18 December 2008

iPod = The Borg

It is both amazing and frightening how iPods have come to completely dominate the digital audio player (DAP) market. The iPod's market share has in fact fallen, from 92% in 2004 to somewhere in the mid-80th percentile today, but that still means that Apple's competitors are fighting over table scraps. In fairness, Apple probably deserves the crown on the basis of innovation, design, and ease of use, though its real stranglehold on the market has been by virtue of iTunes, the first and richest digital music marketplace.

But it is perhaps striking that audiophiles are often, if not usually, found using alternative DAPs. Many own a stack of players, and most own iPods, but they are often not preferred. Why is that?

• Value — Most head-fiers do not regard Apple as a good value, for reasons I will explain below. But it is a plain fact that, like all things Apple, you pay a premium simply for owning an iPod. It is the price of stylish design and brand prestige. And if you want to use iTunes, of course you have no other choice. Head-fiers do not use iTunes (see below), are not uniformly impressed by iPod features, and do not regard looks and brand as an overriding consideration. And purely in terms of cost, in a risky or hard use circumstance, I'd rather lose or break or have stolen a less expensive DAP than my iPod video, especially since a $15 player can sound as good or better.

• Image — Speaking of brand, there is also perhaps a tiny bit of sniffy protest in using a non-Apple DAP. iPods are sometimes seen as belly-button players for the unwashed masses, and are not technically the best. A favorite commercial review site for alternative DAPs is pointedly called anythingbutipod.com.

• Sound Quality — Most iPods have average to poor sound quality, a vital issue for head-fiers. It varies substantially from model to model, and the progression and regression is not linear, or connected to the size, expense, etc., of the model. So, for example, the original (G1) iPod shuffle, the size of a pack of chewing gum, has very good sound while the newest, largest 120gb iPod classic has poor sound. There are of course design reasons for this (that's another post), but it is a fact that Apple has never marketed its players on the basis of sound quality. And it's shrewed not to, in their position: Why invite criticism on such a concrete point? Best stick to intangibles like look, feel and style. Besides, most Pod People use nothing but their standard issue iBuds, which would make any player sound awful, so apparently sound fidelity is a non-issue for most customers. The good news is the the latest (G4) iPod nano and (G2) iPod touch have greatly improved sound quality, perhaps the best yet for a stock iPod. But alas, a humble Sandisk Sansa Clip (I just bought one for $14) sounds as good or better than the latest iPod touch. Sound quality is important to Sandisk.

• Competetive Edge — Other DAP makers work hard to compete with Apple by beating them in price, features and audio quality. This makes them highly attractive to head-fiers. My modest Sansa e250 ($30 for a refurb) is basically like a 2gb nano, but surpasses the nano in price (and how!) as well as features. It has an FM radio tuner, a microSD expansion slot, user-replaceable battery, voice recorder, supports enthusiast audio file formats like flac and ogg, and has better sound quality than my $250 iPod video.

• Customization — Many serious head-fiers modify iPods to improve their sound quality, with a line-out dock and even (if you have some serious lettuce) hi-fi hardware mods from Red Wine Audio. But one thing you cannot do, at least with more recent iPod models, is install new player firmware on your iPod, since Apple encrypts their ROMs. Open source firmware like Rockbox (Wiki article) provides user-customizable GUIs, expanded audio file formats, games and other applications, DSP effects like crossfeed, on-the-fly playlists, and a vast number of other custom features.

Rockbox theme Freestate

The Rockbox theme "Freestate":
notice how much information
can be displayed on a
nano-sized Play screen

• Alternatives to iTunes — Alternative DAPs often work with "all-you-can-eat" music subscription services like Rhapsody, which many music enthusiasts love. But beyond that, iTunes is not liked or used by head-fiers for at least two major reasons. First, most iTunes songs are encrypted with digital rights management (DRM) code, meaning you cannot play them on alternative DAPs and only on a limited number of computers. And, you have to use iTunes to manage and play your music. iTunes files are not truly purchased, but rather rented (licensed) with restrictive terms of usage, and they may expire with a nasty computer or account glitch, or at some arbitrary future date. That really could happen, and actually did happen with Microsoft customers who bought music under their old music service. MS has turned off their DRM servers and any music purchased will now be unusable if you wish to move it to another computer. In addition, standard iTunes tracks are of low quality (128 kbps AAC) compared to high-bitrate mp3s or lossless (CD quality) audio. These issues have been partly corrected by Apple, at least for part of its catalog. iTunes Plus tracks are DRM free and higher bitrate (256 kbps AAC), but still in Apple's proprietary format. The great majority of audiophiles prefer to buy and rip CDs to their players, giving them substantive ownership and complete freedom in determining music file quality and player platform. They also do not like being tethered to iTunes, to play and manage their music libraries. iTunes is a love it or hate it application, and for the PC, there are certainly better players.

No, iPods are not evil, but they are not necessarily the be-all, end-all of portable music players. Go read some reviews on anythingbutipod.com and see what you may be missing.

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