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Do All mp3 Players Sound Alike?

Sansa-view-big 3FaceUp 

Recently I read a review of an mp3 player where the author purposely chose not to discuss sound quality because, in the author’s words, “The chosen player has a great deal to do with how you access your music, but very little to do with how it sounds…”  That got me thinking.  Do all mp3 players sound alike?  They are all digital, so it’s the same 1’s and 0’s playing the music, so how can there be a difference in sound quality?  

I have tested some mp3 players myself and have noticed drastic differences.  I have trouble believing that mp3 players don’t influence sound quality that much.  They have different components, circuitry, software and build tolerances, so how can there not be a difference?  I agree that other factors have an influence on sound quality, namely the quality of the music and headphones.  But if you test mp3 players using the same playlist and headphones, I believe you will hear differences.  This logic works with surround sound receivers, cell phones and recording equipment as well.  But that’s just my opinion.  Let’s explore a little further.

The Big Question

Do all mp3 players sound alike, or are there true, measurable differences that even the average user can appreciate? If a reviewer made a mix tape of high quality music and tested it with the same good headphones on several players, would they not notice a difference?  Read on to see what I have discovered.

When shopping for an mp3 player, do you only look at the available features, storage space and price because you assume since they’re all digital, that they will all sound comparable?  When shopping for an mp3 player, what features are most important to you?   Price, subscription service, included headphones, user interface, capacity, size, sound quality?  How do you purchase mp3 players?  Do you make spur of the moment purchases, do you just go to your local Best Buy and see what’s on sale, do you ask friends for their opinion, and/or do you read reviews then make an informed decision?

There is certainly a large group of people who do think all mp3 players sound alike.  They don’t do research on the internet, they just go out to the local Walmart, Best Buy or Circuit City and buy what the salesman recommends or what looks good to them.  However, these are NOT the same people reading reviews online.  Those people are a completely different crowd.  They read sites like CNET, MobilitySite, and Head-Fi.org for opinions to base their decisions on.  They likely spend far more for their players, use better quality music, and upgrade their headphones.

I can understand if some people would think they all sound the same.  Certainly, you must load your player with decent quality music and listen with decent headphones.  Many people use their mp3 players in noisy environments, like airplanes, gyms, and trains, and may not care about the difference between good sound and poor sound.  Some people just have no idea that they are listening to poor quality sound.  That used to be me, in fact.  About 6 years ago I bought a Yamaha DT Express electronic drum kit.   I needed headphones, so I went to Best Buy and spent $100 on Sony MDR V600 headphones.  I used them for a few years until I bought AKG Acoustics K-26P for half the price, then I realized I had been living in ignorance.  The AKGs were completely superior in every way. 

But now it’s easy to do research online.  This has influenced the buying habits of many people.  And it’s these people, those who not only research their purchases, but also want more than just the best deal, that read our blogs and want to know more than just how skinny the player is, or whether the case leaves fingerprints; they want to know what quality of sound they can expect for their hard earned money.  Again, I believe that those who read our blogs are not spending $50 or less on mp3 players, they are spending $50 to $500.  So, does the mp3 player itself make a difference?

yamahaDTExpress

Educated Opinions

I put this question to the audiophiles at the Head-Fi forums.  I asked them,

“Please tell me your opinions. Do all mp3 players sound alike, or are there true, measurable differences that even the average user can appreciate? If a reviewer made a mix tape of high quality music and tested it with the same good headphones on several players, would they not notice a difference?”

Krmathis: “No, there are different grades of performance (audio quality) among portable audio players. Just as there are with any other kind on audio device.
They are built using different parts, design, etc. and hence sound different as well.”

Hypersoar: “Many players are very similar (for example, I believe the Zune 80 and iPod Classic use the same audio circuitry), but they’re not all the same. The soundstage is much, much wider on my Zune 80 than it is on my old Zen Vision: M.”

Bambu: “I have 5 different players by different brands and they all sound different. I’ve just done a comparison between a Sony 818 and a Meizu M6. Both sound excellent but still have a somewhat different signature sound.”

Head-Fi also had a poll asking the users, “Do you hear a difference between mp3 players?”  The choices were:

Subtle – 6 responses – 13.95% (as of 7/1/08)

Noticeable – 25 responses – 58.14%

Night and Day Difference – 12 responses – 27.91%

Some comments:
Cowon 1:”I have to agree with 4saken,
Although I think comparing some to each other might not be as noticeable as comparing others.
For instance comparing my Cowon D2 to my Sansa E260 there is a huge difference.
But yeah I think there is a real difference in each dap that is definitely noticeable.”

