Audio, iPods & MP3 buying guide

Not so long ago, being into music meant having a room full of CDs, speakers the size of Belgium, a rat’s nest of wires and a stack of ugly black boxes in the corner of the room. But modern audio technology has revolutionised the lives and living rooms of music fans by miniaturising all the gear needed to play and store a lifetime’s collection of songs without sacrificing sound quality.

From slick-looking MP3 players that let you squeeze every album you own into your jacket pocket, to the latest wireless digital music players that can stream music from your PC anywhere in the house, the range of options can be bewildering. But whether you’re looking for a lightweight mini-player to help motivate you while on a run or a simple clock radio to stir you from your slumbers, there are plenty of options to suit every budget.

So what’s right for you? The hardest part is working out exactly what you need your audio system to do. Travel a lot? Consider a large-capacity portable multimedia player that means you can take your music, films and pictures everywhere you go. Like throwing parties? Consider a networked solution that can pump music into every room. Want to take your tunes into the garden? Think about a battery-powered iPod docking station with a built-in DAB radio.

This buying guide will help you choose the right system for you. But remember, what you play on it is entirely up to you!

iPods, MP3 and multimedia players

Since the original little white box appeared on the hips of trendy music fans the world over, Apple’s ubiquitous iPod (and the associated iTunes software) has revolutionised the way we listen to, buy and share music. Bringing together must-have desirability, a user-friendly interface and sexy design, it's still the first port of call for many buyers. But other companies are fighting back by offering a wide range of attractive alternatives. iPods, MP3 players and multimedia players come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes but all do pretty much the same thing.

What’s an MP3 player and how does it work?

Ignoring all the marketing hype, these must-have gadgets are really just storage devices that can play specially-compressed media files. Some are audio only, while some have high-resolution colour screens and can play both music and video - all require connecting to a computer to upload content.

Using a variety of compression formats (e.g. MP3, MP4, AAC) songs or videos can be turned into relatively small digital files allowing you to cram tens of thousands of songs or hundreds of hours of video onto a typical computer hard disk. The beauty of MP3 means that while the sound quality is lower than a CD, it’s barely discernable to the human ear.

The players themselves have tiny hard disks or Flash drives tucked inside them so you can choose from all your favourite tracks without having to cart a bag full of CDs or DVDs around. Depending on price and specification, players store between a few hundred and tens of thousands of songs or videos - generally speaking, the bigger the storage the higher the price…

Some high-end models are now fully web-enabled via WiFi or the 3G network, allowing you to surf the net and download apps as well as listening to songs and watching movies. But all that functionality tends to mean less storage space and higher prices.

Getting music onto the player:

Getting songs or video onto an MP3 player couldn't be simpler, but you do need a computer (PC or Mac). There are two main routes: Uploading CDs or downloading files from the internet. Either way, you’ll need to install a media library system onto your machine (such as iTunes). Simply stick a CD in your computer and it’ll walk you through the process step by step, harvesting a load of interesting info about each track, such as artist, song title, genre and BPM. Or you can purchase and download songs direct from the internet (legally, of course). Many of these systems have other innovative features that can put you in touch with other people or recommend other bands or films you might like. Once the songs or films are on your computer, you simply connect the player using a USB cable and it’s all sorted in a matter of moments.

Choosing an iPod, MP3 or multimedia player:

Does size matter? Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better - it’s what you do with it that counts! Runners and sporty types may prefer the light weight and ease of operation of a simple, Flash-based player over a cumbersome gull-size unit with a large screen. On the flip side, no one wants to watch a two-hour movie on an inch-wide screen.

Video: Likewise, there’s not much point shelling out on a player with a four-inch full-colour widescreen display if you’re only going to use it while pounding the treadmill down the gym. But if you want to surf the net, catch TV shows or watch movies on the move, an audio-only model isn’t going to scratch your itch.

Storage capacity: If you’re a real music buff who can name every song in Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue, chances are you’ve got a big collection and will need plenty of capacity. One gigabyte of storage can hold around 250 songs, so 30gb or more might be necessary for real musos. But if you only have a handful of favourite albums on your shelf, a 4gb player might be plenty. There’s not much point paying for storage space that’s never going to be used.

