Getting more from your iPod: the definitive audiophiles guide

Getting more from your iPod: the definitive audiophile’s guide

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

AIFF

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

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.

WAV

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.

17 Comments

  • Nicholas says:

    dear B&W, thanks for the article about improving ipod sound quality….. for the past few years i have indeed been using some of the above mentioned suggestions such as ripping in lossless and using a pair of fairly excellent in ear earphones for outdoor use…..

    i’ve been considering getting a pair of B&W P5′s this year for myself and i did notice something….. all earphones and headphones that are used with ipods have to be plugged into the earphones jack, which i know is connected to a circus logic chip, which compromises the sound as the sound chip on the ipod is substandard.

    i am wondering if there is a device that is able to override the sound chip by plugging into the connector in the bottom and converting the digital signal to analogue through a better chip in the same way the Zeppelin uses the connector to receive the digital signals to make its own conversion to audiophile quality sound? since B&W are the experts perhaps you can make such a device?

  • Josep Sebastián says:

    So would you say “Apple Lossless” is the best format?

    Could you tell any difference in terms of performance?

    Apparently it could save you lots of GBs that you may need in the future.

  • Andreas says:

    It is probably worth to mention that you can maintain a high-quality (uncompressed) collection of your music in iTunes on you local computer and reduce the required space of the songs on your iPod by choosing the “Convert higher bit rate songs to 128 kbps AAC” option when syncing the songs from iTunes to the iPod. The compression is done on the fly during the sync. So you don’t have to maintain the same songs in different qualities on your local computer. It would of course be desirable if one could choose in iTunes in what quality to sync. 128 kbps might not be enough for everyone. This could hopefully become a feature in future iTunes releases.

  • Modernaire says:

    This is a great article because as hard drives get bigger and other storage device capacity also increases, we can start ripping CD’s in lossless and so on.

    I think eventually the iTunes Apple Store will also go lossless and that point is when I’d consider buying music from them.

    I will say, that the Zep is an incredible product. It uses the digital connection and does its own sort of D/A right?

    I’m with Nicolas above in terms of having something along the lines of a portable solution to the awful substandard sound chips in iPods. I’ll admit, I use a Sony Walkman just because they are really superior in sound quality without external D/A converters when it comes to portable solutions.

    I think a key product B&W should look into developing is a D/A type adapter for Touch’s and other iPods where you can attach something akin to a battery case pack that also acts as a protective case for portable audiophile level listening.

    That way I can plug my headphones/earphones minijack to it rather which in turn is attached to the iPods digital connector. Maybe with some kind of headphone level, equalizer maybe? Like a headphone amp, with perhaps a P5 like design of metal, leather, etc.

  • MoBay says:

    Modernaire

    There are all ready a ton of devices that do exactly what you want. Check out the portable section at http://www.head-fi.org .

  • Paul Apollonio says:

    Apple Lossless ??

    “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.” – I read the claim of lossless but compressed. Frankly no one has explained how this is possible, or if by lossless what they really mean is not half the data but rather they imply this loss (half the file size, so I will presume half the original file data) is not audible. If this were the case, why not perform the compression routine two times more and make the file size 1/8th of the original? This claim is made without detail, much less proof. I will choose to remain a skeptic.

  • Gavin Clarke says:

    Paul, do you ever you zip files? Zip is a form of lossless compression, it can compress your files so that when they are uncompressed they are exactly the same as the orginal (see also GIF, PNG and many more).

    It is perfectly possible to have lossless compression algoorithms which do not lose any data. One way these might work is by assigning repeated patterns of data to a specific key, then using the (smaller) key. For example, instead of having 5 seconds of true silence (lots and lots of repeated 0s) the compressed data simply says (n * 0).

    Of course because music generally contains complex patterns of data lossless codecs have to be a bit more sophisticated, but rest assured it is perfectly possible to create a truly lossless compresion algorithm.