Webbie 64: “Like all audio, I find there is a ‘low’ quality range, a ‘mid’ quality range and a ‘High’ quality range. Some level of (predominantly sound signature) difference across each range and noticeable SQ differences between each range.
And, of course, the better quality your headphones/IEMs, the more you’ll hear the differences.”

NavyBlue: “I’ve own the following devices that play MP3:
– Ericsson MP3 handsfree
– Compaq iPaq 3870
– Motorola E630i
– Sony Ericsson K810i
– Sony Walkman NWZ-A816
Only the Motorola sounded different (read: crappy), the rest there aren’t significantly different in absolute quality.
Thus IMO, for the competent ones out there, there are very little difference in absolute quality (as opposed to sound signature). But occasionally you’d encounter a crappy one that you could tell right away.”

Ilikemusic: “There are differences due to design of the final amp and how it might interact with various phones (probably more effect in that latter aspect than anything else.) Sometimes significant, but usually not.
That said, it’s a amazing how people around here magnify (or outright imagine) SQ differences where little or none actually exist. Unless there is a very consistent agreement among a large number of respondents, subjective opinion tends to have little or nothing to do with reality. Case in point, take any given generation iPod… there will be as many that swear it is great as swear it is terrible. But I doubt many in either camp would have an easy time telling them apart in a blind test.
So yes, differences exist, but take all the reports with a very large grain of salt.

Finally, I posted a poll at MobilitySite that asked, “Do you hear sound quality differences between mp3 players?”

No, they all sound alike to me – 4 responses – 17.39% (as of 7/1/08)

I hear a very subtle difference – 7 responses – 30.43%

Yes, the differences are very obvious – 12 responses – 52.17%

Comments:
PsionAndy: “I’m not convinced that I can recognize difference due to Hardware.., however I can tell the differences due to different EQ settings. now some of these are set as default on players and can’t be changed, some can.”

Bdimon: “The players all sound the same quality although some have more volume. There is a huge difference in headphones, though!”

Foosa123: “to me, i can certainly tell the difference when comparing older players and newer players, but if i’m comparing to newer players like an iPod classic and a Zune then there may only be a very subtle difference if any at all
in the end it probably comes down to headphones/speakers to me i think”

crabh6315: “There are players which have hardware and software enhancements of which have obvious differences, for example iAudio X5 with BBE, To me it is something I prefer for music listening, BBE gives an Audio spatial enhancement a 3D effect for audio of which you cant do with equalizer settings, some player have Bass enhancements such as many of the Sony players do. If you set all the Equalizer settings flat on all players and use the same headphones for testing purposes you can audibly tell differences that are small to large from player to player, some players have more distortion than others, and some have a greater audio response time to the frequencies they are playing.
All players will have differences just because there hardware is different, for instance they have different “wattage”, voltage and current outputs of which will give perceptible audio differences. The software enhancements such as “BBE from iAudio creates difference in “time” of how the waveforms are reproduced on the player.
In answer to your question; Yes there will always be differences small or big that can be audibly perceived.”

While neither of the polls were statistically significant because we didn’t have enough votes, I see a pattern emerging.  Most have commented that between high quality mp3 players there may not be a huge difference in sound quality, but between lesser brands and better brands there is.

CNET’s Jasmine France of Crave

I enjoy reading mp3 player and headphone reviews.  One excellent source for those is Jasmine France of Crave, a CNET company.  She reviews many, many audio products.  Here is what she said in her article, An MP3 Maven’s Favorite Music Gear, “There are a few things I look at when considering a music gadget for personal use–OK, who am I kidding? I look at everything. But some key points top my list. One of them is design; I prefer devices that are stylish or unique in some way without sacrificing usability. Other necessary features include solid sound quality, a customizable interface, and handy features.”

I contacted Jasmine and asked her, “Do all mp3 players sound alike, or are there true, measurable differences that even the average user can appreciate? If a reviewer made a mix tape of high quality music and tested it with the same good headphones on several players, would they not notice a difference?”

She responded, “That’s easy enough: No. 

