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Editors' note: The rating of this product has increased to reflect significant enhancements offered by a firmware update. Find out more information here.
Thanks to its position as a memory chip manufacturer, SanDisk is a master at cost competing in the portable audio space, and although companies such as Creative Labs are now tagging at about the same level, SanDisk's initial aggressiveness earned it the No. 2 spot in sales (behind Apple, natch)--and a reputation for producing cheap MP3 players. The company's latest device, an ultracompact model dubbed the Sansa Clip, is no exception: The 1GB model comes in at a mere $40, while the 2GB is on offer for a no less reasonable $70. But don't let the price fool you: The Clip offers a respectable 92dB signal-to-noise ratio. This player is out to prove that "cheap" doesn't have to mean subpar sound quality.
Simple and small
At 2.2 inches by 1.4 inches by 0.5 inch (without the belt clip attached), the Sansa Clip isn't quite "smaller than a matchbox," but it is about the same size as one. It's one of the most compact players we've come across in recent times, though it is slightly larger than its closest competitor, the Creative Zen Stone Plus. However, the Clip's rectangular, 1-inch screen makes for better navigation than the Stone's itty bitty circular display. Also, the Clip lets you navigate music by artist, album, and so on, whereas the Stone offers very little track organization. Like the Stone, the Clip comes in a variety of colors: sleek black, candy apple red, hot pink, and ice blue. The black version is available in both capacities, while the colors come in 2GB only. As the name suggests, the Clip also comes with a removable belt clip in a color to match the player. This feature and its ultracompact size make it ideal for the gym.
The controls on the Sansa Clip are also similar to those of its competitor: Below the screen is a circular, four-way control pad surrounding a center select button. While you're within the menus, up/down cycles through options on the current screen, while right/left steps deeper into the highlighted option (or backs out). Once on the playback screen, pressing up plays or pauses the track, down pulls up a contextual menu, and right/left shuttles through tracks. Beneath the four-line, dual-color OLED screen, is one other key: a home button that cycles between the main menu and the playback screen. There's also a dedicated volume rocker on the right spine of the device, something that we are happy--and surprised--to see on such a small player. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack sits above the rocker, while the left side of the Clip houses a power/hold switch and a standard mini USB port. All these ports and controls may seem like a lot for such a small device, but everything is well laid out and the main control pad is large enough for comfortable navigation, so it's really quite ergonomic and easy to use overall.
Not small on features
Don't let the size of the Sansa Clip betray you: The player offers several desirable features. Of course, with the very tiny and simple screen, photo and video playback are notably absent--but that's really to be expected in a device at this price point. What you do get is support for MP3, WMA (unprotected/protected), OGG, FLAC, and Audible files. The player has even integrated Rhapsody DNA, meaning you can transfer Rhapsody Channels (dynamically updating radio stations/playlists). Sadly, our review unit had an error that prevented it from becoming licensed within the Rhapsody interface, so we haven't yet had a chance to fully test the integration. (Bear with us until we get a replacement player and update this review.)
The Sansa Clip also comes with a built-in mic for making voice recordings (WAV output only) and an FM tuner, from which you can record, as well. The radio offers up to 40 presets; the autoscan function is somewhat buried in the "view all presets" menu, but it's a handy feature and worth using. As with any decent MP3 player, you get shuffle and repeat playback modes and an equalizer--we like that there's an adjustable five-band setting. More plusses: You can add songs to an on-the-go playlist, rate and delete songs on the device, and mark subscription tracks for purchase at next sync. Finally, there's the autoresume function, which picks up where you left off in a track, even if you paused before shutdown. This is particularly handy for those who listen to long, spoken-word tracks, such as podcasts and audiobooks.
Sounds like a performer
Although most SanDisk devices sound passable, we've never been blown away by the sound quality of Sansa players. The Clip is actually a bit of an exception: This player sounds great. It's not quite as stellar as the Sony NWZ-A810, but it can certainly compete with the Zen Stone Plus. In our tests (using the Shure SE530s), music sounded rich and clear, with a present bass brought out more by tinkering with the custom EQ. Fiona Apple's soft pop track "The First Taste" was encompassing, with buttery mids, sparkly highs, and subtle bass. Mellow electronic music (e.g. Hot Chip's "The Warning") was similarly pleasing, but even the Deftones' "Bored"--a heavy and riffy rock track--offered impressive clarity. All in all, we could find very little to complain about in the audio quality department--unless, of course, you decide to use the included headphones, which are not so hot.
In other performance areas, the Clip was passable. Voice recordings were a little muffled sounding, and FM reception was about average. A couple of our regular stations wouldn't come through completely. The battery life of 14.1 hours is nothing to write home about, but it's plenty decent for a player of this size.