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MP3 Portable Players

The requirements for MP3 portable players are different when listening to MP3 Audio Books than when listening to MP3 Music.  AudioBooksForFree.com are constantly testing new MP3 players for the suitability for use with Audio Books.  We are not overly concerned with MP3's performance of Music, or the "value for money" (there are a lot of other sites that concentrate on these aspects). Our only concern is for optimal MP3 usage with Audio Books.

Firstly, please read our General Considerations which you should apply when choosing MP3 Portable Players for Audio Books.  Then view several results of our own tests to date.

We would very much like our Visitors to test their MP3 Portable Players' suitability for listening Audio Books and email us their conclusions to ToUs@AudioBooksForFree.com

General Information & Considerations

Different MP3 Formats

There are several hundred possible MP3 conversion rates ranging from 8Kb/s, 800Hz, Mono to 256Kb/s, 48,000Hz, Stereo.  The higher the conversion rate, the better the sound quality, but you will need more time to download and more storage space in your MP3 Portable Player.  With Audio Books, you need to go for the lowest conversion rate that you could possible tolerate.  Our experience shows the best and most commonly used MP3 formats for Audio Books are as follows:

 

Lower than 16Kb/s means the sound is so distorted that it cannot be tolerated for any length of time.  Higher than 48Kb/s means that the disadvantages of having BIG files will outweigh any noticeable gains in sound quality.

16Kb/s is ideal as Audio Books 6-7 hours long could neatly fit onto the 64MB onboard memory of a typical MP3 Portable Player.  Unfortunately, there is a very big problem with the 16Kb/s format.  There are two different versions of "frames" in MP3 formats of less than 24Kb/s: version 2.0 and version 2.5.  Most MP3 encoders (programs that convert WAV files into MP3 format) use version 2.0 frames and most mp3 portable players use version 2.5.  Therefore, some MP3 portable players do not recognise those MP3 files as MP3 at all, just as data files.  The majority of portable players however, do play mp3 with version 2.5 frames, but very often, many high level additional facilities of those MP3 portable players stop functioning properly, e.g. Bookmark, Pause, Loop, FF, Rewind, Hold etc.  It is crucial that you test MP3 Portable Player behaviour on 16Kb/s before purchasing, if you intend using it for mp3 Audio Books.

Download from our site several mp3 audio book files in 16Kb/s and in 24Kb/s and take them with you to the shop when looking for an MP3 Portable Player.

Loudness

Another big problem we came across is that many MP3 portable players are not loud enough for audio books.  Players might sound loud in quiet surroundings with plug-in earphones using demo music, but on a rackety commuter train with more comfortable over-the-ears headphones,you could find totally different results.

NB:  We expressly boost the loudness of all our audio books, so with our audio books the sound level maybe OK, but with other audio books it might be too quiet. We recommend that you firstly buy good expensive and comfortable over-the-ears headphones and only then go to the shops to chose an MP3 Portable Player.  No MP3 Portable Players come with good comfortable headphones.  Warning: we came across a curious fact: some MP3 Portable Players have FM radio bundled in.  Sometimes radio reception rely on the manufacturers headphones being plugged in!  e.g. Rio 500.

 

MP3 Portable Player Memory

In the first instance, try to get as much memory as possible.  A minimum of 64MB of flash memory will give you just 6 hours of 16Kb/s Audio Book.  Most players have the possibility to add additional memory cards.  Buy maximum available memory cards in the first instance.

We have tested many hard disk HDD-MP3 Portable Players (10GB to 80GB), and they are very suitable for long Audio Books. 

Some mp3 manufacturers just declare that you can add additional memory card, but you cannot purchase such a card anyware.

Another thing to be aware of with some flash-card players is that very often there is no connection between built-in memory and additional memory cards - a nuisance that you have to live with.

 

Batteries

Best to chose mp3 flash card player with 2 batteries in order to give sufficient loudness. 

Many players have built-in batteries - this is not very good if the rechargeable batteries run out on you whilst you are in the middle of an audio book and travelling.

 

Cable (to Connect an MP3 Portable Player to Your PC)

Connection can be by USB, FireWire or Parallel (Printer Cable).  Make sure that you have a USB port on your PC before opting for a USB (better speed).  Some mp3 players with parallel cables allow you to plug transparently your printer at the same time as your MP3 portable player.  These cables will probably work with a simple printer, but are less likely to work with a more complex devices (i.e. printer with scanner or fax). 

