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This might be hard for some people to fathom, but there are digital music players made by other companies beside Apple.


But before you think I’m about to write some type of heresy—iPod is not the best?—here’s the point: The iPod has keen competition, if you look.


There can be good reasons for not picking an iPod.


One, other players often include an FM radio; iPods do not.


Two, the following devices worked easily on Microsoft Windows, as does the iPod, and each found and organized the music files I have scattered about the Hewlett-Packard laptop I used for this review.


Three, price considerations: Some offer exceptional value.


Nonetheless, when it comes to digital music players, how things stack up against the iPod is a fair test because Apple made it so easy to use and consistently innovates with new features such as touch-screen controls.


So here’s what I kept in mind as I examined these players: How easy is it to use out of the box? Is the software that manages the music cumbersome or intuitive? What features stand out? How simple is navigation?


Sansa


Let’s start with the remarkable Sansa Clip, a smart, small and very functional device from SanDisk that offers 1 or 2 gigabytes of storage, or roughly 250 to 500 MP3 files.


The best feature? It’s $40 for the 1GB version and $60 for 2GB. It comes in four colors (black, blue, pink and red), can be clipped to a belt or purse and weighs less than an ounce. It sounds darn good and looks cool too.


Unlike the more expensive iPod Shuffle, with 1GB of storage for $79, this device includes an FM tuner, a voice recorder, a link for a subscription music service and a screen to navigate through artist names, song titles and albums. You have choices the Shuffle doesn’t offer.


Setup was simple. The software downloaded easily. In the model I tested, the music software, provided by Rhapsody, linked to the online music store operated by Best Buy. (The blue, pink and red models are sold only at Best Buy.) The Rhapsody software found songs from Windows Media Player and automatically moved them over. (It also checked for an iTunes library, where it would have accessed MP3 files loaded from CDs, but I don’t have iTunes on that laptop.)


It supports music services from eMusic, Napster, Rhapsody and others.


My one complaint: navigating the menus was a little confusing. But that’s minor considering I could choose between playing my favorite CDs, listening to the radio or, when inspiration struck, record a voice memo.


If you were thinking of getting a Shuffle, I suggest the Sansa Clip instead.


Zune


The challenge for Microsoft Corp.‘s upgraded Zune is pretty simple: Will consumers take it seriously?


They absolutely should, because my tests with the new 80GB model were simply delightful, with one exception.


Loading the software was fast, importing songs and albums from the other music programs on the HP was a snap (iTunes MP3 files will transfer over), and the upgraded software used to manage one’s music was easy to learn.


From a physical standpoint, the 80GB Zune ($250) is slightly smaller and thinner than last year’s 30GB model ($200). The navigation pad has been changed, too, allowing you to move around the device with a touch or a firm tap. The pad also is used on the flash-drive based 4GB ($150) and 8GB ($200) models.


Microsoft included a nice surprise in the 80GB model: higher-quality headphones. They are in-ear models and sound much better than what ships with the iPod. The headphones on the other Zune models are standard, however.


Here’s how setup works:


Buyers go to Zune.net to download the software. Like the iPod, the music player does not ship with software. Over my standard DSL broadband connection, the download took 6 minutes. After 15 minutes, it was installed on my computer, and it began collecting all the music, videos and photos I had on that computer. (I did this while holding a baby, so that’s a clue as to how simple this setup was.)


Then I plugged the Zune in via USB, and all that content moved into the device in roughly 15 minutes. It was iPod-like in its simplicity and about as trouble-free a setup as I’ve had with a device capable of playing music and videos.


Then it got better: To test how the device would import music after initial setup, I loaded (ripped, if you prefer) 10 more CDs onto the laptop. Most of these CDs had whiskers, too, some at least 10 years old. So it was a nice surprise when the Zune software recognized the discs quickly, faster than on iTunes, and imported track names and artwork.


The software sorts your music by date, so the last disc ripped is the first one you see. This is nice because one assumes people want to play their most recent additions.


Then I hit a snag. One new feature is wireless syncing, meaning you don’t need to connect the device to your PC via USB cable to transfer over new tunes, such as the 10 CDs I just ripped. I set up the Zune to work wirelessly, and it recognized my home network and the computer with the Zune software. Everything seemed to set up just fine, but the music would not transfer over.


I fiddled with the settings a bit more, but I never could get it to work, even though it looked as if it should.


Despite that disappointment, Microsoft is getting it right with the Zune. This device was a pleasure that I want to spend more time with to discover other features, including the Zune Marketplace, where you buy music and sign up for a subscription service.


BeoSound 6


This next player, on the other hand, is a head scratcher considering its high price and lack of features compared with its peers. It doesn’t play videos or include an FM radio, for instance.


It is Bang & Olufsen’s second MP3 player, the BeoSound 6, and it sells for $600, with only 4GB of storage. That’s $400 more than the 8GB iPod Nano or Zune.


The best feature might be the leather case it ships with, or perhaps the very comfortable headphones. But as a music player to compete with the iPod, Zune or Sansa, it falls so far short I cannot recommend this device.


It sounds better than any other MP3 players I’ve tested, but not $400 better.


The improved sound is what you’d expect from a company that offers high-end audio gear. B&O explains that “acoustic engineering” and a “high-performance signal-to-noise playback” are the reasons why. But it also offers users a mouse-click option in the software to import songs at a higher bit rate, which I did. (You can do this with other players too; just check the settings.) The higher the bit rate, the less compressed the music file and, hence, a more robust sound.


Another nice touch is the A8 headphones that ship with the device. These wrap behind each ear, and the ear buds can be moved up and down to create a firm fit. But you can buy these separately for $160, which I would consider a reasonable purchase.


The BeoSound 6 is handsome, with a brush-metal front, and it is simple to operate. But it is not worth the price considering how little music, no matter how nice the sound, it holds.


___


(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune)

Tagged as: beosound 6 | ipod | mp3 players | sansa | zune
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