In more detail: We test all of our MP3 players at CNET using the same selections of music, which is encoded at the same bit rate in the same format. We also use the same test pairs of headphones (the Shure SE 310 earbuds and/or the Ultrasone HFI-700 cans) in each case. As reviewers, we can discern a difference in sound quality among players, though in many cases it is minute. Sure, some players sound plain awful, while others sound average, and still others sound great. But distinguishing among the great players or among the average ones is tough–or sometimes impossible–to do, even for an experienced listener. Most people would not be able to tell the difference in sound quality between, say, the Creative Zen and the Sony NWZ-718F.

Going a bit further, it’s important to note that different manufacturers use different audio chips in their MP3 players. Even the same vendor (Apple, for instance) may use different chips among its product lines. As such, there is often a measurable difference among players–the proof can be seen here: http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-6490_7-9968448-49.html.”

Jasmine’s article linked above makes great reading.  Thanks Jasmine!

The Mobile Gadgeteer Chimes In

Matt Miller from the ZDNet blogs had an interesting opinion to share.  Also known as the Mobile Gadgeteer, Matt has had the opportunity to review, test, and write about a multitude of gadgets.

“I am not an audiophile that knows all the terminology and definitive measurements associated with sound, but I am a consumer of electronics and have tried out quite a few MP3 players over the years. I primarily stick with my Ultimate Ears Super Fi 5 Pro earphones and I can tell a noticeable difference in audio quality between players. While the iPhone does a fine job of playing audio, I have to say that I have used other devices that sound clearer and louder (at the same volume settings) than the iPhone/iPod. My ultimate favorite is actually the Microsoft Zune that blows out all the other devices I have tried. After the Zune, I prefer the Nokia N81 8GB and then the iPhone. It has been some time since I used my SanDisk and Samsung players, but with the Zune I really do not see a reason to try others out it is that good.”

I want to say that even non-audiophiles appreciate good sound, but after reading what he wrote I almost want to call Matt an audiophile!  Thanks Matt!

Software Tweaks

Some of you may remember Jonathon Misurda’s X50Mix software, which was developed to tweak the sound settings for the Dell Axim x50v, which plays mp3s among other things.  The thread is further discussed here.  According to co-creater Emulaner, “I was digging around in the registry the other day looking for something unrelated and found some settings for the hardware EQ on the sound chip (HKCU\ControlPanel\AudioAdvContrl). Changing the settings and doing a soft reset changes the sound…”  This thread went on to have 392 posts, so I suppose sound quality can be affected by the player.  In fact, the vast majority of posts say things like this about the software tweak, (Posted by Warone) “I am astonished by how wonderful this makes my MP3 player sound.”

 

Red Wine Audio’s iMod

iMod_Badge

Many audiophiles are so particular that they are willing to pay big money to upgrade the sound of their players.  A company called Red Wine Audio has a modification for certain iPods, called the iMod, that supposedly improves the sound greatly.  They claim,

“Even if you use the very best iPod cable with your stock iPod, you are still not avoiding the serious degradation of sound quality that occurs after the internal DAC (digital audio circuitry). This degradation from the cumulative effects of the following stock components that are directly in the line-out signal path and that were NOT optimized for audiophile use:

  • The low quality stock SMT coupling caps after the internal Wolfson (before the stock opamp)

  • Opamp output stage

  • The low quality stock SMT coupling caps after the opamp output stage

  • The minuscule circuit board traces that carries the analog line-out signal

  • SMD resistors and inductors directly in the signal path

  • The signal path inside the stock iPod dock, which contains: the dock connector plug, a very cheap ribbon cable, more minuscule pcb traces, SMD resistors, and finally the line out jack. “

This iMod costs $265 with shipping, yet is a very popular option for iPod owners on the Head-Fi site.  As good as the stock circuitry may be, one can make improvements to it.  Not all sound circuits are the same. 

 

CNET’s Guide to mp3 Player Audio Quality

A little while back CNET tried to determine the best sounding mp3 player.  They measured sound both objectively with an audio sound analyzer, and they did subjective blind listening tests.  They measured signal to noise ratio (measures background hiss), distortion (how smooth is the sound of your player?), and frequency response (how well does a player faithfully reproduce a range of musical tones?).  According to the late James Kim, “Determining the best-sounding player is a tricky task since many of the top devices utilize the same sound chips. In fact, unless you have the golden ears of an audiophile, it’s difficult to notice the difference between devices.”  The sound chips indeed make a difference.  That is why high quality players utilize them.  This is similar to using quality components in a computer.  If you spend more money on a better mother board, higher quality memory and better processors you will obviously get a better system.  CNET tested higher end mp3 players.

