MP3 players with good taste in music

CNET editors round up a handful of MP3 players that offer truly smart on-the-go music-recommendation features.

Music can be a powerful emotional and psychological trigger for many people. Heck, it even has a physical effect on people--anyone who can't help but tap her feet and nod her head when listening to an infectious beat can attest to that. For precisely these reasons, many die-hard music fans will spend hours on end creating the perfect playlists for lounging, working out, commuting, and generally affecting mood and motion. Unfortunately, many of the rest of us don't have the time--or desire--to create all the specifically tailored playlists we could ever want. So what's a casual listener to do?

Luckily, many device manufacturers have gotten hip to the fact that there's a significant number of music fans who want reasonably personal track lineups presented to them without all the time and hassle. Several MP3 players released in recent times offer various smart DJ functions that go beyond ID3 tag recognition and individual user play count. All of the options below feature music recommendation functions that can be utilized completely on-the-fly, without connecting to a computer.

  • Apple iPod Nano: The Nano's new Genius feature lets you create an instant 25-song playlists around the musical characteristics of a single song (based on data gathered from iTunes). The Genius feature is easy to use, and the results are fun, provided your music collection holds enough songs to make interesting connections. You can save Genius playlists directly onto your Nano, and with automatic syncing enabled in iTunes you can also transfer them back to your computer. Cost: free/included with the player.
  • Sony S-Series Walkman: The S-Series offers a feature called SensMe Channels, which is a "smart" DJ that uses an algorithm to analyze songs in order to create custom playlists based on each track's speed, mood, and rhythm. The Channels range from Morning to Lounge to Extreme and can be accessed under a dedicated icon on the Walkman's main menu. If the Channels are not to your liking, you can reanalyze your library to create new mixes. Cost: free/included with the player.
  • Slacker G2: The G2 is made specifically for those who share its name: slackers. You need only connect to a computer once to transfer your favorite Web Stations from the Slacker service. After that, you can update the Stations over Wi-Fi. All new songs are then cached in the player's memory for you to access anywhere. There are more than 100 genre-based stations from which to choose, as well as 10,000-plus artist-based stations and a limitless number of custom stations, which you design by mixing various artists. Unlike with the Nano and the S-Series, real live DJs program Slacker's genre-based stations. Also, integrated Heart and Ban buttons let you custom-tailor all stations while listening on the device itself. Cost: free/included with the player.
  • Apple iPod Touch: The second-gen iPod Touch offers the same Genius feature as the iPod Nano. Plus, you have the option of downloading various Internet radio apps, such as Pandora and Last.fm. However, you must be connected to Wi-Fi in order to stream songs from such apps. Unlike the Slacker G2, the iPod Touch cannot cache songs from these services for listening offline. Cost: free/included with the player (some Internet radio apps may cost 99 cents).
  • Microsoft Zune: Thanks to firmware updates, all Zunes can now enjoy Marketplace access over Wi-Fi. Microsoft also launched Zune Channels, which allows Zune Pass subscribers to get updated music recommendations based on preferences. Like Slacker Stations, Zune Channels provides a variety of preprogrammed content (by real people) as well as user-customizable options. Combine Wi-Fi Marketplace access with Channels, and you have a completely computerless method for getting new content and saving it to the player. Cost: $14.99 per month for Zune Pass.
  • Ibiza Rhapsody: The Ibiza Rhapsody was the pioneer of wireless music recommendation. It offers Rhapsody DNA and Wi-Fi connectivity. Rhapsody Channels, consistently updated DJ-programmed playlists, no doubt led to Microsoft adding its nearly identical offering. The Ibiza allows you to update Channels anywhere with Wi-Fi, caching the new content to the player's memory for later access. (You can also stream over Wi-Fi.) Cost: $14.99 per month for Rhapsody To Go.

Check out a side-by-side comparison of the players.

 

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