Terrible with Original Firmware, Brilliant with Rockbox

A Review On: Sansa Fuze+ 8GB Black MP3 Player SDMX20R-008GK-E57,Black

Sansa Fuze+ 8GB Black MP3 Player SDMX20R-008GK-E57,Black

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Review Details:
Audio Quality
Battery Life
Design
User Interface
Value
Purchased on:
Price paid: $32.51
julian67
Posted · Updated · 4091 Views · 12 Comments

Pros: Super Cheap Refurbs! Good sound. microSD slot. Nice screen.

Cons: Touchpad control won't suit some.

Purchase and receipt:

I paid £20.98 (US $32.51) including delivery for a manufacturer refurbished 8GB Sansa Fuze+. It has an "R" stamped on the back to show its refurb status. It was supplied in plain package with only a USB cable and arrived with the battery at about 40% charge and all settings at default. It has a 90 day warranty.

I bought the Fuze+ to replace my Clip+ which died on me last week. The Clip+ had taken a two and a half year battering including numerous drops and even immersion in sea water so I can't complain. I chose the Fuze+ because I prefer to run Rockbox. The Clip+ and Fuze v2 I owned had some noise issues and the Fuze+ uses different hardware and has a nice big screen which is great for album art and metadata so a change of hardware appealed to me. The Fuze+ new is badly overpriced imo but refurbs are super cheap, cheaper even than Clip Zip refurbs.

I had read the Sansa Original Firmware is very bad but don't mind much as it won't be getting used, however for the purpose of review I'll devote a couple of paragraphs to it.

First impressions:

The Fuze+ looks quite nice. It's hard to say anything about build or component quality except that the front and back of the plastic casing are glued or attached very neatly. The screen is 2.4 inch 240x320 but looks nice and can easily go bright enough to be useful outdoors. Text looks crisp and colours look very good. I like that there is a physical volume control and a single power/screenlock button. I was open to the concept of touchpad control as my old Fuze v2 died when its button wheel died and my Clip+ always made a click when a button was pressed. If the Fuze+ had a similar wheel or Clip+ type button pad I probably wouldn't have bought it. MicroSD cards sit flush in the card slot, unlike the older Sansa models.

The Fuze+ uses the common Micro USB connector so no proprietary cables needed nor docks available. This is not the right player for people who like esoteric boxes held together by S&M straps, connected by cables from the engine room of the star ship Enterprise.

Sansa Original Firmware:

Sansa's UI is pretty. That's the all positivity done in a mere four words. Despite having about three years experience of using Sansa Clip+ and Fuze v2 players I had to read the manual to work out how to use the damn thing. Even then the touchpad experience is incredibly bad with navigation and button press actions so poorly thought out that using the player is frustrating, uncertain and slow. Lots of others have detailed the problems so I'll just say that every bad thing you heard is true. The responsiveness improved a little with background image disabled.

Other problems with the OF: it didn't recognise my microSD cards even though these are genuine Toshiba and Lexar models (class 2 16GB and class 10 32GB respectively) which read/write at or above their rated speeds and work flawlessly on every other device. I even formatted them in Windows using the SD Association's SD Formatter 4.0. I also ran chkdisk on them. The Sansa still rejected them as having faulty file systems except once when I used Windows Media Player to load a 16GB card with a few mp3 albums autoripped from Amazon CD purchases. As I usually run Debian and prefer flac this is about as encouraging and useful as a verucca. The other big problem with the OF is that when connected to PC with the USB cable it usually freezes. Sometimes it freezes on being connected and sometimes it freezes after being ejected, but it almost always does freeze or crash. The OF is slow to boot so this gets very irritating very quickly.

Sansa supply a firmware updater which can also fetch and install a dedicated media converter. I had used the older version of the Sansa Media Converter with my Fuze v2. The new version is equally lousy, being slow, unreliable, prone to crash and only works while the player is connected. Sansa seems to be incapable of producing stable software.

That's enough about the Sansa firmware. I feel annoyed just thinking about it and I'm not even planning to boot it or run it again. Sansa won't be fixing those problems, the firmware updates stopped two years ago so if you don't intend to run Rockbox do not buy this player.

Real review starts here:

I installed Rockbox using the Rockbox utility. It was easy, taking only a couple of minutes.

I don't propose to write a full review of Rockbox but will mention things which are specific to this hardware and experience and how it compares to the OF and to other Rockboxed players I've owned.