Most important is the length of cable - some cables are too short to reach from the back of a PC.

 

Firmware

Firmware is the software inside the player microchips.  The latest MP3 portable players allow you to upgrade the Firmware from their Internet sites to the latest version.  However, there is never a guarantee that the features needed for audio books will function in a newer version of firmware. So keep the old copy.  

 

Automatic File Sorting

The sorting of chapter files is most critical for audio books.  Check very carefully how both Software and Firmware are sorting the files.  Do you have the ability to sort your files at all?  Does it sort them by file names (the best way), by TAG fields, or just by track number?

 

[Bookmark]

Some MP3s have the [BOOKMARK] facility.  Do not rely on it!  It is normally complicated to use, it doesn't work at all, or doesn't work on low MP3 conversion rates.

 

[Pause]

This is a much more important facility.  Often the commuter / driver needs to pause the Audio Book.  Check how long. You need the player that can hold indefinitely.  (Check separately with 16Kb/s version 2.5 MP3 files! It might work differently.).

 

Continuity of the Book after Interruption

It is most important for audio books that MP3's keep to the same point in the book (or at least to the same file chapter), in case of intentional or unintentional interruption, e.g.:

We have yet to come across any MP3 portable player that still keeps pointing to the same place in the audio book in all the above situations.  Please tell us if you have!

Mostly, you can expect that the MP3 player would keep pointing to the beginning of the current file.  It is tolerable that you have to re-listen again from the beginning of the current file, provided that the file is no longer than 15 - 20 minutes.  However, if the MP3 "forgets" the current file and after interruption, points to the first file, DO NOT BUY IT!  It is not suitable for audio books.

The good thing is that you can easily test all this in the shop, before making a purchase:

  1. What happens if you switch the MP3 player OFF and ON?  Is it going to the same file or to the beginning of the first file?  (check separately with 16Kb/s version 2.5 MP3 files);
  2. What happens if you change the batteries?  Is it going to the same file, or to the beginning of the first file?  (check separately with 16Kb/s version 2.5 MP3 files);
  3. What happens if you change the batteries without switching the MP3 player OFF first?  Is it going to the same file or to the beginning of the first file?  (check separately with 16Kb/s version 2.5 MP3 files);

AudioBooksForFree.com's MP3 Player Tests

The following is a summary of MP3 Portable Plays we have tested.  However, be sure to test as much as possible yourself before buying.

Suitable for Audio Books

Not Suitable for Audio Books

Diamond Rio 500 (Firmware 2.12)

MP3 Man F20

Samsung Yepp-E64 Sony MS-Walkman MW-MS7 (not strictly a MP3 player)
Pine D'Music MP3 Player Model SM-320V
Pine D'Music MP3 FM Voice Recorder Model SM-320F

Diamond Rio 500 (Firmware 2.12) ~ ~ ~ Suitable for Audio Books ~ ~ ~

Connection to PC: USB adapter cable which is the right length
Formats supported:
  1. ACLEP: 8Kb/s audio decompression (the same as used in GSM voice data - this we think is the "Audible" format)
  2. MP3: Bits are rated from 8Kb/s to 256Kb/s
  3. WMA: Converted to MP3 before downloading to the player
Memory: 64MB internal, 32MB on standard memory card - version 2.12.  Firmware takes up 400 Kb of internal memory.
Buttons:
  • Top - slider switched off / on / hold
  • Play / Pause button, Stop, Fast-Forward and Rewind
  • Bookmark - remembers position
  • Rotate and push to select button.  Controls volume by default and selected operations
Batteries: 1 x AA
Sound quality: Treble slightly clicky, electronic is "washy / swimmy" noise at Medium to Low bit rates.
Type Source Output Rating (out of 10) Comments
Low CD 16Kb V.2.5 MP3 4 Voice OK, but swimmy
Medium CD 48Kb V1 MP3 Mono 6 Electronic overtones
High CD stereo 128Kb V.1 MP3 JStereo 7.5 Clear - symbols OK
Very high CD stereo 128Kb V.1 MP3 JStereo 8 Slightly clicky on treble
Software: Rio Manager (both versions 2 and 3) look good but are difficult to use.  The drag and drop command from Windows Explorer is only supported into the track database window, not into the player memory window and no notification of successful addition to database is shown, you have to check the database manually.  The database will not take duplicate file names or ID3 TAG data - it tries to do too much and does not really succeed, it crashes or stops responding.
In use: Reasonably light weight and small (although not as small as the Sony) and well put together.  The memory card is located behind a hinged flap and the memory card is ejected by pressing down on the spring loaded eject mechanism, which works well (much better than others we've seen as it keeps the dirt out of the open slots).
Bit rate: Low bit rate on version 1 and version 2 frames.  The MP3 playback on low bit rate works fine with version 1 and 2 frames - Pause / FF / Rewind.  Low bit rate on MP3 version 2.5 frames
Buttons:
  • Play / Pause: button stops playing the track, so you have to press again and it starts slightly after the position paused at on the track.
  • Fast Forward: Skips to the next MP3 file and only fast forwards when it reaches a non MP3 version 2.5 file.
  • Rewind: as for Fast Forward, but backwards.
  • Bookmark: stores bookmark, but choosing the bookmark always starts at the beginning of the track.
Overall: Audio download software not very good.  USB makes downloads fast.  Bookmarks are handy for long audio tracks, e.g. Audio Books, Classical.  Has problems with MP3 version 2.5 tracks.

