Since its launch in October 2001, the Apple iPod has been responsible for a revolution in the way we enjoy music – and that’s not hyperbole. Where our portable music was once limited by how many CDs, cassettes or MiniDiscs we could carry around with, the iPod’s huge amount of built-in storage meant that you could walk around with thousands of songs in your pocket.
Maybe even your entire music collection.
Today’s iPods offer up to 160GB of storage, which Apple claims is enough for 40,000 songs in 128kbps AAC format. And the fact that space is so cheap (the 160GB iPod classic currently costs a reasonable £193) means that, should you want to load an iPod with higher quality digital music, you can still fit a huge amount of audiophile grade songs on a relatively affordable device.
So why not rip your music collection as large, high quality files and fill your iPod with a huge library of great-sounding music? We’ve put together a guide to getting the best sound out of your iPod, so read on for all you need to know.
The first thing you need to consider is which type of iPod you’ll be using. Apple’s current range starts with the tiny iPod shuffle (from £46), which certainly isn’t aimed at the audiophile crowd: with just 2GB or 4GB of storage space available, it lacks the sort of capacity you need for large music files – you can cram in about 1,000 128kbps AAC tracks, but only a relative handful of AIFF, WAV or Apple Lossless files (more on these later). There’s also no LCD display, which makes picking out your favourite tunes tricky. It’s ideal for joggers, perhaps, but not much use for the discerning music aficionado on the move.
Next in the range is the iPod nano (from £118), Apple’s pocket-friendly, video camera equipped mini model. While it features a very crisp screen for browsing your collection and playlists, its 8GB and 16GB capacities may still prove a touch restrictive for the audiophile listener.
Then there’s the iPod touch (from £153), available in 8GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities. The crisp 3.5-inch touchscreen with its CoverFlow interface is great for browsing through your record collection at the flick of a finger, and the larger capacity models have enough space for a decent number of lossless or uncompressed music files. And while not necessarily related to music listening, the touch’s ability to run software from the iTunes App Store means you can use it for a huge host of other purposes.
So the touch is a fine choice, but it’s the iPod classic (£193) that’s the best fit for audiophiles. While it lacks the touchscreen and app capabilities of the iPod touch, it has one thing the touch can’t deliver: a cavernous 160GB hard disk drive. That’s a huge amount of room, even if your music collection is ripped solely as AIFF, Apple Lossless or WAV files.
Finally we should mention the iPhone, which features an iPod function and, essentially, works just like an iPod touch. It comes in 16GB and 32GB capacities.
Easy wins – simple ways to improve your iPod’s audio performance
When it comes to improving the sound quality you get from your iPod, there are a number of simple (but not necessarily cheap) ways to get started.
Firstly (and we think this is a real no brainer): invest in a better set of headphones. The cheap, plasticky headphones bundled with iPods lack the dynamics and imaging to do lossless music justice, so a pair of high quality in-ear or on-ear ‘phones is a must.
Even an affordable pair of earbuds will offer a noticeable boost in sound quality over the standard Apple in-ear headphones, but going further and hooking up a premium pair of “ear goggles”, such as Bowers & Wilkins’ own P5 will offer a listening experience fit to impress even the most discerning pair of ears.
If you’re listening at home, a similar rule applies to your hi-fi. If you have a good quality hi-fi system already set up in your living room (and the fact that you’re reading this suggests you most likely have), you can either connect the iPod to it via a standard stereo audio cable or splash out on a standalone docking station. The latter usually connects to your hi-fi’s stereo phono inputs, but some hi-fi makers fit their amplifiers with proprietary digital inputs for their own (optional) iPod docks – this way, your amp is fed a pure digital signal direct from the iPod and that should mean higher quality sound.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to dock your iPod to an all-in-one solution, there are a wide range of speaker dock models available. The majority of the cheaper models, while handy for casual listening, lack the power and precision to really impress. However, in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of a number of top class speaker docks aimed at the more demanding music fan. These models, including the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin boast powerful drivers, subwoofers and compact but capable amplifiers, allowing them to deliver sound that’s nuanced, textured and also powerful enough to fill a room.
The compact nature of speaker docks means that they can struggle to provide the clear stereo imaging you might expect from a “proper” hi-fi, but that’s a trade-off it could be worth making for the sake of simplicity and user-friendliness – and even the pricier speaker docks should work out significantly cheaper than a good quality hi-fi consisting of separates.
Finally, one straightforward way to ensure superior sound quality is to rip your CDs into iTunes in a different format to the highly compressed likes of MP3 and AAC. iTunes offers three options if you decide to go down this route: AIFF; Apple Lossless; and WAV. There are a few differences between the three, but all offer sound quality that is essentially indistinguishable from the original CD source.
Those codecs, and how to use them
Audio Interchange File Format was co-developed by Apple, and stores audio data in an uncompressed state. It uses a lot of data (around 10MB per minute of music), but isn’t at all lossy – i.e. none of the original audio data is lost in the importing process.
Apple Lossless is a compressed but lossless MP4 format. Apple claims it requires around half the storage space of an equivalent uncompressed file, making it ideal for iPods with less storage – the nano or touch, for example.
Short for WaveForm Audio File Format, WAV is an uncompressed format fairly similar to AIFF, although it was developed by Apple’s great rival Microsoft. Like AIFF, the files it produces are theoretically indistinguishable from the original CD. The only real advantage WAV holds over AIFF is that it’s compatible with more products (outside of iPods, with which both work perfectly).
To make the most of these improved codecs, it’s imperative when importing your CDs into iTunes you take a few steps beforehand to ensure the music is ripped at the highest possible quality. Open up the iTunes preferences window and select “Import Settings”. After choosing your preferred format, tick the “Use error correction when reading Audio CDs” box: this makes importing take a little longer, but also means you won’t get any glitches (caused by scratches on CDs) affecting the imported files. You should also open the “Playback” tab and uncheck the “sound enhancer” and “Sound Check” boxes, as these alter your music from the original files to “widen” the stereo effect and normalise the volume respectively – things that music purists would do well to avoid.
What about FLAC?
You may remember our recent blog about FLAC (aka the Free Lossless Audio Codec), which can come in superb high quality 24-bit form – actually closer to the studio master than 16-bit CD. 24-bit FLAC is the highest quality format in which we offer music downloads to our Society of Sound members, but sadly older iPods are not able to play back 24-bit files, and no iPods can play 24-bit files with a sampling rate of over 48k.
In order to play these files on your iPod you’ll need to convert them to Apple Lossless using an outside program such as Max for Mac OS X or dBpoweramp for Windows, then importing them into iTunes. Using this won’t lose you too much discernible audio quality, and will allow you to play your FLAC files on your iPod, but we’re still hoping for a ‘proper’ 24-bit capable iPod before too long.
What about music that’s already been ripped/downloaded?
If you’ve already got a substantial digital music collection stored on a hard disk or computer, importing this into iTunes is easy – provided the music is in an iTunes-friendly format (iTunes won’t, for instance, play Windows Media Audio music files).
All you need to do is transfer the files on to your Mac or PC, then copy and paste (or drag) them into the iTunes library window. This should copy them across, with tags and track names intact.
All of this may seem like a lot of effort, but as any audiophile will tell you, the differences are in the details, and the more little improvements you make to the way you listen to your iPod and the music stored on it, the more enjoyable your listening experience.
If you have any other tips for getting the best out of your iPod, please let us know below.