The iPod is now 10 years old, and during that decade this little device has instigated a massive shift in the way that many of us listen to music. Here we pay homage to the original iPod – now the iPod classic – and look at the changes it has wrought.
On 23rd October 2001 Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple Computer Inc., introduced a product that would change the face of music forever. The product was a pocket-sized digital music player with enough space for 1,000 songs, or as Jobs put it at the time, an “entire music library”. The player was named iPod.
It wasn’t the first portable music player, of course: the Sony Walkman and Discman had been around for years. Neither was it the first MP3 player: Diamond and Creative had already introduced fairly well-received digital music “jukeboxes”.
But the iPod was different: the size of a deck of cards and sporting a 10-hour battery and beautifully simple user interface, it was incredibly easy to live with. The battery charged rapidly compared to rivals, and thanks to its FireWire port music could be transferred onto the iPod far more quickly: it took 10 minutes to move 1,000 songs from a computer to an iPod, while USB-utilising rivals would huff and puff over the same task for five hours.
We’re now ten years on from that launch, and a lot has changed. Jobs, of course, has passed away. Apple has become the world’s largest and most successful technology company – in fact, pretty much the world’s most successful company full stop. Digital music is now the standard, with sales of MP3s far eclipsing those of CDs and other physical formats. The iPod is largely responsible for that (with 275 million sold by September 2010) and naturally it has changed too: its most recent incarnation, the iPod classic, holds 40,000 songs.
How the iPod changed music
On early iPod classics, the relatively limited amount of storage space pushed most people into using low bitrate music: they ripped their CDs to digital MP3 and AAC formats at 128kbps or 160kbps. This meant they could fit more songs on the hard drive – at a cost to audio quality.
But as the capacities grew, it became possible to win on both fronts: with a 160GB hard drive, you could store thousands of songs AND have them encoded in a lossless format. Of course, this meant a lot of people had to go through the bother of re-ripping their entire album collection at a higher quality (but then that goes with the territory of being an audiophile…).
Lossless formats offer an indistinguishable sound from the original CD source, so where possible are always the choice for digital audiophiles. While it isn’t compatible with audiophile favourite FLAC, the iPod is able to play three different lossless formats, AIFF, WAV and Apple Lossless, and you can read more about them in our audiophile’s guide to the iPod. Even lossy MP3 is near identical to CD quality for many people when encoded at a bitrate of 256kbps or 320kbps.
The iPod and its ilk have also raised the question of whether it’s actually worth buying physical music these days. Digital music can be purchased from any number of online sources, including Apple’s own iTunes Store. A digital album is cheaper than a CD, takes up no shelf space and can be bought and downloaded in a matter of minutes from the comfort of your own home. Within ten minutes it can be on your iPod, ready to be listened to anywhere. And there’s no need to endure the withering gaze of a disapproving record shop employee when your choice doesn’t come up to scratch.
People, by and large, have voted with their feet, or at least their mouse-clicking fingers: in the UK, sales of digital albums in 2011 have risen by almost 25 percent year-on-year, while vinyl and CD album sales have fallen by over 20 percent in the same period (source: Official Charts Company). The singles chart, meanwhile, is now almost entirely based on digital sales.
But what of the hardware? While the audiophile accustomed to spending large sums on weighty hi-fi components might be tempted to dismiss a small, lightweight and inexpensive digital music player out of hand, the reality is that the iPod is a very well engineered audio product constructed of high class components. Stereophile magazine calls the iPod “a serious piece of kit worthy of serious consideration by an audiophile” and, thanks to its support for lossless formats, able to “offer the sound quality its owner demands of it”.
Those who want to go further can even upgrade the hardware. Connecting an iPod to a headphone amp will improve solo listening, and it doesn’t stop there: Red Wine Audio’s iMod (which only works with certain iPod classic models) swaps the stock dock connector and headphone jack for a dedicated one-eight-inch headphone jack which can then be plugged into an external headphone amp or hi-fi via a weighty braided silver cable; the iPod’s own headphone jack and ribbon cable are bypassed completely.
Physical music isn’t finished: it will always sell to collectors and enthusiasts, and until lossless music is readily available for download (if you want lossless you’ll more than likely have to buy the CD, then rip it) those audiophiles who demand the very highest quality will continue to shy away from non-physical recordings. But realistically, it’s only a matter of time before even they will be struggling to think of a reasons to stick with physical formats.
Music on the move
The one area where the iPod’s influence is undeniable is on-the-go listening. As Steve Jobs pointed out, having an entire music library in your pocket is a huge deal, and the iPod gave everyone the chance to achieve that at a relatively low price.
