A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 1 Sansa Clip+, Clip Zip, and Fuse

Top: Sansa Clip+. Bottom left: Clip Zip. Bottom right: Sansa Fuse.

Sansa Clip Zip (and family)
Back in 1988, a California startup was formed around the concept—novel at the time—of removable "System Flash" memory. This was exciting, innovative stuff, which was similarly being explored by Toshiba and Intel (among others). This little company called SunDisk had unique ideas for the application of this flash memory. In 1990, they released a 20MB solid-state hard drive which sold for $1,000. By 1994, SunDisk unveiled the CompactFlash format which remains in use to this day on high-end digital cameras. After a name change to SanDisk, the company continued to branch out into other areas—one small example of which is their Sansa line of audio players.

I can't imagine the Sansa line being very significant to the bottom line of a multi-billion dollar company. So the fact that SanDisk has kept Sansa going for over a decade must say something. I envision one or more top executives holding it up as their pet project. Maybe I'm wrong, and it makes a decent profit all by itself, having carved its own little place in the market. It's hard to say.

In any case, Sansa has been on the radar of audio enthusiasts since their 1st gen Clip model launched in 2007. Clip later evolved to the Clip+, Clip Zip, and a larger sibling called Fuze. The Clip+, Clip Zip, and Fuze are basically identical where it counts, so I tend to lump them all together. Avoid the new Clip Sport and the Fuze+ as they don't share the same DNA and frankly aren't very good. The Fuze seems to be discontinued but shouldn't be too hard to find if a slightly larger device sounds appealing.

External Design
The Clip+ and Clip Zip are tiny little rectangles with small but useful screens and controls. Clip+ uses a monochrome OLED display while the Zip gets a slightly larger color version. The signature "clip" is found on the rear and allows the devices to hang from your sleeve or pretty much any other place you can find. Both are extremely light weight and easy to manage. Despite their small stature, or possibly because of it, these guys can soak up quite a bit of punishment and keep on ticking. In the unlikely event you do manage to smash them (I've done it myself, long story....) they don't cost much to replace. That's one of the reasons I think every audiophile should have one in their arsenal.

Internal Design
All three models are based around a SoC (System on Chip) from AMS. This integrated platform handles D/A conversion and headphone amplification among other tasks. Worth noting is the sub 1 ohm output impedance—Sansa was doing this back when many competitors had an output impedance in the 5 to 10 ohm range (or higher). Equally important is the support for FLAC format which is not something many consumer-oriented brands can handle. The Clip family is limited to 16-bit/48kHz files or lower, which seems reasonable considering the price and target audience. The onboard FM radio might come in handy for those of you with local stations worth listening to.

User Interface
The Clip+ is quite simply a joy to use. I like the Zip too, which is easier on the eyes and has improved browsing for large music collections. For general use with equal size libraries I end up slightly preferring the simplicity of the Clip+ with monochrome display. Both Clip models use up, down, left, right, a center button, and a "back" button for controls. Add a power button and a volume rocker and that's it—completely intuitive, easy to master, free of any fuss. The Fuze is even better with large libraries due to increased screen real estate and a well done scroll wheel. All three models can run Rockbox which can then be highly customized. With the stock firmware, all three are already very good as basic players go. Just don't expect anything too advanced. The EQ is essentially worthless, and playlist building is limited to a single dynamic "go list". I actually use that quite a bit, but for anything more complex Rockbox would be required. Then, like any other device running Rockbox, we get a great EQ, crossfeed, and all the playlist control we could possibly want.

The Sansa trio is for the most part a closed system, which again is not at all surprising given their target market. They do have microSD slots which comes in handy considering all three top out at 8GB worth of internal storage. At time of writing it's possible to snag a new Clip Zip plus 32GB microSD for under $80. 32GB is officially the limit, but I've heard of people successfully using 64GB cards or even 128GB cards on a Rockboxed Zip. The Clip+ has a limited database size meaning even a 16GB card filled with lossy files might bump up against the maximum. I believe this was solved on the Zip but I always use FLAC so it's not something I can confirm.

Each model has a different method of charging/transferring files: microUSB for the Clip Zip, miniUSB for the Clip+, and a proprietary connection for the Fuze (which looks vaguely similar to the old Apple 30-pin style). The Fuze has line-out capability if you can snag an LOD cable—eBay has several available, proving these devices retain a loyal following despite being discontinued several years ago.