Battery life: The earliest MP3 player had poor batteries that decayed with time and use. These days, most manufacturers have sorted this out, but do consider battery life - and the ease of recharging - when making a choice. Most modern players can be charged either with a USB lead connected to your computer or with a mains power supply. But some manufacturers may charge more for a standalone charger.

Design: Don’t underestimate the importance of good design and desirability. If you’re lusting over the top-of-the-range shiny silver gadget Dave from accounts keeps showing off, you might be left with a serious case of gadget envy if you opt for a lower spec alternative to save yourself £20. Practically speaking, you’re going to be using this for a long time so go for one you’ll love. More popular models hold their value better as well.

iPod accessories:

One of the best things about owning an MP3 player is the ability to take your music collection with you and plug it in to whatever system you find.

iPod docking and portable speakers: There is a huge range of docking systems to suit a range of different needs. Some let you plug your iPod into an existing hi-fi system, while others are fully integrated hi-fis in their own right, with speakers, remote controls and maybe even an internal DAB clock radio. If you want a docking station that can be taken to the bathroom, garden or beach, consider a battery-powered model for portable playback. You may even find that an old hi-fi can be replaced entirely by one of these nifty little boxes. Sound quality - and price - varies considerably, but you generally get what you pay for. Most docking stations will recharge your player while it’s hooked up, leaving it fully juiced up for your next trip out.

Headphones: A set of specialist headphones can totally transform the personal audio experience. Ranging widely in terms of design and price, there’s something for everyone. Runners and gym bunnies will love a sport-specific design that banishes forever the annoyance of trying to poke a sweaty earphone in without breaking stride, while noise cancelling units are perfect for frequent fliers, using clever technology to silence the outside world, leaving you free to enjoy your tunes as they were meant to be heard. Wireless headphones are also available for people who potter or for anyone who wants to avoid a nasty air-guitar/cable-related accident. If it's style and the latest audio technology you’re after why not check out the great range of headphones in our Beats by Dre collection as well as the latest range of Bose, JVC and Goji headphones.

Accessories: Once you’ve chosen your perfect player, you’re going to want to make the most of it. That means taking it out into the big wide world where it’s likely to get scratched, dropped or damaged. Hundreds of accessories are available, from arm-bands for runners, handcrafted leather cases for tech-savvy execs to funky fashion covers for trendy teens. There are also plenty of connectivity options that allow you to hook up your player to your car stereo via a tiny FM radio transmitter or charge it up using solar power alone.

Hi-Fis

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Nothing beats the feeling of cranking up the volume of your favourite track and letting the music fill the room. The very best modern hi-fis combine power with immense control to deliver an experience that simply can’t be matched with tiny little headphones. No longer something to be hidden away in a cabinet, your home stereo can now be stylish, small and discreet while still delivering that blow-you-away sound you crave.

The very best hi-fi systems immerse you in the music, delivering powerful, tight bass notes with punchy, clear vocals and shimmering cymbals in a wide open stereo spread - or even in dramatic surround sound. Many now feature room-shaking subwoofers to bring music - and movies if you hook up your TV - to life as you’ve never heard them before.

Hi-fi separates still provide the very best sound quality, but costs can run into thousands of pounds. For most people, a decent midi, mini or micro system will be more than enough to fill your home with music. Sound quality generally improves as price goes up, but the performance of affordable systems has got considerably better in recent times.

Choosing a hi-fi:

Room size: You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and if you put a massively powerful system in a tiny room it might just crack you. Modern micro-systems will be more than enough for a bedroom or study, but if you’re looking to fill a large living room or impress your friends at a party, something with a bit more oomph might be required. A hi-fi’s power output is measured in watts RMS - the more you have, the louder it gets. Don’t forget about the neighbours though...

What are you listening to?: Generally speaking, most hi-fi systems have an amplifier, a CD player and speakers. Many also have a radio tuner, with a growing number featuring digital radio (DAB) as standard. More and more also feature iPod docks, allowing you to play your digital music out loud and share it with others. It’s also worth considering the range of connectivity options each model offers - if you want to hook up your TV, DVD or BluRay player you need the right auxiliary inputs. It can be confusing to the uninitiated, but our in-store experts are there to help.