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Samsung Yepp-E64 ~ ~ ~ Suitable for Audio Books ~ ~ ~

Connection to PC: Parallel cable which is about the right length, but with no printer to pass through and can emulate ECP ports on older computers without BIOS/Port support (i.e. Standard / EPP parallel ports).  Pretty average download times for a parallel device.
Formats supported:
  1. SC4: onboard voice recording format
  2. MP3: 
  3. Bit rates from 8Kbps to 256Kbps
Memory: 64MB internal, 32MB on standard memory card
Buttons:
  • Left: volume button +/-
  • Repeat button
  • 3D/EQ button: normal / Jazz / Rock / Classic w/wo 3D effect
  • Hold slicer
  • Font / Mode button
  • Erase button - to erase a track, press twice
  • Record - voice record
  • Rewind / FF / Play / Stop paddle
Batteries: 2 x AA
Sound quality: Medium compression - base overpowering and distorted, mid rage quieter
Type Source Output Rating (out of 10) Comments
Low CD 16Kb V.2.5 MP3 4 Voice OK, but swimmy
Medium CD 48Kb V1 MP3 Mono 7 OK (AM radio)
High CD stereo 128Kb V.1 MP3 JStereo 8.5 Clear - symbols OK
Very high CD stereo 128Kb V.1 MP3 JStereo 9 Fine
Software: Has not crashed once.  Drag and drop interface.  Easy to use.  Intuitive apart for the connect icon after the device is plugged in.  Help is poor, with only links to Internet sites.
In use: Slightly bigger than the Rio 500.  Chrome effect buttons do not give much feedback when pressed.  Track selection is Very slow and awkward - you watch the screen redraw each time.  Control system is not very intuitive to use.  Does not remember the track position when pushed into sleep mode.  Sound quality is very good.
Bit rate: MP3 version 2.5 tracks
Buttons:
  • FF / Rewind - works fine
  • Pause / Play - works fine
  • EQ - pressing the "EQ" equalizer button a few times means super fast forwards to the end of the track, which cannot be stopped - weird - this is only on MP3 version 2.5
Overall: Plays all types of MP3 files without problems (except for the EQ bug).  Sound quality is good.  Built-in voice recorder which may be useful.  The control system in non-intuitive, the menus slow.  The buttons lack a "feel" quality and there is no back light.  There's no way of pausing the audio track for long periods of time due to lack of bookmarks or standby.  No automatic power save mode.  Memory card is OK, but not as well designed as the Rio 500.

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Pine D'Music MP3 Player Model SM-320V ~ ~ ~ Suitable for Audio Books ~ ~ ~

