In the ever-changing MP3 player market, the dominant iPod reigns supreme. But is it always the best choice? This MP3 player buyer’s guide shows the way.

illustration by Adam Omernik

illustration by Adam Omernik

There was a time when the Sony Walkman reigned supreme. That was also the time of big hair and hot-pink Reebok shirts. The fact is, that time is no more. If you’re still lugging around a case of CDs, or—heaven forbid—cassette tapes, it’s time to get with the program.

You might be thinking: OK! I’ll run right out and get the brand newest shiniest iPod that Apple is offering.

Stop right there … Take a breath. OK, good. Now let’s think a-bout a few things:

1. What type of MP3 user are you?
2. How much money are you willing to spend?
3. How effective has Apple’s propaganda been?

The answers to the first and third questions may not be so obvious. That’s where this MP3 player buyer’s guide comes in handy.

What Type of MP3 User Am I?

There are several groups of MP3 users that this guide will identify and make recommendations for. The groups are gym-goers and athletes, commuters and travelers, audiophiles and music collectors.

Jocks Who Rock

Do you spend your free time working on pecs? Or maybe you enjoy a daily mile run. If you live an active lifestyle, you’ll want to carry your tunes with you while you workout.

The iPod nano is the perfect player for active lives because of its thin design, skip-free playback and lightweight. Weighing in at a mere 9.6 ounces, the nano can hardly be felt. It is available in 1, 2 and 4 GBs for $149, $199 and $249, respectively, with your choice of black or white body. The official nano armband is available in blue, green, red, gray and pink for $29.99. If you want to go even smaller, try the iPod shuffle. It weighs less than an ounce and is roughly the size of a pack of gum. It is available in 512 MB ($69) and 1 GB ($99). This will get you roughly 120 or 240 songs, respectively. Creative, Samsung and SanDisk offer alternatives to the nano and shuffle, but inferior designs make them harder to use.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Do you drive a lot? Take the bus on a daily basis? If you commute hours each day, you’ll want a high capacity player that can hook up to your car’s stereo. If you travel by foot, bike or public transportation, you will want a balanced player that has moderate capacity, battery life and portability. The iPod nano, with its 14 hours of music playback, is just as good for commuters as it is for gym-goers. But the Creative Zen MicroPhoto gives you double the capacity, better sound quality and more features for the same price ($249).

The choice here is clear: Get the MicroPhoto. The MicroPhoto can often be found on sale for $229 or cheaper at; iPods are notorious for rarely going on sale. You can also replace the batteries on your own for only $39.99—try doing that with an iPod. With its increased capacity and portability, the MicroPhoto is great for commuters.

For users who travel more and need more than 8 GB, the original iPod is a good choice. It comes in 30 GB and 60 GB configurations, but is noticeably larger than the nano. The standard iPod is recommended for commuters who frequently use the player in cars where its larger size doesn’t matter. The Creative Vision:M is also recommended for commuters. It costs as much as the 30 GB iPod ($299) but offers better sound quality and equal capacity for the same price.

Many options connect the player to your car’s stereo, but the simplest is the FM transmitter. For the traditional iPod and the nano, the DLO TransPod is the best FM transmitter, coming in at $99.99. The TransPod connects to your iPod and broadcasts the music to a preset FM station. The TransPod’s strong FM signal eliminates static and allows for good sound quality. For Creative players, the Belkin TuneCast II FM Transmitter is a solid choice at $39.99.

Cassette adapters are also available for all MP3 players; the adapter plugs in your player and goes into your stereo’s tape deck.

Best option: having audio inputs in your car—while this is becoming more common, it isn’t affordable. Audio inputs allow for the best audio quality, but if your car’s stereo doesn’t have inputs, you would have to have them installed.

For users who walk or use public transportation, noise-canceling headphones are more important than having the best sound quality. The Sony MDR-NC11 headphones cost $99.99 and have great sound quality and good noise-canceling capabilities.


If you’re an audiophile, you ought to know. But if you can’t tell, the $10,000 stereo system in your living room might be some indication. Basically, all you care about is sound quality. And it doesn’t matter if the equipment is old, new or foreign; you want the best, and you’re willing to pay for it. You have the best speaker system, the best receiver and the best amplifiers—you’ve probably even got gold-plated wiring for the system too.

When it comes to MP3 players, you don’t care about the style or the price. You want the awesome sound, and you might want a decent amount of storage. Pay attention to headphones. Most manufacturers include low to average quality headphones with their players. As an audiophile, you’ll be spending more than $100 on a quality set.

The Creative Vision:M and Creative Zen MicroPhoto both offer exceptional sound quality in beautiful packages, surpassing iPod. They also have other features that most audiophiles will look past, but they add to the player’s value. The Vision:M has great video playback, and like the MicroPhoto, it stores and displays photos. Both have FM radio tuners, voice recording and can sync up with Microsoft Outlook.

To ensure premium audio playback, the highest quality headphones are required. The E4c headphones by Shure for a raging $319 are the best earbuds available on the market. Sennheiser, Grado and Bose offer the highest quality full-sized headphones ($60 to $300).

Music Collectors

Whether your collection is in CDs or MP3s, you’ll have no trouble identifying yourself as a music collector. Those 100-disc CD racks just aren’t big enough. Or maybe you have an entire hard drive dedicated to music files on your computer. Whatever it is, you need a high capacity player that will allow you to carry your entire collection with you.

The 60 GB iPod is your answer. For $399, you’ll be able to carry approximately 15,000 songs. It is one of the highest capacity players, and you won’t find one with a better interface or design. The new iPod is actually thinner and sleeker than last generation’s models. iTunes, the application used to organize and transfer music files, is a great help in managing your huge collection.

Consider the iPod Hi-Fi stereo for $349 if you have any money left. It’s a single unit stereo, speakers and all, which has excellent sound quality and goes perfectly with the iPod. The Hi-Fi connects directly to the player and offers a single-step solution for rooms but is not intended to replace thousand dollar stereo systems.

In Closing

Identify yourself with a user group; make sure you are getting a player that suits your needs. Set the amount of money that you want to spend and don’t spend more than that. Be sure to include the cost of any necessary accessories. There isn’t a player that will work for everyone, but if you want to take the easy route, as much as it hurts to say this, buy the iPod or iPod nano. They have great interfaces and smart designs. Besides, your friends will think you’re cool, and that alone may be worth the price.

ULV junior Michelle Hu multitasks at La Verne’s Coffeeberry. “I can’t study without listening to Vanilla Ice,” says Hu. / photo by Jenna Campbell

ULV junior Michelle Hu multitasks at La Verne’s Coffeeberry. “I can’t study without listening to Vanilla Ice,” says Hu. / photo by Jenna Campbell