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Wednesday September 8, 2004 11:55 am

MP3 Players: The Truth Behind The Numbers

Posted by Andru Edwards - Categories: Portable Audio / Video

iPod mini 1000 SongsLooking at the packaging and marketing used by various drive-based MP3 player manufacturers, one might have false expectations of just how much music the product can hold. I think it's time for a little consumer education so that we can all be smarter shoppers. Reading reviews of products like the Apple iPod, Sony Walkman, Dell Digital Jukebox, and the like you will find journalists quoting the number os songs the player can hold - however, there is some fine print to be looked at when considering one player over another strictly based on this specification.

I'll take the iPod for example. Apple states 5,000 songs for the 20 GB version and 10,000 songs for the 40 GB version. Now, let's take a closer look: These numbers are only valid when storing songs that are 4 minutes long, which are encoded in 128 kbs AAC format.

From Apple:
4GB, 20GB or 40GB hard disk drive(1)

Holds 1,000, 5,000 or 10,000 songs in 128-Kbps AAC format(2)

Stores data via FireWire or USB 2.0(3) hard drive

Capacity based on 4 minutes per song and 128-Kbps AAC encoding.

The same arguement applies to the Dell DJ. With the DJ, Dell quotes higher numbers than the Apple iPod. However, this is because they are encoding with a different codec at a lower bit-rate than Apple. That is what gets you the high numbers.

From Dell:
15 GB1 model stores over 7,000 songs2.
20 GB1 model stores over 9,000 songs2.

Assumes audio format is 64 kbps WMA encoding with average song length of 4 minutes. Dell DJ 15 stores up to 3745 songs assuming audio format is 128 kbps MP3 encoding with average song length of 4 minutes. Dell DJ 20 stores up to 4962 songs assuming audio format is 128 kbps MP3 encoding with average song length of 4 minutes.

Obviously, encoding music in 64 kbps WMA format is going to allow for more songs to be added. But how good will the songs sound in that format? Most any audiophile will tell you that it will sound substantially worse than a 128 kbps MP3 file.

Looking at how Rio advertises the Rio Karma on their webpage, it is similar to the Apple iPod site, except that they don't specify song length or bit-rate.

From Rio:
20GB drive can store 10,000 songs**

**660 hours of WMA or 330 hours of MP3 music (over 10,000 WMA or 5,000 MP3 songs)

They haven't even included the fine print telling you that the songs need to be 4 minutes long, or the bitrate they must be encoded at. Obviously, if I encode my 10 minute long symphonies in 384 kbps MP3's, this no longer applies.

A quick look into the Creative Players might be of good use as well. I'll use the Creative Nomad Touch 20 GB for example.

Just take a look at the picture and read the fine print:

Creative Zen Touch Specifications

The Creative Nomad Jukebox Xtra has a different standard compared to the Touch.

From Creative:
Huge 60GB storage lets you bring up to 16,000 WMA songs (80kbps) or MP3 songs (128kbps) everywhere you go (Based on less than 4 minutes per song)

A recent Forbes article on the new Sony Walkman makes the error of saying that the 20 gig Walkman can hold more songs than the 40 GB iPod (13,000 Sony vs. 10,000 Apple).

From Forbes:
Sony's (nyse: SNE - news - people ) reinvented Walkman is actually comparable to an iPod Mini, in terms of physical size, but its ability to store 13,000 songs on only 20 gigabytes rivals Apple's (nasdaq: AAPL - news - people ) ability to cram 10,000 tunes onto 40 GB.

From Sony:
Store up to 13,000 Tracks at 48kbps when using Sony's ATRAC3plus audio format.

ATRAC3plus is a totally different codec with a 48kbps bitrate, and again, the songs are measured as being an average of 4 minutes long.

Now, unlike the examples above, iRiver stresses hours of music played.

From iRiver, regarding the H120:

Plays over 600 hours of digital music*

*Over 600 hours of music based on Windows Media format at 64kbps.

iRiver H140:

Plays over 1200 hours of digital music*

*Over 1200 hours of music based on Windows Media format at 64kbps.

So what have we learned? It is best to look at how much hard drive space you will need to help decide which player you will buy. Some players support different codecs, and you will need to take that into consideration as well. If you don't mind 48 kbps ATRAC3plus, the Sont might be the best for you because you can fit so many tracks on it. However, if you like using iTunes, then an iPod is your only solution. Whatever you do, don't take the manufaturer's word for it. Hard drives hold information, and whether it is a 20 GB Apple iPod, a 20 GB Dell DJ, or a 20 GB Sony Walkman - they all hold 20 GB of info. None holds more than the other.

- Andru Edwards

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