I find it hard to evaluate an MP3 player until I've lived with it for a little while. Specifications, demos, and even quick hands-on tests don't tell you the most important thing: how does it sound? Can you listen to it for an hour? A week? The rest of your life?
On Tuesday, I spent a few hours with the 32GB versions of Microsoft's new Zune HD and Apple's latest-generation iPod Touch. To me, these are the top-of-the-line competitors in the MP3 player market--if you're a serious music listener with nearly $300 to spend, these are your two choices.
On a straight specifications basis, each of them has clear advantages.
The iPod Touch excels as a portable multifunction computer, with tens of thousands of available applications, and it's the only choice for Mac users. The Zune HD has superior music-discovery features, particularly when used with a Zune Pass subscription. Plus, it has an HD Radio and a sophisticated desktop PC client that makes iTunes look stale.
On industrial design, I think they're about even--a commendable feat for Microsoft given how far behind the previous Zunes were. On user interface, the iPod Touch may be more intuitive at first, but the Zune HD is way cooler--I love the way artist images and words scroll across the background as you play a song--and gives you far more customization over the music-playing experience. (I'm amazed that the iPod Touch still doesn't have an easy way to add songs to a now-playing queue, for instance.)
But what about the actual sound? To try them out, I ran them into the audio input jack in my car, which is how I most often listen to portable music. I turned each device up to just below maximum volume (I've heard my iPhone distort at its max), and made sure the EQ settings were completely flat.
The Zune HD sounded very crisp and clean, with clear separation in the bass, but the midrange--guitar, vocals--didn't seem full or loud enough. When I turned it up to try and get a fuller sound, the treble became overwhelming.
The iPod Touch was noticeably louder at the same volume setting on the car stereo. The trebly parts--cymbals, high-hat, the squeak of a saxophone reed--were still distinct, but the bass sounded rounder and warmer, and the midrange (the most important spectrum when choosing audio gear) shone through. It made me realize how much sound was missing when I listened to the Zune HD.
The difference became most obvious when I took a couple songs--Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely" and Mr. Bungle's NSFW funk-bizarro song "Squeeze Me Macaroni"--and listened to them back to back on each player. On the Zune HD, the acoustic guitar in the Radiohead song sounded clinky and thin, and the percussion in the Bungle song was unbearably high-pitched. On the iPod Touch, the guitar sounded like guitar and the percussion was complementary rather than overwhelming.
A few hours later, I tried a similar test through the relatively cheap headphones that come with the Zune HD. Here, the Zune fared a bit better--it sounded louder, so I didn't need to turn it up so much that the over-boosted treble hurt my ears--but there simply wasn't as much audio information coming through, especially at the low end.
Hearing is subjective--apparently younger listeners are beginning to prefer the "sizzle" of highly compressed MP3s, and one listener's "crisp" is another's "harsh." And I'm an analog fan, with far more records than CDs in my home collection. But to me, the Zune HD sounded pretty good, while the new iPod Touch is the best-sounding MP3 player I've ever heard, comparing favorably with a decent CD player.
Your lesson? Don't just read the specs and look at the interface before you buy an MP3 player. Spend some serious time listening to it, at volume.