Haphazard combo of good sound and bad noises.

A Review On: SanDisk Sansa Clip+ 8 GB MP3 Player (Black)

SanDisk Sansa Clip+ 8 GB MP3 Player (Black)

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Audio Quality
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Design
User Interface
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julian67
Posted · 6272 Views · 8 Comments

Pros: Cheap price. MicroSDHC slot. Supports flac. Can run Rockbox firmware.

Cons: Cheap build. Makes some unwelcome noises. Original firmware can't do gapless.

I bought my Clip+ 8GB in December 2010 and paid £36.99. It was something of a distress purchase in that I bought it to replace another Sansa player, a Fuze, whose wheel type buttons had ceased to work.

I used the player with the original firmware and I also installed Rockbox. I'll deal with notable points of each firmware.

The hardware:

It's cheap. This needn't be such a bad thing as in a bigger player. Cheap stuff can work fine. There is no mystery involved in assembling/making a small plastic case or a two colour display or some buttons. The Clip's clip still clips after 28 months and the buttons still work. The one component that was always much too cheap and has become worse is the headphone socket. It doesn't hold the headphone jack tight and it has become a little looser over time. In contrast the headphone sockets in my other players and phones and tablets all have a small spring clamp in the socket and any jack inserted is held securely. With the Clip+ noise from the poor connection is audible every time the player is moved, such as while in my pocket as I walk. To me this counts as a major failing. I bought the Clip+ for use while I'm out or busy but this is where its most prominent shortcoming is evident.

The microSDHC slot is a great feature. MicroSDHC cards have tumbled in price and it cost me less than £25 to add a good quality 32GB Class 10 card that works perfectly. The internal 8GB of storage is very slow.

The radio is basic but decent enough. If you live somewhere with strong FM signals and little interference you'll enjoy it. It's not a great radio with weak signals.

The player is so tiny and light that you can clip it onto a belt or sleeve or pocket and just forget about it.

My review doesn't cover Slot Radio or Audible audio book support as I don't use either facility.

I'm not sure there's any more to say about the hardware.

Notable features of the OF (Original Firmware):

Gapless playback is not supported even for those formats which natively support gapless (flac and ogg vorbis). Some people don't seem to mind clicks or gaps artificially inserted into performances. I definitely do. Bad Sansa.

The OF is database only. It can present a "browse by folder" option but this actually depends on the database so it will only show you files it knows. Refreshing the database can be very slow indeed if you have a large capacity card in the slot. This is most definitely a deficiency as it's inefficient and inconvenient enough to become annoying.

Aside from that I think the OF interface is pretty reasonable. It's easy enough to browse by folder/genre/artist and so on.

Notable positive differences of Rockbox over the OF:

Gapless playback. It works! It works in every format which can support it.

You can choose not to use a database. Even if you use a database it refreshes on changes extremely quickly, just a few seconds.
You can choose to browse by folder, and which types of files you want to see.

Rockbox supports many more audio codecs. It can play your m4a files or midi tracks or the weird format from your old skool game.

There are numerous other features and enhancements (bookmarking, sleep timer, wake up alarm, games, apps etc.) but in this review I want to concentrate on the player and its core task - music playback.


Sound Quality:

Firstly the sound quality is basically fine. It's neutral. There is no silly bass emphasis or nerve jangling highs. It works well with my typical low impedance IEMs and 'phones (various Sennheiser, Shure and Sony models from 16 ohms to 32) and also seems to put out a fair bit of power for a portable device so can drive plenty of full size headphones if they are sensitive enough. It easily drove my Sony MDRZX700 headphones (106 dB/mW and 24 ohm) but wasn't really capable of driving an old pair of Sennheiser HD 500 (101dB/mW and 150 ohm).

Some people note a difference between Rockbox and OF and claim one sounds better than the other (or one is right and the other is wrong). This can get very exciting with accusations of deafness, bias, stupidity and all the rest. There can be differences in the sound because each firmware does some things differently:

OF:
Supports 44100 and 48000 Hz files without sample rate conversion.
Has a pitch error so 44100 files play back at the wrong speed (you can hear this but you might not notice it). 48000 Hz files have correct pitch.
Dithering seems to applied and cannot be switched off*.
Replay Gain is off by default.

