BACK TO THE FUTURE FRIDAY: THE ORIGINAL IPOD NANO

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:

Robustness

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.

Great sound

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:

Noise floor

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.

Gaps galore

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.

BACK TO THE FUTURE FRIDAY: THE ORIGINAL IPOD NANO
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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

21 Comments

  • Reply December 5, 2014

    dalethorn

    You’ve got good eyes if you can read the serial number on the back.

    • Reply December 6, 2014

      George Lai

      Hello Dale, I usually use a magnifying glass for registering warranties online. I think manufacturers purposely use illegible fonts to escape RMAs!

      • Reply December 6, 2014

        dalethorn

        No! Really? I thought it was just me.

    • Reply December 6, 2014

      ohm image

      I was able to read mine to see if I was eligible for replacement. Same as two years ago: yes. But I don’t want to replace it. I may augment my iPod nano collection with a 7G, which Lieven uses heaps.

      • Reply December 6, 2014

        Headfonia_L.

        “Used”. I now use the Classic

        • Reply December 7, 2014

          ohm image

          My, aren’t we the changeling now?

        • Reply December 18, 2014

          SallyMaeSusan

          I love my Classic. ALAC files (or even 256 AAC) via Shure or Ety IEM’s is plenty good enough for this gal.

          • Reply December 18, 2014

            Headfonia_L.

            Take good care of that classic, finding a replacement will be hard!

          • Reply December 18, 2014

            dalethorn

            I was happy with most of the 256k tracks I got from iTunes when playing outdoors, but there are times when playing those at home at nighttime that I cringe at the quality, especially the ‘watery’ sounds many of them make. If I ripped any of my CD’s to 256k MP3’s, they wouldn’t have those awful effects, so I really question the intent of Apple in selling poorly converted music tracks.

  • Reply December 7, 2014

    Dave Ulrich

    I do so love these trips down memory lane. I am still getting good use out of my Ipod 5G.

    • Reply December 7, 2014

      ohm image

      Glad to hear that. I’ve got both and love each. I only wish the Nano could get awesome upgrades like the AK100 can. I’d do it in a heartbeat. Oh, and get a new battery.

      • Reply December 7, 2014

        Dave Ulrich

        I’ll replace it with a DX90 when it goes down, but it hasn’t shown signs of stopping yet. Well, reduced battery life, but it still works.

        • Reply December 8, 2014

          ohm image

          That will be quite the upgrade in output performance, and quite the downgrade in size!

          • Reply December 13, 2014

            Dave Ulrich

            And no sooner did I write that, than my Ipod goes down for the count.

  • Reply December 7, 2014

    Schmaltzed

    Any chance of a Zune edition of this weekly article? I still use my red 20G gen 1 Zune when I don’t want to bother risking my phone.

    • Reply December 8, 2014

      ohm image

      If only I had a zune. I don’t. And neither does Lieven. if I could borrow one, I’d be very, very happy to do a review of it, too.

      • Reply December 14, 2014

        Schmaltzed

        If you’d like me to send you mine, I could do that. I just hope it’s not too dinged up for closeups. You’d be free to format it and throw whatever tracks you’d like to on it.

  • Reply December 9, 2014

    Gerry

    One other thing i love from this iPod aside from its sound quality is it can be replaced with newer generation iPod (6th/7th). Mine has been replaced with 6th gen iPod nano, but i felt its sound quality quite poor, so i sold it.. now i use sony e463

    • Reply December 9, 2014

      dalethorn

      I’ve had all of the Apple players from the classics and Nanos to iPads and iPhones and iPod Touches, and none of them rose to the level of high fidelity, until I got the iPhone 6-plus (don’t know about the 6). The 6-plus is so good that the sound quality goes down when connecting most amps through the LOD.

      • Reply December 10, 2014

        ohm image

        Most Apple players have had class-leading SQ in their day. Today, the iPod nano 1-5 have some problems when under load, but SQ is fine. The Wolfson ones are really nice, but often have weaker output stages.

        That said, the iPod is in no way at all inferior to any Sony Walkman of the same generation out there. It is possible that certain Walkman players are better compared to older iPods, but it mostly comes down to the sound preferences of the listener.

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