This week’s contest post is here! Leave a comment at the end of this post for a chance to win one of the new Slappa Shockshell iPod Mini cases! Tell us what you think of the review or how you’d use the SanDisk Sansa MP3 player.
Today, we’ll be looking at the latest entry from SanDisk, a leading memory card manufacturer. SanDisk’s last MP3 player was at one point the #1 selling non-Apple player, yet had only a single digit percentage of the market share. The new Sansa is currently available in both a 512 MB version as the e130, and a 1 GB version, sold as the e140. SanDisk’s Sansa is a far better than Apple’s iPod Shuffle, as a flash mp3 player. We’ll discover what distinguishes this player from its competitors, and why it should be on your shopping list. This is not the first player we’re reviewing here at Live Digitally. You can read here about our standard methods of testing used for music players. Sandisk’s player was tested with firmware 1.0.000 as it was recently introduced only last month. Testing was undertaken with both Duracell disposable alkaline batteries and Energizer NIMH rechargeable cells.
What’s In The Box
- SanDisk Sansa unit, 512 MB
- ear bud headphones with small, medium, and large earbuds
- clear plastic carrying case
- arm band
- USB adapter
- software on mini CD
- quick start guide
- AAA battery, alkaline
Features & Performance
The SanDisk Sansa player is a vertical format player, like the iPod, and unlike the more common horizontal format that most others utilize (including SanDisk’s previous player). The dimensions are 55mm x 74mm x 14mm, and the device weighs 1.4 oz without battery, and 1.8 oz with the battery installed. While a little larger than some other players out there, it is still plenty small. The device derives its power from a standard AAA battery, and claims a 17 hour maximum battery life without other features enabled. This is a reasonable claim, with features enabled, I reached 13.5 hours from a new alkaline cell. The Sansa performed just as well with the NIMH cell, thus battery life was comparable. I’m especially partial to electronics that use a standard battery, it’s cost efficient to use your own rechargeable batteries so you always have a fresh one available. Also, when on the road, a disposeable batter can be found just about everywhere, eliminating the worry about running out of power.
The player is controlled by a four way touchpad on the face of the device, with a center button. There is a hold button on the left side to lock the controls; this is useful for vigorous activity (bungee cord jumping or Nascar driving come to mind, even without using “hold,” no buttons were pressed by accident). On the right side is a “Menu” button, and in the upper right hand corner is a volume wheel. Three annoyances should be noted. First, you must hold down the menu button for a full five seconds to power down the device. Second, the volume wheel has deep indents making it difficult to spin up or down quickly. Third, with the volume to max, when I turned off the player, then restarted it, the volume was set down to about 75%. This feature is annoying. Using the Sansa in the car, via tape adapter, requires volume to be fully cranked up for a quality sound (this is most likely a safety feature approved by some “Audiology Society,” but annoying nonetheless). With that said, the rest of the navigation is smooth, and rather intuitive. I had little trouble getting around and adjusting all settings before reading the manual (this is highly unusual)!
The included miniCD is hardly essential for operation of the player. It includes the manual in PDF format. Additional offers from Rhapsody (10 free downloads, 1 month subscription), Audible (3 free downloads), and AudioFeast (60 day free trial) fill up the remainder of the disc. In my opinion, one of the great features of the player is the fact that there is no needed software. I already have more than enough software on my computer (and with the amount of testing lately it’s reaching epidemic proportions), and I chose to leave this “stuff” uninstalled (although I will readily admit I was tempted by Rhapsody’s 10 free downloads). I tested the e130 model; it has 512 MB of flash memory internally. Formatted, the capacity shows up as a whopping 492 MB of storage. The player’s memory can be expanded with use of removable flash memory cards. A Secure Digital card slot along the side of the unit accepts up to a 2 GB card (larger than some other players). A MultiMedia Card worked as well during testing with no issues. The Sansa also functions as an SD card reader/writer when connected to a computer via its USB 2.0 connection. This is very useful if you have more than one SD card device. When on the road, and looking to read SD cards from a digital camera (or other device) you need not a separate dedicated reader or USB cable. The stand out feature here however, is that songs on the buit in memory and removable flash card are combined into one large database. This was a big weakness of the last player I tested with a similar setup. This makes the memory of the SanDisk Sansa not only easily expandable, but also seamlessly usable.
Speaking of databases, another great feature of this player is how easily it organizes the music tracks. My MP3’s were all easily loaded onto the player across the USB 2.0 connection with a “copy ‘n’ paste” technique. The Sansa, upon powering up, sorted the tracks and had them completely organized in seconds. The music could then be played by artist, album, genre, or even by year! This is the first flash player I’ve seen that has been able to take advantage of the ID3 music tags which are encoded into the music tracks, and this is a great feature. Of course, the songs can also be played in a random fashion. Folks with larger collections will especially appreciate these options. The Sansa’s display is very usable. While it is only one color, blue, the text is very readable, even through the clear case. Viewable information while playing music files: song title, artist, track number, album name, length of the track, a progress bar, and battery life. This is more than enough information, and is presented in a readable format. The text size is a little small relative to the size of the display, but the benefit is seen with longer track names which don’t require constant scrolling. Depressing the center button changes the album name and artist to display the type of file, and the encoding information.
Other features include a built in FM radio, incremented in the non-US 0.1 frequency shifts. The radio was clear, and presets were available. There is no recording feature for microphone, line in, or radio recording. I was not particularly bothered by this omission as only a minority of users avail themselves to this feature in other players. A unique “extra” feature is a stopwatch, which may be useful on the exercise circuit.
