Budget MP3 players that mean the beat won't stop

Sep. 5, 2012 at 11:10 AM ET

The phrase “MP3 player” is bound for the dictionary’s endangered species list -- if it hasn’t arrived there already. These days, consumers can store and listen to music on their cell phones. Even stand-alone MP3 players are often referred to as “iPods,” whether they answer to that name or not. Still, a smartphone can weigh you down on a run, and Apple isn’t the only maker of smaller, lighter devices for music lovers.

Below are Cheapism’s top MP3 players for $50 or less.

  • The SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip (starting at $39) comes with 4GB or 8GB of storage for songs, and a microSDHC card slot lets users expand that capacity by up to 32GB. Reviewers appreciate that this player supports so many types of audio files, including MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC and Audible. Features include a 1.1-inch color display, FM radio, and a voice recorder. (Where to buy)
  • The Sony W Series Walkman -- yes, Walkman (starting at $50) -- in no way resembles the black bricks of the 1980s. It’s an MP3 player built right into a headset, with controls on the earpieces. Reviewers applaud the sound quality, especially the deep base. It holds 2GB or 4GB of audio files in the MP3, WMA, AAC-LC, and L-PMC formats. (Where to buy)
  • The fourth-generation iPod Shuffle (starting at $45) is the cheapest iPod you can buy. It has no screen, only a scroll wheel for navigating a 2GB music library. Consumers posting reviews online have found it eminently easy to use. Supported audio formats include MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, Audible, AIFF and WAV. (Where to buy)
  • The Philips GoGear Vibe (starting at $49) boasts a 1.8-inch color screen and 8GB of memory; there’s also a 4GB version with a smaller screen. It features FM radio and supports not just MP3, WAV, WMA, FLAC, and APE audio files but also photos and video files. It impresses reviewers with its sound quality and battery life, which is rated at up to 25 hours. Only a few minutes of charging yields an hour of audio playback. (Where to buy)

The number of songs you can store on an MP3 player, whether it holds 2GB or 8GB, depends on the size of the audio files. (If some of the acronyms are unfamiliar, CNET has a rundown of the different file formats.) The amount of memory doesn’t affect the physical size of an MP3 player all that much -- good news for gym goers looking to squeeze a large music library into a light, portable package.

Be sure to consider what kind of computer you have before making a buying decision. Most inexpensive MP3 players are compatible with Macs but designed for PCs, so syncing with an Apple machine may be more complicated.

One final tip: Reviews often include complaints about the headphones that come with low-cost MP3 players, and splurging on a good pair can go a long way toward improving audio quality.

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