Rockbox:
Only supports 44100 Hz files internally. Uses a linear sample rate converter for other rates.
Plays back with no pitch error (or error so small you need measuring instruments to detect it).
Dithering is not enabled by default (user can enable it).
Replay Gain by default is in mode "Track Gain if Shuffling". This means it "Maintains a constant volume between tracks if Shuffle is set to Yes. Reverts to album mode if Shuffle is set to No" (from the Rockbox manual). Clipping prevention is off and pre-amp is set to 0.

So if you play a 44100 track in each firmware at seemingly identical volume (max in OF and 0 dB in Rockbox measure the same on my Clip+ into a recorder) it's possible to notice differences in level (due to Replay Gain in Rockbox) and pitch (due to error in OF) and perhaps a difference due to dithering.

If you play back a 48000 Hz file the OF's pitch error is gone. There is still the possibility of Rockbox's Replay Gain altering the level. There is a definite change in the sound in Rockbox due to the resampler. This is completely unmissable with 10000 Hz sine wave or if you want to hear it in real music try a track with some cymbal splashes and hi-hats. It's horrible.

So people claiming to hear a difference between the firmwares can be reporting a real difference. And people reporting no difference may also be right.

Almost all of my music collection is 16-bit 44100 Hz audio from CD so Rockbox's sample rate converter hardly matters. Replay Gain can be toggled off or its settings changed. Dithering can be enabled/disabled as preferred. But in the original firmware there's nothing you can do about the pitch error (and you can't switch off the dithering). Rockbox clearly has an advantage over the OF for 16-bit 44100 Hz audio. It can play it back at the correct pitch without introducing artificial gaps. If you are that rare person with a huge collection of audio at 48000 Hz (maybe a big collection of music from DVDs) then the OF is better. If your priority is playback of 88200/96000/192000 or even very low bitrate HE-AAC then this isn't the player for you.

Output level is pretty good. Assuming no positive increase of level from Replay Gain you won't get distortion even at maximum volume in the OF or up to 0 dB in Rockbox. Rockbox can artficially go louder but you might not like it much. There are louder players but the Clip+ should satisfy anyone who hasn't already damaged their hearing.

Noises:

The Clip has an unexpected feature - a collection of squeaks, clicks, screeches, buzzes and rumbles that if emitted by an adult human might qualify them for psychiatric evaluation and some interesting pills. Some of these noises arise from button presses or play pausing/resuming/stopping and are tolerable. Others can appear in playback. I assume the player's CPU and/or memory get maxed out (maybe I'm wrong) but you can sometimes get the kind of annoying noises you'll know from cheap PC boards with integrated audio. On one occasion my player made a nasty screeching sound for a second or two instead of music and did so in the same place several times. I powered it down and up again and all was back to normal. On another occasion it did a similar thing but distorted as though clipping - again it was repeatable in the same place in the track and powering down solved the problem. Sometimes a piece gets to a quiet passage and I notice there shuffling/rumbling noises that don't come from the music file. Again powering down and up fixes it. I'm glad the player can resume from the same point. Occasionally it fails to complete playing a track and just jumps right to the next one. So Tourettes wasn't all, it also has Alzheimers. Making whacky noises and forgetting to play a track right through isn't exactly audiophile territory and does reveal the Clip+'s lowly origin. But for the most part it does play back perfectly normally. Until it doesn't.

How to minimise the noises and dementia (assumes running Rockbox):

You need to minimise CPU and memory load so:

Don't enable the database (or enable it but disable auto updating and gathering of runtime data)
Don't enable dithering
Don't use EQ, crossfeed, tone controls or anything that touches the audio.
Luckily normal playback without modifying the audio sounds very good.

Overall:

When it isn't making unwanted noises it's hard to fault. When it is making unwanted noises it's hard to listen to. The headphone socket is the weakest part of the player as it's not replaceable, is of the lowest possible quality and if/when gets noisy you can't fix it. Assuming your headphone socket is OK then Rockbox turns a player with huge convenience but hardware and firmware problems into something extremely appealing and enjoyable to listen to. Until the headphone socket breaks.

