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Music to our ears

PCR finds out what the future looks like for MP3 players
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With the smartphone on the rise, some consumers have been hasty to consolidate all their gadgets into one, from their music players to their satnav systems. But the industry experts are saying that dedicated MP3 players, along with all the accessories that go with them, won’t become extinct any time soon.

“Usage models for MP3 players indicate that most recreational listening occurs while exercising, relaxing or travelling,” says Nikki Willcock, UK regional marketing manager for SanDisk. “We do not believe users will use high-end, expensive, bulky smart phones for much of this listening. And many people are also highly concerned about battery life on their mobile phones.”

Sony UK’s category product manager, Omar Gurnah, echoes Willcock’s view, saying: “Most people probably wouldn’t want to take an expensive smartphone into the gym or out for a run, and likewise, if you’re really into your music there’s nothing worse than having your mobile’s battery die half way through a commute. That’s less of a problem with a dedicated player.

“The biggest one for me though is sound quality. I’ve still not heard any phone or other device that sounds anywhere near as good as the X Series Walkman. I’m pretty proud of that.”

Gurnah believes that, while the demand for lower-end MP3 devices is dwindling, there is a market for dedicated players.

“Our non-phone MP3 players are still selling really well. The overall market is declining slowly, but innovations like wireless and noise cancelling mean that the high-end of the market is actually growing year on year,” he says.

With Christmas fast approaching, many distributors have seen the annual peak in demand for MP3-related products. An iPod or similar high-end device is seen by many consumers as the ideal present, while cheaper audio devices and accessories are popular stocking-fillers.

“Consumers will use their MP3 players all year round and will need accessories also. They make great gifts over Christmas and other occasions where some may want to upgrade and get something better,” says Yen Tru, a marketing executive for Interactive Ideas. “Airdrives Fit and the SteelSeries Siberia range have more value added to their accessories in terms of great quality and comfort that will certainly appeal to consumers.”

According to Bluepoint’s senior sales manager, Hyder Badami, some types of accessories are on the rise.

“Car kits and docking stations are popular with those who want to get rid of their headphones and share music. FM transmitters give consumers the option to listen to an iPod on the car stereo or at a small party without having the hassle of wires.”

Badami adds that by placing orders well before the festive season, distributors stand to make a larger margin.

“The demand for MP3 players and accessories is at its peak two to three months before Christmas, so having them in stock is always good to cater to that demand and save on the price increase at Christmas time,” he says.

Undoubtedly, the iPod –and now, by extension, the iPhone – dominates the MP3 sector, so compatible accessories have become a rather lucrative market. But are consumers willing to buy headphones, speakers and so on from third-party manufacturers? According to Tru, the answer is yes.

“Non-branded accessories do well, especially when they are of higher quality and have something different to offer,” she says.

Badami adds: “Non-Apple accessories really do well for those who want to save on their budget – especially in the recession. There are a lot of companies that manufacture good quality accessories at almost one third of the price of their Apple counterparts, hence they are value for money.”

But Apple’s monopoly doesn’t end with hardware. The popularity of iTunes has led many consumers towards the iPod simply to ensure compatibility. Songs purchased from the iTunes Store come in the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format, which is incompatible with many MP3 players. And, while these files can usually be converted, less computer-savvy users may not know how to do this.

“For a lot of people iTunes is not just a good music store, it’s also a pretty good music management tool. It will have definitely helped some MP3 users go back and buy another iPod when their first one breaks down,” says Gurnah.

For that reason, some vendors are developing MP3 devices that work with multiple formats, from AAC to Windows Media Audio – the default file format of CDs ripped by Microsoft’s Windows Media Player– as well as different music management systems.

“We’ve added support for iTunes across the range this year,” Gurnah says. “That is a big deal, because it is driven entirely by feedback from our customers in the UK. “Now it doesn’t matter how you manage your music or videos – in all likelihood, a Walkman will work with them,” continues Gurnah.

As each MP3 player offers greater compatibility, increased storage space and more features, the device will inevitably merge permanently with the mobile phone. Until the iPhone et al drop their prices, it seems there is still a demand for dedicated MP3 players and still money to be made in this sector.

