SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published July 1, 2004

 

Apple iPod Mini Digital Music Player

Although it was released in late February and it’s now mid-June, Apple’s iPod Mini digital music player ($249 USD) is still back-ordered at many retailers -- the Mini, even more than the original iPod, is a monster.

There were digital music players before the iPod, of course, but the third iteration of Apple's version combined winning size and shape with sufficient storage capacity and, far more important, Apple's iTunes software package, which was extremely well-thought-out and made the player far more intuitive in use than its competition. Even jaded audiophiles like me were won over by the iPod -- and by the Mini, which took off with such velocity that Apple has since spun off its iPod division as a separate enterprise.

Which raises two questions: 1) Is the Mini really that good? and 2) No matter how I answer question No.1, why even bother reviewing anything with the retail momentum of the Mini -- could anything I say, pro or con, affect its sales?

The short answer to question No.1 is Yes, it’s that good. As for No.2, I doubt that anything I say will affect Apple's bottom line, but I've met many audiophiles who seem to believe that the iPod and its smaller sibling are just trendy toys. They aren't. They're powerful tools that allow you to listen to the music you want the way you want to, whenever and wherever you wish.

A little different

The Mini is about the size and weight of a premium candy bar. Unlike the iPod, which is clad in stainless steel and gleaming white plastic, the Mini is wrapped in an anodized-aluminum shell available in five colors: silver, blue, pink, gold, and green.

The Mini does still sport some gleaming bits of white plastic, however: its top, which houses a sliding hold switch and headphone jack; its bottom, which contains its dock connector; and its scroll wheel. It also boasts a gray-scale display screen.

The Mini’s scroll wheel alone makes it a definite improvement over the iPod. Because there's less real estate on the Mini's front panel, it tucks the iPod's four control buttons under the scroll wheel, making the Mini even easier to operate one-handed on the fly -- or, considering how frequently I see Minis in use at my gym, on the run.

Like most portable music players, the Mini comes with a bunch of stuff that makes it work: owner's manuals and quick reference guides, earphones, a FireWire cable, an AC charger, a USB 2.0 cable for PC users, and a plastic sleeve-style belt clip that holds the Mini while keeping the essential areas of its front panel, bottom, and top accessible -- and, most important, a CD-ROM with the iTunes software, the real key to the iPod's success.

200407_ipod_back.jpg (6287 bytes)Not included, but nice additions nonetheless, are the Mini docking cradle ($39), essential if you want to connect the Mini to your stereo, because it offers an analog output that bypasses the volume control; and an armband ($29) that runners will find more secure than the belt clip. Some users might want the extension cable and remote control ($39, including a second pair of headphones), but I found it somewhat fragile -- daily use at my gym frayed its wiring in less than eight weeks. Your mileage may vary.

Apple is extremely tight-lipped about the nuts'n'bolts of the iPod and the Mini. The one thing I'm sure of is that it uses a Hitachi-sourced 1", 4GB disk drive -- and when I asked, Apple sources wouldn't even confirm that. However, if you want the inside poop on the Mini, you can see the results of a vivisection over at www.ipodlounge.com. And no, I do not recommend that you try this at home. (By the way, www.ipodlounge.com is a great source for iPod and Mini tutorials, FAQs, and gossip.)

A little night music

Using the iPod Mini is stone simple. After opening the package, your first task will be to charge the Mini's battery. All that's required is to connect the included AC charger to an available outlet and wait four hours. A fully charged battery will last about six hours. That’s a conservative estimate. If you turn off the screen backlighting and don't skip forward and back through playlists, you might be able to stretch it to nearly eight hours.

While you're waiting for the Mini to charge, you can load the iTunes software onto your computer. If you're an Apple user, you'll have no problems -- as long as you're running OS 10.3 or higher. PC users will have to work a bit harder, but only a bit: Once iTunes is loaded and the Mini is charged, you'll need to connect the Mini and format its disk drive, which Windows ought to do quite easily. Ought to, but there have been reports of the system hanging at this point. If this happens to you, don't panic -- just shut everything off and reboot a time or two.

But even before the Mini is charged, you'll want to load iTunes with some music so you can transfer it to the Mini. This is simplicity itself -- just load a CD into your computer's drive and iTunes will detect it and, if you're connected to the Internet, identify the disc from CDDB. Then all you have to do is transfer the data to iTunes.

Before you do, you'll want to tell iTunes how you want to store your music. Most people think of the iPod and the Mini as MP3 players, and they do play MP3 files, but iTunes offers a fairly long list of storage formats: several types of MP3, including Audible, for spoken-word files downloaded from www.audible.com, and Variable Bit Rate (VBR); Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF); WAV; and Apple’s new Lossless Compression option. Apple's standby is MPEG-4 Auto Audio Coding (AAC), but the one that everyone overlooks is AIFF, which does not compress data to save space.