Firmware: V2.10A (supplied)
Software: Downloading manager version 1.3 (15 pin cable).  Easy to use once deciphered what buttons do, but not very helpful if it doesn't work.  Download speed is slow on KX chipset m/b, faster on BX m/b.  Not clear from the software which version is loaded.
Connection to PC: Parallel cable - length fine - not too long or short, reaches from the back of the PC to twice an average PC case length.
Voice recorder: VOC format
Buttons: "Hold" switch: YES.  Max "Hold" time: untested.
Batteries: 2 x AA
Sound quality: Noticeable click through head phones when powered on.  Resets previous volume to 15 / 30 settings when powered on, which is rather annoying.  Max volume is loud - this distorts the sound - possible clipping.
MP3 Format Sound Comments
V2.5 16Kb/s 11,025Hz Noticeable sound inflections on 16Kb/s.  V2.5, but understandable voice. FF/Rewind doesn't work on V2.5 files and displayed play-time incorrect.  A/B - start / end loop - doesn't work, but skips the first second on 16Kb V2.5 files
V2.0 24Kb/s 11,025Hz Sounds OK - better than 16Kb/s - normally.  V2.5 sounds better than 24Kb/s V2.0 files
V2.0 32Kb/s 22,050Hz Sounds OK - better than 24Kb/s
V1.0 48Kb/s 44,100Hz Sounds fine - better than 32Kb/s

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Pine D'Music MP3 FM Voice Recorder Model SM-320F ~ ~ ~ Suitable for Audio Books ~ ~ ~

Firmware: V1.55A
Software: V2.0 (18 pin cable) - supplied software V2.0 works only with 18 pin cables - incompatible with SM-320V.  It is not clear from the soft6ware what version is loaded.  Downloads quite fast for a parallel cable.
Connection to PC: Parallel cable.
Voice recorder: VOC format, mono microphone.
Buttons: "Hold" switch: YES.  Max "Hold" time: untested.
Batteries: 2 x AAA
Sound quality: Unlike the SM-320V, there is no noticeable click through head phones when powered on.  Resets previous volume to 16 / 30 settings when powered on, which is rather annoying.  The FM tuner appears to be dependant in the supplied ear-bud phones - using other earphones results in worse reception.
MP3 Format Sound Comments
V2.5 16Kb/s 11,025Hz Noticeable sound inflections on 16Kb/s.  V2.5, but understandable voice. FF/Rewind do work, but takes about 1.5 seconds to start.  Displays the correct time of tract, including FF/Rewind.  A/B - start / end loop - doesn't work, but skips the first second on 16Kb V2.5 files
V2.0 24Kb/s 11,025Hz Sounds OK - better than 16Kb/s - normally.  V2.5 sounds better than 24Kb/s V2.0 files
V2.0 32Kb/s 22,050Hz Sounds OK - better than 24Kb/s
V1.0 48Kb/s 44,100Hz Sounds fine - better than 32Kb/s

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MP3 Man F20 ~ ~ ~ NOT Suitable for Audio Books ~ ~ ~

Connection to PC: Parallel (no pass through)
Formats supported: MP3 Version 1 and 2 only.  Version 2.5 only played if just switched on!
Memory: 32Mb internal, optional 32Mb memory card.  Onboard memory can be used to store any type of file.  Firmware takes about 230K of onboard memory.  Tracks are limited to 32Mb - it will not bridge the internal memory to the memory card.
Batteries: 1 x AA
Sound quality: High bit rates - it sounds pretty good, but maybe not enough base.
Type Source Output Rating (out of 10) Comments
Low CD 16Kb V.2.5 MP3 4 Voice OK, but swimmy
Medium CD 48Kb V1 MP3 Mono ? OK
High CD stereo 128Kb V.1 MP3 JStereo 8 OK
Very high CD stereo 128Kb V.1 MP3 JStereo 8.5 OK
Software: MP3 Man F-20 software is available in two versions, both include the firmware which is downloaded into the player when the internal memory is "formatted".  Version 2.01 - as supplied on CD.  A limited support is available for lower bit rates.  It treats MP3 Version 2.5 as data files!  Version 3.0 is downloadable from the Internet.  It also supports more audio formats.  The MP3 Version 2.5 tracks now download and treat files as audio (not data), but will only play tracks on initial power on!  The software crashes for no apparent reason fairly often.
In use: The case is light and has a rubberised texture, with chrome buttons on top and front of the player.  The control panel is simple and easy to use, but only displays the track number as there is no alphanumeric display.
Bit rate: Low bit rate on version 1 and version 2 tracks.  The MP3 playback on low bit rate works fine with version 1 and 2 frames - Pause / FF / Rewind.  Low bit rate on MP3 version 2.5 frames
Buttons:
  • Play / Pause: only plays when first powered up (V3.01 firmware only).
  • Pause:  Stops playback, but "Play" will not continue on V2.5 tracks.
  • Fast Forward: Skips to the next - Version 1 or 2 MP3 track, ignoring V2.5 tracks.
  • Rewind: as for Fast Forward.
Overall: The player is basic and the build quality is OK.  The sound quality is pretty good.  However, there is no track title display and no bookmark / power off with a pause and continue where you left from facility.  Version 3.01's download software is "buggy". 

