MP3 player reviews: Features explained
MP3 players are a great way to play your music while on the move. They’re small, yet have lots of storage, so you don’t have to carry your entire CD collection around with you. Some MP3 players even support video or photo viewing via a coloured screen.
Click the links below to skip to the relevant information.
- Audio and Video formats - not all formats are supported by MP3 players
- Connections - how to connect your MP3 player to supported devices
- MP3 player accessories - additional accessories are available
MP3 player types
There are two types of MP3 player – hard disk and solid state.
Hard disk players
Larger capacity players use a hard disk for storage, much like a PC does. They tend to be bulkier than solid-state players, but you can fit more music on to them. However this type of player is becoming more rare.
Solid-state players are far more common and get their name because they have no moving parts. This means the players can be incredibly small and light, but in many cases you can't store a huge number of songs on them.
MP3 player features
Here are just some of the features that differ between each MP3 player.
A larger storage capacity will mean that you can store more audio or video on the player, than devices with smaller capacities. To work out the storage capacity of your player, you'll need to consider that a typical pop track recorded at a decent quality uses about 4.5MB of memory, so a 1GB MP3 player, for example, could fit around 220 songs.
Some MP3 players have an FM radio; handy for catching the news or the football scores when you are on the move and in many cases, you can also record from the built-in radio. For pocket digital radios,see the Which? Digital radio reviews.
A nice big colour screen means that, in addition to watching video or viewing photos, you can see your track listings in colour and look at album covers.
You might be able to view photos and videos on a player, but that won't be much good if the screen size is too small, so ask for a demonstration in-store if this interests you. Players with screens of a couple of centimetres square don’t fare well in our video tests – they are just too small to watch video properly.
Most MP3 players come with rechargeable batteries, which means you don’t have to keep shelling out on replacements when they run out.
Solid-state players typically last longer, providing on average just over 21 hours of playback per charge. Hard-disk players with a larger memory last for an average of around 16.5 hours. That said; the average battery times will differ if you’re watching a lot of video, in comparison to just listening to audio.
Charging takes on average three hours, but some of the players with a larger memory capacity can take over four hours. With most models, you can recharge the batteries without removing them.
Many players have a clock and alarm, so an MP3 or MP4 player can double as an alarm clock on holiday.
If voice recording is an important feature to you, for example, creating voice memos or reminders, look for an MP3 player that features an in-built microphone. That way, you can record whatever you like,whenever you like, and wherever you like.
Audio and video formats
Digital music is available in many different formats; MP3 is simply the best known and most flexible. You can play MP3 files on almost every player and copy them as many times as you like. Other common formats include:
- AAC A file format used by Apple (Atrac3 is Sony's format).
- WMA A Microsoft format, which was initially designed to be a competitor to the MP3 format, is compatible with Windows Media Player.
- WAV The default format for audio files on Windows PCs.
- FLAC and OGG Free open-source formats, very similar to the MP3 format
Take care when you buy music from an online retailer – all players don't play all formats.
Video players also use different formats:
- DivX Among the most popular formats because it can compress lengthy video segments into small sizes while maintaining relatively high quality.
- Xvid DivX’s main competitor. But where DivX is proprietary software, Xvid is free and open source, and can be used on many operating systems.
- MPEG The Moving Picture Experts Group has standardised compression formats. Mpeg-1 was the initial compression standard, Mpeg-4 expands on this with low bit-rate encoding and digital rights management (DRM).
- WMV Windows Media Video is a generic name for video technologies developed by Microsoft, part of the Microsoft Windows Media framework.
- MOV The QuickTime Movie file format was developed by Apple. All Apple systems ship with QuickTime already installed and it is optional for Windows systems.
- Real video This proprietary video format, developed by RealNetworks, is supported on many platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux, Solaris, and several mobile phones.
Again, be sure that the file format is compatible with your player before buying any content. Players usually come with software so that they can attempt to convert videos into formats they can play, but this can be a slow process and you won't want to go through it every time you want to watch something on your MP3 player.
You connect your MP3 player to a computer via a USB connection. Some MP4 players let you record directly to them. All you will need is the right sort of lead to connect the player to your chosen source.
Bluetooth is a type of short-range wireless technology commonly used with hands-free mobile phone kits. It allows you to link your headphones to a MP3 player, for example, without getting tangled up in wires. But you have to keep the transmitter close to you so they're best suited for portable use.
For around £10, you can buy a cable that connects the headphones socket on the player to an input socket, usually the aux socket, on your home hi-fi system.
MP3 player accessories
Some MP3 players come with a belt clip, neck strap or arm band, all helpful for carrying the player on the go and particularly useful if you run with it. With other MP3 players these items are available but are sold separately.
If you buy only one accessory, make it some new headphones. The sound quality of supplied headphones varies between models but, apart from the very best, it is normally nothing to get excited about.
However, our listening tests reveal the importance of a good pair of headphones. Our test panel used each player with the default headphones, and also a pair of high-quality Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro headphones.
These mini speaker systems may not carry the same punch as a connection to your hi-fi system, but they are a compact and portable option for the seasoned traveller. See how you can bring your MP3 player to life with a Best Buys speaker dock.
Most players’ batteries are charged when connected to a computer via the supplied USB cable. For charging via the mains, a separate adaptor cable has to be purchased. An iPod mains charger, for example, costs around £15.