In other words, iTunes lets you decide whether you want lots of music or good-sounding music.

Little, big

This is where the Mini's storage capacity could become an issue. After all, at $249, the 4GB Mini is only $50 less than the 15GB iPod. More is better, right?

I understand this point of view, but my experiences with the iPod and the Mini have left me uncertain. The Mini’s size and ease of operation make it even more attractive to me than the iPod, which itself is not exactly huge or hard to use. At first, I tended to pack my 30GB iPod with tons of music, a wide variety of playlists and music genres, and always a few novels downloaded from www.audible.com.

As time went by and the iTunes library on my computer grew to 100GB, then 200GB, then more, I began to use iTunes' fast data-transfer capabilities more intelligently. I no longer packed my iPod to the brim with music, and I began to keep task-specific playlists on my computer and transfer them to the iPod depending on what I’d be doing.

For running, I had several lists of "inspiration" songs that have cadences above 120bpm. For the sauna, I had a few novels stacked up. For travel, I had classical programming, and for late-night reveries, I had jazz and some of what my friend John Atkinson calls "that stuff you like." Because it takes less than ten minutes to transfer 3GB of data, I can tailor my music to my mood while I do my spectacles-testicles-wallet check on my way out the door. Even with uncompressed AIFF files, that translates to about six hours of music before repeating any tracks -- which also just happens to be the iPod’s battery capacity.

So is the 15GB iPod a better deal than the Mini? It depends on how you use it, but we have both chez Wes, and my wife and I fight over who gets the Mini when we hit the gym at the same time -- an event that happens only a little more frequently than the transit of Venus.

Sometimes a little too much is just enough

But we're audiophiles, right? Ease of use is only one consideration -- and the Mini, while superior to the iPod in EOU, isn't that much better. The question is, does it sound better?

Perhaps -- as a portable. It seems to me that the Mini might have a slightly better-sounding op-amp connected to its headphone output -- it drives my Etymotic ER-4Ps a little better than its big bro does. Through the dock, which bypasses that op-amp, I can't tell the difference between the two using Audience's nifty new AU24 mini-jack-to-RCA cable.

Another consideration is whether or not the Mini is more durable than the iPod. After all, 249 clams is hefty enough that you don't want the player to be as disposable as a BIC lighter. This is a harder call to make -- the Mini's aluminum sleeve is less prone to scratches than the iPod's white plastic housing, but the iPod’s controls are touch-sensitive, whereas the Mini’s scroll wheel actually uses physical switches, which might eventually wear out.

I haven’t experienced any problems of this sort, but one does hear rumors. The only time I had a problem with the iPod, I found Apple's Genius Bar personnel extremely reasonable in their interpretation of the warranty. I don't wish to suggest a problem where none may exist.

Lagniappe -- a little extra

Over the months that I've used the iPod Mini, it has performed almost flawlessly. Almost perfect is about as good as computer products get -- even from Apple. I've managed to scramble the Mini's logic a time or two, and I had a mild panic over some excessive sweatage one humid May morning, but a hard reboot solved the problem in each case.

If you think of the Mini as a portable that's capable only of lossily compressed digital files, it's a fairly expensive toy -- but not so expensive compared to other MP3 players with similar storage capacity. After all, my first flash-based, 256MB MP3 player cost over $100. However, because I rip everything to AIFF, I get to use the Mini as an extremely portable music collection that can keep all my current favorites on hand as I travel from system to system around my house, to friends' houses, to hi-fi shows, and anywhere else I might want my favorite things (or "My Favorite Things"). I have to admit, I get a real kick in the pants when, at a hi-fi show, an exhibitor asks if I’ve brought any demo discs. I just pull out my Mini.

A little more

Is the Apple iPod Mini worth it? I'll answer that with another question: How on earth can you get by without one? I could, I suppose, but now that I've lived with mine, I certainly wouldn't choose to.

(As this was being edited, Apple announced Airport Express with AirTunes, a nifty new device that allows you to wirelessly play iTunes music through your stereo or powered speakers in virtually in any room of your house -- assuming you have a Wi-Fi network. It requires iTunes 4.6, which is being released as I write this, but it has the potential to integrate your iTunes collection with your stereo without the noise or presence of a computer in your listening room. Another Apple product I may not be able to live without.)

 ...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

Apple iPod Mini Digital Music Player
Price: $249 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Apple Computer, Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014-2084
Phone: (408) 974-2000
Fax: (408) 996-0275

Web: www.apple.com


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