It’s time to face the music…my iPod has to be retired. Though they’ve served me well for 13 years, it’s time to bite the bullet and change, once again, how I listen to music. In fact, it’s been close to 20 years since my serious musical journey started. So I’m going to take this time to reflect upon all my previous methods, why my I made my iPods last so long, and what’s next.
A Brief History of Me and Mobile Music
To be quite honest I’ve always had *something* to listen to music on the go since I was a child. It started with various portable radios I’d carry around to different places in the house. Then later, I got an AM/FM “walkman” style portable. At the age of six I asked for a dual-cassette stereo; and not long after that I asked for, and received, my very first AM/FM cassette walkman. It’s what I listened to on long car rides to family members and often on the bus to and from school…because everyone I went to school with was a total fucking prick and treated me like absolute garbage to the point I still leave them stranded on the side of the highway during a blizzard when I see them. (Which I’m not proud of, but fuck them.)
At the age of 12 I got my very first portable CD player, at the age of 14 I bought my second portable CD player; and not long after that, I invested in a rather nice AM/FM portable cassette with Dolby NR and all the whistles. I had quickly come to miss my mixtapes. Of course, something else happened when I was about 14…I discovered MP3s. My life quickly migrated to having my PC be not only a source of music but also a music source. For the next couple of years, my music listening would be dominated by mix tapes made from MP3s on to high-quality Type IV (Metal) cassettes.
1998 would bring a change, I switched from mixtapes to Minidiscs. Minidiscs had been kind of on life support in the market for a while, never gaining a large user base; but they were somewhat picking up some stride and still in stores. The whole “quality of a CD” with the convenience of a tape had me sold. I could hook the mindisc unit up to my PC and record directly on to it…editing and rearrange the tracks I saw fit. Even when I got a CD-R drive in spring of 1999, Minidisc would be my primary method of listening to music on the go. They were smaller and reusable…CD-Rs were quite costly.
When hardware MP3 players hit the market, I was slightly excited about the idea. Totally solid-state flash storage that meant I could probably move music over to it faster and update the tracks more often; afterall, anything more than 1x real-time was an improvement! So I bought one…I didn’t keep it long. The transfers were slow, the interface was cumbersome, and the amount of storage was totally pathetic; memory upgrades were outrageously expensive. “I could by a 25 pack of CD-Rs for cheaper than a 64MB memory upgrade!” is what I often said on the subject. MP3-CD players came out not long after that, but they had super high price tags that my job at the time made only an item I’d lust after.
That changed sometime in late 2001. I was browsing through the local Wal-Mart between shifts on my job and saw a “generic” portable CD player with MP3 support for under $100. I splurged. I bought that…and a 25 pack of CD-Rs (which had come down a little in price by then), rushed home and burnt a CD-R full of MP3s. It was just about what I always wanted in a portable player. Relatively cheap swappable media that could hold a lot of tunes. This puppy got a lot of use on the road trips I was taking now that I was in my 20’s and with my own car. Every CD in my car was an mp3 CD…comprising most of my collection at that point. I literally had everything, I just had to put the right disc in the player. This oddly was the same player that “sold” my father on the concept of MP3s. We had to attend a family funeral out of down, it was about a 4 hour drive each way. I loaded one CD-R with every album that John Prine had put out. I put this single lone disc in the player, hooked it up to his car, hit shuffle, and off we went. It was about 2 hours before he realized we were still listening to John Prine on the same disc; and after I told him I could fit hours upon hours of mp3’s on to a single data disc….he actually had to go out and get one for himself. Naturally, I had to show him how to make MP3’s off his CD’s and how to burn them properly; but he quickly was able to do it.
In 2003 I retired that player and bought a nice higher end iRiver player…thanks to a better paying job. Out of every portable CD player I owned, that one was one of the best. It was designed to be as small as possible…so it didn’t actually take batteries other than some special flat rechargable cells. IT had very few buttons on it and no display! The display and rest of the controls connected to a wired remote, which also served as the headphone jack when plugged in. You could use standard alkaline batteries, but you needed an external battery pack. Yeah, it was a bit inconvenient for that..but it was a hell of a player! It was one of the only players I had that not only read CD-Text; but would actually let me skip an album on discs with two albums on them. I found this out accidently one day when I hit folder skip instead of track skip on a CD-R containing The President’s first two albums. Instead of Lump, it skipped entirely to II. I also think this thing had an FM tuner in it, just to complete the package. Toward the end of it’s life, a firmware update was released that brought “Beta” support for the then new Ogg Vorbis format.
