Music players for free software users

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 18, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The sales of music players, like those of ereaders, have fallen in the last decade. No doubt all-purpose phones and tablets have replaced them. However, if you have a large digitalized music collection and want something better than the tinny speakers on most mobile devices, then music players still make sense. And these days, I found recently, even free software advocates -- that is, those who choose to store their music is in Flac or Ogg Vorbis format -- can find something on which to play it, although the choice includes more problems than I had imagined.

At first, the list on XiphWiki of music players that support free formats seems healthy enough. It lists fourteen manufacturers and twenty-one players, and, if you go to a manufacturer's site, you can find several other players that didn't exist when the list was last updated.

However, the more you research, the less rosy the picture becomes. The Sansa Fuze, which I happily used for six years, is no longer available, except at the ridiculous prices that Amazon sets to hint that a product is unavailable. Others are small, inexpensive devices whose sound quality is as mediocre as that of the average tablet. However, you are unlikely to get a chance to be sure, because most of the manufacturers listed are likely to be unavailable at your local computer where a clerk can sometimes be coaxed into letting you try the floor models before you buy.

The Choices
In practice, free-software users are restricted to two brands: FiiO and Sansa. Other manufacturers are sometimes available, but these are the most common. Neither, unfortunately, is entirely satisfactory.

FiiO is a new brand, with a well-deserved reputation for sound quality. Unfortunately, it is mainly a luxury line, with players that cost $300-900 and are about the size of the average smart phone. making them too expensive and too bulky for me to want to carry them on public transit.

FiiO does have the entry level X1 model for about $75. However, it is as bulky as the rest of FiiO's product line. It also requires that you buy a micro SD card -- since it contains no built-in memory -- and ear buds or headphones as well. It also takes over three hours to charge, which is about three times longer than most other players, and its four buttons are scattered to the four quarters around the navigation wheel, making them awkward to use.

Six years ago, I was raving about the Sansa Fuze. In its absence, I would suggest investigating the Sansa Sport Clip, but it is a change for the worst. Unlike the Fuze, the Sport Clip does not include a voice recorder, although you can easily get an app for one on any Android device. Also, the interface has been reduced a series of minimalist buttons without any text, which can make navigation a guessing game.

Even worse, the on-screen interface is divided into internal and external memory. As a result, the Sport Clip does not provide a single list of tracks. But worst of all, lists have a character limit, which means that if you are using a micro-SD card of 32 gigabytes or more, half the tracks do not appear on any list. Instead, you are reduced to using the Folder view, which gives you access to all the tracks, but does not read the track number in the meta-data, forcing you either play an album in alphabetical order rather than the order in which the artists present the tracks, or produce a playlist for each album.

I suppose that another alternative might be to shorten all the file names and their paths in the hopes that you can get a complete list of available tracks. However, that would be a ridiculous amount of effort to spend correcting the manufacturer's incompetence -- I am talking, in my own case, of nine thousand tracks. Nor would there would be any guarantee of success when you are done. I

Another unwelcome eccentricity is that tracks ripped from cassettes -- remember them? -- are not recognized by the Sport Clip, even though they play without problems on my workstation or on other players. Occasionally, too, the Sport Clip declines to play certain Ogg Vorbis files in more than whisper, a problem that may be caused by confusion when two files with the same name are available.

These problems are trivial enough individually. After all, you can still play most of your music. Yet the problems add up to just too many workarounds. Even though the Sport Clip's sound quality is reasonably decent, it sets up too many obstacles in the user's way. Sansa's interfaces have changed since I last bought, and not for the better.

In the end, I decided on FiiO's X1 model. My decision might have been different if I did not have spare ear buds and Micro SD cards to outfit it, since they would have doubled the cost, but its large size is a trivial problem compared to those on the Sansa Sport Clip. At least with the FiiO X1, the worst problem I face is choosing a pocket for it that won't burst from the weight. The awkward arrangement of controls, I suppose, is something I can learn to live with.

Still, I am troubled by the lack of choice. In 2016, I naturally assumed that as a free software user I would have more than one acceptable music player. I may be set for the next few years now, but the process of selection made me feel I was back in 2000, when selecting hardware for Linux was hit and miss. What, I wonder, will the situation be when I have to replace the X1? Will an acceptable choice even be available? Or will I have to export all my Ogg Vorbis files to another format if I want a music player?

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