Though ridicule has befallen the poor clubber who continues to twirl her glow sticks into the 21st century, Ministry of Sound still appears to be doing rather well. The non-commercial roots of rave culture have been heartlessly stomped on by the Ministry with its branded CDs, DVDs, record decks and bags, but it's almost like commercial enterprise does subculture a favour each time it packages and sells the fringe to death. Maybe without clubs like the Ministry we'd still be going to warehouses in the Thames docks to watch a thousand Keith Flints nod along to Faithless. With every t-shirt sold, rave became that little bit less cool, and something else took its place.
Signalling a more mature era for the Ministry, the MOS MP3 FM Stix is pre-stocked with a selection of ten chill-out tracks like Das Glockenspiel, which though threatening to erupt into an all-out high-speed trance nightmare, ultimately decides to keep things on the Richter. For a player that looks and feels cheap, the Stix doesn't sound bad at all. Whether by coincidence or careful planning, it's particularly predisposed to playing dance music, delivering a respectable low-end that will keep any club bunny happy during working hours.
Picture a sausage, cut it in half length ways, then in half again -- this is the approximate shape of the Stix. It's a strange design, but it is at least novel. While two edges are flat, the third is curved. This means it'll never sit neatly on a flat surface, rocking gently instead. Since MP3 players spend most of their time in a pocket, we were pleased to find the Stix fits into almost any. Though the iPod Shuffle of the same capacity is noticibly thinner, the Stix takes a standard AAA battery so you can replace your energy source in exotic locations like the dance-infested beaches of Goa. While iPod owners hunt for a USB port to charge their batteries, you can dart into a newsagent and emerge refreshed. It may not be as environmentally friendly, but you could always use rechargable AAAs and laugh all the way to the Greenpeace tent.
The battery cover on the Stix is suspiciously flimsy and we'd bank on you losing it within the first week. If you can live with a piece of sticky tape over the hatch for the remainder of the player's life, then so be it, but it's disappointing to see that manufacturers are still using these annoyingly thin and unreliable covers. Twenty years of TV remotes with their battery covers missing was clearly not message enough for these guys. We suggest you post your snapped covers back to the vendor.
For an branded player, the Stix is fairly low-key. The MOS logo is a subtle hologram-style affair next to the 30mm LCD. You'd have to look closely at the player to uncover its clubber chic. This is certainly a world away from the branding exercises we've seen on the Xfm DAB radio, for instance. While not overly tasteful, the Stix is at least restrained in its displays of corporate endorsement.
The headphones are futuristically amorphous blobs that snuggle into your ears like comfortable little baked beans. Interestingly, the centre of the driver is obscured by a three-pronged plastic section. This may lend a better fidelity to the sound, explaining the Stix's good bass output, on the other hand it may simply be an aesthetic device to make you think there's something special going on. If we had the heart to dismantle them, we'd let you know.
If you get carried away at a dance event and need to relax to your own melt, you'll be pleased to find that the Stix is easy to use in almost any mental state. A mere four buttons on the side of the player control all functions, including stop/play, record and volume. You skip between tracks using a small jog wheel, though there doesn't seem to be any easy way to fast-forward and rewind through songs -- it's all or nothing. If there's a part you missed, you'll be forced to listen to the whole track again, and if there's a bit you hate, then you'll have to put up with it.
Recordings can be made via the built-in microphone and quality is decent enough for extremely casual listening and voice recordings. Don't expect to take this to a concert and capture a passable impression of what was happening, as there is plenty of lost definition. We would treat the recording feature as a bonus, though it may suit students who want to record a lecture or classroom discussion. School? What time do clubbers have for that? Plenty, if they want to afford the next Ministry CD.
Frenzied dancers will need to select the Hold function on the player, which stops all other controls from operating. Don't forget to disable this when you're ready to use the player's transport controls again though or you'll spend ten minutes trying to work out why everything's stopped working.
The sound quality on the Stix surprised us. Given The Ministry's far from formidable history in the MP3 player market, we expected less than the player delivered. Admittedly, it shines with dance music, but is not quite so capable when it comes to more subtle genres. Jack Johnson's Breakdown was enjoyable, though lacked much of the finer detail present on players like the iPod Shuffle and the Creative Zen Nano Plus. However, the overwhelming reason to buy this player will be its affiliation with the Ministry of Sound, and all that the club symbolises to the dance culture. Given that this could have merely been an elaborate advertisement for the brand, the Stix's sound is all the more remarkable.
Make no mistake, the Stix does not have the build quality or the accessory market of the Shuffle, but it does have the ability to record, an FM radio and the benefit of a conventional replaceable battery. The Stix gives just enough to make it a convincing purchase for dedicated Ministry fans, but despite a decent sound and a generous number of pre-installed songs, we're not convinced it has the durability of its competitors. A change to the design of the battery cover would improve the Stix hugely, so hopefully the next revision will address this weak point. None the less, the Stix is fun and won't look out of place strapped to any clubber's belt loop.
Edited by Michael Parsons
Additional editing by Nick Hide