audio products dont just change how you listen to music, they change how you live.
One of the first breakthrough portable audio products was Sonys Walkman. Putting
cassette playback into such a compact size for the first time, it made 1979 the year you
could take music with you wherever you went, in a box that fit on your belt or in a
reasonably sized pocket. Wandering around in the early 80s with my Walkman in hand,
listening to a mix of pre-recorded cassettes and some Id made myself from vinyl, was
easily the most music-listening fun Ive ever had while on the go. But ever since
Ive cared enough about sound quality that cassettes no longer satisfy me, the amount
of time I spend listening to portable systems has gone way down.
While I think CDs are great as a home format, you really
cant put a portable CD player in your pocket; CDs are just too big. Now, Ive
finally found a replacement Im happy with: Apples iPod is a breakthrough
product that has changed my life every bit as much as my first Walkman did. The amazing
thing is that the iPod contains not a single revolutionary component or technology.
Apples contribution has been a nearly perfect, if expensive, overall design that
finally combines all of the important qualities of a portable audio device: small size,
large storage capacity, high file-transfer speed, and good sound. In particular, the
iPods ability to cleanly play CD-quality music, combined with enough memory to store
plenty of it, puts it ahead of almost all other portable players, particularly if
youre an audiophile who wont settle for the compromises inherent in MP3
Currently, Apple sells six iPods: versions with 5GB ($299
USD), 10GB ($399), and 20GB ($499) hard drives, each available in both Macintosh- and
Windows-compatible systems. Two things distinguish the Mac and Windows versions from each
other: Macs get Apples iTunes software, while Windows PCs are stuck with a version
of MusicMatch Jukebox with an iPod plug-in. In addition, if you plug your iPod into your
computer to use it as a portable hard drive, each version is formatted to be compatible
with its respective type of computer.
The 5GB iPod gives me about 350 minutes of music at full CD
quality. Thats approximately 85 standard-issue four-minute rock songs, or eight
45-minute albums. Apples specs say the 5GB model will hold 1000 songs (at closer to
three minutes each) in MP3 format, at the 160Kbps compression rate iTunes defaults to.
That means fitting close to 80 albums on the 5GB drive -- a full music collection for a
lot of people. The 10GB model doubles those figures, and the 20GB quadruples them.
The smallest iPod is the runt of the litter in other ways.
The 10GB and 20GB models include a very slick control interface that, instead of the
standard wheel, is operated by dragging your finger around in a circle. While that
doesnt sound all that interesting, its actually easy to use even if the player
is in your pocket. The larger models also include better headphones, a case, a cover for
the FireWire port, and a little wired remote control. All the extra goodies make it well
worth the extra $100 to step up to the 10GB model from the 5GB; the next $100, for the
20GB model, just buys you more storage space.
One thing millions of smokers have proved over the years is
that you can take something the size of a pack of cigarettes with you anywhere you go.
Measuring 2.5" x 4" x 0.8" and weighing seven ounces, the iPod is a little
bigger than that, but still well within pocket size.
The iPod connects to your computer using a FireWire port;
with that interface, I was able to replace the entire contents of my 10GB iPod in 25
minutes. Even at full CD quality, transferring a new album takes very little time. If
theres something new I want to listen to while working out at the gym, I can pull it
off of a CD and copy it to the iPod in about the time it takes me to change my clothes and
get ready to leave. Like the iPods small size, this is one of those crucial things
that can make or break a product: if it takes more than a few minutes to put a new album
onto a portable device, that greatly limits what you can do with it. Although 10GB
isnt anywhere near enough memory to hold my entire music collection, the fact that I
can transfer a CD to the iPod so quickly means I can rotate albums in and out of it
effortlessly. I treat the 10GB iPod as an eight-CD changer; it works very well in that
(For more technical information about moving audio files
between your computer and the iPod, see the "Apple
iPod Technical Brief and Usage Tips" article, especially if you have a Windows
version. Youll find recommendations there about software you might want to buy in
order to make your iPod easier to use.)
