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MP3 players - buyer's guide

- Introduction -
- Researching music players -
- AGPTEK U3 -
- Intenso Music Walker -
- Why the Creative MuVo is great -
- Sony Walkman NWZ-B183F - The Jukebox of Integrity -
- Concluding thoughts -

Introduction

I used to have two Creative MuVo MP3 players, which were great quality. Unfortunately, they eventually broke and since they are not produced anymore, I had to get a different device. Back then, I had no money and it was close to Christmas, so I asked a relative to buy me one. Since that person wasn't really familiar with music players, I got a shitty Chinese device that looked like this:

Needless to say, it broke literally within a week, and it's not like I abused it. The buttons either didn't respond to inputs or resulted in something completely different than what I've pressed. Into the trash it goes and I'm taking matters into my own hands.

Researching music players

There are hundreds of music players you can buy on the internet. I usually don't do that, but during the fake pandemic it was the only option aside from flea markets, which usually don't have good mp3 devices. So I swept through the whole Amazon equivalent from my country. Most of the devices were similar to the one from the introduction. Whether they would break so easily remained to be seen, but I didn't want to risk it. Even if they were durable, they had a lot of flaws that I didn't want to deal with:

This is not even getting into the software side of things, which I had no opportunity to test since just the first flaw is enough to drive me away from buying those players. Anyway, I found three devices (out of hundreds!) I was interested in; one I immediately gave up on (ART AMPB03B) since a review stated it had no random playing mode. The other one I ditched had everything - even nice fat buttons, but it lacked replaceable battery support, which is absolutely essential for me. So, only one option remained. It's sad how, during times of capitalist abundance, you still can't find anything good, but I digress. Let me review the player I ended up buying:

AGPTEK U3

http://www.agptek.com/index.php/product/agptek-u3-8gb-mp3-player-music-player-with-usb-flash-drive-recording-fm-radio-supports-up-to-32gb-black/

This was the only player available that satisfied the following criteria:

It had flat buttons, but I thought I could deal with it, since the devices with fat ones had more important flaws. Unfortunately, the player's other problems soon became evident that made me forget about the button structure.

First of all, just by touching it you could feel the low quality materials. Experience confirmed my suspicions, since a month or two after getting this device, buttons started fucking up similar to the earlier Chinese player. The menu button at the top either didn't respond to inputs or acted as if you pressed the volume button at the bottom. Still, it was not as bad as the previous one; it's still usable, just takes some time to get it to do what you want. However, it's inexcusable for it to have worked properly for only so little time. That's not all - a few months later, one side of the battery cover broke off, so it barely hangs on now. This is due to the bad design which made it hard to even put it in (you had to twist and turn) - but also due to the low quality material it was made of. The part that covers the USB ouput also became loose soon - in a good quality device, it should stick firmly.

But maybe the more important issues are with the way the player actually functions. While playing music, when you press the menu button, the option that's selected by default is Home - this will go to the main menu, where you can choose settings, record voice, etc. This option will be used much rarer than the folder swap, so it should be put further. To change the folder which music is playing from, you need to press the right arrow once and activate the Local folder option. What that will do is enter the current folder where you can select a song; kind of pointless if you're using the random playing mode. The default selected option is /, which will go to the folder list if chosen. Finally, I can listen to different music! Not so fast though. If you select and activate another folder, the default option is still /, which will enter the folder list again. To actually listen to the music you've chosen, you need to pick a song - again, if using the random mode, this is totally pointless. Let me list the button presses required to change the folder from which the music is playing - starting from a song already running:

This is at least eight presses, plus more depending on where the folder you want sits alphabetically. And since you need to switch buttons all the time, you'd need to be a sorcerer to do this blind. The player will also leave the menus if a button isn't pressed during a 7 second time limit, requiring you to redo the process. There are no dedicated buttons for increasing or decreasing the volume; you first need to enter the volume modification menu by pressing R/V, then use the left or right arrows. Later we will check how the Creative MuVo does all this, and you'll see it leaves the AGPTEK U3 in the dust.

So how terrible is this player, overall? Surprisingly, not that much. Sure, it's made in China (the seller didn't mention this, of course) and will break easily on you. Sure, the button layout and menu navigation suck - but you could have chosen much worse. It still lacks bloat, is small in size, powered by replaceable batteries, and does not require SD cards (but does support them). The price is average, but the quality does not justify it IMO.