This brings me to the iPod, a device I swore I’d never own back then. I was not a fan of Apple or their “user doesn’t need to know what’s going on” and childish error icons. I was strictly a PC guy…I liked my commands…I liked my cryptic error messages that told me what was wrong. When the HDD failed…I wanted to know the HDD failed; not get some sad looking computer that doesn’t tell you *anything*. I didn’t like iTunes’ “library” function…in fact the first time I picked up an iPod I had zero idea how to scroll and had to ask someone. As someone who is tech-minded….it was kind of demeaning someone designed a product like that. There was, however, this piece of software out there I really wanted to use….Rockbox.
If you’ve never heard of Rockbox, it’s an open-source firmware replacement for portable music players. The idea is that it *entirely* replaces the underlying operating system embedded in to the player to give you more flexibility. The format support was what sold me, as most players during that time supported MP3 or AAC…Rockbox supported almost everything. I was a huge fan of the Musepack format over MP3 for causal portable listening, and the fact Rockbox supported it just made me want to use it even more. The support for the then current iPod Video was about as good as it got for the iPod platform, so I drove down to Circuit City (remember them?) and picked up a 30GB iPod Video with a pair of Shure e3C IEMs. This was the most money I’d spent on portable music at the time. I justified it by saying “I’m an adult now. I should be buying quality items.”.
This configuration became “it” for the next 13 years. The flexibility of Rockbox gave me a player that I truly enjoyed. A Custom WPS screen, wide format support, no need to use a database/library. I was able to get the player to do exactly what I wanted, work how I wanted; and it sounded great. Management of tunes was literally file based; you plugged up to USB and copied everything over like an external hard drive. I even took advantage of the fact it had Firewire charging; cramming an 8-AA battery pack in a spare pocket to give the thing days of playtime.
It, however, got stolen out of my car, and the piece of scum that stole it probably made out well when the bastard sold it. I had applied pieces of protective plastic on it and crammed it in a silicone sleeve the day I bought it. There not only wasn’t a scratch on it but at 4 years old it’s battery was still in great shape due to the fact I kept it topped up constantly. I replaced it with a Toshiba Gigabeat S; which was a fantastic device for Rockbox. But I have to admit I got frustrated with the change in physical interface. Even after just 4 years, it felt like my muscle memory was geared toward the iPod. That Gigabeat met it’s demise when I had to ditch it in the middle of the road after the battery spontaneously started to swell. I don’t know if the fire that started was impending or a result of quickly tossing it out the window and hitting the ground….but I sat there and watched it burn for about a minute and get reduced to smoldering rubble.
As luck would have it, I was handed an iPod video slightly older than my original. I was originally asked to “fix it up” and give it to my sister, but I quickly pointed out that wasn’t going to happen since my previous iPod had been stolen and I was still looking for a replacement. It needed a small selection of parts; a new click wheel, a new headphone jack, a new battery, and a new backing shell since the previous had been engraved at one point. I once again had an iPod running Rockbox, and it would remain a constant visitor to my pocket/overnight bag for the next 8 years. It’s seen a lot of miles up and down the east coast. Kicked around many different cars, tossed around at the beach. This second version saw me forego Musepack for lower-bitrate Q1 ogg in an attempt to cram more for mobile purposes.
The trip I’m happiest to have taken it on was one that would also cause its decline. I carried it out west with me and it provided my tunes for most of the 1700 miles out there I drove, hours in the airport; and one attempted listening to Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News at 35k feet. But I left it sitting in my rental car for a couple days I didn’t need it, and the heat caused some problems with the LCD. Of course, by this point, the thing was just falling apart. The scratches weren’t as bad on the front as all the micro-cracks around the edges. You didn’t need a special tool to pull it apart anymore, you could easily get it with a fingernail. I needed to either replace it or rebuild it. This lead to some “back-burner” thinking…which stayed back there until a couple of weeks ago when I finalized plans for my second trip out west. There was still the nagging issue of a lousy 30gigs of space which played a role, along with having my trip on my mind; that would lead to replacement. I did try to replace it last year with a cheap Nintaus DSD capable player, but that thing was a hot dumpster fire, and I sold it on eBay.