This is the main area in which all previous portable
digital devices have fallen short. Competing products, from manufacturers such as Personal
Jukebox and Archos, are fine for a lot of people -- the PJB in particular has a nicely
designed output section -- but I have no use for them due to the sound-quality degradation
that lossy data compression like MP3 introduces. Ive been lugging around a
portable CD player the last few years because thats the minimum sound quality I can
tolerate, so a replacement candidate has to do at least that well.
Personal computers store full CD quality in WAV files
(Windows) or AIFF files (Mac), which take up about 10MB per minute of playback. If you
copy the appropriate type of music file to an iPod, it plays. Small amounts of background
noise and clicking make their way into the headphones as the drive revs up. This is most
obvious at the beginnings of quiet songs, but its no worse than the similar sounds
you hear from a portable CD player. And once the iPods drive is up to speed, it
tends not to interfere much.
If you want to jog, or engage in any other particularly
athletic activity, youll want to play MP3 files -- the iPod is optimized to play
them without skips. The ad on the side of the box says that the iPod offers "skip
protection of up to 20 minutes (yes, minutes)." But when playing CD material, the
iPod works only about as well as a good CD portable, typically surviving a minute or two
of jostling before beginning to skip badly. Playing CD-size files, it will skip sometimes
even when youre not moving. The implementation of WAV-file playback sometimes
leaves a little bit to be desired.
The iPods headphone jack outputs more power than
those of many other portable products. Apple claims a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz,
with a maximum output power of 30mWpc. The iPod had no trouble driving any of the
headphones I normally connect to a portable device, easily handling the Grado SR-60 and
Beyerdynamic DT-250-80, while doing a reasonable job with the more difficult Etymotic
ER-4S I use as my reference portables.
Earlier iPods and the current 5GB model suffer from
poor-sounding headphones. The ones included with the new 10GB and 20GB models arent
bad at all, however. The frequency response is decent, and they play plenty loud. I got
little isolation from the outside world with them, and I missed some of the subtle details
Ive come to expect with the Etymotic phones, but as cheap earbuds go, the
better iPod phones are about as good as any Ive heard.
The most important thing to me was how the iPod compared to
a good portable CD player. My CD spinner of choice is the Panasonic SL-SX300, a solid unit
from a few years back. Later Panasonic models did things like eliminate the line-output
jack from the unit, so there was little reason to upgrade past this one. I used both the
Panasonic and the iPod with the Etymotic ER-4S phones, and both drove the Etymotics
to similar volume levels: satisfying but not loud. The Panasonic has a bit more kick on
the low end than the iPod, so at the same volume it was a little more prone to distort;
its amplifier ran out of juice driving the more difficult bass tones.
Using an amp and EQ
Because my auditioning of the iPod was limited by the
quality of its headphone amp, I added a HeadRoom Total AirHead to help take the strain off
that part of the iPod and Panasonic circuits, to better hear how the iPods audio
DACs and output stage sounded. The AirHead is a nice improvement for either system. It
vastly improves bass response and authority, increases the comfortable playing volume a
bit, and cleans up dynamic transients. For example, in a night of nostalgia I was spinning
up the Vision Quest soundtrack [Geffen 24063-2], to hear Red Riders
"Lunatic Fringe" direct from the iPods headphone jack. The opening of the
song has a deep, heavily synthesized bass section, in the middle of which I discovered a
little surprise. Id normally listen to this CD in the car; playing it on headphones
for the first time, I heard a quiet spoken part Id always missed when driving. There
was only one problem: I couldnt make out what was said. Adding the AirHead totally
transformed how the low frequencies sounded, making them much more powerful. The extra oomph
in the amplifier let me comfortably turn the volume up a notch, and the extra resolution
made everything easier to make out. From then on, the quiet invitation at the beginning
was crystal clear. The combination of iPod and AirHead is so obviously good that HeadRoom
now makes an iPod bag that holds both products snugly.
With the AirHead in place, it was easy to match volume
levels; I could then fairly compare the iPod and the Panasonic CD player as line-level
sources just by swapping the headphone amps input cable. On the gold version of
Robbie Robertsons self-titled CD [Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 618], the bass
parts using the Panasonic were very full -- maybe even a little too fat to be accurate.
