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Audio Taste Test: Who Beats The iPod On Audio Quality?

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If you read our review of the Zune HD you may have noticed that we compared its audio quality to the Sony Walkman X Series. I did this after listening to the same song on both players at the suggestion of Jeffery Wilson (who reviewed the Sony). We both agreed that the Walkman had superior audio quality over both the Zune and the new iPod nano, which then led to the question: if other people knew this, or could experience it, would they still choose an iPod? Does sound quality matter to consumers? I decided to put it to the test.

We took the Zune HD, Sony Walkman X, iPod Nano and the Samsung P3 (another player with a high audio quality rating) to two music stores in New York City to ask employees and patrons which they thought sounded better. However, we didn’t let our test subjects see which players they were listening to. The only data they had to go on was how each sounded while listening with a pair of Bose QuietComfort 15 noise canceling headphones.

We created a playlist with 15 - 30 second snippets from 6 songs. The tracks were not only from different genres but also encoded at different bit rates so each listener would experience the full gamut on each device. Our playlist consisted of the following tracks in MP3 format:

Our first stop was Village Music World, a little store packed floor to ceiling with CDs and records -- audiophile heaven. After both employees and patrons listened to each playlist on the Zune, Walkman, nano and P3, we asked them to describe their auditory experience.

Testers felt that the Zune and nano had nearly identical sound quality but rated it as thin or flat. Everyone agreed that the Walkman and P3 had superior quality because the sound was fuller and richer, but our testers were evenly split on which they thought was slightly better.

Next we went to Other Music in the Village, a store famous for its amazing collection of CDs and LPs plus its knowledgeable employees. After listening to the players in the same order, Other Music employees had similar reactions. Zune and nano sound quality: thin; weak bass; felt hollow; flat. Walkman and P3: fuller, richer sound; more present bass; more “air” to the music. One Other Music employee rated the nano higher than the Zune, but preferred the Walkman overall.

Everyone we conducted the test on were iPod owners (past or present) and many rated the quality as good before the test. All but one was surprised to learn that the iPod was one of the devices they’d given a poor rating to. The only exception was John from Other Music; he stopped listening to music on his iPod due to audio quality. (He likes vinyl best.)

After the test was over, I asked each person which player they would buy if they were going to purchase a new one now. Everyone chose either the Sony Walkman X Series or the Samsung P3 over the nano or Zune.

We played the PMPs in the same order for each listener:

  1. ZuneHD
  2. Sony Walkman X Series
  3. iPod Nano
  4. Samsung P3

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When deciding to purchase a music player, what do most consumers look for? The four players we showed people each have good functionality and a good to great interface. Though iTunes is convenient for both organizing and purchasing music, it's not the only kid on the block, anymore. Yes, Apple has the biggest selection. But when music lovers are looking to purchase new releases like Whitney Houston’s comeback album I Look To You, they can do so through Amazon.com or the Zune marketplace or even Wal-Mart’s website.

If a consumer feels that all else is equal, what’s left? Audio quality. And in that department, the most popular player and its most high-profile competition lag behind.

Does audio quality matter to you? If you could have a player that sounded far better for about the same price, would you choose it over the hot or popular product?

Image: secret by bandita on Flickr