The iPod is history – but is that such a big deal?

GARY STEEL reflects on Apple’s announcement on the demise of the iPod and our relationship to the iconic music player.

 

My garage is a tech cemetery. It’s littered with old speaker cable, discarded hi-fi components, various mouldering electrical refuse and miscellaneous gadgetry that’s either dead, dying or simply outlived its usefulness.

To my two young children, however, it’s a goldmine. Whenever they get the chance they sneak in there and head straight for my boxes of stray electronic stuff, invariably emerging with some piece of outdated junk that they proclaim as a great and valuable discovery.

The other week my 7-year-old emerged with a relic that even I had forgotten was there: my original 30GB iPod Classic. For an instant, I had visions of cranking it up and letting her explore the musical selections I’d filled it with. At last, I contemplated, something (anything!) to get her weaned off those execrable Frozen 2 songs.

Sadly, this was not to be. My iPod, which I’d always looked after with great care and used sparingly, was as dead as a dodo, and wouldn’t charge.

Strange, I thought. It feels like an object from a distant galaxy, something that happened long ago, but in fact, the first iPod hit the stores only 21 years ago, in 2001. I can understand the nostalgia for many products of our pop culture past, but not so much the iPod, whose effective dominance was just a few years.

 

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And yet, this week, with Apple’s announcement that the iPod Touch is going out of production and that the iPod will now be officially defunct, the media has heaved with the sound of weeping former iPod enthusiasts – the same iPod enthusiasts who haven’t used one for years because it’s simply much easier and, well, better in every conceivable way, to have your music selections streaming from whatever gadget you choose.

Don’t get me wrong, I do admire Apple for having come up with the idea of the iPod and – initially, at least, producing typically alluring and easy to use products. The iPod was a huge step-up from all those tiny and horribly tinny little boxes that were able to download thousands of songs ripped at some tortuously low bit-rate to fit on something like 32MB of memory. I remember attending a garden party where someone had one of these connected to a pair of small portable speakers. It sounded so bad I had to leave, despite the free grog.

One of the issues with the iPod, however, was that by the time it came along people were already addicted to downloading loads of songs at the very worst quality setting. A generation that grew up listening to incredibly poor quality audio and hi-fi almost died the death. If it was a question of filling your iPod with more songs at a lower bit rate or fewer at a higher-quality setting, most people chose “more” rather than “better”.

When I got my first iPod I listened to the different quality settings and made a decision after a short period of experimentation: I would always fill my device with songs and albums at the best available quality setting. This meant that I had to sacrifice many selections or do rotations and delete/load, but I found that with 30GB I could still fit enough songs to make listening on Shuffle mode an entertaining experience.

For me, and many of my friends, it was Shuffle that made the iPod such an ear-bending/life-changing thing. I’m primarily an album listener and have never been particularly enamoured of singles, but I loved the feeling of freefalling into some completely unexpected, seemingly random selection. I ended up discovering tracks that I’d barely heard or noticed before, and then there was the best thing about it: the incredible diversity from one moment to the next. In one listening session I might encounter some experimental electronic music, a rare groove from the early ‘70s, a slice of classic ‘60s pop, a bit of really heavy metal, some complex progressive rock next to Afro-futurist jazz or Japanese enka or… heck, just about anything. The unexpected juxtapositions were endlessly stimulating, and the impact was further stimulated by whatever I might be doing at the time – mostly walking around different environments with a pair of fairly decent Sennheiser headphones wired to my iPod.

For a moment in time, the iPod was a cool gadget, but Apple never developed it along the lines I felt it deserved. If they’d expanded its memory, and given it a really decent DAC – or at least had one model for those still appreciative of hi-fidelity – I might have stuck with it longer than I did. Instead, I got more and more into listening to music without the encumbrance of headphones in an actual room, rather than headphones. iPods sounded okay, but not great, so it was always inevitable that I would opt for a better way of listening.

The iPod itself stagnated for years. It took some time but eventually, independent audiophile companies came to the rescue and produced some classy hi-fidelity portable music players. Neil Young’s hilariously goofed (and massively hyped) entry into the hi-fi personal player stakes was a big fail, but in 2022 there are probably hundreds of really great personal music players that sound incredible for those who have a few grand to spend on such frivolities. (Actually, for those happy to do all their listening on one of these it’s a fairly economical alternative to owning an old-fashioned hi-fi set-up).

I feel that Apple missed the boat in this respect and has been incredibly slow to acknowledge that there is a thirst for good sound out there, partly indicated by renewed interest in that most archaic of hi-fi sources, the turntable, and the vinyl to play on it. It took them until 2021 to finally start to fill their Apple Music streaming service with hi-res tracks, and there’s still much confusion over how to access the best quality sound while doing so. For instance, those listening via Bluetooth on their iPhone presumably won’t be hearing lossless audio, and I’ve read that older Mac components won’t convey the lossless signals. (Note: I’ve tried to get answers about some of these questions from Apple with no response).

Having said all this, at least Apple has finally taken the plunge and its Apple Music service is a joy to use, has an incredibly big database of music and it’s offered at a price that’s a mere fraction of audiophile-oriented companies like Qobuz. What’s not to like, when compared to the good old days of the iPod? Streaming gives better-than-iPod quality selections anywhere, anytime on your phone. It feels to me that any real sadness over the final extinction of the iPod is somewhat misplaced. In real terms, the iPod died many years ago.

If we’re looking at genuinely iconic portable music players, then surely Sony’s Walkman is still the most loved, at least amongst those of us who are old enough to remember how revolutionary it was in the 1980s. The Walkman for the first time took music out of the house and wherever its owner decided to, well… walk! You could tailor-make cassette tape compilations from your favourite records and experience music in a way that was completely new. In many ways, the iPod was simply a digital re-iteration of this concept… a nifty one, but hardly revolutionary in the way that has been claimed.

And then, in the late ’90s, the MiniDisc came along to provide a much more portable alternative to the compact disc. I’ve still got a few portable MD players and one proper component player hanging around in the garage.

In many ways, all this week’s nostalgia for the iPod has come at a time when the horse has already long ago bolted. I’m sure it brings back warm memories for many but it’s a memory already sullied by the vagaries of continual technical evolution.

Personally, I’m happy with where we’re at now. I can find just about anything I want to hear on a streaming music service, I can download and pay for something I want to play repeatedly (usually on a “better for artists” site like Bandcamp), or I can do something really old-fashioned like buying a record or a CD. We’ve never had more choice about how we listen and what we listen to.

As for my iPod Classic, it’ll suffice for a week or two as a fake phone for the 7-year-old – who already yearns to have her own iPhone – before it once again gets thrown in with all the other dead gadgets in the garage.

 

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