Well, I have started hitting gym lately to get back in the shape (yes, being a programmer with a desk job really equates to a lot of coffee). Also, if you are an engineer/nerd, you would know how music plays a key role in how we function in our day to day life.
Music is a must. Anywhere. Anytime.
I am not kidding when I say anywhere! Don’t believe me? Let’s see. On my way from home to work in the morning, I prefer hooking my car’s ICE to pop/metal music. Upon reaching the work, I plug in my Sony MDR-XB450 (review here) to hear some chiptune (8-bit music, it keeps me hooked to work). Then on my way back to home, it’s mostly soft-rock in my car.
But, when I hit the gym in the late evening, it’s just a chaos as Mechanix Fitness Studio is always full of chattery people trying to get them gains, add some loud music to the mix, it’s just not the best mix to concentrate on your reps and form. So, it made me think, hey! how about I add some music to my gym time too so as to isolate myself and work out in peace with style. 😉
Though it may sound easy, but it was indeed quite complex to incorporate music into my gym schedule. What followed this decision was a series of experiments! So…
Let’s science it up!
>> Experiment #1: Earphones + Samsung Galaxy S6 in the pocket
Well, one thing I take proud is in having one of the best sound chip in my smartphone. Yes! Samsung Galaxy S6 with its 16-bit and 24-bit FLAC audio support out of the box is considered to have the most accurate and cleanest audio reproduction in its class. So, I hooked up my CX-180s and went for a workout.
- Treadmill/Cross Trainer: Good! Because treadmill and cross trainer has a dashboard up front to keep your phone, keys etc. It was easy to operate the playback.
- Cycling: Bad! Because phone in the pocket is difficult to reach while you are cycling as your legs fold to make the pocket really hard to access.
- HIIT: Ugly! Because your phone will keep dangling in your pocket while you do them burpees, planks, leg raises. It’s quite irritating.
- Free weight training: Bad! Because again you phone is in your pocket and it’s quite a waste of time to reach out, unlock your screen, change the song, put it back. Also, being large in size, I was worried about cracking the screen while doing dumb bell curls. 🙁
>> Experiment #2: Earpods + Apple iPhone 6 in the armband
I figured out maybe my Galaxy S6 is bulky and heavy, which could be making it inconvenient to use. I had a spare iPhone 6 in my drawer. Since it is more compact than my S6, I thought to have some use for it. So, I read online and saw many people use Armband with their iPhones to run around and work out. It looked like a viable solution. Hence, I ordered a cheap armband for my iPhone 6 and tried it on.
Here are my findings:
- Treadmill/Cross Trainer: Great! Because now I could just operate my music while running easily with the inline remote of the earpods without worrying about fetching the device.
- Cycling: Great! Same reason as above as I didn’t have to worry about the device causing discomfort to operate my music.
- HIIT: Bad! Because while it did improve the device dangling problem as it held firmly against my arm, it still wasn’t easy to do crunches without playing tug of war with the wire of earpods.
- Free weight training: Ugly! Because now instead of the device, the wire of my earphones was a problem, as iPhone being strapped on my arm, I couldn’t run the wire beneath my shirt so it flowed freely across my torso and it got caught time to time in reps of different exercises.
>> Experiment #3: A borrowed Apple iPod Shuffle
To be honest, I never was a fan of mp3 players, especially since the advent of the smartphones as since I bought my first smartphone Nokia N73 that was all the way back in 2008, I never felt the need to carry any extra device for music as my phone fulfilled that need with ease. So, mp3 players always felt like a gimmick to me and I couldn’t understand their proper use case other than preserving your phone’s battery.
I never was a fan of mp3 players.
But, when I discussed my music problem with a friend, he advised me to borrow his iPod shuffle and try it for a workout session or two. Here are my findings:
- Treadmill/Cross Trainer: Great! Because now I could just operate my music playback with a (physical) keypress and voila, it was a part of my muscle memory in no time.
- Cycling: Great! Same reason as above as I didn’t have to worry about unlocking the device and then targeting the touchscreen to tap the controls with precision.
- HIIT: Great! Because there was no more any wiring problem. I just clipped the iPod to the sleeve of my lower’s pocket and ran the wire beneath my shirt. It worked perfectly.
- Free weight training: Great! Because as stated above, wires no longer got in the way and changing music was just muscle memory. I could change a song, pause, increase/decrease volume in middle on my reps without even looking at the device. Also, if it caused any problems while let’s say squatting, I could easily change its position and clip it somewhere else.
A huge plus in my book!
