MP3 Mailbag Monday

The inaugural week of MP3 Mailbag Monday, a feature in which editor Jasmine France answers reader questions about MP3 players, headphones, and more.

Tech Culture

Welcome to MP3 Mailbag Monday, a new feature where I answer a selection of questions about MP3 players and accessories, such as headphones, speakers, and music services and software. Each week, my in-box is flooded with questions from around the world, and while a handful of them are very particular to the individual asking, most apply more generally to a certain use or scenario to which many people can relate. Check back often to see if the advice presented here might be of some use to you, or send your questions directly to me. (Note: We never include last names, but if you prefer to remain completely anonymous, please state as much in your e-mail.)

This week, we have one seemingly obvious question about the Zune, while others want to know all about earphones. In fact, I have a hunch that headphones might be an overarching topic every week going forward, but only time will tell.

Q: I recently bought a 4GB Zune MP3 and have a question I am embarrassed to ask, but don't know who else to go to to seek an answer. When charging the battery the instructions talk about going to the HOME SCREEN to view the status of the battery. What is this and where is it so that I can see if the battery is charging? The instructions are not what I would have like to see, a step-by-step process. They are too general for old folks like me. When you have a moment would you mind responding to my inquiry. I would appreciate this very much. -- Anonymous, via e-mail.

A: There's never a need to be embarrassed asking me a question about MP3 players or headphones--that's what I'm here for! Even in this case, the answer is not as straightforward as it should be, but it is easy to accomplish. Basically, you have to connect the Zune to your computer and wait for it to recognize it. Then, if the Zune Software starts up, close that program. Now just wait and the main menu screen on the Zune should show up within a minute or two. You can see the battery meter with charging indicator in the lower right.

Q: I love my opera collection and would like to hear them at a quality level of output. Are the Zune premium earphones much better than the ones that come with the initial purchase of a Zune MP3? Do they improve the quality to a degree that it would be a benefit to purchase the premium? -- J, via e-mail.

A: Unfortunately, we haven't reviewed the Zune Premium Earphones on their own, but my colleague Donald Bell did get to listen to them while testing the Zune 80, since they come with that player. He has said that they're certainly better than the stock earbuds that come with the flash-based Zune, but he's not sure they're better than any other pair of $35-50 earphones. Still, it seems that a lot of users really like them, so I think it's a safe bet. Bottom line: They will be better than stock earbuds. In fact, most post-purchase 'phones will be more comfortable and offer better sound quality than those that come with an MP3 player. For more options in that price range, check out these decent headphones for less than $50.

Q: You have reviewed a lot of MP3 players. I was wondering what you use as your everyday headphone. -- Tony, via e-mail.

A: I use the Shure SE310 Sound Isolating Earphones because they are portable, comfortable, and sound fantastic. In fact, they are my earbuds of choice for testing MP3 players (I also use some full-size 'phones in testing). I used to use the Shure E4c but switched to the SE310 since the latter has a larger aperture, thereby allowing more bass response. The E4cs are still great, though.

Here's a tip: No matter what earphones you use, don't keep them plugged in and wrap them around the MP3 player. If you do, it puts a strain on the part of the cord closest to the plug. This can crack the cable and damage the wires inside, which isn't good for durability and can harm sound quality in the long run. If you do wrap your headphone cable around your device, unplug it first. Better yet, remove it completely and wrap it around a cable manager or store it in a case or pouch.

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