When Apple updated its website to reveal its new iPhone 6 units, it made one other change that it didn’t publicize. It deleted the ‘iPod Classic’ from its remaining range of iPod units – the Shuffle, the Nano and the iPod Touch.
Although the other three models remain, none of them really address the basic need music-loving travelers have – an affordable and convenient way of portably storing and playing a lot of music.
The iPod Classic was everything that these other units are not. It held an impressive 160 GB of music, and was priced at $249. Compare that to the Shuffle (2 GB maximum capacity, limited controls and capabilities) or the Nano (16 GB capacity for $149) or the Touch (64 GB maximum capacity, and costing $299) and you’ll quickly see how the iPod Classic combined expansive storage and a (relatively speaking) fair price.
How Much Music Storage Do You Need?
These days many people are moving away from playing stored music, and instead are making use of an internet streaming music service such as Rhapsody or Pandora. That’s good for some purposes, but it also has problems.
First, it only works when you have a data connection to the internet. If you’re on a flight, you might not have that data connection (or it might be too slow). And it will probably cost you money to use the airplane’s Wi-Fi. Talking about money, if you’re out of the country, your data connection might be prohibitively expensive, and/or too slow.
The second problem is that streamed music is low quality music. That’s probably acceptable when it is just ‘quiet background music’ but if you are wanting to actually and actively listen to and appreciate the music, higher quality would be preferable.
So, if either issue applies to you, there is still a valid need for stored music on some sort of personal/portable music device.
When storing music in 320 kbps MP3 format, each hour of music takes up just under 150 MB of data space, so a 16 GB Nano can hold about 110 hours of music. If you are storing music in high quality FLAC (or Apple’s ALAC) format, then each hour of music takes more like 350 MB, giving you about 45 hours of music on a Nano. Multiply these numbers by four to see the maximum capacity on an iPod Touch.
Another way of considering this, if you are thinking of having music reside on your phone, is that each 1 GB of space you are willing to allocate to music will get you somewhere between 3 hours (high quality ALAC/FLAC) and 8 hours (lower quality MP3 format) of music.
If you are like me, you not only want enough music to listen to for your anticipated journey, but also a broad selection of music to choose from. Rather than loading up with a specific playlist, maybe you want to be able to randomly choose and follow your mood and fancy as it strikes you. Or at least, to have the choice of several different playlists.
So – how much music is enough for you to feel that you have lots to choose from? Ten hours? One hundred hours? Or (much) more? Some people, with large collections of music, want to have their entire collection with them.
Our point here is that many of us will quickly find that our phones and tablets have insufficient storage space for more than a little music. There is still good sense in having a separate personal music player.
With the demise of the iPod Classic, what is now your best choice? Many people might feel that an iPod Nano, with 16GB of storage for $150, is a good choice. Maybe it is, but that 16 GB can fill very quickly. We’d like to suggest an alternative that, while not supported by Apple’s marketing behemoth or iTunes, is probably superior in every respect.
The Rise of High Quality DAPs – Digital Audio Players
We’ve been writing a number of articles recently about audio quality, and we’ve sort of squashed ourselves into a fairly narrow middle ground. On the one hand, we have conclusively shown that ‘better than CD’ quality music is nonsense.
There is no perceptible difference between a CD’s 16 bit sampling depth and a ‘higher quality’ music source with 24 bits. There is probably no perceptible difference between a CD’s 44.1 kHz sampling rate and the 48/88/96/176/192 kHz sampling rates of higher quality music sources.
But, on the other hand, we do agree there is a quality improvement between MP3 type compressed ‘lossy’ music formats and high quality FLAC/ALAC formats and CDs.
So – what is the sweet spot in the middle – better than MP3s and acceptably identical in sound to ‘high end’ music formats? We are advocating you should store your music in FLAC format, originally obtained from CD quality sources. FLAC files give you greatest flexibility and quality, and best ‘bang per buck’ in terms of hours of quality music per GB of storage.
Apple’s iPods do not support FLAC at all, with Apple substituting their proprietary ALAC format. It is possible to convert FLAC to ALAC, and to ‘rip’ CDs to ALAC format as well as FLAC format, but happily it is not necessary because there are better-than-Apple approaches to playing this type of digital quality music.
While Apple ‘owns’ the low-quality MP3 type music player market (or what remains of it) with its iPods, it is not really a factor in the higher quality DAP market. And while there are some ridiculously overpriced DAPs that we believe you’d never hear any quality improvement with compared to players costing one tenth their price, there are also some wonderfully high quality DAPs at very affordable prices.
In particular, there has just in the last couple of weeks been a new entry-level player released by Chinese company Fiio – the X1. This joins their current X3 and X5 models. We are also about to see the release of an American designed (and of course, unavoidably Chinese built) DAP, the Pono, with this company notably headed by music star Neil Young. The first Pono units are shipping this month, and new orders are expected to be delivered some time in the first quarter of next year.
