your kidding right? Buy and iPod with good ear buds.
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This is actually a good question. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the i-pod if you are looking for a portable music player that achieves good sound quality then the i-pod is definitely not the last word.
My recommendation to you would be one of the higher end Sony Hi-MD Minidisc player/recorders. These machines are very well built and certain models will facilitate the recording of full uncompressed 44.1 PCM which achieves sound quality beyond even the highest bit rate lossless files that an i-pod can accommodate. No they won't do video, and yes you have the unbearable hassle of having to deal with a physical media, the Minidisc, and yes they are a little more bulky, man life is rough, but you do get some things that an i-pod won't give you such as the ability to record from your source component directly to the Minidisc recorder in both digital or analogue and of course the fidelity of uncompressed PCM recording. I have made recordings of my hi-rez DVD-Audio and SACD discs via the analogue outputs of my universal player with stunning results. This is all done with the use of 1GB HI-MD discs that will record 96 minutes of pure uncompressed PCM digital on a single disc. Of course if you prefer you can also record using compressed formats such as Atrac 3 plus, or MP3, and wave files from the PC with the supplied software, that boosts recording time to over 46 hours per disc. Add a set of high quality ear buds and you are set to go.
Check out cowon america http://www.cowonamerica.com/. I use the iaudio7 and it is the best sounding player I've heard, far superior to any ipod. And it plays flac. Paired with a good headphone amp and good headphones it's a very decent portable solution for audiophiles.
I use it with a headroom amp and ue triplefi buds and it sounds good.
Below is posted the first review I found (CNET) on the Samsung P2
Pros: Design, touch screen, GUI, performance, and bluetooth.
Buyer does not sound disappointed but he's a long way from a rave review. Certainly not anything that would lure me from a Classic iPod, a product that can be bought used (cheap) at Ebay with all the bugs worked out now.
Apple iPod Classic w/ Shure e530 earphones...got me through a longer-than-$%#@ flight to New Zealand! If you want a little more fidelity, add a Headroom AirHead or BitHead portable amp and you're good-to-go!!!
One can argue all day long about other players sounding better than the [non-Nano, non-Shuffle] iPod, but no other player offers the same combination of sound quality, ease of use, and ease of music storage/syncronization (iTunes).
If you've never even had a player you just gotta get a iPod first. Get a 32GB touch if you want to sacrifice space but be able to surf the internet via wi-fi...plus you can run apps(tons of stuff even if you're not a "gamer"...chess, mancala, sudoku, etc.). Get a classic if you just want tons of space for music.
It used to that Cowon America players sounded the best. I don't know where they stand now. It's been a few years since I've owned one. They are very cool players though.
If you really must have the best sounding player and can spend some dough, buy a new 5th generation video Ipod on Ebay and send it into Red Wine Audio (redwineaudio.com) for the IMOD treatment. Then go to www.aloaudio.com to get a decent cable, adapter, amp, etc. to go with your new player. Load the player up with AAC files and you'll be good to go!
among the many mp3 players i've owned (ipod, creative zen, sandisk e280, samsung t-9, rio), i can't honestly discern substantial differences in sound quality, at least with compressed mp3 files--all of them served their purpose. of the above, my sense is that the samsung and ipod players had the highest gain and sounded a little better, although the distincitions probably aren't cost-effective. what was much more significant was the headphones--after i pitched the standard earbuds and bought really good, lightweight over-the-ear phones, my enjoyment really peaked. koss portapro and sennheiser px-100 (both easily found for around $40) are absolutely incredible for the price and, to my ears, sound much better even than the pricy shure, etymotic, etc. in-ear stuff.
Another suggestion for Cowan. Been using an XL5 for quite a while. Excellent sound. Only drawbacks that I don't like is the adapter used for both recharge and line out. Finicky, fragile adapter. But I limit use only to headphone out, and just put up with the recharging.
If more current Cowan models don't have the adapter issue, to me the ideal. Direct transfer from flac archive on my computer for storage and playing on the unit.
And indeed, if just compressed mp3, just pick the easiest to use.