Experiment #3 changed my whole perception and notion about the mp3 players.
I knew I had to get one now. It was simply quite refreshing to workout in your own zone with no disturbance or meaningless chatter. Even the workout time was pretty efficient with low rest between easy rep. It meant it was time for some nerd research to pick up the best offering in the market. Nerd on!
Nerd mode = ON!
I set up an upper cap of ₹5000 to fulfil my quest for a portable mp3 player for the gym. I scoured the Internet to check what everyone else is using and got hit by a sad reality. It seems like you do not have a lot of options in this genre anymore. It was like a brutal flashback to my perception about Mp3 players before I had this use case, remember the wall of text above under Exp #3.
A lot of major companies who were solely into mp3 player business had either become bankrupt or they had closed their operations in India thanks to the smartphone boom.
Now it was time to find out what product should I throw my money at?
Still, I managed to search quite a few options for myself. Here are the following:
- Philips GoGear Mix 4GB MP3 Player
- Transcend Digital TS8GMP330K Music Player 8GB MP-330
- Transcend MP350 (TS8GMP350B) 8 GB Digital Music Player
- Sony NWZ-B183F Walkman MP3 Player with Built-in FM Tuner (4GB)
- Apple iPod Shuffle 2GB
Testing 1, 2, 3…GO!
Well straight off the bat, I was a bit biased towards the Apple iPod shuffle, as I had tried it personally and found it to be the most practical thing for my use case but 2 gigs of storage for ₹4,000 was really amusing. I started exploring and testing #1 to #4 at nearby electronic stores and asked around in my friend circle if they have any.
In spite of being the most budget friendly and feature packed product (FM, FM recording, Audio recording), I quickly ruled out Philips GoGear as:
- Music Playback: Volume output was not as loud to my liking as I was planning to use it in the gym, remember?
- Stock earphones: Potato quality. I get the point of using your own earphones for good quality, but it doesn’t mean an OEM can’t provide decent earbuds with a product whose sole purpose is to listen to the music. 🙁
- Buttons feedback: I found them to be very stiff and uneasy to press.
- Navigation UI: The file system navigation was unimpressive. Also, there was no concept of playlists.
- Build quality: It was quite flimsy. The cap felt like it will fall off within a week of use.
When I tested this product in Croma, I was surprised by the tanky build quality despite having a plastic construction. This product is the boss man of the MP3 realm. It comes with a myriad of features like recordable FM Radio with 20 station presets, karaoke-style synchronised lyrics display, gapless audio recordings, power-saving screen savers and auto-shutoff function. Also, 8 GB of storage ensures that you can take your whole library along.
- Music Playback: Playback was really a step up from #1, music was super clear, thought the base was a bit on the low side. Doesn’t play FLAC files. No option to shuffle the music so it always start from the beginning. 🙁
- Stock earphones: Decent quality. I tried listening to some slow tracks and it was fine but felt lacking on dubstep music.
- Buttons feedback: It was quite satisfying with a nice click to it. Perfectly balanced travel.
- Navigation UI: I found the UI to be a bit clunky and archaic but mind you, this comes from me as I am biased towards minimalistic design. Overall it was still pleasant as Transcend has crammed a lot of features in this product which makes it quite VFM.
- Build quality: It was built like a TANK! I am not kidding. This thing felt super sturdy.
Well, MP350 is supposed to be an upgrade to 330K but IMHO it brings some tradeoffs when compared to previous version i.e. 330K. You do get some nice goodies such as water resistance, a clip to clip it onto your clothes like Apple iPod, enhanced bass, Fitness mode to track your calories, in-ear-canal headphones but does it do one thing a music player is supposed to do? Play music?
Let’s check it out:
- Music Playback: Playback felt a bit lacking when compared to its predecessor. Sure, the bass has increased but the treble was not as good as #2. Also, overall volume output felt pretty low. The most irritating aspect I found was that it takes around 2 seconds to switch to the new song. Rest is same as #2 as it doesn’t play FLAC files. No option to shuffle the music so it always starts from the beginning. 🙁
- Stock earphones: In-ear-canal earphones but underwhelming clarity and quite flimsy to use. Cheap is the word.
- Buttons feedback: Buttons are really really hard and ergonomically misplaced, makes it challenging to use with a single hand
- Navigation UI: Navigation UI is same as #2 for the most except the addition of the new features which makes it more clunky.
- Build quality: If #2 was built like a TANK, I will say this one goes overboard and is build like an APACHE heli. Though it does lead to some problems such as the omission of USB port for easy charging and data transfer, buttons are really hard to press.
