using a separate MP3 device for music, video, and photo sharing means that you’ll actually have a charged cell phone battery to make calls with. You’ll do well with any of the devices on this list – the best choice really just depends on your style and preferences.
What has your experience been like regarding an MP3 player you purchased?