Good format support
While Apple never have supported community formats and containers such as APE/FLAC/OGG, from day one, they have supported all industry-accepted standards. AAC, MP3, WAV, AiFF worked brilliantly.
The 4th generation iPod added to the above compressed lossless in the form of ALAC, which boasted the sound quality of WAV or AiFF, but reduced sizes. Like AiFF, ID3 tags and other metadata could be appended. And the 5G owned that format. It reacted faster, indexed more smoothly, and boasted larger internal storage in which to cram more and more large-size files.
Of course, if the above weren’t enough for you, you could always install Rockbox.
The 5G was the last iPod that did the rich, chalky thing. Effortless and flowing, it eschewed absolute detail for a touchier, feelier presentation. But it did it without sounding florid, or waxy. It was a sound you sit down for.
It still is.
Pour an aged whisky over a few rocks, slip on your phones, breathe. In. Out. In. Out. What pumped straight into your auditory cornucopias from the 5G was a far cry from today’s accepted norm of detail upon detail upon detail. Not that detail is bad. Nor that the 5G wasn’t detailed. But sometimes, you need an arm around you. Crosstalk was higher than today’s models, and so was harmonic distortion. But only by a little.
Its Achilles’s heal was its high output impedance. Actually, that was the problem across the board. Today, few self-styled ‘audiophile’ devices hobble along with output impedances of greater than 5Ω. Back then, it was the norm. Plug in your favorite low-Ω earphone and plip plup plip! there went the bass. Or, up jumped crosstalk. Some players had such low current that a nice earphone would cause the output to sizzle even at moderate volumes.
The 5G didn’t struggle so. But to get the most of it, it needed a good amp, or a low-current headphone or earphone. My favorite amp to strap to its back is the Vorzüge PURE II. That amp can drive pretty much any portable or desktop headphone/earphone you throw at it. And it sounds good. The two mate like I imagine Romeo and Juliet would.
When viewed from the lens of today’s System-on-a-Chip devices, you could say that the 5G had a noisy output. That said, par for the time was, in many cases, worse. Some Sony players were so noisy that even when riding the train, shhhhhhh, shhhhhhh, shhhhh would scold your Walkman like a scrunch-faced lady you imagine might be named Matilda. Bother!
Third Party Support
Apple wired a pretty powerful line output through the 5G’s 30-pin dock. And still today, third-party cables are being made for it. And since millions of 5Gs were made, a million third-party cable manufacturers sprung up. Fat? Check. Skinny? Check. Expensive? Check. Cheap? Check.
In fact, as a line of devices, the iPod pretty much made the rich after market of third-party adapters, cables, cases, HiFi interfaces, etc.
The 5G was part of the best-supported portable audio niche in the wold. It’s one of the reasons I have held onto mine for so long.
On the other hand, the 30-pin cables were expensive, and prone to failure. And if your battery died, replacing it required pretty decent soldering skills, or the help of a skilled friend, or an awkward video campaign full of faulty information.
Then, there was the industry-standard AAC codec was misunderstood from the start. Advance Audio Coding (not Apple Audio Codec) was neither made by, or for, Apple. It was made to supersede the then-terrible MP3 format. It was standardized before the first iPod was even a dream, before in fact, Steve Jobs was full time back behind the wheel at Apple. Sometime in the early 2000’s, and thanks to forward-looking encoding engines like LAME, MP3s started to sound good. With proper software and the right encoder, the embedding of ID3 tags and other metadata became possible.
When Apple put their weight behind AAC, much of the uninformed world cried:
And, as almost always true where regarding Apple, they were completely, and utterly wrong.
Ignorance gave Apple a bad name. Apple’s proprietary codec was the popular (and loss-less) ALAC. It retained most of the metadata advantages of AiFF over WAV, but took up only half the storage space. It opened up in 2011. Support for it is now ubiquitous.
Advice for buying one
The iPod 5G is almost 9 years old. Even well-tended batteries will likely hold only 50-60% of their original charge. If you somehow find a brand-new unit, it’s battery likely is dead. Unused batteries have a certain, finite, shelf life. Surpass that and they are useless.
Mine is a well-tended unit. It still runs and endless ALAC repeat ALAC for up to 7 hours on a charge. And so does its hard disk. But even if the hard disk is bunk, replacing it is simple. I suggest buying either from someone you know, or from a shop with a good return or service guarantee.
The iPod 5G is a joy to use and worth every penny.
Where do we go from here?
I must be honest: the current state of audio players has me steaming. iRiver, Cowon, iBasso, Calyx, and so on make massive players that don’t fit into trouser pockets. To be honest, even the iPod 5G is a tight fit for me. But it was Apple’s largest iPod. Everyone else is going bigger. Their players run hot, slow, and even the best of them blubbers along with comparatively poor interface.
My sincerest hope is that players made for music lovers and audiophiles will shrink back to manageable sizes. They should be easy to use, designed for humans, and largely disappear. They should not resemble a three year-old’s first drawing of their parents.