Ten Budget MP3 Players

Tiny, sleek portables for those on a budget.

Sometimes, small is best: especially when you’re in the mood to tuck a tiny portable into your pocket and get down to the gym. Here are 10 affordable bijou beauties...

Apple iPod Nano 8GB
★★★★★

Class-leading in every respect, this is our ultra-portable MP3 player of choice.

You need only take a glance back at the history of Apple’s iPod Nano, first released as a replacement for the iPod Mini, to see that this is a product that has struggled more than most to find its niche in the market. 

In its time, it has come in a variety of shapes and designs – from long and thin, to square, back to long and thin, and now small and square again. Relatively dramatic changes all.

We weren’t completely convinced by this sixth-generation Nano when we first saw one. It no longer plays videos – but that screen is very small – and there’s no video camera. 

However a recent update has knocked about 20 per cent off the price. It has also improved the fitness app and added a neat clock-face feature which allows you to view the Nano like a watch. The unit is still available as an 8GB or 16GB model.

The iPod Touch is now considerably more expensive (although, of course, you also get far more in the way of features, too). So the Nano, with its excellent multi-touch screen, movable icons and predictably excellent sound, finally has space to breathe in Apple’s line-up as a fully functioning ultra-portable.

 

Apple iPod Shuffle 2GB

★★★★★

The iPod Shuffle keeps it simple – and it’s brilliantly effective. 

The first iPod Shuffle was released in 2005 as a cost-effective solution for those who enjoyed listening to a randomly shuffled selection of tracks. 

As small as it’s ever been and with an integrated clip, it remains a simple machine, and ideal for joggers or others wanting ultralight portability. And despite the small, light dimensions, it feels solidly put together. 

There’s no display; instead, a neat voice feature can tell you the name of the track or playlist, or how much battery power is left. You also have the choice of shuffle or repeat playback. 

The 2GB flash memory (your only option – it’s a shame there’s not a larger model) can be filled with songs or playlists and you’ll get 15 hours music from the battery when fully charged. 

And it sounds great, delivering detail and punch, with clean treble and decent bass. Even the bundled Apple buds have improved slightly. 

If you’re happy with the basic functionality, then you’ll be happy with the Shuffle.

Archos 15B Vision 4GB
★★★

Cheap and fairly cheerful, it’s a shame the Archos doesn’t sound better.

This seems ludicrously cheap, does it not? Offering the best megabyte per pound ratio in this test, Archos has chosen simply to shrink a standard MP3 player design to the size of a coin pocket on a pair of jeans. 

The 15b Vision slaps all the controls on the front of the portable, with no side buttons, so it’s easy to hold without accidentally pressing anything. Using left/right keys to go up/down isn’t very intuitive, however. 

The small colour screen looks fine and the interface is obvious and soon familiar. It supports videos (though on such a tiny screen, that seems overkill) photos and music, and there’s a voice recorder, too. 

Our WAV files found their way to the ‘files’ rather than music folder, complete with track information, but the sound struggles to inspire. Yes, the Archos 15b Vision is cheap, but with thin and bright sound – and bog-standard bundled buds – it’s hard to get behind.

Cowon iAudio E2 2GB
★★★

Stylish look and feel, and some hi-tech touches, but sound of the IAudio lets the side down.

Cowon seems to have taken its design cue from those fobs used to open fancy dan keyless cars. The iAudio E2 is light, and both pocket- and keyringfriendly, and the size and finish make for an object that feels good in your hand. 

There’s no screen, so control comes via four buttons, two on each side, and voice prompts. The button placement isn’t great – they’re at the same spot on each side – so you have to be careful not to press one button when you’re pushing at its opposite twin. The volume changes in tiny increments, too. 

You can fill the 2GB memory with songs to repeat in order or to shuffle; it supports AA C, FLAC, MP3, OGG and WAV files and will deliver around 11 hours of music on a full charge. 

The bundled headphones look smart but sound so-so. Switch to a better pair and still songs lack detail and authority. So, this is a smart-looking unit, but fiddly controls and an average sound let it down, even at this price.

Creative Zen Style M100 4GB
★★★★

A neat ultra-portable player that packs plenty of punch.

Before Apple’s iPod upset the apple-cart, Creative bossed the MP3 player market. And the company is still ticking over very nicely, building portables, speakers and more. 

The Zen Style M100 packs in 4GB of memory – you can double that for an extra $25 – and there’s a microSD for adding up to 32GB more. Twenty hours of battery life on a full charge, support for the usual selection of formats and a voice recorder are the other vital statistics. 

A 1.45in TFT screen looks the part, but is tricky to read from certain angles. Touch controls are fairly effective but it does collect smudgy fingerprints as if its life depends on it. 

