With the Christmas tree chopped up and the New Year's resolutions made (and probably broken) the holidays are officially over and the new year has begun. But if you're on the receiving end of a gift from one of the 60% of Americans who purchased a gift card as a present this year, the Christmas season may not be quite over. Now you need to decide what to do with those gift cards and they probably won't be to a place like Newegg where you can geek-out on exotic hardware; instead you're shopping retail.

So what do you do with those gift cards before they begin to self-deduct? If you're thinking of an MP3 player, then you're in the right place. We're re-launching our coverage of MP3 players here at AnandTech, and to start things off we have a roundup of high-end MP3 players from juggernauts Apple and Microsoft, who between the two control the vast majority of the high-end high-margin market for MP3 players in the United States.

Apple of course needs no introduction in the MP3 player market, as while they were originally a couple of years late to the game they have managed to become the unlikely 800lb gorilla in the MP3 player market. iPod has very nearly become synonymous with "MP3 player" in common vernacular, a short-but-succinct summary of Apple's dominance (and a possible trademark nightmare for the company in the future). They're the company to beat, they have no desire to hide this, and they have no intention of letting it happen.

Meanwhile we also have Microsoft, a far newer competitor that has done surprisingly well or surprisingly poor in the market so far, depending on who you ask. Their first Zune was panned by critics for various perceived inadequacies and the Zune did not dislodge Apple from being the king of the hill as Microsoft had hoped. Yet on the other hand, the first Zune was enough to catapult Microsoft to the #2 supplier of hard drive based MP3 players in the United States, shooting past entrenched players like Creative practically overnight. They came nowhere close to beating Apple in the MP3 player market, but they got closer than anyone else in recent years and are willing to throw the money and leverage that is Microsoft to try again and again.

It has been no accident that Microsoft has chosen the past year to break in to the MP3 player market. Issues of company diversification aside, as an established market the MP3 player market has in the past year finally matured. For Apple this is a troubling news, as they must now compete with themselves to sell new iPods since they can no longer bank on market growth to keep their sales high. Meanwhile for Microsoft this is great news, as Microsoft's is often at its best when it's time to compete in a mature market where breakthroughs are slow and the risk of competitors blind sighting them is low.

The MP3 players we will be looking at today represent the shifts in product styles that come with that maturation. From Apple we have the old guard and the new guard; the iPods Classic and Touch respectively. From Microsoft we have the Zune 80, a product that is both the old and new guards at the same time, striving to fix what ailed the first Zune in the process. How do these MP3 players stack up? Let's find out.

iPod Classic
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  • TedKord - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    A mac IS a PC these days, only with fewer hardware choices and OSX instead of Windows/Linux, etc... Reply
  • Dennis Travis - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Interesting. I really like the Zune but use Macs for my everyday computing. Go figure! I do have Windows machines also but it would be nice if MS made the Zune work with OSX. I know many with Macs who like the Zune. Reply
  • madoka - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I know I'm not alone in this and as wrong as it maybe, everytime I see someone with a Zune, I think that that person could either not afford or was too cheap to pay for an ipod. Reply
  • marybear423 - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    Riight...

    zune 80gb $249.99
    ipod 80gb $249.00

    Looks like all those "poor people" had to go cheap and shell out an extra $0.99 for their zune...

    Brilliant. A+ for you.
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I want to commend you on nailing a huge issue in your introduction - gift cards. I was thnking about getting one of the lasser known MP3 brands - but I had to by my plasyer with BestBuy gift cards, so that ruled out a lot of my choices. I ended up going with the 8G Ipod Nano, since I liked that out of my choices at BestBuy. When your stuck with BestBuy, to really only have a few choices for a high end MP3 player. Reply
  • rhangman - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    The only reason I bought an iPod was because at the time they were the only players that could be controlled by car head units. Just did a quick search and I couldn't really see anything for Zune's. Since I bought my head unit (Alpine) the number of iPod compatible decks (after market and stock) has increased significantly too. Reply
  • rcbm1970 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Almost every review I have read that compares the zune 80 to the Ipod classic points out one very import feature: the superior sound quality if the zune. It isn't the earbuds its the sound quality of the base components. I took my the earbuds that came with my zune 80 and listened to many of the competition, and there is no comparison; the zune 80 is superior. As with the Iphone and its horrible call quality, the marketing of the cult and its design ignores the purpose of the device. This should be about sound quality being the primary concern. The fact that you were craving for an equalizers shows how little you understand about the sound quality issue. Did you understand that you are to fully place the zune earbuds into your ear to get the proper bass sound? I also question if you gave yourself enough time to get used to the zunes control features. It was into the third week before I started to get used to the short cuts. I will stick with cnet and pcmag if you produce reviews such as this. Reply
  • rcbm1970 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    I should clarify. By competition, I mean apple products. The creative products produce great sound. I haven't been able to compare to iriver devices, but the cnet folks have. This is really simple when shopping for these devices do look at the reviews, but then take your favorite set of headphones or buds (apple buds the exception) and listen to each device in the store. You will find the listening difference between the apple products and many of the others is analogous to dragging your hand across raw cardboard compared to fine finished wood. We have become so used to bad quality that we don't realize how good it can be. Reply
  • darkswordsman17 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    People,d the reason you shouldn't include stuff like the Zen and the Karma is that they are discontinued (in the case of the Karmas for a few years now). The Zen Vision: M is the closes to a direct competitor that Creative made to these two, and it is discontinued. We can throw the Cowon X5 in there as well. The new Zen I don't find comparable because it is flash based. It would be nice to see a flash comparison (where the Zune and iPods would get handed to it in price/performance and features, although the Touch would do well but it costs put it out of most people's consideration). There is a reason why there isn't any company making a music focused HDD based player, trying to compete with Microsoft and Apple is asking to lose money, and neither of those two are really competitive in the flash based players (at least on features and price), which allows them to actually compete. Of course that doesn't stop the iPods and Zunes from outselling them still.