It has also sparked a resurgence in the importance of headphones. With everyone listening to music on the move, getting hold of a good set of cans has become a priority for many iPod owners – particularly as the famous white earbuds bundled with the device itself are so leaky and subpar. GfK reports that in the year 2010/11 24,000 pairs of headphones were sold on average every day in the UK, and estimates that 10 million pairs will be sold during 2012.
Whether it’s discreet in-ear buds or large over-the-ear cups you’re after, there’s a truly dizzying selection out there. And there’s an increasing demand for quality products over cheap, plasticky buds – as people start to listen to higher quality digital music, they want headphones capable of revealing the intricacies and detail in that music. This demand sparked Bowers & Wilkins into its first forays in the mobile audio market, with the recent launches of the P5 on-ear and C5 in-ear headphones.
The iPod is generally seen as a device for listening to music on the move, but it’s increasingly replacing physical music in the home too. While it’s possible to run a cable from an iPod to your hi-fi, the real reason for this has been the way speaker docks have improved.
Early iPod docks were invariably cheap and small, pushing tinny music out of tiny speakers, but recent years has seen a shift in focus towards higher quality hardware. Docks like the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin, with tweeters derived from the M-1 speaker, as well as a dedicated bass driver, demonstrated that it was possible to get room-filling hi-fi quality sound from an iPod, and again the whole issue of convenience is key: rather than select a CD, take it off the shelf, remove the disc from the box and place it in your player, all you have to do is dock your iPod, select your desired album and tap play. There’s no need to swap discs when the album ends. And who says you even have to play a particular album? The shuffle option will surprise you by randomly selecting tunes, or you can quickly knock together a personally-crafted playlist of your very favourite tracks.
The iPod classic hasn’t been drastically overhauled since the introduction of the sixth generation model four years ago, and it would seem Apple is content to let it remain where it is, gradually drifting out of the spotlight in favour of other iPod models, particularly the app-compatible iPod touch.
In fact, as the touch’s storage capacity grows (it’s currently available with up to 64GB of space), its additional talents could see it become the de facto “mainstream” iPod. Music fans, for instance, will appreciate the fact that the iPod touch can stream almost any piece of music using a web connection and the Spotify app, not to mention its Wi-Fi capabilities opening it up for cable-free streaming using Apple’s own AirPlay technology and a compatible device.
But we suspect digital-embracing audiophiles will cling to the “original” iPod, the iPod classic, for as long as it is available. Blending cutting edge design with top drawer construction, huge amounts of storage, pocket-sized portability, user friendliness and surprisingly adept audio performance, even today it retains the killer selling points outlined by Steve Jobs ten years ago. Whatever its future, this is one classic that’s truly deserving of the name.
The iPod classic through the years
The original iPod is now in its sixth distinct generation, and while the familiar design – a rounded rectangle with a screen and control wheel on the front and metal plate on the back – remains, with every iteration Apple has made vast improvements to the specifications and features.
“1,000 songs in your pocket” was the slogan used to launch the first ever iPod. Because it used a 1.8-inch hard drive, it was smaller than competitors (which were then using 2.5-inch hard drives). It featured a mechanical scroll wheel, monochrome LCD, 5GB of storage and was compatible only with Macs. A 10GB version was released in March 2002.
Debuting in July 2002, this model made two major changes. First, the scroll wheel was touch sensitive. Second, a FireWire-to-USB adapter included meant it was now compatible with Windows PCs. 10GB and 20GB versions were available.
Unveiled in April 2003, this model sported a few design tweaks: it was thinner, had four touch sensitive buttons above the wheel replacing the physical controls on previous models, and ditched the FireWire port in favour of the proprietary dock connector still used today. 15GB and 30GB capacities were offered, with a range refresh swapping those for 20GB and 40GB in September 2003.
In July 2004 Apple introduced 20GB and 40GB models that removed the four buttons in favour of a clickwheel, as seen previously on the iPod mini. In October the same year a version of this iPod with a colour screen and the ability to display photos was announced.
Debuting in October 2005, this model featured a sharper screen, 30GB and 60GB options and the ability to play video. A September 2006 update saw an 80GB model supplant the 60GB version.
The current – and possibly final – generation of the original iPod, this was the first model to be called the “classic”. Thinner than previous models and with 36 hours of battery life, it was introduced in September 2007 in 80GB and 160GB editions. Today, only the latter is available, and the fact that it hasn’t been updated since 2009 – plus the availability of the iPod shuffle, nano and touch models – has led to speculation that Apple will soon cease selling the iPod classic. For now, it remains as the highest capacity – and therefore most audiophile-friendly – iPod available. 160GB is enough space for over 300 CDs encoded in Apple Lossless quality.