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Sony MS-Walkman MW-MS7 (Not Strictly a MP3 Player) ~ ~ ~ NOT Suitable for Audio Books ~ ~ ~

Connection to PC: USB adapter cable which is too short - it barely reaches from the back of the PC (where the USB ports normally are) to the front.
Formats supported: ATRAC3 (ATRAC3 is the optimised version of the algorithm used to compress audio files for Sony Mini-Discs and included copy protection) supports 3 compression rates: 132 Kbps, 105Kbps and 66Kbps.
Memory: Removable Sony "MagicGate" memory stick 64Mb - no onboard memory.

64MB would contain at 66KBPS (64* 1024* 1024*) divide 66,000/8 seconds = 8,134 seconds.  8,134/60 = 135 minutes of audio - just under 2 x CD's worth.  WAV files: linear PCM 16bit, mono/stereo, 32/44.1/48kHz.  MP3 files: 16bit (always), mono/stereo, 32/44.1/48kHz.

Buttons:
  • Volume +/- 
  • Menu
  • Display
  • Hold slide (to stop buttons being knocked) - this is fiddly to push in/up/down to control the selection and play
Batteries: Internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery.  battery life is very good.
Sound quality: The best so far as it uses mini-disc type compression.  No low bit rate audio.
Type Source Output Rating (out of 10) Comments
Low CD 0 Will not accept low bit rate sources
Medium 48Kbps MP3 V1 66Kb ATRAC3 7 Not much worse than source
Medium CD 66Kb ATRAC3 8 Base a bit harsh / open
High CD stereo 105Kbps ATRAC3 9 Almost as good as a CD
Very high CD stereo 132Kb ATRAC3 9.5 Can't tell the difference
Software: Very good software, does everything from CD extraction and WAV/MP3 conversion.  Some things are hidden, like bit rates.  Intuitive, apart from remembering to press the "check-out" icon to download the tracks chosen.  Help is good.  Source audio is limited to medium and high quality sources - see formats above.
In use: This player is half the size of the Rio 555 (narrower).  It has a very high quality feel, but probably has too many gizmos - both software and additional hardware bits.  The memory stick is ejected by a slide lever.  The battery is an internal lithium-ion rechargeable, but to charge it, the MS-Walkman must first be plugged into the USB / charge adapter, then plugged into a power adapter into the wall socket.  Judging by the weight of the USB / charger adapter, it only contains connectors and AudioBooksForFree.com don't see why the connector and recharger could not have been built into the Walkman itself, especially as being grey and smaller than a box of matches, it could easily be lost!  

The USB downloads fast, but MP3 files must be converted to ATRAC3 format, which can take some time on slower PLCs - it also takes up more disk space as they are archived.  

Software installation needs a software key to be typed in.

Format: The most compressed (lowest quality) MP3 format files this player will accept is MP3 mono 48Kbps, 3,200 Hz.  This is 3 times the size of 16Kbps Version 1 or 2,(NOT 2.5 as this is used only for less than 24Kpbs), but is stored on the MS-Walkman as a 66Kbps ATRAC3 track (25% bigger than 48Kbps MP3) and sounds slightly worse than the source due to double "lossy" compression.
Overall: This player is not really suitable for low bit rate MP3 files, it is really designed for listening to music.  To play a low bit rate MP3 file, it would only be possible if a software utility could decode the low bit rate MP3 and then re-sample and save it to a higher bandwidth (32kHz+) wave file.  Also, because the lowest storage rate is 65Kbps, you could only get one quarter of the voice audio on a 64Mb memory stick.  The control system is not as good as the Rio500.  The screen display is confusing - difficult to change and find another track.  The buttons are fiddly - all around the side - Play / Stop / FF / Rewind would be better on the front panel.  Propriety memory card system.  Too many bits in the package.  The sound quality is as good as the Mini-Disc (CD quality, or very near) and the battery life is good.  Overall, it looks cool - Sony quality, with the rainbow effect front panel and the shape fits easily in the hand or pocket.

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