Best Running MP3 Player

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My collection of MP3 players. From Top left to bottom right they are: Original iPod (don't try running with a hard disk player!), 1st gen iPod Nano, 3rd gen iPod Nano, 5th gen iPod Nano, two 4th gen iPod Shuffles, 3rd gen iPod Shuffle, Zune HD, Clip Zip (with case), Clip Zip, Clip+, Motoactv.

I nearly always run with music, and I've tried many different MP3 players over the years. My favorite player is currently the SanDisk Clip Zip, but different people want different things from their music player, so I've got a number of recommendations depending on your requirements.

Contents

1 What to look for in an MP3 Player

  • Size. For running, an ideal MP3 player should be small enough to clip on. While a larger MP3 player can be strapped to an arm or put in a pocket, smaller is better.
  • Buttons. Physical buttons are much easier to use while running than a touchscreen, which is awkward at best. You can't operate a touch screen without looking, and touchscreens don't generally work well with gloves or sweaty hands.
  • Capacity. Even a 2 Gb MP3 player can hold 14 hours of good quality music, which is more than enough for most runs. However, it's better to have a much larger capacity so that you hear a variety of music over time. Ideally you want to have all the music you like to listen to while running on the player.
  • Display. While you can use an MP3 player without any display, as the iPod Shuffle shows, a display does make life easier.
  • Battery Life. Most MP3 players will last well over 12 hours, which is long enough for most people. If you're doing a 24 hour race or a 100 miler, you may need a spare.
  • Spoken Menus. Having your player speak the menu items is great if you're operating it by touch, and vital if it doesn't have a display.
  • Waterproof. A waterproof MP3 player makes life easier, but the only options I've found are rather pricy. I generally use a small Ziploc snack bag if it's going to rain, and so far I've not had an issue.
  • Sound quality. The sound quality of the MP3 player makes relatively little difference compared with the sound quality of the headphones. I have some recommended Headphones for Running that have far better sound quality than the standard ear buds.
  • Bluetooth. The idea of not having wires to get in the way is appealing, but Bluetooth headphones are not without their downsides.
    • The biggest issue is the sound quality of the Bluetooth headphones. They are comparable with other ear buds, but nothing like as good as the Koss headphones. It is possible to use a Bluetooth adapter with regular headphones, and I adapted a pair of Koss headphones to have a short lead and attached the Bluetooth adapter to my running hat.
    • The Bluetooth headphones have to be charged, which means you have another device to charge and another device's battery level to remember to check before you run.
    • There is a slight added complexity of pairing the MP3 player and headphones. It's not a big deal, but it's another thing to go wrong.
    • Using Bluetooth tends to drain the battery of the MP3 player quite a bit faster.
  • Software support. Managing your music and getting it onto your device is obviously critical.
    • If you use iTunes, then the iPods are well supported.
    • If you want to use a non-iPod with iTunes, the free open source notpod works well.
    • I prefer Media Monkey to iTunes, which is free and works with most devices.

2 Recommendations

These four players are my top recommendations depending on your requirements.

Player Recommended for Capacity
iPod Shuffle
MSRP $49.99 at Amazon.com
Runners who are happy with iTunes and 2 Gb capacity 2 Gb
Clip Zip
$49.98 USD at Amazon.com
(Referbished $26.99)
Running geeks who want the best running MP3 4-8Gb built in, expandable to 72 Gb
7th gen iPod Nano
MSRP $149.99 at Amazon.com
Apple lovers who need more than 2Gb 16Gb
Motorloa Motoactv A water resistant player that doubles as a nice GPS sports watch, but now discontinued. 8 Gb

3 iPod Shuffle (4th generation)

The iPod Shuffle has a number of flaws, the biggest being its 2 Gb capacity, but its ease of use makes it an ideal choice for many runners.

3.1 iPod Shuffle Pros

  • If you're happy to use iTunes to manage your music, the Shuffle is remarkably easy to use.
  • The Shuffle is cheap to buy at less than $50.
  • The play/pause button is easy to find reasonably easy to find without looking, even with gloves. The volume and track change buttons are not quite as good, but are okay.
  • The Shuffle is one of the smallest players without being so small that usability is an issue.
  • The clip on the shuffle works well, so there is no need for a case.
  • The voice menus allow for some simple operations, including selecting a playlist.