Finally Doing It On My Smartphone
When I put together the fact I literally had to replace everything except the main-board, and the fact an HDD upgrade would be a bunch more money and require me to buy essentially a new motherboard to support it; the total price started going up. It was at this point that I started to explore finally doing it on my smartphone. This is why my trip played a huge influence in this decision. I remembered how bad it was trying to use my headphones on the plane almost a year ago…and while I resisted the idea that active noise canceling was good; I realized I had to finally break down and buy a pair; and as much as I hated the idea of buying Bose…I figured I might as well spend the money and get the good pairs; opposed to the numerous cheap ones. I wound up getting a pair of Sony WM-1000XM2s because they were cheaper than the Bose and many commented on the ANC being better. I started to maybe come around on my hatred of non-wired listening at this time; I was going to have it despite not caring about it, and I do remember some of the crazy things I’ve done for cable-management when wearing them. I picked up a cheap Logitech wireless headset for my PC about a year ago for video conferencing…and I had to somewhat realize the convenience of wireless. Having now navigated a busy airport…the wireless looked much more attractive.
I ultimately made the decision to finally just start using my phone to carry a portable version of my music collection. The storage capacity of microSD cards had jumped up to a more realistic level and the prices were a lot lower. It also just made better financial sense, at least in the short term. A 200GB microSD (that gives you about 183 gigs of storage after formatting) was only $68. All I had to do was plug it in, convert a bunch of music, and copy it over. This was much cheaper than buying everything to upgrade the iPod to an equivalent storage capacity…let alone buy the parts to make it “like new”. In fact, I felt spending $30 on a USB power bank to keep the phone charged during trips still was one of the cheapest ways to go. I crammed a lot of music into 30gigs using q1 ogg, so even using the same bitrate it’ll be more than I could fill right now. But doing it on the phone I can get players that support Ogg Opus, which sounds even better than ogg at 80kbps, 64kbps wasn’t all that bad…but I decided to stick with 80. The other driving influence was buying a pair of headphones that had Bluetooth…kind of a “well, I’m getting the capability anyway” decision. It’ll be nice when navigating a crowded airport with almost no time between flights not worrying about a cable slinging around while listening to something to get me through that hellhole.
However, I’ve had an off-again/on-again relationship with using my phone as a music player. When I got my first smartphone in 2010 and finally had a device with a 3G connection and could actually do things…I mostly used it for streaming. The battery life was pretty lousy, so it wasn’t exceptionally handy in places I didn’t have the ability to stay charged. The cost and limitations of microSD at the time prohibited me from getting a 32 gig card…which matched my ipod capacity closest; in fact, I don’t think my first Android device supported cards that big, or if they were even out at that time. I did have a Rhapsody subscription…and this in fact started to supplant my ipod use in the car; especially when I started streaming XM. But my ipod was still my primary way for mobile music consumption for long periods of time or when I wanted to conserve battery. When 4G became a thing, I did play around with the idea of making all my stuff available to stream; but there were always some very odd issues that prevented it from working to any degree other than proof-of-concept. By this time battery life had improved…and I found I could listen to music a good part of the day with casual phone use and have enough battery.
From 2013 to 2016 I was recovering from a back injury. I wasn’t able to work, so I wasn’t able to afford a phone. Pushed to almost a pre-smartphone era; the iPod jumped front center as the device I always had with me.
In 2016 after getting back to work, I picked up an LG Stylo 2 (Enhanced). This was the nicest Android device I’d owned up to that point. Being on a really good LTE network, I found myself streaming tons of stuff and finding the battery life remarkable. I slightly started taking my phone more seriously as a device for music playback. That good network coverage had me streaming stuff a lot more often and worrying less about my battery life, but I still had the iPod for when I went on those long drives where network coverage disappeared. I guess in the end…my decision to get these headphones drove me to just adopting my phone…especially since the storage upgrade was cheaper. Converting all the music over will be a time-consuming process, but I kind of expected that. My initial tests have been ok. I have Foobar2000 for Android playing my Opus files over Bluetooth with no problem, and it sounds pretty damn good. Just sitting here on the desk, the phone estimates a little over 20 hours of battery life playing over Bluetooth with the screen off; which is possible if you’re literally just using it for music since you can skip tracks without having to turn the screen on.
The iPod might be retired, but it’s not being put to rest. I don’t know what I will do with it, but at the very least it will continue to sit on a shelf of a drawer somewhere…carrying the music that powered a ton of memories. Godspeed “RockPod II”, and rock on.