Can an audiophile find happiness with an iPod? I so disliked the iPod I bought a year ago that I sent it back. When I complained to a Slate editor about the lousy sound quality, he asked what it would take to make an audio snob like me happy with an MP3 player. After a month of trials, I discovered that it's possible to build a portable system that produces remarkably rich, clear sound. And fortunately, the high end in portable audio comes much cheaper than it does in home audio.
I tested four different MP3 players: Apple's iPod, the Creative Zen Touch, the Dell Pocket DJ, and the iRiver iHP-120. I was surprised to find, though, that the hardware didn't have much of an effect on sound quality. The file format you use to encode your music and your choice of headphones both make a much bigger difference. But my most profound revelation was that a good headphone amp can turn a weak, tinny music player into a luxuriant sound system.
A quick warning before we begin: If you mostly listen to your MP3 player while working out, this advice probably isn't for you. The in-ear headphones would get waterlogged with sweat, the bigger phones would be too bulky, and it wouldn't be any fun to run around with a headphone amp.
Given the limited storage capacity of current players, music files need to be compressed. In most cases, this compression lowers the quality of the signal. With stock headphones you probably won't be able to tell the difference between an uncompressed audio track and an MP3. If you buy good headphones, you'll need to import your CD collection in a lossless format.
The better the sound quality, the more space the file takes up. A "lossless" file, which can be half to a third the size of an uncompressed CD file, is designed to be mathematically identical to what it is duplicating. "Lossy" formats (like MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Apple's AAC, and many others) take up less space—and don't sound as good. You can fit about five songs recorded at the typical lossy bit rate of 128 kilobits per second into the space one "lossless" track takes up.
Both the Windows world and Apple offer official lossless formats, and I found these to be quite good. There are lots more lossless codecs—FLAC, Monkey's Audio Lossless, and Shorten are a few—and each has its partisans. But they're designed mostly for use on computers, not portable players, and most players won't accept them. Here, as elsewhere, Apple is ahead of most of its competition, with a nice lossless option built into iTunes. If you want to use lossless but aren't incredibly tech savvy, get an iPod. The iRiver and a player I did not test, the Rio Karma, do support the FLAC format, which is not as user-friendly as Apple's lossless. The Dell and the Zen Touch do not officially support any lossless format, although they do play uncompressed WAV files.
Even using lossless files, none of the players sounded quite as good to me as the same music on CD played on a $50 Discman. But portable audio has to involve trade-offs, after all. Given the limited disk space of all these players, a lossless format is a reasonable compromise between low-quality, small MP3s and uncompressed files. If you value sound quality over convenience, buy a $50 CD player and take the money you saved to buy better headphones and a headphone amp.
To really appreciate the fidelity of lossless file formats, you have to ditch those stock earbuds and invest in some better headphones. Slate reviewed a group of inexpensive cans back in November, but I tested models that came in a variety of sizes and at higher price points.
The best-sounding headphones for the money are the sort used with regular stereos, from manufacturers like Sennheiser, Grado, and AKG. They sound great, but if you want to use them with an iPod you will need a headphone amp (see below), and they can be loud enough to disturb people sitting next to you. Noise-canceling phones have circuitry that negates ambient sound electronically, but a lot of noise does come through (although these phones can be excellent for screening out the drone of jet engines on a long flight).
My favorite headphones for listening to portable music are the smallest—ones that actually fit in the ear canal. This means they block sound much more effectively than noise-canceling phones, so effectively that you should not wear them while riding a bike, for example. They do take some getting used to, and not everyone will like the feeling of having them in the ear. The best models come from Ultimate Ears, Shure, and Etymotic. Individual taste will vary, but I came to really like the feel of the Shure E5c (about $499 online) and never did take to the Etymotics.
Because they are custom-made, the Ultimate Ears have the virtues of in-ear design without any discomfort. The UE-10 Pros ($900) have a transparency and immediacy that is uncanny—the music really is coming from inside your head. They're so good, I now look forward to subway trips as a chance to really listen to music. I found the Shure E5cs a bit too bass-heavy, but for a bit more than a third of the price of Ultimate Ears they produce first-rate sound, particularly for rock and rap. If you're looking for value, the $179 Shure E3cs are a good option. If you don't like the in-ear approach, the Sennheiser PCX250 ($130) noise-canceling model is a good choice.
When I took on this assignment I didn't know headphone amps existed for MP3 players. Since MP3 players just don't have the juice needed to drive bigger headphones, these small, battery-powered amps are almost a requirement if you want high-quality, portable audio.
I tested three amps, one designed specifically for iPods called the Simpl A1 ($149) and two made by HeadRoom, the Total BitHead ($269) and the Cosmic ($729). The Simpl A1 allows you to use the home headphones, but it didn't significantly improve the sound of in-ear phones like the Ultimate Ears and the Shures. The HeadRoom amps were astonishing. They are engineered to direct a bit of the sound from the left channel to the right, and vice versa, to mimic how we hear live music. You can turn this feature on or off, but once you turn it on, you'll leave it on. Listening to Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on "Russian Lullaby," you get a vivid physical sense of the notes reverberating within the sound boxes of the guitar and mandolin. Arleen Auger's rendition of Handel's aria "Piangeró," a soaring lamentation, becomes almost unbearably moving.
Size is an issue: The less-expensive Total BitHead is the size of a pack of cigarettes. HeadRoom sells a light carrying case you can wear on a belt or carry in a coat pocket that holds the amp and an MP3 player. The Cosmic is twice as big and requires four D batteries in a separate holder.
Listening to music encoded in a lossless file format with Sennheiser HD650 headphones ($450) and the HeadRoom Cosmic amplifier is sonic bliss. There are two problems with this "perfect" portable audio system: It'll cost you $1,200 before you've even bought an MP3 player, and you'd need a small backpack to tote everything around. If money isn't an object and you want a system for your desk or an afternoon in the hammock, this is a superb setup. (You could also save several hundred bucks by subbing in the Total BitHead amp.)
If you want something for moving around, as most of us do, then the ideal combination I found was the Ultimate Ears 10 Pros and the Total BitHead amp. This setup is small enough that you could use it during air travel or while commuting by train or bus. A less expensive but still fine option would be to replace the Ultimate Ears with the Shure E5cs. If you travel a lot, make plenty of money, and can expound on the tonal differences between B.B. King playing a hollow-body Gibson electric and Albert Collins stinging out the notes on a Telecaster, this is the choice for you.