Battery Life
Using primarily CD quality FLAC files, I get roughly a dozen hours of playback on the Clip+ and Clip Zip. I notice a major improvement, closer to 20 hours, when using low bitrate MP3, which tells me the Sansas are not very efficient at decoding FLAC. Rockbox nets a significant bump in FLAC playback time which means it is more efficient with CPU cycles. The Fuze seems to have even more battery life due to the larger size—I typically get 20 hours or more playing FLAC even on the stock firmware.

Sound Quality
Sansa is not an audiophile-oriented company. So there's really no motivation on their part to excel in this area. "Good enough" was the order of the day on prior Sansa models. Thankfully, for whatever reason, they really upped their game on the Fuze and Clip models. The particular AMS SoC they chose, supported by a clean design for the supporting components, makes for a rather nice sounding little player. It isn't the most potent thing in the world and using high impedance or inefficient headphones is pretty much off the table. But with the VMODA M100 or with most any in-ear monitors the little Sansas deliver very respectable sound. It's clean, fairly detailed, and almost completely free of hiss save for when using very sensitive of IEMs. Even then it's a very minor problem, easily overlooked when the music starts. I'd say for general purpose, affordable devices, these things earn high marks indeed. They aren't the last word in refinement nor will they knock your socks off with their resolving power like some of the other models here..... still, my Clip Zip sounds great even when paired custom IEMs costing more than 25 times its price.

I prefer the Sansas over all but the very best Android devices. Lots of Android phones still have rather high output impedance, and many of them sound downright bad for a number of other reasons. The better ones, such as the OnePlus One (review forthcoming) or the higher end Samsungs, manage to keep pace with the Sansas but not exceed them. Modern iDevices sound quite respectable—reasonably low output impedance, minimum phase filters, fairly clean sounding. But using a highly resolving in-ear monitor such as the Noble Audio K10 (which sports an incredibly complex crossover network) the roughly 4 ohm output impedance of the iPhone 6 causes issues. Not to say an iPhone user absolutely needs a dedicated DAP.... but for IEMs with multiple balanced armatures on board it will definitely have its benefits. Considering the small size and price of the Sansas, it's not a huge hurdle to clear.

In the end I'd say all three models earn their keep despite being less "serious" than the others in this roundup. Everyone should have at least one of these around—from a first device for someone just starting out in the hobby, to a beater that can handle hours at the gym, the Sansas do a great job for what they are.

castleofargh's picture

cool to see something about DAPs.
I usually whine a lot when reading reviews as they always are too nice with the devices, forgetting to tell about the shameful side of a device. well I must say, this time the practical reports felt spot on for the stuff I own or could try(and I really don't say that often).

I also wondered about the hm802 not getting much love. it's too big for me, I'd rather have smaller and use an amp when necessary, but it seemed like a pretty good product.

John Grandberg's picture
If everyone writes fawning reviews and leaves out all the disappointing aspects, how will the companies making these DAPs ever learn?
Dopaminer's picture

Great review so far; really looking forward to Part II. I think you should reconsider your iBasso stance and include the DX90. Judging by the headfi threads, the DX50 and DX90 have been the `gateway` daps for many audiophiles who transitioned from smart phones or ipods, and then subsequently `moved up` to higher priced (sometimes MUCH higher priced) daps like AK240, etc. The DX50 and DX90 are highly relevant in any comparison, especially the DX90 with its power and dual sabre dacs, and its huge following.

John Grandberg's picture
I have to admit, I'm still sore at iBasso for blowing out my $750 set of CIEMs with their stupid volume bug. You're totally right about their relevance, but I'm just not sure I'm "there" yet.
tony's picture

Thank you for explaining the differences in all these players.

I'm reading and trying to imagine each player vs. my iMac/Schiit system.

Does anyone offer an iMac in shirt pocket size?

Anyway, nice bit of work here.

Tyll, Joker, Katz and Grandberg make a pretty strong group of journalists.

Tony in Michigan

potterpastor's picture

Tremendous survey so far! I love my Sansa Clip and my Sansa Clip+. By the way, I prefer the sound quality of the original Sansa Clip over the 2nd gen Sansa Clip +, but the original clip doesn't have a slot for micro sd cards.

