Portable Music

may 25, 2002

I love to listen to music -- and with all this travelling I've been doing, I want a portable that is willing to travel with me. So, I have three contenders: Apple's iPod, Sony's MZ-E909, and SonicBlue's RioVolt 250. Who's the winner? Why? Read on to find out. I've been flying back and forth across the country for the better part of the last five months. These are long flights -- at least 3 and a half hours each way -- so I want some music to keep me entertained. I've tried three different portables to do this, two are MP3 players and one is a MiniDisc player. Here's how they stack up.

Aesthetics. Huh? You maybe scratching your head. Aesthetics? What has that got to do with a portable music player? Well, it does pay to have a nice looking player -- I like the attention :) The two winners here are the iPod and the MZ-E909. The iPod is just a looker with its clear face, white body, and shiny metallic back. The layout is clean and it just looks like a piece of art. Picture Here. The MZ-E909 is made of a full Magnesium body and has that same clean look on the face. There is only a few dimples and a Walkman logo on the front. Very clean and visually appealling -- heck, it's so small it looks neat. Picture Here. The RioVolt 250 is nice looking, but it's just black and grey and oh-so-boring looking. Nothing sexy about it. Picture Here.

Sound. Sound is very important to me. Yes, even with the roar of the jet engines, I listen to how good a player sounds. With all these players the sound really does depend on the encoding scheme applied. For instance with the iPod and the RioVolt 250 it depends on what bitrate you use to encode the MP3s and what quality you used. With the MZ-E909 it depends on what mode you are recoding your music. Are you using SP, MDLP2, or MDLP4? Using the very best encoding -- 320Kbps on MP3s and SP on the Minidisc -- the Sony MZ-E909 sounded the best. The sound was very rich with the MZ-E909, and the sound can be customized to your hearts content. With an SP recording, the MZ-E909 sounded exactly like a CD. I cannot tell the difference. The iPod runs flat at first, with pre-1.1 firmware. That flat sound was pretty darned good, but I wanted to customize it (add some more bass). With the 1.1 firmware the iPod got an equalizer, kind of. There are equalizer presets that can be chosen from. None of them are custom, but it is nice to have them. The only problem is that when they are applied, sometimes they distort the music playback, like the iPod is just trying too hard to apply that equalizer setting. The iPod comes in a close second for best sounding. With a well-encoded MP3 (with 192Kbps or greater) the iPod was indistinguishable from a CD also. In the tail end is the RioVolt 250. The sound that comes out of the RioVolt 250 just sounds a bit weird. I can't seem to put my finger on it, but it sounds weird. The RioVolt 250 sounds very confined -- like I am listening to music in a muffled chamber. Just weird I tell ya.

Portability. Hey, if I can't take it with me, what good does it do me? The iPod is hands down the most portable player, or is it? I can carry on average 800 tunes on my iPod -- a little box the size of a pack of playing cards. (4.02" x 2.43" 0.78" at 6.5 oz.) Now that is cool. The Sony MZ-E909 is actually the smallest of the three players. It is also the lightest. (2.875