The touchpad does work after all! It's very nice and perfectly useable. Navigation is simple and bottom right and left presses let you jump up or down a page so scrolling through directories or files (or tag database) is really fast. Anyone familiar with Rockbox will be up and running right away and new RB users shouldn't have any difficulty either. Unlike the OF most stuff is discoverable through the good old "try it and see" method. Usually it does what you expected and wanted. The Rockbox manual is well written and has a Quick Start section for new users.

It's not just the touchpad that has been magically transformed. My microSD cards have returned to the reality where they work perfectly, just like they always did before their encounter with Sansa's "Designed on Ketamine"(™) firmware.

The default Rockbox UI looks good on the Fuze+ and there are over 60 other Fuze+ themes available. It's easy to modify existing themes to your needs.

The Fuze+ has a much more powerful CPU and more RAM than all the other Rockboxable dedicated music players I've owned (Sansa Clip+, Fuze v2, iRiver H140, iRiver H340) and the biggest and best screen. The PictureFlow plug-in (think iPod Cover Flow) works brilliantly. It's the first player I've had which runs this without lag or muddles like mixing up the images. It looks excellent and is nice to use.

The FM Radio works very well. It's an improvement over the Clip+ radio, grabbing weak signals probably better, and making less noise. It scans quickly, can save lots of presets and has basic RDS which is very welcome. I live in a built up area without line of sight of the local FM transmission antenna; signal strength is usually poor and the Fuze+ radio does suprisingly well. My other Sansa and iRiver players' FM radio use is marred by noise from disk and CPU activity but the Fuze+ doesn't have this problem.

I didn't try the following as I don't have the hardware but you can use the Fuze+ micro USB port to attach a keyboard and control the player with it.

You can also attach the Fuze+ to a PC or laptop and use its touchpad to control presentations (PowerPoint and similar I suppose) or as a wired remote for your PC media player or as a basic Synaptics touchpad. edit: I had some trouble with this earlier but that turned out to be a driver issue on the PC (it didn't support composite USB devices). Plugging the Fuze+ into my laptop (generic kernel with a ton of drivers in it) everything worked: the touchpad could act as a laptop trackpad/mouse or a simple multimedia controller or control a presentation app. You toggle between the different modes by pressing the power button.

Sound Quality:

I don't have any measuring equipment so the following is mostly subjective:

A while ago I level matched my Clip+ and iRiver players by connecting headphone jack to recorder input and playing a tone and adjusting volume so that levels matched to within a small fraction of a decibel. I did a quick level match with the Fuze+ and H140 and it seems that the output levels of the Fuze+ are exactly the same as the Clip+ (or close enough that proper measuring kit is needed to show a difference). This is confirmed subjectively by listening to music in a level matched and sighted listening comparison.

The Fuze+ produces a slight hissing sound with low impedance IEMs, for example my Sennheiser CX 95 which are 16 ohm with SPL 113 dB claimed. I tried several other IEMs, ear buds and headphones and with anything with impedance 32 ohms or greater there is no audible hiss. My iRivers hiss as well, and quite a bit louder than the Fuze+. My Clip+ and Fuze v2 didn't hiss at all but did make a variety of random and extremely unwelcome squeaks, buzzes and clicks, sometimes even during playback. A very faint hiss from the Fuze+ with highly sensitive IEMs is perfectly acceptable to me. It is otherwise silent and well behaved. There are no physical button press sounds and no noises caused by CPU load or disk access or caching or whatever it is that the older Sansas do.

My older players struggled with m4a files. They would quite often skip to the end or to the next file and the iRivers could even freeze completely. The Fuze+ is playing them back without any problems, even 320 kbps files 100s of MB in size (BBC iPlayer Radio 3 streams). This is a big improvement.

Listening to music with my Sennheiser CX 95s I'm not sure there is any difference in sound quality between the iRivers and the Fuze+ except the iRiver hiss is a bit louder and I do notice it in quiet passages. With relatively higher impedance and less sensitive 'phones there is a difference in sound. None of my portables sound as detailed and natural as my big Yamaha HT receiver but the iRivers and Sansas differ differently if you see what I mean. With higher impedance 'phones the Fuze+ loses some bass and sounds a bit too smooth and less detailed with higher frequencies whereas the iRivers sound very detailed but slightly harsher than the Yamaha's DAC+amp combo. The Fuze+ doesn't have the power to drive less sensitive 'phones to realistic levels with music with a full dynamic range while the iRivers do a decent job of this. Loudly mastered amplified music mostly masks the issue. In this respect the Fuze+ is just like the Clip+ and Fuze v2: great with IEMs and headphones designed for these kinds of devices but a bit less good with headphones designed for domestic audio. This is hardly objectionable and many people might never notice or care if they do. Use the Fuze+ as intended and it sounds fine.

I don't have a portable amp so have nothing to say on using the headphone output as a line out except I'm not tempted to do so with such a low power device.

The voice recorder works. The mic seems really sensitive, much more sensitive than my other players, so this could be very useful. The recordings it produces are more than acceptable for dictaphone type use.

Video Playback:

At first I wasn't impressed with video playback but problem was down to the encoder settings I was using. I've now converted the same video and some others but using better settings in ffmpeg and the playback is absolutely fine. Video plays smoothly at 25 fps and sound is in sync.

Battery Life and Charging:

After a few days use I'm certain that battery life is much longer than a Clip+ but I didn't benchmark it yet. People report getting huge times on benchmarks but in the real world when you have software equaliser, a colourful display that renders text nicely, some games and utilities on board and video playback capability you are probably not going to be hitting 35+ hours. If I get 20 hours in real use I will be delighted. By seeing which way the wind is blowing and reading my tea leaves I think over 15 real world hours is perfectly likely and will be disappointed if it is less.

If you install the latest Rockbox bootloader (see page 43 of the Fuze+ developer thread at rockbox.org) the player will charge on USB without being powered up first.

Bad Stuff:

edit: initially I described having trouble with the USB connection in Rockbox but this was in fact an issue with my desktop PC not supporting composite USB devices. Connecting to another PC with the full complement of drivers everything is fine. This is another big improvement over the Sansa firmware which appears to have been designed to demonstrate all the different ways a device can crash. The hardware seems to be reliable in Rockbox.

Another edit, an addition this time: after a few days use I now notice a design problem: The headphone jack is at the bottom of the player while the power/screenlock button is directly opposite at the top. Inevitably the player sits in your pocket upside down with the headphone jack topside and the player resting on the power button. Occasionally there can be enough pressure for the screenlock button to activate, unlock the screen and do something random and unexpected like stop or pause or skip tracks or even switch to the FM radio.

Conclusion:

The Rockbox Fuze+ port is still unstable, meaning still in development and subject to change, which is to say that the version I installed this week is very usable but tomorrow's might be different and that could be better or more features, important bug fixes or annoying new bugs or all of the above. I've been down this road before with hardware that ran unstable builds and which eventually became stable and mature. I would recommend the Fuze+ with Rockbox unstable to anyone who has the sense to retain a copy of a known working build before updating to a new version.

The negative issues I initially described (before edits) with the player Rockboxed turned out to be issues with my PC not having drivers for USB composite devices and my ffmpeg video encoding settings not being ideal. The only issue left is the power/screenlock button being activated inadvertently but this should be solved by using a flip case. I had rated player 4.5 stars and I'll now change that to 5 because a refurbished Fuze+ running Rockbox and hooked up with some good quality IEMs is an amazing bargain at the moment and a very good player overall.

12 Comments:

 Well said. I completely agree....without Rockbox, the player is junk, but with it, pretty decent overall. I wouldn't want it as an only player, but as part of a collection it's nice to have.
Thanks for responding.

Agreed, I'm pleased I have a choice of players as I don't think Sandisk care much about longevity or build quality or anything except hitting the bang for buck sector with their giant marketing hammer.

As for the sound I recall someone speculating that the Clip+ sounded good because Sansa must have put a lot of effort and engineering expertise into the audio path. What a beautiful and comical idea! I think Sansa products sometimes sound fine because they don't spend even a penny on superfluous nonsense like creating a house sound or buying into any other company's "Beats Audio" type schemes. Default/reference sound of the hardware is what you will usually get, and all in the name of indifference and penny pinching :-)

I'm slightly undecided on the sound. I've seen skamp's RMAA frequency response curves suggesting it doesn't deviate that far from flat and has good figures for distortion and noise but subjectively it feels a bit dull.

I wouldn't encourage anyone spend $85 for a new one but at refurb prices this is a steal and well worth having.
 After having one for a little while many months ago, my buddy got frustrated with trying to make it work and sent it back to me, so I just re-Rockboxed it the other day and haven't spent much time with it yet. A quick 5 minute sample with my JVC HA-S500 seemed to deliver pretty good sound, and I don't remember anyone ever reporting hearing any CPU noise from one of these like they did from some Clip+ variants.
Yes, all the annoying noises I knew from the Clip+ and Fuze v2 are gone and the Fuze+ matches a high quality IDE disk based player of a decade ago. It even has the trademark hiss. Progress! :-)
I did some more careful level matching of Fuze+ vs H140 by feeding a recorder with 1000 Hz tone played from headphone jack through IEM to microphone. I matched levels at normal and very loud levels to within a very tiny fraction of a dB. The results turned out exactly the same as doing it headphone jack out->line in (no headphone load) with 10000 Hz tone but now I know there isn't an impedance related variation with the levels, at least at 1000 Hz and 10000 Hz tones with 16 ohm IEMs. I've done a lot more listening, both attentive and casual, sometimes for making comparisons but mostly for the pleasure of hearing the music.

I wasn't right to identify the Fuze+ as dull. It's more the case that the iRiver players have a very slightly forward treble with low impedance IEMs and I have got *very* used to it over almost 10 years. Strictly in terms of tonality the Fuze+ sounds closer to my Yamaha receiver's DAC+amp than do the old iRivers.

With suitably sensitive IEMs or headphones the sound of the Rockboxed Fuze+ is hard to criticise.
Nice to see a review that gives the fuze+ a chance. uhm. In my country, for some reason, both 4gb clip zip and fuze+ costs about 50$ (converted from our currency). I'm planning to get either one of those. Im leaning a little bit to the fuze+ because of the bigger and better screen, especially after reading your review after you rockboxed it. So which one should i get especially if they have even a tiny bit of audible difference in sound quality? Thank you.
If audio quality is the most important thing then get the Fuze+ because it doesn't make intrusive noises like the Clip series and older versions of the Fuze. It also has enough CPU power to run EQ and crossfeed and database updates and PictureFlow or games all at the same time and without any problem of any kind. I don't know if the headphone jack is the same part or different but on my Fuze+ it is secure with no noise from movement and this is better than my Clip+.

If pure convenience is the most important thing then the Clip Zip easily wins because it it so tiny and light and has the clip, and hardware buttons are probably always going to be more convenient than a touchpad on a tiny device like this. I think if people have an issue with the Fuze+ it will always be the touchpad. If you need to use the player with it in your pocket or one handed then however well the touchpad works it won't be what you want.

You get longer battery life with the Fuze+ but I think the Clip series have simpler hardware and more reliable USB support.

The only thing I miss from the Clip series is actually the clip and being able to securely attach the player to a sleeve or bag strap or similar. I used velcro to attach a clip to my Fuze+ but in fact it is just big enough to be a bit clumsy and a bit less secure.

Refurbished Clips are very cheap here at the moment and I did consider getting one but actually I remember how annoying I found the variety of unwanted noises and how often I put down the Clip and picked up my much bigger, heavier and less convenient old hard disk players instead.

The one thing I can't yet compare is durability. My Clip+ got a real beating for about two and a half years and I really can't complain that it died. I have no idea if the Fuze+ might survive the same carelessness for as long.
Thank you for the comprehensive advice. I appreciate it. I guess i have no follow up questions. I'll be getting the Fuze+ and take care of it and hope it last for at least a year. thanks again.
Fuze Plus is Brillant when it works. Had to send back mine twice because of sound failure. Now,  I have audio connector problem, only left side is working. Crap.
Before installing Rockbox on my Fuze+ ( I had previously updated it to v. 2.38.06) should I go into settings and restore it to factory settings? I ask this b/c I'm finding it impossible (and I really did look around on both the Sansadisk and Rockbox website forums) for the original firmware asked for by the bootloader, which I installed in the root folder.
Follow the install guide at http://download.rockbox.org/daily/manual/rockbox-sansafuzeplus/rockbox-build.html, it contains step by step instructions and links to everything you need. If further support is required don't ask on this review but instead post to the rockbox forums.
Thanks julian67 for posting this wonderful review. I got a refurbished Sansa Fuze plus  myself and enjoying it very much. Rockboxed it right away. Initially had few problems with the navigation, but sorted that out using the Rockbox Touchpad settings. It feels better than my Cowon C2.