The Best Personal Media Player Ever Made
Is it possible for one to carry with them true audio fidelity?
It is supposed that various manufacturers design products to perform to the expectations of the people who would be purchasing them. Apple is no exception. In fact, it is said this company prides itself on building portable electro-digital devices better than people's expectations hence the company's stellar success. Their main products include the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod. Though their computers may be excellent performers, it is these three product lines that are what has propelled the company into being one of the most profitable in the world.
However, audiophile-wise, can the company's devices perform as well as say... a $2,000 CD player?
This page is an attempt to bring to the forefront an exceptional media player, a modified iPod Video 5.5 Generation.
My qualifications to make these assertions are that I have purchased, analyzed, and or used many and varied media players including seven or eight portable stereo cassette players, five or so portable CD players, several Sony MiniDisc players, two off-brand MP3 players a tiny iPod Shuffle, and finally a 6th generation iPod 160Gb Classic. Most of these players were not used by me for very long because of a variety of issues including convenience, power consumption, and audio quality.
The only player I used for any length of time was the iPod 6th generation Classic. This I used off and on for about two years when someone gave me an almost defunct iPod Video 80Gb 5.5G. I was able to get it to play and I realized its sound was much better than the 6th generation iPod.
To compare the two, (the 5.5G Video and the 6G Classic), I copied several raw WAV music files to each device. I then played them through a number of sets of headphones including a Sony MDR-V6, a Sony MDR-7506, and a Sennheiser HD-280 PRO. In comparing the 5G and 6G, I made some startling discoveries.
The differences between the 5G Video and the 6G Classic…well, in my opinion the 5G sounded better than the later 6G. My first impression in hearing the 5G Video was that it did show quite a bit of difference from the 6G Classic I had been using for almost two years. I did notice the 6G Classic sounded a bit brighter, but it lacked depth and has this electronic…haze in its sound. One might think the first two characteristics would be good, but when I listened more carefully and for longer times, this became fatiguing. Yes, the 5G sounded a bit less "perfect", but its timbre contained more harmonic information, depth, and sounded less...well, electronic.
For me, the 5G is much closer to how one would hear music in real life. I hate to say this, it is the best sounding iPod I've ever heard. In fact, it is the best sounding Apple “i” anything. Then when we compare it to the other many and varied portable players out there, it ranks as the best overall. Unfortunately, it is no longer made.
So, what gives the 5G its great sound?
But there was still a problem. The 5G I had only had 80Gb. The Classic had twice the space, 160Gb. Then shortly after in late 2010, I found a company named Apricorn who sold a Toshiba 240GB micro hard drive with new firmware installed on it so it would work in the 5G iPod. After the $250 purchase price and successfully installing the drive in the 5G, I sold the 6G and the 5Gs 80Gb hard drive on eBay to pay for most of the new 240Gb hard drive's cost.
But, then there was another problem. The supposed Apple lossless...is really not. Also, there was the disease of iTunes to deal with. Having several times nearly lost all the CD files I ripped from my collection, I felt another solution was needed.
I researched lossless and found FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). But how to play these on an iPod? Answer: RockBox. It can play flac files. And, yes compressed flac files are truly lossless.
RockBox is a different firmware that is booted up. RockBox does include a dual boot loader so you can load the Apple iPod OS.
Finally, with the help of a batch program I wrote, I converted my whole 400Gb collection of wav files to 200gb flac files.
I preserved the directory structure so I could find the music on the iPod. Another benefit of RockBox is it allows me to browse the actual file structure. I originally used WinAmp to rip the music and it named the folders and files with the appropriate album, artist, and song titles and track numbers, which WinAmp obtained from a music service... whenever they get back to supporting WinAmp again.
Mechanical Hard Drive?
Isn't it time for me to upgrade to an SSD? Well, after some work by a number of RockBox developers, the best music player got even better.
Note. This SSD also does work with Apple's iPod Video firmware V1.3
RockBox is written and compiled in a language called C.
C was originally developed by Dennis Ritchie between 1969 and 1973 at Bell Labs and was used in the reimplementation of the Unix operating systems and the development of Linux. It was also used to develop many parts of Windows. It would become one of the most widely used programming languages of all time, with C compilers offered by various vendors for the majority of computer architectures and operating systems. C has been standardized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) since 1989 and subsequently by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It has become the language to use for machine level code such as the RockBox firmware.
I did a lot of programming in C in the late 80s and early 90s on a Unix platform and then again in 2001 to 2002 for a number of embedded systems. I do have a beat-up dog-eared copy of Kernighan and Ritchie's C programming book that I've had since the late 80s. Maybe I can contribute?
A final thought: Why did Apple change the later generations of iPods? According to Apple, it was, to save a little power. I think it was to save a little money. So, I guess the question would be, what head-banger cares about audio quality? Now really; everyone is storing their music in MP3 format, fidelity-wise, a major step backwards.
There are now a number of pricy lossless personal portable players that have recently emerged such as the Fiio players. The only problem with most of these is they are rather pricy and they take those tiny micro SD cards which are not nearly as fast as an SSD drive. Also, the firmware that runs on these many and varied players is proprietary too each brand and has many bugs.
The iPod Video 80gb player with its Wolfson audio chip and the full-featured time-tested RockBox firmware is still the best all around player. The only problem with these players is they are becoming a rarity.
SteveS April 30, 2016
I still have this A1136 iPod Video (5th generation) which I use in my bedroom system. It was manufactured sometime between June and December 2006. It is 13 years later and it is still a very viable player. When I compare it to a smart phone, or another player, it still has superior sound. But as I’ve said on other pages, few care if the sound they are hearing is of the highest possible quality. They’ve just never really been taught that excellent sound exists.
Now, this player is in no way comparable to high definition 192 kHz 24 bit audio. This is in a league all its own. Also, there are better D to A converters. But for portable use, this player is still the best.
SteveS December 15, 2019