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.
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