Raider of the old archives

iPodLooking through my archive of old magazine features  to find something that illustrates a particular writing style, I happened upon a review of the original iPod that I wrote for a hi-fi magazine in the early 2000s. In the context of the technical and commercial developments that have come to pass since, and where we are now, I think it makes for a vaguely interesting read. So here it is…

I can guess what you’re thinking, even muttering perhaps with barely concealed  annoyance. You’re thinking, “What on earth is Hi-Fi Plus doing with an MP3 player? Don’t they know that MP3 is the Devil’s very own format and responsible (along with the evil and brain deaf major record companies) for the end of music as we know, or perhaps knew, it?” Well yes, maybe Hi-Fi Plus getting its hands dirty with an MP3 player is a bit like Decanter Magazine knocking-back a box Liebfraumilch, or Car Magazine jumping behind the reins of a pony and trap – just plain inappropriate. But think again and maybe its not, because if you look at the Apple iPod a little laterally and strip away some preconceptions, it becomes an intriguing product for the audiophile – even a hi-fi product. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Wind the clock back to June 1999 – just around the time of the great Napster/MP3 explosion. I was struggling to stay alert through a trade seminar on, “the internet and high-end audio” at the Stereophile exhibition in Chicago. Assorted great and good of the US high-end scene were busy discussing the impact of “the internet” on their business and hi-fi in general. The deeply underwhelming consensus seemed to be that apart from websites being a “neat way of handling brochures and tech’ support”, the ‘net had little relevance to the actual nuts and bolts of high-end audio. Certainly it had nothing to do with delivering music. And I can remember musing that while the hi-fi business was busy looking down its collective nose at the web, a whole generation of potential new customers was passing by, getting its music via MP3 files and playing them on perfectly nasty MP3 players and PCs. Significantly, from hi-fi’s point of view, this generation were, and are, unlikely to come within ear-range of a decent system or retailer. I was left hankering after a high-end hi-fi manufacturer to grasp the nettle and launch a really gorgeous, good as it gets, MP3 player. I mean ok, so MP3 has its faults (and CD or vinyl doesn’t?) and maybe it’s not strictly true to the moral high ground aims of hi-fi, but it’s out there and millions of potential customers for “real hi-fi” are using it. So what’s the problem? Surely not a lack of confidence in the “real hi-fi” proposition?

Things were different 25 years ago. Back then, when I (and I guess my generation) first became seriously interested in music, the system I had to play with was a pretty dodgy affair and the sounds it made were I suspect even beneath the quality of even a seriously squashed MP3 file (no really, the Garrard/Amstrad system was utter crap). However, there was a direct retail link between that equipment and high-end audio. I bought a cheap cassette deck (remember, before you “dis” MP3, how atrocious cassette could sound) from a Linn/Naim dealer and remember being blown away by the system I by chance got to hear. That wouldn’t happen now. These enlightened days, the music addicted kid buying a new MP3 player will get no closer to hearing the true possibilities of hi-fi than the Dixons next door to the PC World –  and that’s still not very close at all. Without a bridge between young music enthusiasts and the hi-fi business, I really wonder where the customers a decade or so on are going to come from. OK, rant over. “Normal” service resumed.

Of  course the gorgeous high-end MP3 player didn’t happen and the high-end hi-fi industry still looks at MP3 the way you might do the soles of your shoes after a walk in the park. However, even though no hi-fi manufacturer took the plunge, Apple did, and disregarding what you think of MP3, the iPod is undoubtedly a gorgeous thing to behold. Its user interface is a joy and its silver-ingot-like feel just makes you want to hold it all the time. It also has a significant surprise up its sleeve.

The iPod is fundamentally “just” a fast yet tiny (size, not capacity) Firewire hard disk drive with a neat user interface and slick integration with some “music library” software – iTunes (or MusicMatch for Windows). The surprise is that while the software, by default encodes material for dumping on the iPod as MP3 files (at user definable states of compression from “why bother” to “why listen”), the iPod itself doesn’t really care about the audio format and will work just as well with raw, uncompressed WAV or AIFF files (no surprise the iPod is beginning to find a niche as a portable back-up and replay medium in the music production industry). Tweaking a few preferences in iTunes will reconfigure it to import and transfer audio in either format – with user definable encoding (up to 16 bit, 48kHz and who knows what in future). So who says the iPod is an MP3 player? It needn’t be. You want uncompressed audio, you can have it. And a 20G iPod (there’s 5G and 10G versions) will hold over 25 hours of  it. Some walkman!

But perhaps now you’re thinking, “Yeah, that’s as maybe, but audio off hard disk, even uncompressed, can’t possibly work can it?” Well there’s bound to be good sounding hard disk systems and not so good ones of course, but I’d wager that not far off every commercial CD release these days has lingered on the surface of a hard disk at some stage – whether for storage, editing, mixing, or mastering. Even Naim Label releases for instance, despite the majority being recorded direct to stereo analogue tape, are mastered on a hard disk based Sonic Solutions system. And those that aren’t originated on a Nagra, are recorded direct into a Mac running Pro Tools. If hard disk doesn’t work as a carrier of high fidelity music, we’ve been fooling ourselves for a decade at least (and at the same time perhaps abrogating any negative opinions we might hold of MP3).

So I wonder when was the last time the World played host to a system with an Apple front end and Naim amplifier? I’m listening to it now. The iPod, with a selection of tracks “ripped” from CD and encoded on an iBook, some compressed (around 7:1 in terms of files size) some not, is connected to the aux input of a Nait 5. I’d love to write that the speakers are by Dyson, or Audi perhaps but unfortunately that would be a figment of my deranged imagination. The speakers are in fact a pair of B&W DM303s. OK so this isn’t the ultimate high resolution, to-die-for hi-fi system, but firstly I’m not arguing the iPod is a high-end CD player and secondly the system is quite good enough to reveal the differences between compressed and uncompressed tracks. The compressed tracks have that characteristic squashed, slapdash, slightly hard and grainy MP3 presentation, the uncompressed tracks though sound pretty much as they should. They’re again a little hard tonally – there’s a similar tonal quality across both compressed and uncompressed versions – but in terms of dynamics, resolution, noise floor, melody and rhythm, the pieces sound like music and like the music I know well and love.

So where does this get us? So, hey, the iPod can make music? What’s the point? Well apart from it being perfect for the likes of me who could do with a convenient medium for storing miscellaneous chunks of music for personal listening and to play to colleagues and friends and musical collaborators, the point is also the one I was trying to make earlier. Whether we like it or not, the default transfer standard for music down there on the home planet is fast becoming MP3. And if the hi-fi industry don’t at least begin to engage with that reality in order, even, if you like, to draw attention to its weaknesses, hi-fi as we understand the term will become less and less relevant. We audiophiles don’t have exclusivity in caring about music and how it sounds. There’s thousands of talented musicians out there for instance using MP3 as daily currency and they care too. The iPod constitutes a point, both in its musical performance and its high-end audio like feel and construction, where worlds collide and, especially now the man from Apple has been to reclaim the review sample, I’m not sure life is complete without one.

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