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Assuming the Shuffle approach is for you, the listening experience is a surprisingly pleasing one, especially in a player this cheap. Even the included earbuds aren't bad – they're comfortable and do a reasonable job of reproducing the music. But they do lack body, bite, dynamics and most obviously, depth of bass.
If you haven't already, do yourself a favour and spend £30 or so on an upgrade, because with a decent pair of headphones attached, this little player really sings. With a pair of Shure's E2C ear canal phones plugged into my lugs I was treated to a well-balanced and coherent performance. The top end was zingy and detailed, the mid-range was focussed and there was plenty of well-shaped bass.
KT Tunstall's fulsome vocals really stood out, John Williams' virtuoso classical guitar on Concierto de Aranjuez was reproduced with a deft touch that belied the player's budget credentials and the player really rocked when fed a bit of good old-fashioned pop.
On the downside, the Shuffle struggled with the dynamics of the opening of Mahler's 5th Symphony and the dramatic rasgueados on classical guitar piece Asturias, but then I’ve still to come across a music player that can produce enough oomph to do either of these performances any justice. With really complicated and full-on material such as Green Day's American Idiot or The Prodigy's Firestarter, it can start to struggle at louder volume levels, muddling the mid-range a touch. This is really getting picky though.
Finally, it's also limited to playing MP3, AAC and AIF files – no WMA here or OGG –but you weren't expecting Apple to start supporting Microsoft now, were you?
I probably wouldn't like to have a Shuffle as my main music player, simply because it doesn't have a screen and I like to have a modicum of control over the order in which my music plays. However, there are many things to like about the new Shuffle and it would make an ideal exercise companion or first-time player. It looks great, the clip-on design is practical and the shuffle approach makes a nice change from the usual, forcing you to sample more of your music collection than perhaps you might otherwise do day to day.
But its best feature is its sound quality. For £50 the only player that rivals it is iRiver's T50 and, even without the screen, this makes it well worth considering for those on a budget.
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