If I could rate the player and the firmwares separately I'd give the player and OF 2 stars with 4 for value. Rockbox would get a straight 5 stars, lit up and heralded with a fanfare. Rockbox rescues the player from being a joke (wrong pitch!), makes it really appealing in many ways and gets the best out of the player but there is no getting around the deficiencies or limitations of the hardware.

It is very, very cheap. It can be terrible, it can be brilliant. But it's always cheap. So am I, and that's why I bought it. If you're cheap you'll probably like it too.


*I noticed a perfectly silent 44100 Hz file played back silently in Rockbox but with a little noise in the OF. There was no EQ applied or sample rate conversion. If I enable dithering in Rockbox I then get the same quiet background noise as the OF produced.

8 Comments:

Thanks for your response bcarr112281

I haven't tried the Shures but relatively high impedance and low sensitivity isn't a good match with the Clip+. I tried the similar Sennheiser HD-25-1 II (120dB) and higher impedance (70 ohm). The Clip+ couldn't drive them adequately.

nwavguy's review and comments need careful reading. The player outputs "about 15 mW into 16 ohms. This is a very healthy max output...Many players can only manage about 5 mW". Impressive output? My iRiver H340 outputs 20mW into the same load and could drive the Shures much better than the Clip+.

Clip+ is intended for use with highly sensitive, low impedance 'phones, not for moderate or high impedance 'phones designed to work with a powerful amplifier. You'll get a better sound with $50 IEMs designed for the job than with expensive but unsuitable monitors.

nwavguy notes deficiencies: distortion, background noise and crosstalk. He proposes that none are audible but isn't sure. Read the reply by Stephan for insightful analysis not predisposed to assuming inaudibility.

Flat frequency response and low impedance output seem to be the only factors that many people consider, as though this is what constitutes greatness. Other players get terrible reviews if they roll off the high frequencies in a frequency range inaudible to almost any adult (doing so to mitigate pre-ringing). Clip+ is proclaimed golden while some high quality players get unthinkingly neagtive comparison by "one graph" fetishists. Sansa didn't build the Clip+ for optimum sound. They even introduced a pitch error in order to squeeze out a little more battery life and refused to correct it in firmware! The Clip+ is in a market where battery life matters more than sound. That it can sound good is a happy accident, not design genius.

Listening with headphones even of ordinary quality, is revealing of recording, production and even manufacturing errors. You get to know your CDs and appreciate many are not crafted to high standards but produced for uncritical consumption. Headphones reveal mistakes often masked by playback via speakers into a non silent environment. And modern brickwall production is so nasty that it's definitely tiring to listen to. The upside is that really well produced music sounds astonishingly and incredibly good.

I would buy some IEMs or 'phones designed personal players. Looking for something with impedance below 32 ohms and probably sensitivity over 105 dB. You don't need to spend much to get a better experience than you have now.

If your Clip+ doesn't make horrible noises or spontaneously skip tracks then could be a very decent player with the right phones. If it's still tiring then enable dithering. If most of your music is modern amplified stuff with brickwall filtering there is nothing that can make it sound good with headphones.



Hi, julian67 -
I appreciate your thoughtful, thorough reply.
Most of my music is classical, so I doubt brickwall filters are a significant problem.
Actually, I'm not sure inexpensive IEMs will do--I may ditch my Clip+ for a better DAP. Still, I've not got a lot of money to throw around; what are your recommendations DAPs and IEMs?
An alternative consideration: I need a new phone, and I was wondering if I could find a smartphone with better-than-mediocre audio quality. (It would be awfully convenient to have only one device to carry.)
I don't have enough experience of current players to make a reliable recommendation. I'm still using old iRiver H140 and H340, both Rockboxed. I listen mostly to classical, baroque and early music and agree that brickwall filtering is unlikely to ever make an appearance. I think for classical you need something that doesn't introduce gaps or noises from the player, which doesn't crudely boost bass and treble, and which can handle lossless. I'd be tempted by the iPod Classic because it has large capacity, very reasonable price, good quality components, measures well and can play gapless lossless files. But I'd not like to convert my library from flac to alac or be tied to a "database only" player that requires management software on PC. If you're brave you can Rockbox it but the port isn't as mature or stable as that for the Sansa or iRiver players.