Logic3 Universal Pro Dock
Distributor: Bluepoint
SRP: £44.95
This dock charges, synchronises and allows video output from any iPod or iPhone. It comes with a mini USB port for data synchronisation, an AC adaptor to recharge the iPod and a remote to control both the dock itself and the iPod

Speedo Aquabeat
Distributor: Direct
SRP: £75
This 1GB MP3 player is fully waterproof up to a depth of three metres. It weighs only 35g and can be attached to goggles or swimwear. The device also features a short earphone cord, ergonomic buttons and multiple sizes of ear buds. Speedo’s playlist editing software allows users to add and sort music, while the battery has a life of up to nine hours

AirDrives Fit Earphones for Kids
Distributor: Interactive Ideas
SRP: £19.99
The children’s version of AirDrives Fit for adults feature the same cinch around the ear, providing a secure fit while leaving space for a hat, helmet or sunglasses. The earphones keep sound at safe levels to prevent hearing damage and to allow children to still hear their surroundings. Designed for durability, they are sweat, dirt, and weather resistant

iPod Touch
Distributor: Westcoast
SRP: £149 for 8GB, £229 for 32GB,
£299 for 64GB
The iPod Touch features a multi-touch interface for playing games or browsing the web, a 3.5-inch widescreen display, wi-fi, Bluetooth and a built-in accelerometer and speaker. Additional features include Shake to Shuffle and the new Genius Mixes, which automatically creates up to 12 endless mixes of songs from your iTunes library that complement each other

iPod Nano
Distributor: Westcoast
SRP: £115 for 8GB, £135 for 16GB
The latest Nano comes with the new additions of a video camera, microphone, speaker and pedometer. The FM tuner features live pause and iTunes Tagging functions, allowing users to tag a song so they can purchase it when they sync the device with their computer. The Nano comes in a choice of nine colours

Trust iPod Sound Station
Distributor: Interactive Ideas
SRP: £25.52
These speakers, which come with a remote control, feature one-touch controls for volume, mute and standby and can also be used to charge the device’s battery. It is also compatible with iPod Shuffle and other audio devices with a 3.5mm stereo output. Designed with neodymium bass drivers and tweeters for high quality sound

Sony Walkman S Series
Distributor: Pik-a-Pak
SRP: £109.99
The 16GB S Series features a built-in FM tuner with 30 preset channels, along with built-in stereo speakers, which give users the option of playing radio stations or albums out loud. The device is open format, meaning that WMA and AAC files, as well as MP3s, can be played on it. It also features a voice recorder

Exspect Gaming Grip
Distributor: Gem
SRP: £14.99
The Gaming Grip is ergonomically designed to recreate the experience of playing on a handheld games console. Made from silicon, it improves the user’s grip of the iPod Touch 2G and the 3G and 3GS iPhones. The Grip is contoured to fit the palm of the hand while keeping the touch screen completely accessible. With a screen protector included as standard, it also doubles up as a protective case when not being used for games

Logic3 FM Transmitter and Car Charger for iPod
Distributor: Bluepoint
SRP: £24.95
The FM transmitter allows users to play their iPod through car stereo speakers and store up to ten common frequencies or manually search for the clearest signal. The 3.5mm stereo connector allows connection to other MP3 players, while the car charger ensures the iPod stays powered up

iRiver B30
Distributor: Digital Audio Distribution
SRP: £139 for 8GB, £179 for 16GB
The B30 features vibrating touch buttons and a built-in G-Sensor, which means the user can simply shake the device to change the track or rotate it to watch movies in landscape mode. The integrated DAB+ radio includes electronic programme guides, album art and artist and track information, which is updated live. The microSD memory card slot also gives consumers the option of boosting the device’s capacity

SanDisk Sansa Clip+
Distributor: Hama, Peak Development, CMS Peripherals
SRP: £37.90 for 2GB, £45.90 for 4GB, £62.90 for 8GB
The Clip+ comes in three capacities up to 8GB, with a colour choice of red, black or blue. The microSD memory card slot allows users to load additional songs without using up the device’s inbuilt memory. As the name would suggest, the device features a wearable clip for hands-free portability

Veho 360 Portable Speaker
Distributor: Target Components
SRP: £19.99
The 360 speaker is small, lightweight and compatible with any audio device with a 3.5mm headphone jack. The built-in li-ion battery, which can be recharged from a PC, Mac or mains power, has a life of up to eight hours

Veho Qube Earphones
Distributor: Target Components
SRP: £19.99
These earphones use Veho’s Qube noise-cancelling technology, designed to cut out external sound. The in-ear design also allows the buds to sit right in the ear for both comfort and practicality

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