The Elton John of the MP3 player world, Jens of Sweden is notorious for its flamboyant gold MP3 player designs. The company has a speckled past. Jens' eccentric founder, Jens Nylander, once recorded a song in a bid to compete with Apple's iPod. In defence of this tactic, Nylander was reported to have said, "We can't quite afford to put U2 on our players yet – but I can sing better than Steve Jobs."
Jens filed for bankruptcy last year, and then rose from the grave a few months later. Nylander is still at the helm, and judging from the appearance of the MP-500, the fanciful design ethos remains. We've tested the £135 black 1GB version of the player here, but it's also available in a £173 black 2GB version and a £195 24-carat gold 'Excentrique' 2GB version, all available direct from the Jens site.
Jens gives the impression of a renegade outfit fighting a funny little guerilla war around Apple's towering legs. The MP-500 is eye-catching, but can this upstart back up its poses with some serious fighting action?
The MP-500's manufacture has been outsourced to the Far East, which makes the logos on the back of the player a textbook oxymoron. The Jens of Sweden logo has 'Made in Korea' written directly underneath it. This elicited a brief chuckle from our usually humourless faces.
The MP-500 is smaller than the iPod nano when stared at head-on (81 by 40mm), but at 13mm deep, it's nearly twice as thick. The front panel on the player is completely seamless, like a sheet of glass. If you can remember the keyless keyboard on the Sinclair ZX-81 computer, this is very similar. On the upside, this design makes it hard for dirt and dust to penetrate the outer casing. On the downside, you don't get any mechanical feedback that you've actually pressed a button successfully. It's exactly like pressing your fingers onto a window pane.
We haven't looked at any MP3 players with built-in speakers before, so the MP-500 comes across as quite a novelty. Two little grills on either side of the chassis at the bottom of the player provide stereo sound. There's a line-in on the left-hand side of the player, which will happily suckle at a line level input for recording your music. On the right is a headphone socket, and on the base a generic USB connector.
The thrill of built-in speakers aside, the MP-500 is a minimalist affair. We like the seamless, high-gloss appearance of the chassis. Unlike the nano, it's almost impossible to scratch the Jens. We don't want to make it sound like we went straight at the screen with a nail, but in a series of carefully controlled tests, each test escalating the severity of scratching implement, the MP-500 would not succumb. Even running the worst pocket debris we could find against the chassis -- small pebbles, a ballpoint pen, keys -- didn't mark it.
Apple should take a serious look at what Jens is using to coat this, it's nothing short of bulletproof. Extremely fine scratches are visible if you hold the player at an angle, but it's a world away from the dragged-through-a-thorn-bush look the iPod gets after a few days of use without a case.
The MP-500 supports MP3, WMA and OGG format files. The latter is a mainstay of Linux enthusiasts who admire the OGG codec's open-source heritage. Because the player mounts as a generic USB device on all mainstream file systems, you don't need special driver software to use the MP-500 on a Windows, Mac or Linux computer.
Amazingly for such a small player, you can play video on the MP-500. This relies on transcoding software that wasn't bundled with our player, but is available on the Jens of Sweden Web site. Demonstration movies were included on the player, and judging from these the video quality is fairly impressive for a postage-stamp-sized screen. Jens says that the MP-500 will play WMV, AVI, ASF, MPG and MPEG video files after you've transcoded them on your PC.