Intenso Music Walker


I'll try to be brief here, because this player sucks. I bought it only because I thought it had the two features I really wanted - replaceable battery support and 8GB in-built memory. Unfortunately, the seller gave me wrong information (which he himself apparently received from the producer) and it was missing the latter. Still, that alone would just make it average - not too different from the slew of other ones dependent on SD cards. But it has other, more important flaws that doom it. For example - though the circle pad is a great idea in general - this one is designed terribly; way too small and uncomfortable to press. It also seems to drop inputs sometimes - and that's in a completely new device! The quality of materials appears to be about the same as in the AGPTEK U3. There is one significant advantage though - the battery cover is permanently attached to the device; which means you just slide it, protecting it from breakage. Nice idea that I've never seen in any other player - but it doesn't justify all the other issues.

For example, changing the folder is pretty much the same as in the AGPTEK U3; with one significant difference - music stops playing during the switching! Seriously, there was someone in the design team who thought "hey, we're gonna make the music player arbitrarily stop playing music" - it's lone job. Vodka or shrooms must have been ingested that day...The amount of time until it automatically leaves the folder structure is even shorter - five seconds. I won't have the opportunity to test its durability (since I'm returning it), but it's very likely terrible too. What are the advantages of it? Well, it plays music. There are dedicated volume controls through the circle pad - but again, it's terrible to press. It's also powered by replaceable batteries; but, if you try to change one, the player turns itself on automatically - even if you didn't press the button (ugh). Price is about the same as the AGPTEK U3 - for worse quality. Avoid!

Why the Creative MuVo is great

Being increasingly annoyed with AGPTEK U3, and seeing that good new music players are not produced, I knew I had to go back to the old reliable - the Creative MuVo. Now these are very old models, discontinued long ago - you have to get them used. Not many people have them, but I still managed to find two. There are many versions of those, with slight differences - the ones I've got are called Creative MuVo V100 (but I've also owned the TX, as well as ZEN Nano - which is similar aside from requiring a cable to transfer data). So what makes these players different?

First of all, they're not made in China. Now, I don't hate the Chinese or anything, but it's a fact that the stuff made there is low quality and I've experienced this many times, with different devices. Then there's the child labor, cutting corners, etc. which we won't go into here because the article isn't about that. In contrast to the AGPTEK U3, you can feel the great quality - and as usual, experience confirms my intuition since the devices survive for many many years (do you think any player bought today would last you ten years? But you can still buy these long discontinued ones!).

The size is extremely compact, barely bigger than the standard box of matches. Nice fat buttons that are just a joy to press (this sounds faggy I know, but fuck it and fuck the modern flat "button" craze). The other criteria that made me buy the AGPTEK U3 are here as well - replaceable battery support and in-built memory. But it has other advantages over it and we'll explore them as I do the promised navigation comparison:

To change the folder in the MuVo TX model, you need only 3 button presses plus whatever the position of your wanted folder is. That's five less than the U3. The MuVo V100 model adds one press, because it requires you to enter the root folder. But it's all using the same button - an intuitive scroll wheel, so it's not so bad; you can easily do it blind. This is very useful; when you're riding a bike or lying in bed, you don't want to focus on looking at the damn player - just change the folder and keep going. The time limit until it automatically leaves the menus has also been increased to 15 seconds.

There are dedicated buttons to changing the volume, which reduces the needed presses to just one (this matters when you're in the heat of a bike ride, for example). This player is also significantly louder than any other I've used (if you don't like the loudness, you can always decrease the volume to 1). But the silent ones can't reach the upper point that the MuVo can. Standard features like bass boost and equalizer (note: aside from in-built sets, you can also create custom ones - this is apparently rare and many people care about it) exist in these devices too, but I never really use them.

Another very important option that the Creative players have but the AGPTEK U3 doesn't is two random playing modes. The first one shuffles through the songs in the current folder only (also available in the U3). The other - and the key to MuVo's greatness - is the ability to go randomly through all songs in the device. Why does every player not have this option? In fact, I have not seen it anywhere else and I have searched through probably all players available (even read manuals, reviews, etc). Seriously, why would you not have an option to cycle through all the songs you've uploaded? Why would you arbitrarily restrict yourself to only the current folder? Imagine that in a music player on the computer - no one would use it if it lacked such a feature. It's like having to copy and paste files one by one in a file manager, but not being able to do it en masse - totally stupid and yet everyone does something similar with MP3 players produced today.