    The reason you can’t just run the same compression algorithm again, is becuse under the covers it has probably already been run as many times as possible until rerunning it doesn’t produce a smaller file.

    You can always test it out yourself get an uncompressed WAV file, compress it with FLAC, then uncompress it into another WAV file. Then use a file comparison tool to check the original agaisnt the uncompressed file and you should see no difference.

  • Robert Phillips says:

    I’m with Andreas. I would love to rip everything to my Mac as Apple Lossless (my P5 headphones like lossless), then sync to my iPhone at 320 kbps so as not to completely fill the 32GB too soon. I must admit I am pretty happy with 320 kbps and my Zeppelin for normal listening as my living room is small, crowded and far from audiophile. Unfortunately as the only “on-the-fly” sync compression iTunes offers is 128 kbps (which is too low even for my living room!), I rip most stuff at 320 kbps so I can just sync straight off.

    Apple, if you are listening, please add a configurable sync option so I can have high quality on my Mac and decent quality on my iPhone without having to resort to separate ripping on separate Macs :o)

  • Sawasdee says:

    When you buy Music / CD on itunes store, what is the format ? is it compressed . Is it prerefable ( audiophile point of view) to buy CD and then to tranfer in Apple lowless?

  • George lynn says:

    What headphone amp/DAC would anybody suggest? Do they even work?I would be using it with my p5 headphones and my iPhone 4.Do they upscale my music to 24bit? Also when I’m here what about less upper class music on S.O.S. music club?Little Axe is my favourite so far. I listen to it all the time. If you could get Joanne Shaw Taylor released here I would be happy.

  • Jim Pier says:

    I love my P5s.

    About playing directly from digital output of iPod – Cambridge now has a nice product for that purpose for under $300, the id100. It does require a DAC.

    ALO Audio produces high-quality connectors.

    I am very happy with headphone amps from Ray Samuels (The Hornet), Bellari, and Musical Fidelity.

    Marantz has CD players that can connect digitally to an iPod with the standard Apple USB cable. Terrific sound.

  • Traff says:

    You can bypass your iPod’s headphone output by using a line-out dock (such as the FIIO L9) and a portable headphone amp such as the Headroom Total Bithead. An iPod Classic -> L9 -> Bithead -> P5 makes a great little portable system. And when I fire up the laptop, the Bithead also works as a USB DAC so I can bypass the ridiculously noisy audio circuitry in the laptop. At $150 for the Bithead and $15 for the L9, you can’t go wrong…

  • Ness says:

    I use 320 for,my iPhone 4s and iPad 32gb . But I’m about to purchase a iPod classic 160 gb and fill it with every cd I own at lossless quality then back up on ex hard drive , sell all my cd s and live happy with my zeppelin air which is amazing

  • Rush says:

    I am very curious to find out about the codec that Neil Young patented this past year. He has famously been critical of digital and claims to have invented something that is really lossless, thus representing something closer to the real sound of the music.

  • Alfredo says:

    How do we make the sound in our iPod become the same like the sound in the iTunes computer ?

  • Michael says:

    it’s worth noting that the analogue audio output from the 3rd gen iPod Touch(64Gig) is extremely poor, and I would never choose this device when playing out AIFF files……..imaging and bass performance are particularly affected……I would be interested to know of the performance of more recent editions of the Touch……..

  • Tommy says:

    I regret buying a 16 gb iPhone, because even though half of my music is mp3s, the apple lossless songs that I rip from my cd collection is rapidly filling up my iPhone’s memory.
    I really do not want to rip my my cd collection to 320 kbps because the only high quality speakers i have is the Bose surround system in my car; but since it does not have an iPod dock, i have to connect my iPhone through a casette to my car. There is a big difference in sound quality in 320 kbps through a casette, and 16 gb is actually really small for an audiophile like me.
    Also can apple lossless tracks be ripped onto blank cds?
    because i am thinking this would be the cheapest solution because the only Hi-Fi equipment is in my car and it has a 6 cd changer.

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