The SanDisk player can handle MP3 files, WMA files, as well as Audio Books. It played all the MP3 and WMA files in my test suite, which includes both constant and variable bit rate tracks. It will not play WAV, AAC (Apple), OGG or other file formats. As the Sansa is at home with the two most common music formats outside of Apple’s AAC (which only the iPod line plays), this is more than adequate for the vast majority of users out there. The Sansa carries Microsoft’s “Plays For Sure” logo. This is a Microsoft led initiative to let users know that the players that carry this logo are designed to play the files from partner music download sites such as Wal-Mart and Real’s Rhapsody, which also display this logo. While mainly an anti-iPod designed campaign (who can blame them), it does carry a guarantee of compatibility (and less hassle) of playing the protected WMA files from these music download stores on your approved player.
The included headphones, as is usually the case with MP3 players, were less than perfect. The carry the SanDisk logo and are white. They feature an earbud design, with a range of three included sizes to achieve a tight fit. When they say “in the ear,” they mean it. While this may remind you of your childhood pediatrician looking into your ear for an infection, it is designed to seal out ambient noises which it did, to a certain extent. This would be useful on a long airplane ride, for example. I personally find this design a little less comfortable than some other solutions, but this is purely my opinion. The earbuds reproduced the entire frequency of sound, but as is always the case with micro sized speakers, the bass was anemic (even max boosted). The high end also sounded a little thin. The high and low ends sounded much fuller through the other tested solutions (headphones, car stereo, and computer speakers). Overall, I would characterize the included earbuds as average; however, audiophiles should definitely plan on upgrading these. The volume itself through the earbuds was loud, but hardly “ear splitting;” “Spinal Tap” devotees will be disappointed.
The included carrying case is a clear plastic design, which snaps in three places closed. It is ideal for keeping the player dry in anything but a downpour. The downside is that you must take the player out to access the USB connector as it is covered by the cap (which it always should be to keep out dust and dirt) or to change the battery or memory card. These are minor shortcomings in the end. Included also is an elastic arm band to keep the player nearby on those exercise runs. While useful for the Ironman crowd, and old fashioned belt clip would be incredibly useful, but is lacking (as well as many other players). Also, there is no hole for a neck lanyard. For the non-Ironman, the player thankfully does easily stow in either a shirt or pants pocket whether in the case or out.
The SanDisk Sansa features a number of useful tweaks to improve the sound of the music from the player. They are described as follows:
- Equalizer: Presets for rock, jazz, classical, and pop, as well as a custom 5 band user adjustable setting work to keep whatever you’re listening to sounding great.
- WOW: This serves to strengthen the top and bottom of the music to give it more punch, works best with rock. It is designed to overcome the limitations of smaller speakers, and to create an accurate, lifelike, full and rich sound.
- Focus: This adds strength in your choice of the low, mid, or high sections of the audio; I found high sounded the best.
- TruBass: Unlike many competitor “take it or leave it” offerings, this one is adjustable in 9 increments; I liked the full nine best for rock tracks.
- SRS 3D: This is a spatialization feature to enhance the stereo separation between the left and right speakers. It can be boosted incrementally with 9 settings, I liked 7 the best. Similar offerings sometimes sound rather artificial but this one sounded great, even in a 180 watt, 6 speaker car audio system.
Many of the effects can be adjusted with the music playing so you can hear what effect it is having. This makes it much easier to adjust to your desired level. With the adjustments outlined above, I found the music to have a full and rich sound across a wide variety of songs except when playing through the included earbuds. In the car, through the cassette adaptor, I found the audio very rich, with tons of bass, but not overwhelming the middle and high tones. Only real “golden ears” would be able to tell that the music was not playing right off the CD. However, if you take the above enhancements off, it would be pretty easy to tell this was compressed music, and directly from the CD. Simple proof that all these enhancements are working towards a full and rich sound, and not just distorting the original.
- powered by standard AAA battery
- supports Microsoft’s “Plays For Sure” music initiative
- readable screen
- long battery life
- supports up to 2 GB Secure Digital card for expansion
- songs on card and internal memory are combined seamlessly
- no software required on computer for use
- included carrying case
- songs can be played by artist, album, or year based just on ID3 tags
- no driver required
- Audio Book compatible
- port covers not tethered
- no recording feature from open air or radio
- only supports MP3 and WMA files
- takes 5 seconds to turn off
- volume control doesn’t spin
- when playing album, tracks not in original order
Who Should Buy This?
The Roadmaster: I found that this player fit very well in my car cupholder. The vertical format made it easy to adjust without having to constantly rotate it. The screen was easily readable during day, or night. With additional SD cards, and standard batteries, I can take it on a roadtrip and never run out of songs or power. Sure, there are hard drive players that can get the job done, but not at this bargain basement price. After a minute of adjusting the sound settings, the audio was accurately rich and full, with appropriate separation. I’m sure I could “fool” the majority of folks into thinking the music was playing directly from a CD, and not compressed. With such a great sound, I can stop focusing on the player, and enjoy the music.
SanDisk’s Sansa e130 is a strong entry in this ultra crowded market segment. With very adjustable music settings, organization by artist and genre, and an integrated SD slot, folks will be well served by this music player. Add in a very readable screen, and an intuitive interface, and SanDisk has a real winner on their hands. This is the first MP3 player to be “LD Approved,” and it is awarded without reservation to this noteworthy device. When compared to an iPod Mini with no screen, minimal adjustments, and a nonreplaceable battery, the Sansa stands out even more.
Special thanks to SanDisk for providing the unit for review.