(PMP = Portable Media Player, a term I prefer over 'MP3 player'. You wouldn't call Sachin Tendulkar a 'cover driver', would you? Thought not. Moving on...)
Last year, I wrote a post with my PMP recommendations. That post apparently helped a lot of people making a decision about the player they wanted to buy. So I thought I'd give you an updated version of that list with some of the players I've seen in the market over the past year.
I am by no means a tech freak. I just happen to like gadgets and love reading reviews. And I spend a lot of money on gadgets, so people generally tend to ask me before buying stuff like players, earphones, cameras and stuff. I hope this little list helps.
So here are the recommendations, based on what I've heard of them. Also, I'm classifying them by price since that tends to be the make-or-break for most people.
Oh, before we start, something you should know. Most PMPs come bundled with pathetic earphones. Especially the iPod. Companies do this to reduce the cost of the 'bundle'. More on how you can deal with this later in the article.
Cheapest possible. Just want something to carry around!
Recommended: Transcend T.Sonic 320, 2 GB (official link)
eBay India price: INR 1600-1800
For this requirement, I can't see anything better than the TSonic. 2GB at 1600 bucks?! That's incredible! Plus it's got an OLED display (just dual colour though) and FM. Surely, that's all that the average john on the street needs till he decides to upgrade.
Okay, something better. Would be nice if I had a screen
Recommended: Transcend MP860, 8 GB (official link)
eBay India price: INR 3300-3600
The Philips Go-Gear has been a stellar performer in this price range too, but the sheer value-for-money factor (which is what someone in this class would be looking at) of the MP860 just beats everything else hollow.
Right, I've got some more money. Some more sound quality, please!
Recommended: Creative Zen X-Fi2 (official link)
eBay Price: INR 7000 (for the 8 GB version)
website, how can you not want something from there? I've owned a basic model long back. I've heard good things about their products since. The Zen X-Fi2 has a touch screen and the X-Fi technology which makes the audio sound a lot better. There's microSD card support - always a plus. 25 hours audio playback is decent.
Remember I told you most PMPs come bundled with useless earphones? Mid-to-high-end Creatives are a glorious exception - they come with the not-perfect-but-very-efficient EP630s. This is a very nice thought by a company I admire - so that buyers don't have to cough up cash for some decent sound.
All the way! Gimme the best!
Recommended: Cowon S9 (official link)
eBay India price: INR 13999
The S9 is supremely light. Some people think the build looks cheap, but I love it. I've handled it very roughly for close to a year and I don't have a single scratch on the matte backside, and the unscratchable glass (pwns the iPod Touch with this alone). It has support for every format man has created. The AMOLED screen is stunning. I've copied some of my photos to the player and browsed through it, and they look absolutely gorgeous. But the real clincher for the S9, as for most Cowon players, is the sound quality and features. The amount of customizations you can do isn't even funny. Most PMPs allow you to set equalizer settings. The S9 is the only player I've seen that allows you to adjust the equalizer bands. That's right. Prefer bass guitar to 'thump'? Just change the second equalizer band's frequency. The multiple equalizer settings allow me to optimally and easily use my speakers, headphones and earphones.
If only it had expandable memory, it would technically be perfect. Practically, a 32 GB (or even 16?) capacity should be enough to keep you entertained for a while. And a while it will entertain you, thanks to the mind-blowing 52 hours of battery for audio and 11 hours of beautiful video on the AMOLED screen. Actually add a standard USB port also. Then it would have been perfect. I hate proprietary ports.
Of course, I managed to get the Cowon S9, 32 GB for a measly INR 12000 from the US this January. So that's another lesson for you. Take advantage of uncles / friends / bosses coming from the US. Amazon has been good to me so far.
So there you go, those are my PMP recommendations. I don't have any recommendations for the high-end category. Yet.
I know it's a crime to not have mentioned Apple. I think the Touch has one of the best interfaces, atleast the best I've seen, and is my default player recommendation for someone who wants something 'sexy'. The 160 GB iPod classic is an excellent deal if you are looking for a carry-all-my-music option. That said, I am not a fan of anything other transfer method than drag-and-drop and think using iTunes is a pain for copying music.
As far as ear/headphones go, my recommendation is unless you own a Creative, dump your earphones and get yourself a good pair. Even if you need to save on your player to buy them, do it. My recommendations:
1. Creative EP630 : At around 700-800 bucks, it's the perfect entry-level to good audio. It's in-ear as well, so isolates noise.
2. Sennheiser HD201: This is the best starting circum-aural heaphones (meaning they go OVER the ear instead of just resting on it). So ideal for basic home gaming / movie watching. INR 1000-1200
4. Klipsch Image S4 : The best earphones you'll find under INR 5000. They sound fantastic. I've owned this for over a year and was simply stunned by the detail they offer for the price. The only grouse - the non-standard ear-tips, which is a pain to replace. Which is part of the reason I decided to search for a new pair.
If you have an uncle coming from the US, you may want to check out the lovely Grado SR60s or 80s. Very nice sound. Held in very high esteem among audiophiles. I have tons of other good headphone recos, like the excellent Sennheiser PX100s. If you have some 70000 bucks to spare, perhaps you might consider picking these up - apparently the best headphones ever created by man. I know, cough up 30000 more and you have a Tata Nano. But would you rather own the world's cheapest car or the world's best heaphones? I know my choice.
And oh yeah - Bose is sexy and all in the store, but most audiophiles are of the opinion that it's just well-marketed. They're good sounding, no doubt, but you can do so much better for the price. The earphones worth 7000 bucks have terrible reviews. So stay away from them is my reco. Of course, the home theater systems are superb, but I'm guessing a basis Onkyo / Denon setup with beat them to the ground.
Now, coming to my gear, incase you're still interested.
1. Portable Media Player: Cowon S9. See above. INR 12000, 32 GB (from the US, though)
2. Headphones: Grado SR80. Lovely heaphones. Made for pure audio. Sweeeeeet sound. I use this for extended listening sessions. INR 5000 (again, from the US. Unavailable in India)
3. Earphones: Sennheiser IE7. I can't gloat about these enough. However, I've just got them, so I'll give you a full review later. I've owned them for just a day, and I'm already in love. I've already discovered an extra guitar in Sultans of Swing. The many layers that Warren Mendonsa so painfully and lovingly put in Ode To a Sunny Sky are all so, so prominent. I don't care that I paid what some people would consider outrageous for earphones, they are simply amazing. INR 11575 (you read that right).
4. Speakers: Altec Lansing MX5021. I consider myself very lucky to possess this pair. It's very difficult to grab one of these, and now they've stopped production, apparently (How rare are they? I can't even find an official link. Providing a review from Tech2). These are probably the best speakers before you move on to the Denons of the world. Lots of thump, superb for music and movies alike. INR 6750.
Yeah, that's a lot of money for audio. But then, I don't bike, I don't game, I don't drink too much, I don't eat out, I'm not into cars or clothes. Might as well listen to my 360 GB music collection properly.
I hope this helps you guys. Feel free to share this with your friends requiring PMP help. Look forward to part 3 sometime next year. Audio peace to all you chaps, and listen to music at safe volumes. Unlike your career or dignity, you have a shot with your ears only once, so take frikkin' good care of them.
Oh, and one favour. Please do NOT ask me : "You spend 12k on Sennheiser earphones? Why didn't you buy Bose instead?". Reasons have been mentioned in the article.