While adding the AirHead helped the iPod substantially in the low end, it still seemed on
the thin side of neutral. Robertsons vocals came out more clearly through the iPod,
with a bit more sense of the microphones used to record this track. A similar pattern
showed up when I played "Give Your Love to Me," from Kevin Gilberts Thud
[PRA 60401-2]. Gilberts vocals were easier to make out on the iPod than the
Panasonic, and the iPod had a nicer overall balance. The Panasonic gave a bit more power
to the serious dynamic range of this song, but at the same time the player got dirtier
when the transients were louder.
While the Panasonic CD player seemed to have a more
extended and flat frequency response, the iPods main strength was that it was easy
to listen to. The iPod sounded a little rolled-off at the top, and was never gritty or
harsh -- usually a problem with cheaper portable devices. (My Panasonic player cost about
$100, compared with $399 for the 10GB iPod.)
At the same time, after that straight comparison I really
did miss some of the Panasonics top- and bottom-end frequency extension, even if
its a little rougher to listen to overall. Luckily, Apple has just introduced an
iPod firmware update (incorporated in the currently shipping production run) that adds a
digital equalizer to the system. Most of these presets feature extreme cuts or boosts in
frequency response. I found that the Electronic curve, which slightly boosts a
recordings very top and bottom frequencies, reversed the roles of the iPod and
Panasonic: With Electronic engaged, it was the iPod that now had a little more oomph
on the bottom and top ends. Acoustic is another interesting setting that I enjoyed with
the Etymotic phones and the AirHead (with HeadRoom process) engaged; it shared some
characteristics with the filter circuits in HeadRooms more expensive amps.
The iPod lets you create music playlists that you can
organize by artist, album, song, genre, and/or composer. Some of this information is
pulled from the ID3 header that appears in MP3 files, so if youre using CD-quality
WAV files, such sorting wont be available. I converted some subsets of my music
collection into MP3 form and keep them permanently on my iPod. Having them organized is
kind of nice. For files of CD quality, I found the playlist organization scheme to be
adequate. You can have the iPod shuffle songs at random within a group, albeit without
song cross-fading or similar advanced features people have begun to get used to from such
computer-based programs as WinAmp. The iPods interface is one of those deceptively
clean and simple ones; you dont really appreciate it until you try some of its
clunkier competitors. Poke around the Net for comments about RCAs Lyra models to see
how difficult to use an MP3 player can be.
The display can be backlit for easy use in the dark. The
circular area you drag your finger around on the 10GB and 20GB iPods can let you navigate
even a large music list pretty fast, although it can be hard to stop on a particular file
when youre scrolling through. Its not perfect, but Ive never used
anything on a portable that was better. The iPod also includes some bonus software for
things like contact management, a clock, and a little game.
Theres one other interesting product in the digital
portable market that you should be aware of. The new Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen appears to
use the same Toshiba drives as the iPod, and costs a lot less. I havent tested one
myself, but even though Creative claims 100mW of headphone output, Ive been
disappointed with the sound quality of previous Creative MP3 products. The Nomad plays WAV
files, and has both FireWire and USB 2.0 interfaces; the design seems to match up feature
for feature with the iPod, albeit without Mac support.
About the only downside of the iPod is its price. Much of
the cost of building an iPod goes toward its compact hard drive; we can expect that,
unless Apple goes crazy again, the retail prices will come down. As I finished this
article, Apple updated the iPod line. The 5, 10, and 20GB models have been replaced with
10 ($299), 15 ($399), and 30GB ($499) ones, the 10GB now being the one with the smaller
gear bundle. The newer models are even smaller and lighter, and include support for USB
2.0, improved buttons, and slightly improved software.
After a long run, my portable CD player is now destined for
my audio equipment graveyard -- but now that I can store eight CDs on the iPod, in half
the physical space and with the same fidelity, and even more music if Im willing to
compress it to MP3, I wont miss it. For now, the iPod is at the top of the heap,
providing a high-performance solution to portable audio that covers all the bases: compact
size, getting files in quickly, storing a large music collection, providing an easy way to
organize and navigate those files, and playing them back with excellent sound quality. In
order to be competitive, new products in this market will have to match those features at
a lower price.
Price of equipment reviewed
iPod - 10GB ($299 USD), 15GB ($399), 30GB ($499)