Rocking Portale Music Like Its 2005
Recently, I have significantly upgraded my portable music experience.
Despite multiple attempts, I am unable to use any IEMs I’ve tried. They simply fall out my ears. I tried low-end IEMs, and I’ve tried mid-range IEMs. I’ve tried all the ear tips I could find. I tried to learn how to insert them properly (rotate the ear counter-clockwise, breath-in, insert the monitor clockwise while chanting and sacrificing a cow). But still - every few minutes, I need to readjust them, or they are out of my ears. Over-ear for me! My new mobile headphones are Koss KPH30iH.
I grew to hate Bluetooth. Even if we ignore the audio quality (and I do as I fail all audio-quality tests I take), removing wires comes with a few huge covenants.
I’ve used AirPods ever since they came out. From one point of view, their connection quality is excellent. If they connect, mostly everything tends to be ok. But they are Apple-only, even if you can connect them to a different device. Once you want an audio source from another company, the magical auto-switching is lost. The way they are designed, all modern BT improvements are ignored in favor of apple-centric shenanigans. But let’s assume the best-case scenario. How do you switch devices? Not via a handy button but from the phone UI. How do you change the source device on a wired gear? You just switch the plug to another player. And voila - we had an excellent standard just a few years ago. And it worked much more straightforwardly than modern, wireless ones. When was the last time you wondered why the hell your wireless headphones don’t connect? Are you even able to debug that? In wired headphones, they either work, or there is a hardware fault.
And since those are just wires, you can easily get them repaired. Yes, repaired. Headphones tend to last for years if they are taken care of. You may break any random part, but in most cases, it’s easy to get it fixed. So how do you repair an Airpod? Easy, you buy a new one! And they will break, as batteries don’t last forever. This is the common problem of all modern gear - producers make them as hard to repair as possible. If you go to a random junkyard and find a working set of headphones from 20-30 years ago.
And even if they break, portable wired gear tends to be much easier on the wallet. My KPH30iK cost 30 USD, about the price of cheap, no-brand wireless IEMs. Try to get similarly priced over-ear headphones with BT. Mine don’t have active noise cancellation (or any noise cancellation, to be precise), but that’s a plus for me. ANC gives me nausea, unfortunately. If this feature was more important, I’d choose something that still supports wired communication.
But ANC comes with the most socially annoying feature I’ve witnessed - the so-called “transparency” mode. I am old enough to take off my gloves when shaking hands and take off my sunglasses when I talk with someone. I consider it nothing more than a common courtesy. So why wouldn’t I take my headphone off? And yet it seems that producers race who can make it more obnoxious - you press, cover, and push. You do Everything but what you should, which is to take the goddamn things off/out of your ears.
Enough about old-man-yelling-at-air; how do they sound? Really great! Not audiophile-level quality, but still great. They are roomy and have decent bass that’s not overpowering everything, like Bose tend to. And they are comfy. Not having to adjust them is one thing, but I often choose them for listening to music at home. They are much more laid back than Sennheiser 6XX, and they don’t sound much smaller.
I want to use something other than my phone as a portable music player. My iPhone 13 Mini has attritus battery life, and the lack of physical play control buttons makes it a chore to control. Also, the lack of a jack is a nuisance. DAC on iPhones was always ok at best, but using an external one just to play music is too much for me. I know. I’ve tried.
So I bought a dedicated device. My requirements were simple:
- Physical buttons to control. The lack of touch screen is a plus
- Ability to play OPUS, as mp3s are a thing of the past.
- Not powered by Android. I want something simple.
- Jack. This is non-negotiable
- Support for MicroSD
- Not sounding terrible
- Small form factor
- A small price
- A sane connector (USB-C?)
As it turned out, that’s one hell of a list. Older players have the correct form factor but lack modern codec support. Modern ones usually use Android, and I won’t have that. The goal is to have a dedicated device and not pay for a general-use computer. And if I went premium, what would be the limit? I am not in a place of having more money than brains, but maybe someday.
Luckily, the Open Source community has me covered! Rockbox is an alternative operating system for a wide range of older devices. So I could buy a gray-beard device with the hardware I want and flash it with Rockbox to have all the software features I crave.
And so I got myself a Sansa Clip+.
It checks all the boxes now:
- It’s small. I have it clipped to my jacket for easy access. As the name implies, it has a clip, so attaching it is not a problem.
- It rocks a great SD port. Take that, Tim Apple! I have become a firm believer that every portable device should support it, and any excuse for not having one is customer-hostile. I can rsync(1) all the data I want and have my entire music collection on me at all times. Just freeing myself from paid streaming services is a gain in itself.
- It has physical buttons for control. The device is soo small that they are not the best, and the layout sucks - someone was riding the iPod mania of the day. But they work without a flow, and I can pause playback without looking at the device.
- It’s a single-use case device. RockBox allows for running Doom, but still, this device is to run music. Everything else becomes a chore.
- It has a jack. The audio output is far from audiophile level, and I couldn’t power my 6XX, but this was never the point. The audio quality is good enough.
- It was cheap. Mine cost just shy of 40 USD. The battery is terrible, and I need to replace it - I am the type of person wholdero could burn a house just by looking at soldering iron, so it will come with a cost. But except that the device is pristine. Guess plastic housing has its merits.
- It supports whatever file I throw at it. Thanks to Rockbox, I can use my mp3s, Opuses, or Flacs without a problem.
- It also hosts the worst kind of USB. I don’t even know which version it is, but one that’s long forgotten.
Recapitulating, I now have a mobile audio setup that ticks all my boxes, allows me to listen to music I own, and costs less than a pair of AirPods.