Back to the future Friday, a monthly column where Headfonia shines light on the awesome past.
#6 the original iPod nano
You’re probably asking: “Didn’t Apple recall that thing?”
Yes, they did. But I’m not the only one that held onto mine. And trust me, there’s good reason to.
Spoiler alert: Lieven told me that his favourite nano is the 1st-gen. (He got the Nano 1G right after his backpack containing his laptop and Creative MP3 player got stolen on the train. He did send his Nano in for replacement a couple of years agi, and he has regretted it ever since)
My ex girlfriend (with whom I’m now living) picked up a white 1GB nano back in 2005. Yep, the original one. I had just started working at York International and had more to spend, so I latched onto a 4GB one. Right after picking it up, I twirled it around and around my fingers. It became precious to me.
And you know what’s funny? While not a heap, 4GB ain’t that bad even today. Players with less are still being sold.
I used to be on headfi like 3 hours a day. And back then, headfi was pretty much 100% anti-Apple. And I fell in line, hating Apple where I could, loving incumbents when smart. Looking back, I can say with clarity that I was an idiot.
Here’s what rocks about the nano:
Anything with a screen is in trouble if it meets a wash-and-dry spin cycle. That’s how my wife’s nano bit it. But apart from that, the 1st gen’s body is pretty damn robust. Back when it was released, the nano was subjected to all sorts of torture tests, including getting dropped onto the tarmac from elevations of about 8 metres. Sure, its plastic screen was easy to scratch, but plastic has this magical ability to transform energy into inertia. This thing can survive crazy amounts of torture.
Not that I’d ever willingly torture my iPod. But things do happen- things like being next to my sweaty skin in both the gym (yeah, I go there), on the Marinono Fango for thousands of clicks in temperatures ranging from minus 16 to plus 34.
It’ll probably outlast my knees.
Ease of use
The first-gen iPod nano is one of Apple’s best-designed devices. Buttons fall in the right place, and are the right size. The UI is simple to use, direct, and doesn’t require a manual to operate.
Its major fault is that it lacks a method to directly control volume. Apple have iterated their UI over the years, added dedicated volume buttons, and done away with the touch circle. But they haven’t made a more direct, or simple-to-use UI than what debuted in 2005. And their competitors have realised this. Unfortunately, most of them get interface design wrong enough that sufferers of vertigo like me, may actually heave up whilst changing a setting.
I realise that the old iPod interface is gone. I realise that the dedicated home button and gestures-based interface of a good touch-screen UI make it faster to change settings. I also realise that they make it impossible to change songs, scrobble, and more, without first looking at a screen.
Nano UI: I want you back.
I don’t love Wolfson DACs because I think they are technically superior to other DACs on the market. I love them because I dig their just-toasty-enough, just-smooth-enough, just-detailed-enough sound. The iPod nano 1G uses the Wolfson 8975, which is a modern classic. It performs slightly worse than the DAC in the iPod 5G, but at the ear, I reckon you can’t put much more than a few hairs between them.
Both the headphone output and the line output can spit out good voltage. That enables the nano to drive a number of low-current headphones at strong and loud volumes. Right now, I’m really enjoying the Philips Fidelio X2 straight from the headphone out. I’m enjoying Guru. Before that, it was The Smiths. Volume, texture, and energy are great up to volume levels up to 90%. After that, things go south, but that’s what an amp is for.
A great match for the nano is the awesome Dita The Answer.
Now, the bad stuff:
While the nano isn’t crazily hissy like the original iPod shuffle is, it’s got noise. That means if you love sensitive earphones like the Ultrasone IQ, FitEar MH335, Grado GR10, etc., you’ll hear a constant, low-level shhhhhhhh under all of your music, no matter the volume level. Interestingly, the much more expensive iRiver AK100 outputs similar amounts of hiss. The Hidizs AP100 probably outputs a bit more.
And it doesn’t support true gapless playback. But apart from post-iPod 5G Apple’s devices, and a surgical use of Rockbox software, true gapless playback simply doesn’t exist. The good news is that Rockboxing the original nano is painless.
Not enough current
The iPod nano series didn’t get a headphone output that could sustain current-heavy loads until the 6G. Thus, the same MH335, or Earsonics SM2, or Grado GR10 earphones will force audible errors from the nano. In particularly, bass suck outs, and/or weird upper mid-range spikes will rage at ranges up to +/-4dB.
It blows up
The replacement programme I noted above? That’s because the battery might blow up. Mine hasn’t, and neither has the battery of millions of owners. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be not one of the few, the unlucky.
For all it’s awesomeness, I guess you really could say the 1st gen nano is the bomb.
Is it worth the trouble?
Hell yeah, it is. Its caveats are few. And it might blow up. But it is part of the most-supported line of audio players on the planet. Want a great cable? Check out PlusSound, or myriad other options from 5$ to 500$. Amp? May I suggest the PURE II? Or the Portaphile Micro?
Advice for buying one
It’s not easy to install a new battery in an iPod nano. And the nano 1G is now 9 years old, so chances are that you will need a new battery. Mine still manages about 8 from a full charge, but that’s when it’s running downhill. With wind at its back. You’ll find loads of units with dead batteries going up on eBay and Yahoo! Auction. And, as they are increasingly rare, and highly sought-after, first-gen iPod nanos are picking up ever higher auction prices. Recently, I’ve seen a few 4GB models sell for quite a bit over 300$, which is more than they went for in 2005.
Where do we go from here?
My favourite earphones are hyper sensitive. And I don’t like using portable amps. So, while I LOVE the nano 1G, I don’t use it as often as I’d like. It’s my gym player. Will I trade it in for the latest gen nano? I doubt it. I mean, could sell this bad boy and have dosh left over to spend on a Brainwavz- or a gluttonous week twice daily ramen.
Likely, I’ll be on the look out for a talented missus or mister that can replace my battery. And because I really DO love the nano’s sound signature, it’s more than likely that I’ll try to find a slimline amp to strap to it permanently.
The nano requires a bit of work, but it is more than just an amazing MP3 player. It is an icon. And my love and devotion to it is Biblical.