3.2 iPod Shuffle Cons

  • The Shuffle is only 2Gb with no expandability, which limits the amount of music and makes it expensive for the capacity at $25/Gb.
  • There is no display.
  • Functionality is limited, with no ability to rate music, voice record, FM radio player, etc.
  • The Shuffle is not waterproof, though it's easy to put into a Ziploc bag if it's raining or you're sweating heavily.
    • There is a Waterproof iPod Shuffle, but it's expensive at $135. It's waterproof to 100 feet, so it might be worthwhile if you're expecting to get seriously wet.
    • There are waterproof cases for the Shuffle, but they tend to be expensive and comparatively bulky.

4 SanDisk Clip Zip (with Rockbox)

The Clip Zip is nearly perfect as a music player for running, but it requires some geek knowhow as you'll need to use the open source Rockbox firmware to get the best out of it.

4.1 Clip Zip Pros

  • The Clip Zip is small, but large enough to have usable buttons and display.
  • Like the iPod Shuffle, the Clip Zip has a clip that works well.
  • The Clip Zip has a color display, an upgrade from the previous version that was monochrome. The display is quite small and low resolution, but usable and a good compromise given the size of the player. The Rockbox software allows for customizing the display, though developing new display layouts is non-trivial.
  • The Clip Zip is available in 4Gb or 8Gb, but has a microSD expansion slot, so the 8Gb version with a 64Gb card will give you 72Gb of storage. I have the 4Gb and use a 16Gb card, which is enough to hold my running collection.
  • The Clip Zip has a list price of $50 for the 4Gb unit, but you can normally find it for around $30, and microSD storage is generally less than $1/Gb.
  • I've found that battery is about 14 hours of continuous playback, but shorter if you use the display much.
  • It is possible to use nearly all of the functionality of the player using just the spoken menus and buttons.

4.2 Clip Zip Cons

  • The biggest problem with the Clip Zip is that it's best with the open source firmware from Rockbox. This is not difficult, but requires some technical knowledge and confidence. (The SanDisk firmware has a reputation for being buggy but mostly workable.)
  • The buttons on the Clip Zip are not easy to locate with gloved hands, so I glue some small bumps onto a silicone case.
  • The Clip Zip is not waterproof, but like the Shuffle, a Ziploc bag works well even in heavy rain. However, there are no fully waterproof cases available.
  • The open source Rockbox firmware does not support DRM formats, including Audible books. (The stock firmware does support Audible.)

4.3 Simple Clip Modifications

There are two simple modifications to the Clip to make the buttons easier to use and to reduce the chance of water damage. The buttons on the Clip are not easy to find without looking, especially with gloves on. I've glued small bumps either onto the Clip itself or onto a silicon cover. These bumps make it easy to find even when the clip is under clothes and I'm wearing gloves. I've lost a number of Clips to water damage, either from rain or drowned in sweat. Putting some tape over the microSD slot, a silicone cover and a cover over the USB socket reduces the chance of water damage dramatically. It does not make the Clip waterproof by any means, but it does improve the resistance to damp conditions. When it's actually raining, I put my clip either in a ZipLoc bag or in a full waterproof bag.

A silicone case covers the buttons and reduces the places water can get in, though often water will get under the edges.
Here's a close up of the buttons on the silicone case. I've glued the buttons directly to the Clip before, but a slight mistake with the glue and the Clip buttons are glued closed.
Some small covers for the USB socket are cheap and easy to use. I paid $5 for 10 covers.
Here's a shot showing the Clip with and without the cover.
The microSD slot seems to be a point of water ingress, and simply covering it with duct tape helps prevent problems.
Just in case you were thinking of more serious modifications, here's the inside of the Clip.
The Clip in a ZipLoc bag, which seems to work pretty well in light rain. I find it's best to lock the buttons and put it wrapped up in a pocket.
A full waterproof bag will prevent any water problems, but it's a pain to use as it's bulky and stiff. This is the Go Design bag which is about $12 on Amazon.com

5 Motoactv

The Motoactv is a brilliant but rather flawed Running Watch. While the Motoactv is not intended to be used primarily as an MP3 player, it fulfills this role well. The pros and cons below are focused on the MP3 capabilities; for a look at the Motoactv as a sports watch, look at Best Running Watch.