    As for the slowdown on the Classic, have you tried using one with the updated firmware? The launch units did have some very bad slowdown, but it has since been resolved and is now much speedier.

    On the sound quality side, I was a bit unimpressed, as hooking them up to machines to check their sound quality doesn't tell the whole story. I have not seen a single person who has heard both the Classic or recent iPods (which many say sound better than the Classic although some say the Classic is better as well) and the Zunes who did not say the Zunes sound much better to their ears. The Zune 80 especially is known to have an execptionally clean headphone out (most people don't recognize noise in the signal when they hear it, mostly because they aren't used to using higher quality audio components, and no I'm not talking $50,000 speakers here either).

    Thats not to say the author's findings aren't valid, they just don't tell the whole story. I suggest checking out one of the many DAP/PMP review sites (such as DAPReview, AnythingbutiPod) and also forums such as the portable audio one on Head-Fi if you want more user consensus and in depth testing.

    Bottom line, if you need the storage and don't want to spend to get into the PMP category, then the iPod Classic or Zune are both quite good, each with its own strenghts. For flash players, the new Zen is very nice but has issues with the SD expansion slot (it doesn't integrate its music and other files with that of those on the players internal memory). The Cowon D2 is very good, although I'd wait because I think they're probably going to up capacity on them fairly soon. In that same vein the iRiver Clix 2 is pretty nice as is the Meizu M6 I think its called. The Sandisk Sansas are ok, but they are targeted more at packing features in than actually being that good at anything (sound quality, interface, etc). Lastly, there is the new Sony players, which although they lack the expansion slots that have become defacto, they have gotten rid of needing software for use and all the DRM crap that hurt Sony so badly. Also they compete well with the iPod and Zunes in price and features, all the while having some of if not the best sound from a portable music player. Personally, I wouldn't even consider the flash based iPods or Zunes at all as they're high on price and low on features compared to the competition. Couple that with Amazon being a better place to get music online than either iTunes or the Zune marketplace (no DRM at all, not just on some music, competitive price with better quality) and there's no reason to tie yourself to a setup like that (Amazon has a utility that will sync your downloads from them with iTunes so thats a non-issue).
    Reply
  • Odeen - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Any "high-end" MP3 player comparisons should also include the Rio Karma for a few reasons:
    The Karma is the de-facto standard in sound quality for MP3 files, and includes a dock that allows one to output line-level audio, bypassing the internal amplifier

    The Karma includes a 5-band parametric equalizer. Not only can you individually adjust any of the five bands, but you can also change the scope of the adjustment, as the "width" of the band is customizable

    The Karma is the only player that supports proper gapless playback with regular MP3 files. I don't know about you, but pauses and clicks where the music should be seamless is a huge reduction in sound quality.

    The Karma is the only player that supports free codecs of both lossy and lossless variety. If MP3 suddenly goes the way of the GIF (i.e. the format creator starts pursuing royalties more aggressively) and your mp3's are outlawed, the Karma will still play OGG and FLAC files, formats that cannot be patented or restricted.


    Basically, if you are comparing "MP3 Players", first and foremost judge them on how well they PLAY MP3's. I consider that any player wishing for itself to be considered "high end" should produce good sound quality without skipping or popping between tracks - which neither the iPod or Zune can. Everything else is pretty much gravy - whether it's a user interface that's not steeped in heavy geek, whether it's tight integration with a media management suite or music store, whether it's the ability to play videos or squirt. A high-end MP3 player should play MP3's better than anything else, and that's not what the iPod or the Zune offer.
    Reply

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