Cheap IEMs can be horrible but you could be surprised by some moderately priced ones. There's something to be said for stuff cheap enough to be disposable because IEMs do tend to die of cable failure quite easily so if you spend more than a little then get something with a replaceable cable or a very long warranty from a reputable manufacturer. I have Shure SE215 and enjoy them a lot. If I had more money I would buy one of the top Shure IEMs.

I would probably begin with new IEMs because that's a lot cheaper than a new player and will make an unambiguous improvement. Most potentially capable new players are massively overpriced imo. If I was super rich I'd buy the iRiver/Astell & Kern AK120, not because I think it's audiophile voodo magic or good value but because it supports gapless flac playback and is expandable with microSDHC cards. That's pretty much all I need. But I'm not even a bit rich....sobs.

I don't know about smart phone audio quality. It's really hard to find a review that actually addresses audio output and doesn't just rave about silly eq effects.
Hi, julian67 - I suspect your Clip+ is defective. My own unit doesn't make noise or behave erratically, and I don't remember reading about similar complaints. (I've mostly used Rockbox, but I don't recall any such annoyances with the original firmware.)
I really like your suggestions; it seems we're on the same wavelength. :)
Regards,
Brian
Clip+ making odd noises and halting or skipping isn't unusual: it's known for it's collection of buzzes, squeaks and hums. I'll offer just two references as other reports are easily found. One is to a discussion at hydrogenaudio and the other the Rockbox Sansa page where "annoying noise" is specified as a known issue.

http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/forums/index.php?s=6b6dd3814cfd6e7aa89a94c9bc79fa99&showtopic=86306&st=0

http://www.rockbox.org/wiki/SansaAMS

nwavguy makes some some interesting points in the HA thread, as do some others.

Some people never hear a noise on their Clip+ and some people do. I also know from reporting bugs and submitting audio samples that some people don't hear audible artefacts that are unambiguously present, especially if they'd rather not hear them. Listening to heavy amplified music I would also not notice some of the faults so it's not necessarily as simple a task as it appears to establish that something isn't right. And Clip+ seems to have become talismanic - noting its faults can be unwelcome and may be met with indifference, deafness or even real anger. So make that indifference, deafness and and unknowing irony.

The halting/skipping problem I've experienced mostly with high bitrate lossy m4a and with flac. It's also something I've seen described by others. My iRivers have a slower CPU and can hang completely with some m4a but have no issues with flac or vorbis. None of this is unusual with CPU and memory constrained players.

As for defective: they are all defective with the OF as they play with a pitch error. They play the music at the wrong speed! This is not Mercedes Benz or even a VW. It's a Polski Fiat.
Oh, yes, I knew about the speed issues! Trust me, I'd never have considered this model if Rockbox hadn't addressed the problem. (And yes, I know--it mostly addresses the problem. . . .)
As for spurious tones and sluggish performance, it seems I'm fortunate, as I honestly don't believe I've encountered any of these issues.
You're unlikely to hear that much while using your Shure headphones with the Clip+. Your first reply to my review seems to have disappeared from view but you stated you use Shure 440 or 840, and expressed disappointment at the combination. I noted that these aren't a good match due to sensitivity and impedance: Clip+ can't drive them well. With a 'phone that is more sensitive Clip+ will drive it properly and you will hear it in all its glory (or otherwise). A good read of other discussions of Clip+ noises shows others also report that the sensitivity of the 'phone makes a big difference.

All I can do is honestly report my experience and attempt to offer some explanation and context and point out that the problems identified are far from being unique, unknown, or unverified. Maybe some Clip+ are fine while others are not. So how do tell this before handing over the money? Lousy quality control is hardly the basis for a recommendation. I'll restate two sentences from my review:

When it isn't making unwanted noises it's hard to fault. When it is making unwanted noises it's hard to listen to.

It can be terrible, it can be brilliant.

I think my review is a perfectly fair appraisal I don't think I can usefully add anything more.
I use the SRH840.
"All I can do is honestly report my experience and attempt to offer some explanation and context. . . ."
Yes, and I appreciate your review and your thoughtful replies to my queries.