EQ: Most hi-fi systems come fitted with some sort of equalisation technology, allowing you to tune the sound to your personal preferences. Rather than the old-fashioned row of sliders, most modern EQs are electronic, allowing the user to select from a range of different presets, which are designed to enhance particular types of music (Rock, Pop, Dance etc). The performance of these digital EQs varies considerably and if you’re particularly fussy, you might be better off with simple bass and treble adjustment knobs.

MP3 playback: Most CD players can only handle audio CDs, but more and more are now able to read MP3 files from CD as well.

Design and looks: Chances are your hi-fi will be on fairly prominent display in whatever room you put it. Consider how its shape, size and design will fit in with the rest of the room. Flashing, multi-coloured lights won’t appeal to everyone, but luckily most modern systems look sleek, sexy and subtle.

Digital media streaming

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Welcome to the future... Forget about wires, carting CDs from room to room and parties with Kings of Leon in one room and Leon Jackson in the other - Digital Media Streaming technology does away with all of that.

These cutting-edge boxes basically allow you to listen to the music that’s stored on you computer anywhere in the house. Yep, just like in MTV Cribs…

With a huge range of models and technologies available, the only real constraint is your budget. Some models are streamers only, designed to be plugged into existing stereo systems or used with headphones, while others are standalone units that can be set up in multiple rooms or just carried with you when you move into a different room.

High-end systems feature proximity sensors, turning on the music when you enter a room and turning it off again when you leave. Many also feature integral DAB radio tuners, iPod docks, fancy touchscreens and remote controls so you can choose your tunes without having to dash upstairs to your desktop PC.

Is Digital Media Streaming for me? For a quick blast of heat, ideal for smaller rooms, a fan heater might be just what you need. Oscillation heaters distribute warmth evenly across the room and most models also have a fan setting to blow out cool air for the summer months. Fan heaters are small, light and portable and can be used throughout the home.

Dependency: In order to set up a streaming system, you need to have a computer with a library of digital music and a WiFi network in your home.

Complexity: Some Digital Media Streamers are a bit tricky to set up compared to a normal hi-fi, so a basic understanding of wireless and computer technology is needed.

Quality: Wireless streaming is a completely digital process so there should be no loss in sound quality compared to a traditional hi-fi system.

Standalone or plug-in: If you’ve already got a high-quality multi-room sound system in your home you might just need a single streaming box to plug into the existing amplifier. But if you’re starting from scratch, several integrated units with speakers could be the perfect and simple solution you’re looking for.

Radios

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If you’re still listening to the radio over a scratchy old set that needs whacking every once in a while, there’s a question you need to ask yourself. Why?!

Modern DAB digital radios are a revelation in comparison, delivering hundreds of stations in crystal clear sound quality. Even the humble analogue radio has life left in it for those looking for a simple, adaptable and hassle free option.

Both are available in clock radio format, so you can stirred from your sleep by whatever station you choose, be it the news, rousing classical tunes or the latest heavy metal tracks.

DAB:

DAB radio uses digital rather than analogue signals to broadcast over the airwaves. On the upside, that means near CD-quality sound with no more hissing, popping or crackling. But if the signal isn’t strong, you get nothing at all. UK coverage is now pretty good, but there can be dead spots in some areas of your home.

Digital signals use less bandwidth than traditional FM/AM signals and as such, a huge range of stations are available. DAB units also display real-time ‘radiotext’ information - such as song names, music type or news and traffic updates.

There are a few things to bear in mind though. Digital radios sometimes have a slight delay. So if you’re listening to the football on the radio and your next door neighbour’s watching it on TV, you might just hear the cheer before you hear the goal being scored.

Analogue:

In terms of cost-efficiency and simplicity, a traditional analogue radio is hard to beat. Essentially unchanged from that dusty old set your granny listens to, you choose between FM and AM, turn the dial and you’re away. OK, so it’s not quite as simple as that.

FM sound quality can actually be better than DAB, provided the signal is strong enough. That’s why many audiophiles are resisting the move to digital. But the AM signal (i.e. Radio 5Live, Radio 4 long wave) just can’t compete.

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