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Groove on the move

Groove on the move
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First Published: Wed, Oct 28 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Oct 28 2009. 05 39 PM IST
Most people still look at feature-rich portable multimedia players (PMPs) with suspicion. After all, they argue, what’s the point in spending Rs15,000 on a PMP when you can get a truly converged, all-in-one cellphone for the same price? It’s a fair question. But then, why do people still buy camcorders when digital cameras can capture videos too? Because all converged devices need not necessarily replace the devices they were designed to supersede.
PMPs fall in this category. No matter how you look at it, if you’re serious about your music quality, you would still opt for a dedicated player rather than a jack of all trades. Don’t get us wrong. We love our N97s and iPhones as much as anybody else, but we still reach for our PMPs when we want to chill to our favourite music or watch a video.
So we’ve drawn up a collection of portable media players to suit every budget. We used a mixture of music from different genres and AVI video files to judge the sound and video quality of these devices. For music, we used a reference Grado SR225 headphone coupled with a headphone amplifier. Using a high quality third-party headphone is important since it eliminates the impact of substandard earphones, which is what most PMPs ship with.
Apacer AU824
A neat looking PMP with a garish and overdone mock chrome finish on the rear that made me go “ugh”! The front is neat though with the buttons resembling a cellphone layout, albeit much larger. There is a centre button for play/pause and four directional keys around it. A tiny menu button is also provided to the right of these buttons. The centre button is finished in matte-silver and this along with the chrome rim around the buttons adds some colour to an already colourful black and navy blue body. The centre button has a rubbery feedback. Build quality is good but it looks like everything was put together in a hurry especially considering the misalignment of the USB port. There’s a switch on the player that selects between playback and USB mode.
Surprisingly, for such a small screen, the video format support is extensive, especially compared to the Philips Aria. Quality of the display is so-so; brightness level is good. Music performance is a little better although we found the bass unfocussed and tending towards looseness, the SR 225 is known for clean bass and the fact that the bass seemed muddy is testament to this players’ performance, or rather the lack of it. Mid-range is also weak – definitely not its forte. The treble extends rather cleanly although is sharply rolled off and certain instruments and sounds that extend into the higher frequencies beyond the 8 KHz range. In fact some piano accompaniments around the 4 KHz mark also seemed to be missing – this is really part of the lower-range of treble and this is pretty unacceptable for a PMP of any sort, irrespective the price. At Rs2,400 the Apacer AU824 is a little too light on performance and features to warrant approval, though it is the cheapest player we tested and many who want affordability will want to check it out.
Pros:
Good video format support
Compact
Cons:
Mediocre screen
Looks hurriedly put together
Mediocre audio quality
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iPod Classic 120 GB
This is the 6th generation of the venerable hard drive-based iPod that Apple never fails to include. Although a generation old as we speak, (since the new iPod Classic is already available but not for review at this moment), this series offers unmatched storage. Although the Classic is a decent video player it is aimed at the audiophile who wants to carry his entire collection of music with him. The 1.8-inch hard drive offers 120 GB of storage; more than any other PMP in the market. This means you can carry not just lossy MP3 files, but Apple Lossless (ALAC) files as well, giving audiophiles one less lament about the loss of finer detail that occurs with compression. The Classic is very well built though the scratch-prone chromed rear is still a killjoy. The screen has seen some revamping and its 2.5-inch display looks pretty crisp and clear with great colours – just what the doctor ordered for video playback. Fonts are clear and ultra legible and video playback is sweet, the only two cons being the smaller (compared to the iPod Touch) screen and of course the fact that videos need to be synced through iTunes.
This is a superb PMP for discerning music lovers – the overall aural representation remains very tonally neutral and if anything the Classic is actually a little more focussed on the highs than most other PMPs. But that’s not to say the mid-range and bass lacks in any way. Bass is detailed and punchy without any sort of bloat and individual bass notes have the necessary impact. The mid-range is detailed and clear, leaning slightly to the lush side of things. I say it focuses on the highs because it does so well with the higher frequencies which are detailed, and extends without any audible cut-off but there’s also no sibilance – the Classic exerts total control over the sonic spectrum. Especially noticeable on the U2 track ~Where The Streets Have No Name~ Bono’s vocals can sound sibilant and uncontrolled at times but not on the Classic. The opening drum scores on this track also had noticeable weight and there was a textural richness to the bass. It also has noticeably more power than the Nano and will drive around 10% higher volume levels.
At Rs15,400, the Classic is a steal of a deal, especially considering the performance and unmatched storage space. When you consider that Apple has just announced a new 160 GB version at the same price things get sweeter. It’s certainly not for someone who wants something really compact and pocket able but for the road-warrior audiophile it can’t get much better.
Pros:
Great screen
Possibly the best sounding PMP
Well built
Unmatched storage
Cons:
Heavy and bulky
Larger screen would have made it better at movies
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iPod Nano
The new Nano is very sleek and much lighter than the previous gen widescreen Nano. Of course there is a newer version than the one we tested that also features a video camera but we’ll be testing that next month in the magazine, since it reached us late for this test. But on to this Nano – it’s cute with a nice curved profile. It’s long but very slim – perfect for those who want something feature-rich and with a screen while working out or jogging, since it won’t weight down your pocket. Its screen is good, although the text font doesn’t look as crisp as the iPod Classic or the iPod Touch. The clickwheel is still going strong and although it’s not the best for menu navigation it works quite well and is pretty accurate.
The Nano’s 2-inch display is not the best suited for videos although it does a fairly decent job, but really speaking we’d like more contrast and of course, something larger. The clickwheel is still going strong but I found it not as responsive as the clickwheel on the Classic. For music it hits the spot – clean sound, with nary a hint of distortion and quite neutral – a welcome relief from all the bass-heavy PMPs we’ve seen in the past. The treble does get a little out of hand and some of the instrument scores can get to the point where they’re grating on the ears but this niggle aside, I was pretty satisfied.
Priced at Rs9,700 for the 8 GB version and Rs12,500 for the 16 GB version, the Nano is a little on the expensive side, but Apple remedies this with the new range of Nanos with cheaper prices. However, if you’re in search of something really light, well-built (read metal) and compact offering great audio performance and the added functionality of video when you need it, the Nano is hard to beat.
8 GB version
Pros:
Amazingly compact and light
Rugged metal body
Great sound quality
Cons:
Screen could have been better, not up to the Classic or the Touch
Clickwheel isn’t as responsive as the Touch
16 GB version
Pros:
Amazingly compact and light
Rugged metal body
Great sound quality
Better VFM than the 8 GB variant
Cons:
Screen could have been better, not up to the Classic or the Touch
Clickwheel isn’t as responsive as the Touch
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First Published: Wed, Oct 28 2009. 01 15 AM IST