John Grandberg's picture
I haven't had an original Clip in ages. No memory expansion = no go for me. But it's interesting that you like it more for SQ. I know they switched to a newer AMS SoC for the Clip+ and newer models, so I can see how it might be a little different. Personally I recall them sounding the same but I can't say I spent a lot of time comparing.
potterpastor's picture

The Sansa clip firmware is really sluggish and slow. It takes hours and hours to refresh the media every time you intentionally or accidentally move the microSD card. It is just not feasible.

You didn't review the iPod touch fifth-generation, but it probably is the best of all the players. It is so easy and fast to load music, and it sounds great.

Impulse's picture

I've been using a Clip Zip for running for a few years now, along with a pair of MEElec M6. Tempted to swap them for my Xiaomi Pistons but I like the fit of the M6 a lot when it comes to being active.

I used to take along the Zip when traveling but my Nexus 5 doesn't really burn thru battery much while playing music. I'm usually sending it via Bluetooth anyway to a Sony MW600 receiver (and my V-Moda XS or Ety IEM).

That's one category of devices I'd love you guys to survey, ClieOS tested some of the Sony/Samsung BT receivers on Head-Fi a while ago but it was not an exhaustive review. I feel like they kill two birds with one stone...

It takes the burden of output (DAC and amplification) off your phone or tablet, while also cutting down on wires, particularly when used with something like the XS with removable cables you can swap for short ones.

Impulse's picture

A BT receiver lets you enjoy the headphones you already have with a minimum of wires without getting pricey dedicated BT cans or a compromised set...

It's not something I use at home, at all, because I know BT is ultimately a bottleneck to what my cans are capable of (never mind my Asgard 2); but it's ultra convenient on the go...

As much as Tyll complains about how cramming batteries and BT electronics into a pair of cans tends to hurt their design you'd think these things would've come up in the conversation a few times.

John Grandberg's picture
I have a Noble BTS on the way, hoping it accomplishes just what you mention. From a design perspective it looks like just what the doctor ordered for a smartphone with high output impedance or just generally lazy sound quality. We'll see.
Impulse's picture

Looks kinda pricey compared to some of Sony's BT receivers with comparable battery life AND a display for track info, caller ID, etc... But if the sound quality is a cut above the rest it might very well be worth a look.

I'm definitely looking forward to your take on it. I don't particularly need the display on my Sony anymore since my smart watch accomplishes the same function. Being BT 4.0 that Noble unit might get better battery life than advertised with BT4.0 compatible phones.

I've heard great AptX BT devices as well as awful ones, not putting much stock that, the standard SBC codec seems decent enough if a device uses the highest bitrate... I've wondered whether AptX is more efficient but, no one tests for that kinda thing.

John Grandberg's picture

We'll see. The sub-1 ohm output impedance is promising. You don't typically see that spec on gear from other brands.

Which Sony model do you use?

Impulse's picture

I'm using a Sony MW600, pretty old unit, I think it's discontinued now but still widely available at close to it's original price. I believe they replaced it with the MW1 but that seems discounted too, not sure if the SBH5x models are their most current or what.

I get pretty good battery life out of it tho (over 7hrs still after a few years), I remember comparing it to my Clip Zip with my Ety hf3 but it's been a while... Now I'm curious to do so again.

Ended up settling on it basically based off Amazon reviews, a couple positive comments about it or the MW1 on Head-Fi, and just the fact that it looked better than a similar unit by LG. It's hard to find detailed specs like output impedance or DAC used, much less anyone that has more than one of these things for comparative purposes.

ManiaC's picture

Please if you can add Cayin N6 and Fiio X3 2-nd generation.

John Grandberg's picture
I have the Cayin N6 here now, as well as QLS QA360. Both are worth talking about. Should be able to get the Consonance Suzanne as well, but I'm not sure if the Questyle QP1 will be done in time.
Tyll Hertsens's picture
Yeah, but by the time the Questyle comes out you'll have a lot of great experience to evaluate it with. Thanks, John, great work here.
tony's picture

Another Wiki type of reference work.

You guys keep hitting home runs.

This portable comparison is doing Tons of work for me and probably for everyone else.

I'd buy a plane ticket to see a Seminar with all four of you lads.

You 4 are becoming a "Top Gear" type of experience, you might be able to do a weekly show ( remote kind of thing, like that TV guy does ). Betcha you'd be getting a huge following.