If you like listening to podcasts, you'll be happy to know that there is a fast-forward (or backward) feature in the MuVo, but it has been improved over many other players (including the AGPTEK U3). When you hold the scroll wheel to the left or right, it starts going forward or backward (extremely intuitive - after all, it's literally scrolling through the file). But if you keep holding it, it starts moving faster - so you can reach the required point in less time. In the AGPTEK U3 and many other players, the movement happens at the same pace regardless of how long you hold the button. If you have a two hour long podcast that you want to reach the middle of, this is absolutely unbearable.

Sony Walkman NWZ-B183F - The Jukebox of Integrity


My current mp3 player is Sony Walkman NWZ-B183F, which I bought about 8 years ago - and indeed, I can say a lot of good things about it. First of all, it follows the traditional "no bullshit" design, focused on playing music proper - don't expect it to play videos or display PDFs. The player's internal memory capacity is 4 GB, which is likely more than enough to hold your favourite album collection @ 192 or even 320 kbps. Speaking of formats, it supports only MP3 and WMA. No SD card support, but with this much internal memory - it's not a big loss really.

Despite its country of assembly being China, this model is surprisingly durable! Since 2013, it's been through a lot - heavy everyday use, exposures to cold Russian winters, falls from a pocket and right onto the bare concrete floor... And it's still completely intact, the only things giving away its age being scratches. The main body appears to be encased in some kind of metal as opposed to plastic, and this is what makes it practically unkillable. The display and buttons are fairly sturdy as well. The latter have a nice, prominent feel to them, which makes navigation a breeze. The USB output lid does not fall off easily, which is also a plus.

When it comes to power, we have here an internal battery of average capacity - it's decent for lengthy trips that last several hours, but will probably run out if you rely on your player very heavily throughout the whole day (think audiobooks). Power charge is through standard USB connection, no cable required - and from my experience, the battery refills pretty quickly. Regrettably, there's no support for replaceable batteries.

The hardware controls consist of a big frontal play/pause button situated next to the display, the belt-like forward/backwards controls also on the front, three smaller buttons on top: VOL -/+ and "BACK-HOME", plus the HOLD switch on the back, which protects against accidental keypresses. The VOL + button has a slight bump on it, for easier blind volume control and general navigation. Folder change sequence is not ideal, but fairly simple. From the play screen press (assuming the HOLD switch is off first): HOME -> PLAY -> FORWARD -> PLAY -> FORWARD -> PLAY, which gives access to the folders. When browsing the folder structure, the "All Files" option is available most of the time as the top choice. The player also allows you to pick the songs by the usual Artist/Album/Genre etc. tags, but most will find these options useless and confusing, unless you really edit your tags with extra special care.

A set of standard playback features is present: Repeat (1 song or folder); Shuffle (when it's on, it acts globally when you press "All songs" option, or within a chosen folder otherwise - but in both cases you have to choose a song first); Equalizer with a few presets and Bass Boost (which I never use). The display off timer and brightness are configurable as well. There is also FM-Radio available as an extra function, which is also capable of recording the streams - though I have absolutely zero need for it.

What about the flaws? Well, the player doesn't do well when navigating through long audio files like books and podcasts - although the fast-forward function is present in two modes: slower (while in playing state) or faster (while paused) - the first mode is way too slow for files longer than an hour, and the second, due to seeking in bigger chunks, can be very inaccurate. Another issue may involve the HOLD switch - which tends to malfunction sometimes (usually not going beyond harmless brief and false "keys locked" indications on the display when unlocking) and can, theoretically, lock you out of your player. It never happened to me, but I see that the risk is there. For the emergencies (i. e. freezes, glitches or loops), there's an oldschool "Reset" area at the top (it requires poking it with a sharp object, like a needle) which I don't recall using more than once or twice over all these years. The aforementioned lack of external battery slot is also quite unfortunate, because I found myself in many situations where a portable source of extra energy could have been extremely handy.