Built-in and Removable Storage Choices and Considerations
Unlike Apple, the Fiio (and most other) units use a ‘new’ approach to storing music (which isn’t really all that new at all). Rather than having a built-in storage capacity and no way to augment that, such as is Apple’s ‘closed system’ approach, these players are primarily relying on you swapping MicroSD memory cards, and possibly having some onboard storage built-in as well.
This also represents perhaps the most obvious difference between the units.
- The X1 and X5 have no built-in storage, the X3 has 8 GB and the Pono has 64 GB.
- The X1, X3 and Pono have one MicroSD card slot, and the X5 has two.
- The three Fiio units can accept MicroSD cards up to 128 GB in capacity, the Pono can accept up to 64 GB cards.
We suggest that for most people, there is little benefit in having ‘only’ 8GB of built-in storage – it is too little to hold an appreciable amount of music, and indeed, in our case, we don’t use it at all. Instead, your focus should be to load an unlimited amount of music onto multiple MicroSD cards, and shuffling them in and out of the player as needed.
This ‘load all my music onto MicroSD cards’ paradigm also clashes a bit with the Pono’s apparently more useful 64 GB of built-in storage. But it still raises the question, if you have more than 64 GB of digital music tracks in total – which tracks do you keep semi-permanently on the Pono and which ones do you shuffle on and off via MicroSD cards? Isn’t it easier just to have everything on MicroSD cards?
Now for an interesting point. The X5 unit, with two MicroSD slots, could potentially have 2 x 128 GB cards plugged in simultaneously, giving you access to a changing mix of 256 GB of music at a time. That’s a lot of music (750 hours, more than 800 CDs worth) and is starting to approach the total collection size we have for many of us.
As can be seen from the table below, the Fiio X1 is the most affordable, while the Fiio X5 can grow to the largest simultaneously connected capacity.
The X3 offers little of essential value over the X1, and the Pono sort of sits somewhere uncomfortably in the middle, being most expensive in most configurations and having less maximum online storage capacity than the X3 and X5.
Pono would probably say their player has a better sound quality. That claim remains currently untested, and most of us would probably not hear the difference, even if one does exist.
|Base Amazon Price
|Included Internal Storage
|Included MicroSD Storage
|Price with Max Storage2
1. Currently the stated maximum capacity of the Fiio units is a 128 GB card, and the maximum of the Pono is a 64 GB card. It is expected that sooner or later, 256 GB cards will start to appear, and we believe that Fiio units will be capable of handling them. Hopefully Pono players will be upgraded to handle larger than 64 GB cards too at some future point – we’re not sure but expect that this upgrade could be backdated to first generation Pono players as well.
2. This is calculated on the basis of 128 GB Micro SD cards costing about $110 each at Amazon.
3. To get the lowest price with 136 GB, we’d select a $170 player plus the 128 GB external card. Alternatively, adding a 128 GB card to the package price of player and 64 gb card would make a price of $310 for a total of 200 GB of media included.
The Sweet Spot of MicroSD Card Capacities/Costs
There are of course 32 GB and smaller cards available as well, and they cost about $15 each. That makes them slightly cheaper, per GB, than a 64 GB card, but we suggest that for most of us, the added convenience of having fewer cards to deal with more than makes up for the small added cost of the 64 GB cards.
Depending on how much music you have in total, you might find a single 64 GB card is sufficient for your needs, or you might have a logical split in music styles/genres and cards that allow your total library to split onto 64 GB cards. Indeed, if you are splitting up into different genres, and into specific playlists, maybe that is a reason to use some 32 GB or smaller cards.
Alternatively, if you have a lot of music, you’ll love the convenience of getting more on each 128 GB card, and you’ll probably, like me, be eagerly looking forward to the day that 256 GB cards start to appear.
Managing Tiny MicroSD Cards
The MicroSD cards are astonishingly small. They measure about ¼” x ½” and are thinner than a credit card. Translation – they are very easy to lose.
We have always kept MicroSD cards in full-size SD card adapters as one way of making them larger and harder to lose. Another approach, which we now use, is to carry the MicroSD cards in some sort of carrier unit, such as this one (pictured here), which can hold ten of the tiny cards plus a full size SD adapter, too, and costs less than $10. Money well spent!
We bought an X3 unit before the X1 unit was released. We are very happy with it, but if we were buying a player for the first time now, we’d choose either the X1 or the X5.
If you have a lot of music, and want to have more ‘online’ simultaneously than the 128 GB possible on an X1, then the X5 with two card slots (and a few other enhanced features too) might be worth considering, although it costs $250 more. You could buy two X1 players for less than the price of one X5 player, and get more music ‘online’ through that approach instead! Or just accept the need to swap cards from time to time – it really isn’t much of a hassle.
By choosing a separate DAP in addition to your phone and tablet, you have a more flexible approach to listening to higher quality music, and don’t have to share either storage space or battery life with other things.