5.1 Motoactv Pros

  • The Motoactv is one of the few water resistant MP3 players. This resistance is not perfect, as there are small plugs that have to be in place, but it's better than the competition.
  • The Motoactv is small, and comes with both a wrist strap and a clip so that it can be attached to a waistband or other clothing like the Shuffle and Clip Zip.
  • The Motoactv has a high resolution color display that's touch sensitive, and rather unusually, the screen works even when wet.
  • The buttons on the Motoactv are easy to find, with buttons for volume and a single button for play/pause/track change.
  • The battery life of the Motoactv is 10+ hours if it's used just as an MP3 player, though using the GPS functionality can dramatically reduce the battery life.
  • The Motoactv is not only an MP3 player, but includes a fully functional GPS sports watch.
  • There is support for Bluetooth headphones that works well.

5.2 Motoactv Cons

  • The Motoactv price varies considerably, listing at $250 for the 8 Gb version, but retailing anywhere from $145 to $250. Even at $145 that's over $18/Gb, making it an expensive MP3 player. Of course, if you use the sports watch functionality the Motoactv becomes good value.

6 iPod Nano

The seventh generation iPod Nano is an elegant player that can be used while running, though its flaws make it hard to generally recommend.

6.1 iPod Nano Pros

  • The iPod Nano has 16 Gb capacity, far more than the Shuffle (but less than an expanded Clip Zip).
  • The large display is bright and high resolution.
  • The Nano has a simple pedometer that can be used to roughly track your workouts. This is not based on the more sophisticated Footpod technology or GPS, so its accuracy is rather poor. (The 7th generation Nano does not support the Nike+ Footpod.)
  • There is support for Bluetooth headphones, though there are reports of people having problems with some headphones unless the Nano is mounted on the upper arm rather than at waist level.

6.2 iPod Nano Cons

  • The iPod Nano is expensive to buy at $150 ($9/Gb).
  • There is no clip to attach the Nano to clothing, so you have to buy a case or put it in a pocket. There are reasonably small clips available for the Nano, such as the Cygnet.
  • While the Nano has some buttons, they are badly placed on the side of the player making them easy to press by accident. The buttons are also remarkably hard to find, especially if when wearing gloves. Like most touch displays, the Nano's works badly when wearing gloves or when sweaty.
  • There is no way of locking out the buttons against accidental presses, which can make it frustrating to put into a pocket.
  • Not really a con, but be aware that the Nano interface looks similar to an iOS device (iPhone/iPad), but it's not, so don't expect to run apps on it.

7 Smart Phone

There are pros and cons to using a Smart phone as your MP3 player.

7.1 Smartphone Pros

7.2 Smartphone Cons

  • A smartphone is usually bulky and has to be mounted on your upper arm.
  • A smartphone mounted on your arm makes you a potential target for theft, reducing your safety.
  • Most touchscreens do not work well with gloves, in the rain, or with sweaty hands.
  • Few smartphones are waterproof, so a specialist case is required to protect it.

8 Discontinued iPod Nanos

The older iPod Nanos were a little large, but had a display and hard buttons. I've used several different models over the years. You can still get the older iPod Nanos on eBay for a reasonable price.

  • Generation One Nanos are too expensive to recommend as they have become collectable.
  • Generation Two had a poorer physical design than the first generation, with slippery, rounded edges that made them rather easily dropped. Available as 2, 4 or 8Gb.
  • Generation Three is my favorite form factor, and I didn't find them as slippery as the other generations. Available as 4 or 8Gb and it seems to be slightly cheaper than the other generations of Nano.
  • Generations Four and Five returned to the form factor of Generation Two, but with larger displays. They had greater capacity (8 or 16Gb).
  • The sixth generation Nano had a touch screen only, which makes it a poor choice for running. It's also expensive, at $140 for the 16Gb unit.

9 Other SanDisk Clips

The earlier version of the SanDisk Clip Zip is the SanDisk Clip+, and while it's a fine player, the Zip is better and cheaper. There is a newer version, the Clip Sport, but sadly it's not such a good player. There is no Rockbox support and the base firmware does not even support playlists. The player does have a touchscreen, but that's not enough to make it worthy of consideration.

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