The Elton John of the MP3 player world, Jens of Sweden is notorious for its flamboyant gold MP3 player designs. The company has a speckled past. Jens' eccentric founder, Jens Nylander, once recorded a song in a bid to compete with Apple's iPod. In defence of this tactic, Nylander was reported to have said, "We can't quite afford to put U2 on our players yet – but I can sing better than Steve Jobs."
Jens filed for bankruptcy last year, and then rose from the grave a few months later. Nylander is still at the helm, and judging from the appearance of the MP-500, the fanciful design ethos remains. We've tested the £135 black 1GB version of the player here, but it's also available in a £173 black 2GB version and a £195 24-carat gold 'Excentrique' 2GB version, all available direct from the Jens site.
Jens gives the impression of a renegade outfit fighting a funny little guerilla war around Apple's towering legs. The MP-500 is eye-catching, but can this upstart back up its poses with some serious fighting action?
The MP-500's manufacture has been outsourced to the Far East, which makes the logos on the back of the player a textbook oxymoron. The Jens of Sweden logo has 'Made in Korea' written directly underneath it. This elicited a brief chuckle from our usually humourless faces.
The MP-500 is smaller than the iPod nano when stared at head-on (81 by 40mm), but at 13mm deep, it's nearly twice as thick. The front panel on the player is completely seamless, like a sheet of glass. If you can remember the keyless keyboard on the Sinclair ZX-81 computer, this is very similar. On the upside, this design makes it hard for dirt and dust to penetrate the outer casing. On the downside, you don't get any mechanical feedback that you've actually pressed a button successfully. It's exactly like pressing your fingers onto a window pane.
We haven't looked at any MP3 players with built-in speakers before, so the MP-500 comes across as quite a novelty. Two little grills on either side of the chassis at the bottom of the player provide stereo sound. There's a line-in on the left-hand side of the player, which will happily suckle at a line level input for recording your music. On the right is a headphone socket, and on the base a generic USB connector.
The thrill of built-in speakers aside, the MP-500 is a minimalist affair. We like the seamless, high-gloss appearance of the chassis. Unlike the nano, it's almost impossible to scratch the Jens. We don't want to make it sound like we went straight at the screen with a nail, but in a series of carefully controlled tests, each test escalating the severity of scratching implement, the MP-500 would not succumb. Even running the worst pocket debris we could find against the chassis -- small pebbles, a ballpoint pen, keys -- didn't mark it.
Apple should take a serious look at what Jens is using to coat this, it's nothing short of bulletproof. Extremely fine scratches are visible if you hold the player at an angle, but it's a world away from the dragged-through-a-thorn-bush look the iPod gets after a few days of use without a case.
The MP-500 supports MP3, WMA and OGG format files. The latter is a mainstay of Linux enthusiasts who admire the OGG codec's open-source heritage. Because the player mounts as a generic USB device on all mainstream file systems, you don't need special driver software to use the MP-500 on a Windows, Mac or Linux computer.
Amazingly for such a small player, you can play video on the MP-500. This relies on transcoding software that wasn't bundled with our player, but is available on the Jens of Sweden Web site. Demonstration movies were included on the player, and judging from these the video quality is fairly impressive for a postage-stamp-sized screen. Jens says that the MP-500 will play WMV, AVI, ASF, MPG and MPEG video files after you've transcoded them on your PC.
For radio listeners, there's a built-in FM tuner that you can also record from. The MP-500 will also accept an audio source via the line-in jack. If you're stuck without an external recording device, the internal microphone does a fair job. The two small speakers in the side of the chassis let you listen straight back to a recording -- you could use it as a replacement dictaphone, as it's capable of very similar results to the Olympus dictaphones we use to record interviews for the Crave podcast.
The deal breaker for any potential buyer is the navigation system on the Jens. Not only did it take several minutes for us to figure out how to change the player's native language to English, but the touch-pad interface can be extremely frustrating. Because of the occasional delay between pressing a button and the interface reacting, you're never sure whether the player is responding to your first command. Often you'll then press the button again, causing the player to cancel the initial command when it eventually responds. This is compounded by the lack of mechanical feedback from the seamless glass surface.
Auditioning Ryan Adams album Heartbreaker on the Jens of Sweden MP-500 gave us the overwhelming impression that this player can deliver a good, full-ranged sound. Unlike many MP3 players, the MP-500 doesn't over-emphasise bass, but nor is it arrestingly confident at pelting out a song.
Listening to Damn Damn Leash by Be Your Own Pet on our flat-response reference system, and then on the MP-500 using the same flat-response amplifier and speakers, revealed a few subtle flaws. The MP-500 is notably not as loud as competing players -- no bad thing given the risk of hearing loss associated with headphone use -- but we weren't taken aback by overall dynamics. Where Be Your Own Pet sounded like a nuclear apocalypse through our reference system, it was more like an over-enthusiastic riot on the MP-500. The Jens player is better than many, but it lacks an edge.
The built-in speakers on the MP-500 are, predictably, lacking in fidelity. This isn't typically a problem for those who enjoy listening to music from a small portable device. Anyone who's sat on a London bus listening to teenagers kids blast The Streets tracks out of their tinny mobile phones will understand the market for these players.
The MP-500 delivers a decent enough sound in a tight package. Though it's not the most inspiring player we've looked at this year, there's nothing else out there with the same mix of petite physique and built-in stereo speakers. The MP-500 may be a novelty, but it's a novelty that fills a niche. If you're looking for something to bridge the gaping chasm between headphone listening and full-blown ghetto-blaster, this is the only real option.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide