Thanks to its position as a memory chip manufacturer, SanDisk is a master at cost competing in the portable audio space. SanDisk's initial aggressiveness earned it the No. 2 spot in sales in the U.S. market -- behind Apple, natch -- and a reputation for producing cheap MP3 players. The company's latest device, an ultra-compact model dubbed the Sansa Clip, is no exception: the 1GB model comes in at a mere AU$79, while the 2GB is on offer for a no less reasonable AU$119. But don't let the price fool you: the Clip offers a respectable 92dB signal-to-noise ratio. This player is out to prove that "cheap" doesn't have to mean sub-par sound quality.
At 56mm by 36mm by 13mm (without the belt clip attached), the Sansa Clip isn't quite "smaller than a matchbox", but it is about the same size as one. It's one of the most compact players we've come across in recent times, though it is slightly larger than its closest competitor, the Creative Zen Stone Plus. However, the Clip's rectangular, 1-inch screen makes for better navigation than the Stone's itty bitty circular display. Also, the Clip lets you navigate music by artist, album, and so on, whereas the Stone offers very little track organisation. Initially the Clip is only available in black, although down the track the 2GB version will be available in a variety of colours: sleek black, candy apple red, hot pink, and ice blue. As the name suggests, the Clip also comes with a removable belt clip in a colour to match the player. This feature and its ultra-compact size make it ideal for the gym.
The controls on the Sansa Clip are also similar to those of its competitor: below the screen is a circular, four-way control pad surrounding a centre select button. While you're within the menus, up/down cycles through options on the current screen, while right steps deeper into the highlighted option and left backs out). Once on the playback screen, pressing up plays or pauses the track, down pulls up a contextual menu, and right/left shuttles through tracks. Beneath the four-line, dual-colour OLED screen, is one other key: a home button that cycles between the main menu and the playback screen. There's also a dedicated volume rocker on the right spine of the device, something that we are happy -- and surprised -- to see on such a small player. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack sits above the rocker, while the left side of the Clip houses a power/hold switch and a standard mini USB port. All these ports and controls may seem like a lot for such a small device, but everything is well laid out and the main control pad is large enough for comfortable navigation, so it's really quite ergonomic and easy to use overall.
Don't let the size of the Sansa Clip betray you: the player offers several desirable features. Of course, with the very tiny and simple screen, photo and video playback are notably absent -- but that's really to be expected in a device at this price point. What you do get is support for MP3, WMA (both protected and unprotected), and Audible files.
The Sansa Clip also comes with a built-in mic for making voice recordings (WAV output only) and an FM tuner, from which you can record, as well. There is a "press-and-hold" scan function for the radio and up to 40 presets, but there is no way to autoscan to set presets -- a bit of a bummer, if you ask us. As with any decent MP3 player, you get shuffle and repeat playback modes and an equaliser -- we like that there's an adjustable five-band setting. More plusses: you can add songs to an on-the-go playlist, as well rate and delete songs on the device. Finally, there's the auto-resume function, which picks up where you left off in a track, even if you paused before shutdown. This is particularly handy for those who listen to long, spoken-word tracks, such as podcasts and audiobooks.
Although most SanDisk devices sound passable, we've never been blown away by the sound quality of Sansa players. The Clip is actually a bit of an exception: this player sounds great. It's not quite as stellar as the Sony NW-A806 Walkman, but it can certainly compete with the Zen Stone Plus. In our tests (using Shure SE530s), music sounded rich and clear, with a present bass brought out more by tinkering with the custom EQ. Fiona Apple's soft pop track "The First Taste" was encompassing, with buttery mids, sparkly highs, and subtle bass. Mellow electronic music, like Hot Chip's "The Warning", was similarly pleasing, but even the Deftones' "Bored" -- a heavy and riffy rock track -- offered impressive clarity. All in all, we could find very little to complain about in the audio quality department -- unless, of course, you decide to use the included headphones, which are not so hot.
In other performance areas, the Clip was passable. Voice recordings were a little muffled sounding, and FM reception was about average. A couple of our regular stations wouldn't come through completely. The rated battery life of 15 hours is nothing to write home about.