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An Audiophile's Take on the iPod®

Hi-fi 2.0

I've been slow to join the iPod nation.

Don't get me wrong — I love listening to music. But as a card-carrying audiophile, sound quality matters whenever and wherever I'm listening. I bought my first decent stereo when I was in high school, and since then I've been upgrading it a piece at a time. These days I have a pretty high-end system, and I'm lucky enough to have a dedicated listening room. If you've never heard a high-resolution audio system, the detail, dynamics, and three-dimensional soundstaging can be pretty startling — especially on high-quality recordings.

Having pursued superior sound for so long, it's been puzzling to watch compressed music formats take over the world while high-quality formats like SACD and DVD-Audio lie on their deathbeds. Compressed formats — from MP3 and AAC to satellite radio — like to claim "CD-quality" sound. But that's an overly optimistic description of what I hear from compressed audio, especially when it's played on a revealing system. The sound can be surprisingly good when you consider that up to 90% of the musical information is being discarded, but CD-quality? No way.

I often host listening sessions at my house, and one friend usually brings at least one disc with songs he's downloaded from the iTunes® Store. These tracks almost always sound noticeably thin and "glassy" compared to CD cuts. It's as if most of the texture and presence has been stripped from the music. But obviously I can't haul my system and listening room around with me when I'm at work or sitting on a plane. Which brings us to the subject at hand — Apple's 30GB iPod — a surprise Christmas gift from my wife.

So much has already been written about the iPod's sleek styling and intuitive interface that I don't feel I have anything to add. On those counts, I'm a believer — it's really easy and fun to use. I just didn't want to have to give up listening enjoyment for the sake of convenience. Having instant access to thousands of songs is undeniably cool. But is the iPod just about quantity or can it deliver quality, too?

Out of the box listening
Once my iPod was fully charged and functional, I imported a couple of CDs into iTunes using the default "MP3 Compression" setting (128kbps) and transferred them to the iPod. Using the iPod's earbuds, the sound was quite listenable. I could be happy listening to this setup, though probably not for extended periods. The player and earbuds worked well together. The earbuds' sound wasn't super-revealing, which tended to hide some of the limitations of MP3 compression. The buds also had a noticeable midbass bump that gave music a full, warm quality. My biggest complaint about the iPod earbuds is that I couldn't get them to stay in my ears.

iPod With a little help, Apple's 30GB iPod can provide impressive sound.

Stepping up to better sound
I happened to have a pair of Shure's E3 earbuds on hand, so I tried them out. As soon as I pressed play, I thought, "Okay, now we're getting somewhere." I heard noticeably improved clarity and smoothness in the mid and high frequencies. The Shures couldn't deliver the top-to-bottom smoothness and deep bass of my full-sized AKG headphones, but cymbals were crisp and clean, and vocals sounded more natural. The midbass hump was gone, and in fact, the Shure's sound was a bit bass-shy, but I'm no basshead — I'll take too little bass over too much any day. I used the foam plugs that come with the E3s, and they fit snugly in my ears, providing effective isolation from outside sounds, and allowing me to hear more details in quiet passages.

Going lossless
I'd read enough about iPods to know that another way to improve sound is to use less aggressive compression when importing music into iTunes. Since I'm not planning to put tons of songs on my iPod, I felt I could get away with using Apple Lossless compression. As the name implies, this format provides bit-for-bit resolution equal to the original CD track, but only takes up half the space of an uncompressed CD track. This change gave me another significant jump in sound quality. Everything just seemed to open up a bit. Lingering notes that had been truncated by MP3 compression now faded more naturally, and reverb tails created a sense of space that had been missing.

So, after just a few days with my iPod, I found an approach that lets me really enjoy my music just about anywhere. For me, a combination of better-quality headphones and higher-resolution audio files did the trick. The next step will be exploring ways to get satisfying iPod sound in a more challenging home audio system.

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