the tone zone

A summary of my comparisons...   (see the notes at the bottom on star ratings)

     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

Cassette walkman

   

The original portable stereo system. Some people still travel with these, although sales of blank cassettes ended in Western countries years ago and the tape cassette format is on the way out. I'm retaining the entry for comparison with more modern devices. They are fairly simple devices so were less likely to have a fatal breakdown than with a CD player. Some came combined with radios. A drawback was that the sound quality is rather poor, plus the tendency for the player to chew up the medium and reduce your precious cassettes to screws of snarled ribbon. If you wanted a big listening library, you ended up carrying quite a bulk in cassettes along with you. But the players were seriously cheap, and the best portable audio option in the 1980s.
 

 
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

CD (only) player

   

I can't see any real reason to buy a CD-only player for travel except the slight cost difference between it and a machine which allows you to play mp3 CDs as well. But if you get one, you'll have the ability to pick up and swap CDs as you go. Battery life is often quite low (15 hours or so), although models vary (few manufacturers list this on the box, however).
 

 
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

CD /CD mp3 player

   

These devices are happy with standard CDs or with data CDs containing (typically) 10 hours of quality music in the compressed mp3 format. You can burn the CDs on your own computer and in various internet cafes. With ten mp3 CDs along with you your library has about 100 hours of music! Their only drawback is often the low battery life (one ten-hour CD is about all you'll be able to play sometimes).
 

 
(CD)


(mp3)
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

MiniDisc

   

Another medium that has gone extinct. These compact devices were popular for nearly 20 years and used a special magneto-optical disc. The discs were re-recordable, so with an MD recorder you were able to swap music with other MD-ers as you went. The discs were very tough, and the players/ recorders themselves usually sported metal housings, so they were suited to a hard life on the road. Each disc was able to store a maximum of 80 minutes' music, but the advent of iPod-like players spelt their demise.

 

 
(player only)


(recorder)
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

Hard-drive based players

   

Apple introduced the original iPod in 2001, and since that time the hard-drive space has gone up from 20GB to 160GB. There are now many producers of HD-based players, though the battery life is rather low in some, and many are limited in which format (WMA, mp3, etc.) they can play. Can store photos and other files. In return you get possibly the tiniest and most functional travel music centre you can find, although these conveniences come at a fairly high price. The players are altitude limited, which means that you may destroy the internal drive using them above 3000m asl.

 

 
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

Flash Memory players 1

   

Full size More rugged players which have no moving parts, and which can store photos and other files. They have mostly lower capacities for music or photo storage compared with HD-based players, but with  generally better battery life, and most feature a bundled FM radio. Plug-in memory cards can expand the storage capacity of some  devices, but the base cost per hour of music is higher with these players than the HD-based models, although Flash memory prices have been falling recently.

 

 
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

Flash Memory players 2

   

Miniature These are versions of the above players so small that they are designed to be clipped to a shirt or trouser pocket while you are on the move. For all the features you get, they are very good value. I prefer the ones which can be expanded with microSD cards, enabling you to travel with an absolute minimum weight but still be able to switch music libraries as you go. Also get one with a display. Don't be tempted to skimp on the headphones with these players. For another $100/Euro90 or so, you'll hear markedly better performance in the bass and midrange than the limp sound from a player's included cheapish ear buds.

 

 
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

Portable computer

   

You would never take a laptop (or tablet, sub-notebook or ultrabook) only for playing music. For a start, it is the biggest and heaviest music playback option listed here, with often the lowest battery life. However, when you take such a machine along for storing your pictures, general Web surfing, email and writing a blog, it makes sense to extend its use to music. Tablets usually offer smaller storage space, often only around 64GB flash memory. Notebooks and ultrabooks have massive hard drives (320 to 500GB in the smallest ones) and software on the computer gives song management capability that other users can only dream about. With a wifi connection you'll be able to download new tracks. If your computer has a spinning hard-drive, remember you are limited by physics to a maximum altitude of 3000m (about 10,000 ft) asl when operating the device.

 

 
to

to


     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

e-reader

   

Not all e-book readers feature an audio playback capability, so check carefully before you buy. Some of the more popular brands (Kindle, Barnes and Noble) have removed audio playback from their readers, most likely to allow the unit to be manufactured at a keener price. It's also important to choose e-ink and not LCD as a display if you want to do any reading on the device (LCD is hard on the eyes for more than a few pages, and is useless in sunshine).
 

 
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

Smartphone

   

Very compact indeed and - by using downloadable apps - with impressive management of your collection on a fairly large screen. Audio quality can be rather scrappy, but good enough for bus and train rides. A major advantage is being able to download more music as you go.
 

 
     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality

 

Radio

   

I've travelled with a multi-band radio on several occasions and have been happy with my choice. You can hook up stereo phones to some radios and get quality stereo music. Get a good one, though, or  its shortwave bands will be nearly unusable. With a quality radio (possibly with digital tuning), you'll be able to catch news from around the world on SW. A short (4m) length of thin wire is recommended with all models to increase their range if you do a lot of SW listening. Radios usually feature excellent battery life unless you listen at high volume the whole time.

 

n/a

     

capacity

cost

size/
weight

battery
life

sound
quality


A note on the star ratings


Basically, it's more stars the better. More stars against cost means that the cost is lower (better for your wallet!) than devices with fewer stars. Capacity means the amount of onboard storage the device boasts (or loaded with one CD or minidisc) - more stars = more music. Size/weight rating takes into account the media you'll need to carry for 30 hours of listening time. So although the cassette walkman was quite compact, its cassettes took up space and would have been far bulkier than slim MiniDiscs or CDs for the same playing time. Of course, with flash player/smartphone solid-state storage, weight is less important. Sound quality was rated using quality HEAD phones, not earbuds (except in the case of the radio, when use of only the internal mono speaker is assumed) and presupposes that mp3s have been recorded using at least 192kb/s bitrate.

 

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