Songs are transferred to the player via a USB cable. The Nano's most endearing feature is that it mounts on any operating system as a standard USB drive. It lets you drag and drop MP3s straight onto its drive icon. This is the kind of functionality we've been begging for and it's remarkable that so few manufacturers allow this simple and intuitive method of transferring songs. Companies like Sony demand that you use proprietary software (Sonic Stage, we're looking at you) when it would be much simpler to let you drag and drop.
One exception is Apple's iTunes software, which manages to make transferring songs a simple process. Surprisingly, the Zen Nano integrates directly with iTunes on the Mac. As soon as we'd plugged it into our OS X machine it was available, like an iPod, in the list at the left of our iTunes window. Unfortunately this functionality is not extended to iTunes on the PC, and Windows users will have to do with the bland-but-effective drag-and-drop method.
The Nano's other features include a five-band equaliser. We're not great fans of EQ options in an MP3 player. If you're ripping your CDs using a good encoder and buying songs from reputable sources you shouldn't need to tweak the EQ on your player -- tonal balance was already taken care of by the engineers who mastered the recordings. If you alter the EQ manually you're making some very rash changes to the character of the music and, as we found with the Nano, some presets will cause harmonic distortion and other audio nasties. Our advice is to steer clear.
We used the Nano to audition tracks from Nirvana's Nevermind. Butch Vig famously mixed this album back in the early 90s and in many ways the sound he produced has been the benchmark for pop ever since. The recording is very detailed, with great separation between the instruments. For this reason, it usually sounds fantastic even on lesser stereo systems. Listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit revealed a decent mid-range to the Nano, but snare hits lost detail and tended to sound shrill. The low-end is assisted massively by Vig's tight production, but the Nano fell short of the punchy, controlled kick-drum sound the album is capable of.
We also auditioned Drain You. The track begins with a spacious raw guitar and vocals intro and then bursts into a heavily compressed drum and distorted guitar part. The Nano coped well with the first few seconds of the track -- everything sounded clean and bright. When the kick drum dropped in, the Nano delivered a fairly good low-end and the caustic growl of Kurt Cobain's lyrics carried well. None the less, auditioning the track again on the iPod Shuffle and then on a standard audio-out from a computer revealed some detail to the track that the Nano wasn't producing.
These are subtle criticisms of the audio quality on the Nano, but real audio nuts may want to look elsewhere for their player. For casual listening, and particularly for voice recordings, the Nano does a decent job. If you can live with the flimsy battery cover snapping off at some point, this is a compact and capable entry-level player.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide