Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Apple iPod Nano

The player on the right is the Sony D-555 portable CD player. Introduced in 1989, the 555 is considered 'legendary' in terms of sound quality and desirability. They still change hands regularly for the ~$400 mark.

The player on the left is Apple's latest...

...And for sound quality, it blows away the D-555.

I briefly abandoned the iPod Photo because I felt its audio performance was compromised compared to older versions (I ended up re-acquiring a 60Gb Photo recently, but primarily to use as a portable large disc/backup for my documents). It just didn't quite sound 'like an iPod' even with the Qualias, which were great with the 3G and the mono 4G. Sticking the Photo on the measuring rig revealed that various undesirable nasties were creeping into the sound even with a 70 ohm load, while the falloff remained uncured. On aggregate, it was no better than (and slightly worse than) many 'also-ran' players in terms of sound quality so I quietly put the Photo aside.

The Nano on the other hand is a sonic return to form for Apple. The most noticeable thing to anyone will be a significantly reduced bass falloff in comparison to previous hard-disk based iPods. The fall-off level is now favourably comparable to the iAudio X5, and the overall quality is a little higher with a more open, incisive sound than the X5, especially noticeable on the Qualia 010. The power of the headphone amp is on a par with other iPods... which probably makes the Nano the most powerful flash player in terms of being to drive more demanding or odd-load headphones.

I'm assuming everyone who reads this knows about how iPods work in general these days, so I'm not going into that. Suffice it to say the Nano works exactly like a full-sized iPod, with the exception of camera USB-OTG and the lack of a remote capability. The smaller control wheel takes a little while to get used to but once mastered works as well as the Mini/Photo wheels.

In conjunction with iTunes ease of loading in general, the HDD player-like loading time (unlike the majority of other flash players, especially Sony's dreadfully slow NW-Exxx OLED players) and Smart Playlisting, you can put a decent collection of tracks for that day's listening onto the Nano in next to no time.

Battery life tested with Apple Lossless (since I felt this is a player worthy to use that codec) is ~8 hours with an additional 15 minutes of backlight-on 'fiddling around' time. Not spectacular, but usable. I'll edit this article later if possible to relfect MP3/AAC tests. There's also negligible battery drain in standby mode.

There are lots of nice things about the look and feel of the Nano, but the display completes it. It is extremely crisp despite its small size, and like the Photo (and unlike most other colour-screen players) is visible in daylight without the backlight needing to be on. Photos are convincingly vivid on the screen, although the screen is a little too small to make out real details. Zoom would have been nice.

Unfortunately Outlook sync is still very flaky. I had a problem with syncing which I assumed was due to the complex nature of my email set-up but actually it turned out that a lot of people were having problems. If it's fixed, then it makes a passable appointment reminder and phonebook. The Screen Lock is a new feature which allows you to secure the iPod against other people using it. It's something which is handy if you do use it as a phonebook/calendar. But the feature isn't that practical to use since you have to turn it on manually.

Scratches? Yes... but I did drop mine a couple of times onto very gritty surfaces. The result is a network of fine scratches covering most of the front panel, but nothing that impedes my ability to use the player or appreciate the screen.

Overall, I think this could well be the best iPod yet. It sounds good (and even better with truly high-end headphones), retains everything that's good about the iPod and is incredibly portable. As a pure music player, the Nano is a great choice for those who want full mobility.

Addendum: 11/Oct
I forgot to add the bit about the EQ of the Nano, mainly because I rarely touch EQ on any of my portables. I'm not sure exactly what is taking Apple so long, but they have still yet to grasp the meaning of workable EQ. This is a problem that they've had for ages.

Applying EQ does screw up the sound quality in practically any portable I've had (even the "fabled" Rio Karma), and after a short time of enjoying the 'zing' put into the music by an initially optimum-sounding EQ curve, the loss in quality always leads me to put things back to flat... but there's no doubt that some people want to add that extra thing to the sound, regardless of quality. The problem is that many of the EQ curves on the iPod which heavily reinforces bass result in audible distortion, regardless of the headphones you have (i.e. higher-impedance phones aren't a cure).

Everyone else seem to be able to manage this, so you do have to wonder what is going on. Are the Apple engineers closet audiophile nanny-state'ers? Did they calculate by making 'bad' EQ settings unusable they would swing people towards actual sound quality? That would be a nice story but highly unlikely.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another thoughtful review. I hope the $59 out-of-warranty battery replacement applies to Nano also...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review Bangra

I like my nano too, sounds better than any of my himd units and my muvo v200.

When you say it has better sound quality than the d-555, do you mean through the headphone-out or through the line-out?

..i would like to see if someone posts square wave tests to compare the nano with other ipods, not top relevance but surely would saciate my curiosity.