The audio quality test results of several popular - and not so popular - MP3 players are compared in an interesting article on CNET's MP3 Insider. And the results may be surprising to some people.
In the article ("Audiophile MP3 players, by the numbers"), players from Apple, Creative Technology, and Sony, among others, were tested for frequency response, THD+N, and SNR using an Audio Precision ATS-2 Audio Analyzer, and then ranked by measured audio performance. The top two players were the Creative Zen and the Creative Zen Stone Plus.
The authors admit to being somewhat taken aback at this result - they had naturally expected the uber-popular Apple iPod to take top honors. I can't say I was surprised. I've written before about how while the iPod may win hands down in usability and style over other players, it may not necessarily be the best choice for "audiophile" sound quality (see "Why I don't own an iPod").
The authors go on to downplay the measured performance differences among the players, pointing out that they're hardly likely to be audible in the usual listening conditions in which these units are typically used. True enough, but it's also true that portable players are increasingly serving double-duty in docking stations to provide music in the home.
And some of us even use these players as portable/transportable secondary hi-fi systems - often along with high-end headphones and separate headphone amplifiers etc. - for when we're away from our primary systems. So subtle audio performance differences among the players can take on greater significance.
For the record, the top-ranked player among those tested - the Creative Zen - had the lowest measured distortion, with a THD+N of -82.27 dB (over 10 dB better than the iPod). The Zen's "frequency response deviation average" and SNR were on par (or even slightly worse) compared to some of the other top players.
To be fair, all of these measurements were taken from the players' headphone outputs and thus reflect, in part, the performance of the players' built-in headphone amplifiers. So the test results most likely won't reflect the performance enjoyed by those of us who choose to amplify the audio signal separately from a player's line output (if it has one).
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