It seems that everyone has one these days. Walking the dog, traveling to work, at the gym, the idea of carrying your entire music library everywhere with you is appealing to most of us, but what is this mp3 thing anyway?
What is mp3?
MP3 is an abbreviation for Moving Picture Experts Group layer III. This technology allows audio data to fit into a much smaller space than it used originally, with little or no loss of audio quality. Normally raw audio data is very large and unmanageable and is especially difficult to deal with on portable devices due to the lack of storage available (your standard audio CD fits at most 80 minutes of raw audio data on it). Mp3 allows the storage of approximately 10 times the raw audio data in memory of the same size (that’s over 800 minutes onto the same 80 minute audio CD).
WMA files are Microsoft’s equivalent of mp3 files. They offer slightly better compression (more music for your MB) and some additional built in copy-write protection for the over cautious record labels.
More and more mp3 players support WMA files these days. There is a growing amount of music available for download on the Internet in WMA format, so it’s worth looking out for.
Ever since mp3 players started to show their face in the early 90’s there has been a constant argument over audio quality. Many strongly feel that mp3 compression adversely affects the quality of the sound, whereas others argue that mp3 technology only removes sound data that cannot be heard by the human ear, and therefore could not be of any lesser quality.
Personally I have not noticed any real difference between the two, with the exception of badly compressed music files, although I can imagine on, a fairly large set up some of the missing low frequency sound waves could possibly be missed. Although you may not hear the sounds, you’d definitely be feeling them!
What to look for in an mp3 player.
There are currently two types of memory available in mp3 players, solid state and hard disk. Solid state memory is usually very fast and does not suffer from skips. Hard disk memory is like a small version of your personal computers main disk storage, although these are not supposed to suffer from skipping, I’ve personally known this to be a problem on certain models during a brisk walk or jog.
The main difference between the two is the size available, solid state players are currently ranging between approximately 256mb and 2Gb, whereas hard disk players have an average storage capacity of around 20Gb, over 10 times larger than the solid state models.
So, you ask, why bother with solid state memory? Well, it’s usually a matter of price, you can buy a 1Gb solid state mp3 player for under £50 these days but hard disk players start at around £130.
The size of an mp3 depends on two things, the quality and the length of the track. A good rule of thumb when deciding the size you’ll need is that you’ll usually get about 1 min for every Megabyte (Mb), or approximately 200 songs for each 512Mb, you have of memory at an average to good recording quality. Of course you can get much more, or less, by altering the quality of the track. Another term you’ll see around is a Gigabyte (Gb), a Gigabyte is a measure of Megabytes (Gb), where 1Gb = 1024Mb. And if you’re wondering why its 1024Mb and not 1000mb… ask your IT support!
I take my mp3 player everywhere with me and only usually hook it up to my computer to add new music about once a week. I like to have as much on there as possible, so I opted for a Sony 20Gb hard disk model, but if you simply want some entertainment while at the gym you might want to save yourself a few quid and go for a cheaper solid state unit.
Another thing to look out for when buying an mp3 player is the battery life. Until fairly recently the average battery life for one of these units was approximately 4-5 hours maximum, but new developments from companies like Sony and Microsoft mean you can now get a battery life of 30 or even 40 hours between charges.
Be aware, some very popular units only sport an average battery life of approximately 4 hours, this can be very annoying, make sure you check the facts before you buy.
Many players these days allow not only the storage of audio files but also any other computer files you might want by simply connecting to your computer using a USB cable. It can be a handy way to transfer your files between home and work.
So what’s next?
As mp3 player technology advances there are more and more features being added to these units. Some later generations of Ipod, for example, have built in digital photograph albums. Your pictures can be downloaded and accessed on the move, whereas other units have incorporated analogue radio and even DAB digital radio receivers. On a side note, mp3 player sound quality is only as good as the headphones you listen with. I would personally recommend spending a bit of time and money here, the difference in sound quality and clarity obtained from a pair of Shure e3c earphones for example, far outweighs the cost of around £99.
You can see a large variety of different units at different costs at my favourite comparison site www.wangled.co.uk
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Paul Davies is a professional engineer and product reviewer, he submits articles on product guides and reviews. All his articles can be seen on the premium shopping comparison site http://www.wangled.co.uk