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Posts Tagged ‘music players’

Ask most people what makes quality music, and inevitably they reply that it’s the speakers. I’m not sure whether that was ever true, or if the speakers were simply one of the few pieces of hardware that users could choose, but it’s definitely not the case in this age of digital music.

Speakers do matter, of course. However, thanks to printed circuits, selecting them is no longer a matter of the larger the better. Today, you can get the same sound from a eight centimeter high wireless speaker that you once needed a seventy-five centimeter wired speaker for. And, although you still can’t go astray with traditional quality brands such as Bose, other brands like Logitech’s UE (Ultimate Ears) are also worth considering.

If you use headphones or ear buds, the headphone amplifier on your music player takes the place of speakers. For example, Fiio, an up and coming Chinese maker of audio equipment makes several different amplifiers for different listening preferences to accompany its top of the line music player. The cables used to connect headphones or ear buds can also make a difference, with those made from metals like titanium being at the high end.

Then there is the digital file. A 32 bit file is going to capture more nuances than an 8 bit one, and a 192K sample rate more than a 42K one, regardless of what hardware you play them back on. Format also matters, with FLAC being preferred by many audiophiles because of its advanced capabilities.

Still another consideration is the DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), which turns the digital file into sound. Unlike with speakers, with DACs, size still matters – a music player the length of your thumb does not have room for a first-rate DAC, which currently requires a device about the size of a cell phone. Even so, modern DACs deliver quality that was once only available with several bulky boxes many times their weight.

All these considerations are often bundled for you. Download sites, for example, often offer low quality files in MP3 formats, with occasional special offers of files with a higher sampling format. Similarly, headphone amplifiers and DACs are usually not compatible with other brands, or even other formats, although headphones, ear buds, and cables generally are.

If you are ripping your own digital music or selecting a music player and its accessories, take into account where you will play music. An apartment dweller will have little use for Fiio’s A5 headphone amplifier, because they are unlikely to be playing music loud enough to appreciate its ability to keep the bass from distorting at high volumes. Instead, the less specialized A3 headphone amplifier is probably a more reasonable choice. Similarly, if you want music for riding the bus, even with noise-canceling headphone, you will probably have enough external noise that you can’t appreciate a 32bit FLAC file, and it will simply take up extra storage space.

Sorting through all these considerations can be complex. All the same, don’t just stop with the speakers or headphones when you are considering how to play your music. Today,  focusing on the speakers is only part of what you need to consider.

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The last few years of Trish’s life, she was on disability, and increasingly bedridden. Although I work from home, her situation caused few problems, except for one thing – she wanted to play music, and music — at least with words — distracts me when I write. As a compromise, I bought her a music player, and soon bought one for myself to use when I was on the bus or Skytrain. The only problem was, no player of the time could hold more than about one-fifth of nine hundred albums. So an ambition was born: to have all our music digitized and accessible from a single, portable source.

For the first decade of the millennium, the goal was barely possible. For a while, I thought of using a dedicated netbook, but that was not as convenient as a music player.

More importantly, the goal faced several problems. I had not thrown out any music I had bought since high school, and I am one of those who still buys music as a way of supporting artists I admire. For years, concerts and the Vancouver Folk Festival had been a major form of socialization for us, and over the years we had accumulated an unlikely collection of vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. Our stereo needed four components just so we play it all. In order to access them from one device, I would need to digitize all my albums. In addition, I would need to divide the albums into tracks to take full advantage of them.

However, digitizing is easier to talk about than to do. A CD can be ripped in about five minutes, but records and cassettes have to be recorded while playing, and divided into tracks manually. The process is tedious, so after quickly digitizing the CDs, I tackled the records and cassettes in starts and stops. In fact, I don’t expect to finish it until near the end of 2017, partly because I changed my mind partway through and decided that, for many artists, I wanted high quality sound, not the standard MP3 file size – even though, because I was using the Ogg Vorbis format, my files were higher quality than most of the ones I could find online.

The second obstacle is that the memory for music players – that is, the size of micro SD cards – increased slowly. Trish had been two years dead before about two-thirds of our music could fit on a micro SD card, and that meant swapping music out several times a week since I wanted variety.

The problem was finally solved when micro SD cards with 128 megabytes were released a couple of years ago, but most music players were not equipped to handle the files that cards of this size could hold. Many had a limit to their list of tracks that was far below the size of the cards. The only way to view all my files was to use the view of the memory, and that meant there was no way to play them in the order they appeared on the album. Most of the time, I listen to music by album, on the grounds that how musicians arrange albums is part of the experience they want their audience to have, so this was a problem.

This last barrier fell when I needed to replace my music player, and accidentally discovered the Fiio line of music players – or, more accurately, of portable stereos. When I bought the entry level X1 in October 2016, it had solved this final problem while producing sound that was far superior to that of other music players. The X1 gave me a music player to use outside the townhouse, but I soon decided that I wanted the top of the line X7 for use around the home. The X7 had even better sound than the X1, solved all my problems, and was even set up to stream music from the Internet when WiFi was turned on.

Accordingly, after several weeks of resisting the temptation, I bought an X7 as a Christmas present for myself. My biggest problem now is to decide whether to stay with a single Bluetooth speaker, or to buy at least one more. I may just carry the speaker with me into the kitchen or living room so that I can position it to give me the best sound.

I only wish Trish could have heard this solution. Being of the same generation as I am, she would be amazed at a music system that weighed about 1200 grams and could be held in one hand. Better still, she would have loved having all our music in one source as much as I do.

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