Ever since I was a kid, I've loved listening to music, especially in the anti-social form of wearing headphones. A big fan of tuning out of my surroundings and tuning into my self-curated soundtrack, my fancy for portable music players started when I permanently borrowed my mother's cassette player as a child. Eventually I moved onto CD players, and then blossomed into an iPod-codependent teenager.
Now, I've grown up to be the type of person who subscribes to more than one streaming music service. (I subscribe to Spotify, but I wasn't going to NOT sign up for Tidal when Beyonce's Lemonade dropped.) Needless to say, I listen to a lot of music. This is why I've spent the past month using a variety of MP3 players. (Also, my bosses told me to.) Editor's' note from one of them who definitely didn't force me to include this: "It was definitely more of an ask."
But it's 2016 -- why would anyone want an MP3 player today? Great question! In fact, it's one I often thought about while I was using one -- especially when I wanted to listen to a song I didn't own, or when I had to juggle between my MP3 player du jour and personal phone. My regressive stint with the Apple iPod Nano, iPod Shuffle and SanDisk Clip Jam helped me appreciate the unique usefulness of an MP3 player in the era of the smartphone. A time and a place for a dedicated music player still exists -- it's called the gym.
Great for exercising
There's nothing that powers me through the last mile of a run more than the perfect Kendrick Lamar track. Similarly, there's nothing more deflating and humiliating than that song suddenly stopping because my tired, flailing limbs got caught on my headphone cords and sent my phone (and momentum) flying off of the treadmill. In these all too often occasions, I'd sweatily slither off the treadmill to locate my phone while silently praying for its safety. Fortunately, the only thing ever damaged was my pride. (Can't say the same about the fateful bus trip described below.)
MP3 players like the iPod Shuffle and SanDisk Clip Jam have built-in clips so you can attach it to your shirt or pants, and position it in a way where your headphones won't get in the way. Unfortunately, they don't have Bluetooth, like the iPod Nano, so you can't enjoy wireless Bluetooth headphones with them. Since I still use wired headphones for working out (I haven't invested in a good pair of sporty Bluetooth headphones yet), I don't find it detrimental to their appeal.
Low-cost, low risk investment
A supplemental MP3 players eliminates the anxiety of dropping and breaking your phone while on a run or at the gym, but also times when you're simply using your phone in the wild, like while walking down the street or during your commute.
True story: I was listening to music on the bus on my way to work when I took my phone out of my pocket to skip to the next song. Of course, that's when the bus made a hard stop and -- in the blink of an eye -- my phone flew out of my hand and onto the floor. Of course, it landed screen first. Shattered -- both my screen and heart.
If I left my phone tucked away safely in my bag and was using an MP3 player instead, I wouldn't be sitting here with a broken phone. It still would've been subjected to the same laws of gravity and fallen on the floor, but it probably would've just endured a few scratches or dents. For the $150 it will cost me to replace my shattered screen, I could buy an iPod Nano (or a few SanDisk Clip Jams) and never worry about this happening again.
No subscription music support
None of the MP3 players I reviewed are compatible with streaming music services. This, ultimately, is a dealbreaker for me. As a heavy music-listener, a monthly streaming music subscription is like an all-you-can-eat ticket to a candy store. Why should I buy one pound of candy (an album) when I can try all of the candy everywhere, for about the same price? It's simply a better deal for me.
Devices like the Apple Watch and the Pebble Core have embraced the streaming wave with Apple Music and Spotify integration respectively, yet basic MP3 players have yet to catch on. If manufacturers care enough to keep MP3 players around, and they want consumers to care about them again, they'll have to embrace the shift soon.
Should you buy an MP3 player?
How do you listen to music? Do you still download singles and albums from iTunes? Or are you a streaming music convert (like me)? The answer to this question determines if an MP3 player is right for you.
If you still download music, the world of MP3 players is your oyster. However, if you want to use your streaming music service, you have slim pickings. Expensive models, like the Apple iPod Touchor the high-end Sony Walkman NWZ-ZX2 will work, but if you just want something cheap to throw in your gym bag, you're out of luck. I don't know if MP3 players like the Shuffle or SanDisk Clip Jam will eventually evolve to embrace streaming music, but if they do, I know I'll be ready for them.