By far the most difficult (read: impossible) question for me to answer is: what is the very best MP3 player/headphone/iPod speaker/etc? That's because there is no single device in any given category that is perfect for every person. There is a healthy handful of MP3 players that I think are excellent, but finding the right device for an individual has a lot to do with personal preference and requirements. I can, however, tell you what I would buy for myself. Also this week: how to judge the best time to buy a new MP3 player.
Q: I have been reading and watching review on your website (and others) and by far you guys are the best. However, I am thoroughly confused. What is the top, #1 best rated MP3 player? I can't decide between the Zune 80GB, the iPod Classic, the Creative Zen, or the Archos. Knowing what you know, which MP3 player would you buy today? Do your "best" lists go in order? Is the first listed what you consider the best? Also, if you knew if the Zune third-generation was coming out in 2008 or 2009, would you wait?--Bobbie, via e-mail
A: Navigating the tech market can certainly be a confusing process, so I don't blame you for asking for advice--that's what we're here for, after all! There isn't really just one MP3 player that we consider the best of the best; more like a handful of great players that are the best for you depending on your specific needs. The Best 5 list isn't necessarily in order: each player makes the list for a set of reasons. We consider a few criteria when adding to the list: value, sound quality, feature set, and ease of use are all top considerations. I like all of the players listed in the Best 5 for different reasons, but personally, I would buy the Creative Zen V Plus, even though it's been out for two years and is dated by market standards. It's just the perfect balance of features, sound quality, size, and ease of use for me.
However, I generally recommend the Zune for people who are getting older and may have failing eyesight, because it uses a large font and is very easy to use overall. It also has a reasonable amount of features and good sound quality. I probably would not wait for the third-gen Zune simply because I would not want to be without an MP3 player for six months or more.
Q: I would like to buy an MP3 player. When does the industry introduce their new players to the public? I know that the manufactures will not do it at the same time, but in general would they want to take advantage of some event where folks are looking for a new player? Events such as Christmas, start of school, and so on is what I am thinking about. Also, I don't want to pay full price for a dated model that I happen to buy one week before the new release. --Kerry, via e-mail
A: It varies, though certain manufacturers have cycles that they tend to follow. For example, Apple tends to announce new iPods in September or October. Others, such as Creative, launch players within the current line throughout the year. And--yes--a lot of companies release at least one new product in fall to coincide with the holiday buying schedule. In general, though, you can count on products refreshing on an annual basis. So a good rule of thumb is to look at the release date for the player you like: if it is around a year old, it likely has a new version coming out soon, and it may be wise to wait. Also, keep an eye out at the end of October and beginning of November for new products or deals on existing products.
MP3 Mailbox Monday is a recurring feature in which I answer a selection of questions about MP3 players and accessories, such as headphones, speakers, and music services and software. Check back often to see if the advice presented here might be of some use to you, or send your questions directly to me. (Note: We never include last names, but if you prefer to remain completely anonymous, please state as much in your e-mail.)