The earphones steer admirably away from brightness – to the extent that, in fact, they can sound a touch woolly. The M100 itself could sound cleaner across the tonal spectrum but there’s admirable thud and weight, and decent insight. It’s worthy of a spot on your shortlist.

San disk Sansa Fuze+ 8GB
★★★★

The Fuze+ has plenty going for it, but the touchscreen could work better. 

A little bigger than the rest here, the Fuze+ remains affordable and portable but offers a bit more screen – a 2.4in LCD – and a larger control area. The screen works nicely, with a bright, colourful interface and easy to read icons. The control system is less of a success. 

It’s a capacitive touchscreen like the latest generation of phones and tablets. Slide your finger around to move around the interface. It’s good but it’s not quite right – and touchscreens have to be on the money or they become frustrating.

And that’s a shame as, from a sonic perspective, this is more than competent. It’s compatible with all the key formats, and music sounds nicely balanced, avoiding bright treble or flabby bass, and revealing good detail. 

There’s adequate video support, an FM radio, voice recorder and SD card slot – but ultimately the Fuze+ is let down by the interface, which can’t stand up over extended use.

 

Samsung Tic Toc 4GB
★★★

 

The kids might be smitten, but the controls and sound quality put us off.

This is probably aimed at children. From the Tic Toc name, through the choice of colours, to the amaze-your-friends shake controls, it’s hoping to catch the kids before they get smitten with a smartphone. 

AAA -battery-sized, you can sit the Tic Toc in a see-through holder complete with clip, while a pyramid-shaped USB charger connects the Tic Toc to your computer. 

Install the music software to group tracks by tempo, allowing you to choose a slow or fast playlist. There are voice prompts, too. 

The built-in motion sensor means you skip tracks and adjust the volume by pressing the end button while holding the Tic Toc in a certain way. We’ve got no doubt the kids would master it eventually, but for us it seems a little too involved, confusing and – most importantly – unreliable. 

Sonically, it’s no great shakes – excuse the pun – and the earphones, while snug-fitting, struggle when pushed. Points for trying but execution misses the target.

 

Sony Walkman NWZ-W262 2GB
★★★★

Convenient and ideal for outdoor types, they do the key things right.

And here’s our curveball entry. Combining a flexible, sporty – it’s water-resistant and washable – pair of neckbandstyle earphones and a 2GB MP3 player, this is a one-stop piece of mobile music kit. 

Your controls are on the ears: skip track and play/pause on one; a playlist/shuffle button and volume on the other. You’ll have to memorise the placement but if you don’t mind hitting play and leaving it, then it’s not an issue. 

The in-ear buds burrow in a little more than normal but they sit securely and comfortably. You’ll get eight hours of playback – not great compared to some – but recharge is quick, delivering an hour from a three-minute refuel.

They sound good, too. They give music plenty of room to breathe and are capable of bass weight and treble clarity, only falling a little short in terms of absolute detail.

 

Sandisk Sansa Clip Zip 4GB
★★★

The Clip Zip looks good on paper but fails to deliver fully in practice.

On the face of it, the Clip Zip isn’t a million miles from the Clip+ you see below. The pair is similar in size and styling, so we expected the same level of performance – but we didn’t get it. 

From the off, the Clip Zip feels nowhere as convincing in the hand. The finish and buttons both feel flimsy and flakier, and our sample crashed a couple of times, which doesn’t help to inspire. 

Still, colour menus are eyecatching, the interface is simple enough and there’s an FM radio, voice recorder and a microSD card slot for expanding the 4GB memory. 

Ditching the supplied headphones, we’re surprised the volume doesn’t go very loud. Loud enough, but only just. 

Sonically it’s so-so, not quite sharing the detail and refinement of its sibling or indeed others here. Vocals don’t sound as intimate.

Sandisk Sansa Clip + 8GB
★★★★★

A worthy Apple alternative, the Clip+ is small, simple to use and sounds solid.

If the Archos 15b Vision looks like an MP3 player that’s shrunk in the wash, the Sansa Clip+ went round for another spin. This clip-on device is a true ultraportable. It follows the tried and tested layout of having a central button surrounded by the other key controls. 

The volume controls are on one side of the device while you’ll see a microSD slot on the other for expanding the memory. The interface is intuitive and a bright OLED screen makes it easy to read from any angle. 

There’s support for the key AA C, MP3 and WAV formats, a voice recorder and an FM tuner, while our 8GB model will deliver 18-hours of battery life. 

And it sounds good, too. We’d replace the free earphones; then you’ll enjoy a sound that’s lively and detailed.


 


 


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Ten Budget MP3 Players
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