GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published September 1, 2003

 

Apple iPod

Breakthrough audio products don’t just change how you listen to music, they change how you live. One of the first breakthrough portable audio products was Sony’s 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 I’d made myself from vinyl, was easily the most music-listening fun I’ve ever had while on the go. But ever since I’ve 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 can’t put a portable CD player in your pocket; CDs are just too big. Now, I’ve finally found a replacement I’m happy with: Apple’s 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. Apple’s 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 iPod’s 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 you’re an audiophile who won’t settle for the compromises inherent in MP3 playback.

Storage capacity

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 Apple’s 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. That’s approximately 85 standard-issue four-minute rock songs, or eight 45-minute albums. Apple’s 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 doesn’t sound all that interesting, it’s 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 there’s 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 iPod’s 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 isn’t 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 role.

(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. You’ll find recommendations there about software you might want to buy in order to make your iPod easier to use.)

Sound quality

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.  I’ve been lugging around a portable CD player the last few years because that’s 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 it’s no worse than the similar sounds you hear from a portable CD player. And once the iPod’s drive is up to speed, it tends not to interfere much.

If you want to jog, or engage in any other particularly athletic activity, you’ll 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 you’re not moving. The implementation of WAV-file playback sometimes leaves a little bit to be desired.

The iPod’s 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 aren’t 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 I’ve come to expect with the Etymotic ’phones, but as cheap earbuds go, the better iPod ’phones are about as good as any I’ve 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 iPod’s 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 Rider’s "Lunatic Fringe" direct from the iPod’s headphone jack. The opening of the song has a deep, heavily synthesized bass section, in the middle of which I discovered a little surprise. I’d normally listen to this CD in the car; playing it on headphones for the first time, I heard a quiet spoken part I’d always missed when driving. There was only one problem: I couldn’t 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 amp’s input cable. On the gold version of Robbie Robertson’s 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. Robertson’s 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 Gilbert’s Thud [PRA 60401-2]. Gilbert’s 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 iPod’s 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 Panasonic’s top- and bottom-end frequency extension, even if it’s 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 recording’s 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 HeadRoom’s more expensive amps.

User interface

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 you’re using CD-quality WAV files, such sorting won’t 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 iPod’s interface is one of those deceptively clean and simple ones; you don’t really appreciate it until you try some of its clunkier competitors. Poke around the Net for comments about RCA’s 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 you’re scrolling through. It’s not perfect, but I’ve 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.

Competitors

There’s 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 haven’t tested one myself, but even though Creative claims 100mW of headphone output, I’ve 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.

iPod’s future

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 I’m willing to compress it to MP3, I won’t 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

  • Apple iPod - 10GB ($299 USD), 15GB ($399), 30GB ($499)

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