Tony in Michigan

elfary's picture

iPhone 6 output impedance is 2.3 ohms. Check your facts (or measurements).

tony's picture

Nice catch here elfary,

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture
And so did Ken Rockwell on his site. He got 3.18 ohms on the 6+, and I got a bit higher than that. Within margin of error/unit to unit variability I suppose. The point stands that it's pretty good as-is, but not perfect - there is some improvement to be found with a lower output impedance, when using certain IEMs.
Stefraki's picture

Have been increasingly falling in love with my Pono. Functionally speaking, it's very silly in several aspects... sound quality-to-price ratio? It's amazing.

John Grandberg's picture
Pono will be included in Part 2.
ednaz's picture

It's difficult in these online shopping days to do good research on your own. When I decided I wanted to step up from the iDevices, I couldn't find anyplace where I could listen to 2 or 3 alternatives with the IEMs and headphones I own. As fraught with argument as an exercise like this can be, it's a necessary tool (unless someone wants to order four or five units and sell off the ones they don't like.)

I agree on your assessment of the Fiio X5 sound, that's agreement from someone who enjoys listening to the device. But I think it's a problem with some earphones, but not at all with others. With my Westone ES5, it's edgy metallic for sure. But with other earphones or headphones - Xiaomi Piston 2, Ety custom sleeved, ACS T1 CIEMs, my AKG Quincy Jones portable headphones - it's not noticeable at all.

That's where the YMMV comes in - really seems to me that in a lot of cases you need to look at DAP/headphone combinations. Which makes for a combinatorial nightmare. Still, with good roundup reviews like this, and knowledge of your own headphones, it's possible to get to happy.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

I absolutely enjoyed this first collective look at DAPs.
Thank you very much John for compiling your thoughts and sharing them with the innerfidelity gang.

I share @ManiaC's interest in the Fiio X3ii as its been getting some pretty great buzz on other audio sites. However im guessing its sound quality wouldnt exceed the X5 and we have your review for that one.

Keep up the great work and keep sharing your thoughts and reviews. We headphone fans love our electronic toys..having more DAP reviews and wall-o-fame entries are a perfect fit for this site!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo


PS: What about adding Zunes, Archos Jukeboxes, Creative NOMADs, Diamond Rios, or the audiophile-standard-setting coby usb player!?

tnelson's picture

I'd be interested to know more about the target users of dedicated DAPs with higher SQ than iPhones and other smartphones. I honestly am curious about this issue…I understand wanting the best possible source for an environment in which you can discern SQ clearly and maybe wanting a physically small personal source that can be moved from quiet listening site to site (home, office, etc).

However, I am skeptical that benefits of a high-SQ DAP can be heard if used as a portable player. On streets, planes, cars, in coffee shops…there's no way I'd be able to hear an enhancement beyond my iPhone, regardless of how good the source or IEMs. Too much isolation or noise-cancellation can be dangerous on the street, so there's always going to be ambient noise.

I would still need my phone for streaming (or lossless downloaded) TIDAL, internet radio, plus all the non-audio smartphone functions. Why carry another device? It would be interesting to evaluate a current iPhone and Android phone among the DAPs being compared for SQ, for folks like me who are skeptical about the audible benefits of carrying a second audio device. Doesn't fit my lifestyle, but what is the target listening market for these?

John Grandberg's picture
I definitely agree that any benefit is lost in a noisy environment. That almost goes without saying. But each situation is different - two people commuting to work might have vastly different ambient noise situations. One might not be a good candidate for anything beyond a phone and decent IEMs, the other might be well served by a nice DAP and higher-end IEM. So you have to examine your own scenario and go from there.
On Song Audio's picture

Hi I am the U.S. representative for the M. Please keep in mind that the M can play while plugged into a 5 volt USB supply. The 4 to 5 hour battery life applies when a power outlet is not within reach.

Laistrogian's picture

I'm wondering if it's possible to do measurement for these DAPs. While I can understand why some people would want to by DAPs, something like A&K240 comes across me as being "unnecessary."

You could call me objectivist or something like that but for me it's still physics, if the numbers are the same they should sound the same.

SixChannel's picture

2 years ago I settled on a Samsung Galaxy because it 1)has a true FM radio, 2)has open architecture for music player and 3)allows me to peruse the innumerable internet stations. Although I see FM a lesser draw these days, opening up to the internet swung the deal for me. The only unfortunate part is that the amplifying stage isn't the best for my big cans, but I fixed it by strapping it to an amp.