All in all, I consider Sony NWZ-B183F a near-perfect choice when it comes to a classic device dedicated to playing the music wherever you want. It's very reliable, doesn't get in the way and has all the basics. If you need an extra push towards perfection, like having replaceable battery support - which certainly wouldn't have hurt to have in this model - there may be some better options out there. But chances are that this contemporary player won't let you down in the long term. I suggest to give it a try.

Note: Regarding the headphones to go with it, I absolutely recommend Panasonic ErgoFit, which are likewise known for their longevity and high quality while having affordable price.

This review has been written by Noctilucent. Digdeeper's comments: now, I have never used this player myself, but it looks like the best available option from the ones currrently produced. The only major flaw is the lack of replaceable battery support. Compared to the MuVo it has more default memory (4GB versus at most 2) and is likely more durable - at least in terms of hitting surfaces. The features I love the MuVo for are there as well - fat buttons (though it lacks the intuitive scroll wheel), ability to shuffle through all songs on the device, dedicated volume controls, small size, no bloat. The navigation seems slightly worse, and again, the lack of replaceable batteries stinks - but still, get this if you can't find the MuVo.

Concluding thoughts

If you are poor, you need to be extra diligent when buying stuff. Even if you have some spare money, you might still want to avoid a wasteful lifestyle / not support bad practices. I don't know about you, but I absolutely hate being conned or even the feeling of having made a bad decision. The problem is, the free market is a minefield - there are hundreds of available products, and most of them suck. To navigate it is a skill in itself. You can find a bunch of extremely cheap Chinese MP3 players out there; now, it doesn't take an Einstein to realize that they will break very easily on you. But just because something is more expensive, doesn't necessarily mean it's quality (unless it's very expensive).

The sellers, of course, try to portray their product in the best way possible, hiding the undesirable information. So, you might learn that your player has been made in China only after you get it. You can always, of course, read the manual or the reviews - but who really wants to do all that reading just to buy a music player? You'll easily burn out doing that. Still, some products lack manuals that you can find on the Internet - or they're hidden behind recaptchas or other crap. Reviews are either not written (because people just don't care) or bought - and if not, they rarely provide the necessary information. See, most people are not so autistic about products as me. They will not go into detail about button presses, etc. Even the producers themselves won't do that - which is one reason we get so many shoddy players.

There are other reasons for the lack of worthy devices. People just don't have an eye for quality anymore. Producers know they can make any kind of crap, throw a bunch of marketing slogans, and buyers will eat that up. Why bother making something better, if a worse product will still be bought and is cheaper to make? There are modern trends such as flat buttons, SD card support or in-built batteries which people don't mind but really reduce the quality of the devices (in the SD card case, it's a fine additional feature, but NOT as a replacement for built-in memory). Sellers will advertise stuff such as 32 GB memory, trying to blind consumers with a bigger number, when I've never needed more than 2GB, and even 1GB is plenty.

So which player to buy? I see no new ones that are superior to the Creative MuVo - so get it if you can find it. If you can deal with an in-built battery, there are a few more decent ones. But really, the only thing they (some of them) have over the MuVo is the ability to play FLAC files. It's funny how so many years have passed, yet the production quality did not increase - but the advertising potency sure did. I've also owned a few more MP3 players long ago, which lacked the issues of today's ones. They were sturdy, had nice fat buttons, more logical navigation, in-built memory and replaceable battery support. But the MuVo simply goes a little further. Anyway, watch this space, because I might be getting more promising players to review soon. What's the moral of the story? New products suck, get old ones if you can.

If you want to improve the situation, please review every product you buy - whether it satisfied your expectations or not. Let other people know about its quality, so they don't waste their money and don't support bad practices. Go into as much detail as you can. How is the player's navigation? Does it have the necessary options? How does it compare to other devices within the same price range? And if you've had it for a long time, and it still works - mention that too, because this kind of information is really hard to find. Durability is probably the most important issue with MP3 players (and any other devices) - so if you find one that ticks that box, let others know. Time to end the production of stuff that breaks - if not through socialism (which we don't have), then the proper use of the free market - as in, supporting only the companies that make the best products. But for that, we need access to good information - and since sellers rarely provide it, this is where you - the user - come in.

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