James Kim concluded, “Audio quality starts with the player’s audio processor (DSP) and the audio file. Apple’s iPod Nano famously use a PortalPlayer chip, the Shuffle and the Samsung utilize a Sigmatel chip, and Cowon’s iAudio U3 and SanDisk’s c100 series use processors from Telechips.”

Sound Quality v. Sound Signature

There is a difference between the two terms.  Sound Quality measures how faithfully a recording is reproduced in an mp3 player.  Sound Signature refers to the tendencies of a particular player to produce various levels of the sound spectrum.  It is the players’ fingerprint.  So Sound Quality measures signal to noise ratio, distortion and frequency response while the Sound Signature is the player’s way of interpreting and putting it’s own unique spin on the sound you hear.

AnythingButiPod

One of my favorite sites for checking out the latest mp3 players is AnythingButiPod.com.   They have a multitude of reviews on a wide array of mp3 players and accessories.  What I like best about their site is the consistency they employ when reviewing items.  They take a formulaic approach in that each review contains the same elements, including the sections, “Accessories”, “Design”, “Screen”, “User Interface”, “Video” and “Sound Quality” among others.  With their system you can read many reviews and better compare the different players, since the reviews contain very similar sections.  One of sections they pay special attention to is the Sound Quality section.  And they’re not scared to state their opinions. 

I asked Grahm Skee of Anythingbutipod and asked him the same question I asked our other experts, “Do all mp3 players sound alike, or are there true, measurable differences that even the average user can appreciate? If a reviewer made a mix tape of high quality music and tested it with the same good headphones on several players, would they not notice a difference?”

Grahm’s response, “I do very much disagree with that bolded statement, the differences between players can be night and day. However, there is a small caveat here where as the night and day difference diminishes as the headphones get cheaper. So when you are testing the sound quality of players with stock earbuds, you may not be able to tell the difference. There are many variables in what makes an MP3 player sound good, but one of the core variables is the SOC or audio chip. This is one of the reasons many moblile phones have poor sound quality, they avoid putting a real audio chip on board possibly due to cost/power/space reasons.”

Conclusion

My computer has a high quality sound card in it that really improved the sound quality.  My large screen TV’s audio, however, is mediocre at best.  But my surround sound system makes it a pleasure to hear TV shows and movies.  That being said, wouldn’t you expect to hear quality differences in mp3 players?  Surely some use better quality components than others.  It seemed like a no-brainer when I set out to write this article.  And it still is, but now I have some research and opinions to back my view up.  There really is an audible sound quality difference between mp3 players.  Just like there is with headphones.  Just as there is with music. 

Buying an mp3 player is all about making compromises.  We choose between screen size and overall player size, flash media and hard drives, quality and price, converged devices versus standalone players, upgrading headphones or using the included cans, and different interfaces.  But when it comes down to it, they all play music, and some sound better than others. 

Some of us live or have lived in ignorance.  And ignorance can be bliss.  Appreciating and paying for better audio can take a chunk out of your wallet.  When you join the Head-Fi site, the first thing they say to you is, “Sorry about your wallet.”  You can spend an endless amount of money trying to improve your audio quality, and once you make that first step, you find you just can’t stop.  I have bought a portable amp, several sets of headphones, a better mp3 player and have upgraded the music quality I use. 

Certainly many people don’t appreciate those differences, but they are not the ones doing research online.  They don’t frequent tech blogs or audio forums such as Head-Fi, MobilitySite, Gear Diary, Crave and The  Mobile Gadgeteer.  If you test various mp3 players with the same quality headphones and playlist, you will hear a difference.  And judging from the huge amount of mp3 player reviews online, and the websites and forums dedicated to mp3 players and accessories, you too can hear the difference and want to dissect, discuss and debate your audio preferences. 

In conclusion, “Sorry about your wallet.”

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July 2, 2008 - Posted by | Mp3, Opinions

3 Comments »

  1. […] appreciate all the feedback. I wrote an article at Stevenator65 and MobilitySite. __________________ AKG Acoustics K-26P, Shure E2c. iPod Classic 80 GB, CMoy […]

    Pingback by Do All mp3 Players Sound Alike? - Page 2 - Head-Fi: Covering Headphones, Earphones and Portable Audio | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. great read! thanks for sharing.

    Comment by zune cable | July 8, 2008 | Reply

  3. wow! such a long article. this wook me about 20 miutes to read. Very informative though. I’ll be using this article as a reference for later.

    -jason

    Comment by zune | July 16, 2008 | Reply


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