I have spent the last few months in the grip of an enthusiasm. At my age, I am proud I can still have an enthusiasm, because it proves that I have kept a youthful engagement with the world well into middle-age, but it is one I would have thought unlikely when I was a boy. It is, of all things, an enthusiasm for the Fiio line of music players – or, as I prefer to think of them, portable stereos.
I learned about music the hard way, by myself, with lots of false leads and blind alleys. My family is not musical, and my elementary school music teacher, who wanted to be a professional musician, was only interested in encouraging students who had already taken music lessons. When the transfer to high school allowed me drop music, I did so without hesitation. The only reason I was even attempting to play the trombone was that it could be rented to own cheaply.
I started high school so profoundly ignorant that I might have grown up to be a life-long hater of music. I definitely took years to develop any knowledge; I was in my twenties, for example, before I could tell the difference between a sharp and a flat, and when I learned, I was profoundly excited.
Yet free from the humiliation of the band, I started discovering music first. As a would-be writer, I gravitated naturally to songwriters: first Simon and Garfunkel, and later Bob Dylan. Other explorations, such as the work of all the Beatles after the band broke up, including Yoko Ono, did not last, being less fortunate.
Still, by the time I started university, I was a compulsive music listener. I developed a taste for folk rock, and I still remember being down in the basement bedroom in my parents’ house, listening to Steeleye Span singing “Thomas the Rhymer” on my cheap transistor, absolutely delighted that a song seven hundred years old had been transformed into a modern hit.
Throughout my marriage, the Vancouver Folk Festival and later the Rogue Folk Club were the main part of our socializing. I can still remember the first time I heard Stan Rogers, Loreena McKennitt and Oysterband, and over the years we bought hundreds of records, cassettes and CDs (people bought albums in my youth, and I still do, as a way of supporting artists I appreciate). Usually at the folk festival we bought cassettes, because they were less likely to warp in the summer sun.
Over the last seven years, I have been slowing digitalizing my music collection. Usually, I made files of medium quality, reasoning that, since I would often be listening to the digital files on public transit, high quality files would be largely wasted on me. I looked forward to the day when all my music would be available from the same source, envisioning first a dedicated laptop and later a music player with enough memory to hold 12,000 tracks or so.
As SD micro cards became larger, I was nearing that goal when my Sansa Fuze music player needed to be replaced. I bought a Sansa Clip, but the manufacturer had lapsed from their former standards. My new player especially seemed to dislike my Ogg Vorbis files, refusing to recognize some and only playing others at a whisper.
According to my research, the Fiio X1 should perform better. I had noticed it when searching for a new player, but it seemed unusually large and clunky. I especially disliked the arrangement of four buttons at the corners of the scroll wheel – an example of poor design if there ever was one. But if it could let me play my files in the way I wanted, I was prepared to put up with the appearance. I did wonder, though, if the X1 would burst the seams of my pocket.
My reluctance vanished the first time I tried the X1. Even my average quality files sounded better on it. As for the high quality ones – have you heard the expression “wall of sound”? It refers to arrangements full of orchestration, each instrument interacting with the others in complex and interesting ways. That was what I heard on the X1. I even heard subtleties I had never heard on music players from other manufacturers.
That was when I realized why Fiio products were so much larger than other music players. They weren’t just music players. They were portable stereos, and, as far as miniaturization has progressed, their DAC (Digital Analog Converters) and headphone amplifiers could still only be made so small. The Fiio product line did not consist of oversized music players, but stereo systems that were as small as our current technology allowed.
As a lover of both excellence and music, I bored everyone in hearing about this discovery. Before long, I began planning to re-record some of my digitized music with the highest quality possible. I also decided I wanted an X7, Fiio’s top of the line product, for use at home. Unfortunately, my editors were slow in paying at the time, and I knew I had to wait.
Finally, in the last week before Christmas, payments started rolling in. One morning, I was just debating whether I could afford an X7 when I received a cheque for almost exactly the amount I needed.
This, I told myself, was obviously kismet. Within moments, I had placed my order. Miraculously, in the middle of the holiday season, it arrived the next day.
I had read the universally enthusiastic reviews of the X7, so I knew what to expect. Still, having been impressed already by the X1, I doubted there was much room for any improvement.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As superior as the X1 was to music players from other manufacturers, so the X7 was to the X1. The wall of sound had become a tsunami, and I have happily spent the last few days rediscovering my music. Once or twice, I have even mistaken a detail I could only detect on the X7 for a sound behind me or in the next room.
This was not just music; this was the kind of revelation that produces fanatics. The interface, the construction, the sound and everything else about the X7 has a quiet quality that I both respect and enjoy immensely.
I already listen regularly to music, but already I suspect I will be listening to a lot more. It sounds like advertising hype, but I really do feel like I have rediscovered music — including many old favorites — all over again because of my purchases.