As I mentioned in my last headphone quest, I have a lot of nostalgia associated with Sony.
So, I had a lot of expectations with this product. Luckily one of my friends owned the same model. I borrowed for a full day and decided to give it a go. The product comes with 4 gigs of storage (could be more!) with FM tuner and recording. It’s a no-frills product with no overwhelming features. It is just meant to do one thing i.e. hear music and was surprisingly excellent at it.
Let’s break it down..
- Music Playback: Volume output is insane while maintaining the perfect treble with highs and lows to the point. It also gets brownie points for being able to power up my Sony XB450s to it’s full potential. FM tuner has a good reception too though the recording is nothing to talk about. Also supports MP3, WMA, FLAC, AAC-LC and Linear PCM.
- Stock earphones: Surprise! Despite being simple classic earphones the quality is pretty good. Though the output is completely flat (sans bass), the clarity is exceptional. Though the cord is super flimsy and playing tug of war may lead to it’s malfunctioning easily.
- Buttons feedback: Perfect! The placement of Play, Next and Previous is in such a way that you can quickly access it with your thumb while holding it in one hand. But Volume +/- and Back buttons are really small and can be irritating to press. Brownie points for Hold slider at the back to prevent it to automatically change songs while in your pocket while you run, cycle or squat.
- Navigation UI: It has a minimal UI featuring everything needed for a smooth music experience, bass boost mode, 5 band equaliser, shuffle, repeat, folder playback, playlist. You name it.
- Build quality: It is carved out of tough rugged unibody Aluminium which gives it a really premium finish. The OLED screen flushes nicely with the body. The USB cap also feels pretty sturdy and snaps on with a nice click.
Apple is one of the revolutionary names in digital music industry. They pretty much changed the way music was distributed in the early 2000s with the introduction of iTunes store and legendary iPod Classic.
As mentioned above, I have had already experience the iPod shuffle courtesy to a friend and was blown away by the ease of its use and minimalism. But when I borrowed it again from the same friend for a whole day to test its practicality, I was hit by the wall of reality. iPod shuffle had a tough competition with #1 to #4 above. I tried to copy my music library to give it a test run which was a headache due to customary iTunes installation to transfer the songs whereas it was pretty much “plug-n-play” with the products above.
I also found the 2GB to be a limiting factor when combined with the absence of screen or pretty much any UI, it is just too much targetted to listen to just a specific set of songs which I found hard to maintain over a long time.
Let’s see the other parameters now:
- Music Playback: Placebo or not, but I feel you get the best experience with iPods out of the box as you don’t need to plug any other fancy earphones and lack of UI makes the whole experience a bit more immersive in it’s own weird way. The volume output was great, so were the bass and treble. It is the king of formats with support for AAC, protected AAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV. It is the most balanced product IMO.
- Stock earphones: Great! Despite being the classic earbuds, it still packs a punch and delivers crystal clear sound to your ears.
- Buttons feedback: Minimalistic iconic layout of buttons is a pleasure to press. Just one negative could be that buttons are so soft that you may pause/change track while running, squatting if not clipped appropriately. Though it’s subject to the usage.
- Navigation UI: Everything up front really helps with your muscle memory once you start using it. It’s a no-brainer minimal layout.
- Build quality: Its main body is crafted from a single piece of aluminium, so iPod shuffle feels solid, sleek and durable. Though you need to keep the bundled mini USB cable safe to charge or transfer the data.
What did I choose?
Can you take a guess?
Well, as much as I was a sucker for Apple iPod shuffle’s quality, 2 GB of storage with shenanigans of iTunes and an uneasy way for charging/data transfer was a deal breaker for me. Also, I have a quite versatile taste in music as I enjoy Melodious Kishore Kumar as much has I enjoy deadmau5 progressive house genre.
So, I needed a product which could do the following with ease:
- Portable & Lightweight
- Folder playback
- Playlists playback
- Decent storage space
- Ease of transfer (drag n drop)
- Ease of charging
- Great battery life
While it was pretty close when compared with #2 (Transcend Digital TS8GMP330K MP-330), a few things worked in the favour of Sony NWZ-B183F Walkman to put it on top of my list. Lack of shuffle mode, folder playback and clunky UI worked against the Transcend while Sony with it’s rightly feature packed offering won for me.
Also, the price difference was like just ₹400 so it made sense to go for a superior build quality and a trusted name in the audio industry. Sony pretty much invested everything, right? 😛
Are you an audiophile too? Let’s discuss some great albums down there in comments! 😎