The AudioFile: Audio Quality Cheapskates

Cutting Corners

Last week I got a 16GB Creative Zen V Plus, the first flash-based MP3 player to move past the 8GB mark (aside from players with microSD card slots). And we’ll be seeing a 16GB iPod nano before the holidays. Aside from simply holding more songs, more flash means those tiny players can hold bigger and better-sounding digital files, which is right on time for the glut of DRM-free 256Kbps digital downloads from online sources like Wal-Mart and iTunes — and now Universal and Google’s brainchild gBox — not to mention the increasing popularity of lossless compression formats.

Signs are pointing to mainstream listeners’ demand for better sound, so why are music player makers still cheaping out on critical sound quality helpers like headphone jacks and lossless compression codecs? A few companies were on the right track in the past — Apple even once proved that better audio quality doesn’t cut into profit margins much. What gives?

If you’ve ever used a set of headphones with and without a headphone amplifier, you’ll know that your cans or buds aren’t living up to their full potential without being driven well. When you get past stock earbuds (like those crappy iPod whities), it’s not just about loudness, it’s about detail, realism, and bass that’s so tight you can bounce a quarter off it.

When I test an MP3 player, I usually run the output through a computer to get a visual handle on how strong and balanced the audio is. Most players crap out in the bass, so headphones have to compensate, or you boost the bass artificially on the player — often turning it to mud. When you plug in headphones, that audio signal degrades even more depending on the strength of the tiny amplifier behind the headphone jack.

A former colleague of mine from my PC Magazine days, Bill Machrone, figured out that the first-generation iPod shuffle had a better headphone output than any other player on the market. I even tested one myself, and upshot is that the shuffle’s already unusually strong output didn’t even flinch when I plugged in some expensive cans that usually require the extra oomph of a headphone amp to sound good.

Apple never gave us a straight answer as to why they included that rockin jack on their lowest-end player. But it certainly didn’t seem to drive up the price of the iPod shuffle, so the part couldn’t have been very expensive, and it sure didn’t add anything significant to the size. Since then, Apple has never put that type of jack on any of its players.

Oh well, at least iPods support lossless compression — extremely high-quality digital files with no audible or measurable difference from what’s on a CD. And given how important a link in the audio chain the source (your digital music) is in the grand scheme of things, I’m shocked that more companies don’t make players that handle lossless.

There have been other great-sounding players in the past, like the Archos AV500 and the Sony NW-HD5 both of which had better-than-normal headphone jacks — though neither touched that of the iPod shuffle.And finding a player that does lossless compression is still on the tough side: Toshiba’s gigabeat S series and many players from Cowon are pretty much aside from iPods, though they all have the same cheap headphone outputs as everything else.

You can get a portable headphone amp like the HeadRoom Total BitHead and hook it up to your player for better sound. iPod users can use a SendStation Pocket Dock, which is a small adapter that outputs audio from the dock connector and gives you louder and fuller sound than what you get from the headphone output. You can then either plug that into a headphone amp or even plug headphones into the Pocket Dock (though you lose control over volume this last way).

But these all mean you’ve got to carry around extra stuff and spend more money than you’ve already dropped on your player and (hopefully) nice headphones. This should all be built into the MP3 players, especially since those are fast becoming the primary method of music listening.

Audio quality is about a strong chain from beginning (your digital music files) to end (headphones). Any weak link in between will take that precious sparkle and liveliness right out of your favorite tunes, leaving them sounding flat and dull.

And trust me, once you experience truly great sound, everything else begins to diminish the excitement of listening to music. Remember how you once thought 128Kbps MP3s sounded fine? Chances are, you’ve moved to a higher bit rate or even a lossless format since then, and if you listened to those low-quality files now, it’d be like hearing nails on a chalkboard.