The sad quest for a portable audiophile setup

I don’t like to listen to stuff loud. People usually listen loud because their setups are bad and it compensates somewhat. Well, I’d like to preserve my hearing — already imperfect — as much as possible. With my current IEMs, the outside noise is actually louder than when I wear them and play music. In a way, it’s even better for my hearing!

The issue is that nowadays, pretty much all portable players are crap. They rarely support interesting formats. Their amplifier stages are tuned for loudness and sacrifice the dynamic range. Their interfaces are animated and shiny, yet don’t get shit done.

The most popular remedy to bad amplifiers is to use an Apple device, as the proprietary connector provides line out, which is an unamplified signal, and to use an external amplifier. Some other devices provide line out, but are much harder to find. The recommended choice is an iPod 5.5th generation or below, as their DACs are of reasonable quality, but mostly because they are not as locked down as the new ones.

Hopefully, you can replace Apple’s horrible software by Rockbox, an open source alternative that will allow you to get rid of the iTunes dependency or support open and high-quality formats such as FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. One of the perks I get with it is the speaking menus — you can more or less control the device without looking at it, which is not easy to do when there are no buttons but only the ergonomic absurdity that is the “clickwheel”. It can also announce the battery status. The ReplayGain feature prevents me from having to adjust the volume between albums.

Another issue with iPods is the usage of an hard drive. While cheaper than Flash memory, it is much more unreliable and requires more power. You can however replace the hard drive by a CompactFlash card.

My current setup consists of an iPod 5.5g 30gb, with the hard drive replaced by a 32 GB flash drive (it wasn’t much of a choice, given the horrible noise the drive was making). It uses a SendStation Line Out and Micro USB adapter (no need to use a proprietary cable!), which is then hooked to an iBasso T4 amplifier. The amplifier provides me with an hardware volume potentiometer which for that reason alone is worth it. The final stage is handled by the Future Sonics Atrio M5.

Am I happy with it? Well, the sound quality is more than enough. I doubt I could enjoy my music more by upgrading to something else. However, I have a lot of unrelated complaints:

I spent 80€ on the iPod yet much more to make it suck less. And it still sucks. The build quality is shoddy, I frequently have to open it to reconnect components. It powers itself on even when the “lock” switch is activated, draining the battery needlessly. The clickwheel is a pain to use and I can sense it dying. The screen is shiny and obviously unreadable under the sun. Dust is getting inside. It is very slow to power on. The battery isn’t in a good shape, but the Flash memory and usage of an external amplifier compensate for now.

iTunes wasn’t able to restore the iPod properly when I changed the drive, so I had to mirror the drive exactly to the CompactFlash card (losing the additional 2 GB of space), contrarily to what was stated on the adapter’s website. Since I’m probably not the only one with the same issue out there, here is a raw copy of the drive with Rockbox installed as the only OS. It also was a bitch to open, even for an Apple product.

Uploading files to the iPod is slow as hell, and sometimes fails. It seems it doesn’t like writing more than a few gigabytes in a row. And the dock adapter has a tendency to come out.

To sum up, I’m using an iPod but discarding its software, and half its hardware.

The iBasso T4 uses a proprietary cable to recharge. Other than that, it caught many shocks but still works flawlessly. And it can be opened with a screwdriver.

As for the Atrio, for 100€, they were a solid choice. Now that they cost twice as much (and still are the same product) there probably are better options. I use Comply T100 foam tips, and they are generally compatible with Shure eartips (which motivated my choice since I have a bunch of them in stock). One nice touch is that the user’s manual recommends against any artificial bass enhancements: you know you’re not dealing with crappy phones.

So, what would I recommend instead? Well, I’d probably get a FiiO E7 or another iBasso model. But for the media player, I’m stuck. Hence the title.

There might be some hope on the side of the PDMI connector, though.

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