Back To The Future Friday: The Original Apple iPod Shuffle (512)

It’s time for Headfonia’s inaugural Back to the Future Friday, a monthly column where Headfonia shines light on some of the best gear from the past.

 

#1 the original Apple iPod shuffle

I’m that dude wearing an original Casio calculator watch, which, barring liberal doses of alcohol, you’ll never get off me.

Ditto the original iPod shuffle. What got me on it was a good essay with information that, at the time, was rather salacious. An Apple device that sounds good? For shame! Being the hornball that I am, I picked one up to see what all the fuss was about.

In hindsight, buying a piece of audio gear because of a PC Mag article? Foolish. But nearly ten years after dropping the dosh on 512 megabytes and a lot of plastic, I’m still smitten. I wanted a simple player with no frills (not even a screen). I wanted to be able to operate that player blindly. I was sick of cables. At the same time, I didn’t want to sacrifice playback quality. And that’s what the iPod shuffle gave me.

It has summarily ruined me for lesser players.

Here’s what rocks about it:

Robustness

Somehow, I dropped my first shuffle from the 17th floor of a Toronto flat. Apart from numerous pits, the telltale pattern of a pair of size 42 Campers, and the lengthening of a few hairline cracks, the thing was untouched. It played, it paused, it shuffled as well as it ever did. That was just one of many accidents it weathered. 

Of course, the original shuffle has the advantage of being screen-less. That, and it comes wrapped in cheap plastic, that, when confronted with blunt force, safely rebounds. This is one of a very few players that you can literally walk all over and still use. It’s even been known to survive the washing machine

Look Ma’, no cable!

It is also the only iPod that doesn’t need a cable. Under its white cap is a USB port. Charging, syncing files, and transferring viruses to friends computers, is plug ’n play all the way. Okay, so you need iTunes (one of the awfullest softwares on the planet) to sync music, but that’s par for the course with all iPods.

Ease of use

Apple outfitted the original shuffle with a super-simple interface that could be operated blind. The slider at the back turns the device on and off, and changes shuffle modes. Volume, track change, and play/pause, sit on the front, and need no introduction. Locking the shuffle requires a three-second press of the play/pause button; and returning to directory top requires a triple-tap. Amazingly, the shuffle’s battery life trumps every modern audiophile player. Typically, I get over ten hours of use before the 8 year-old battery on my unit flattens out. 

Great sound

While there are a few caveats to this section, by and large, the shuffle is the MP3 player to beat when it comes to 16-bit playback. Its resolution is striking. Even under wild, low-impedance swing loads, it drives perfectly flat signals from end to end. Indeed, it drives the JHA Roxanne, the Shure SE846, and even the insanely fiddly Earsonics SM2 like very few players can. Its dynamic range and stereo separation better 90% of after-market portable headphone amplifiers. Best yet, it retains that older iPod nuance, a warmish sound that is easy to love.

Here’s what sucks about it:

Noise floor

If it wasn’t for the shuffle’s damnable noise floor, it would be the best-performing 16-bit player on the market, barring, in certain benchmarks, the amazing iBasso DX100.

Read more on the next page!

Back To The Future Friday: The Original Apple iPod Shuffle (512)
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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.

80 Comments

  • Reply May 23, 2014

    L.

    Love it Nathan!

    BTW. you do not need iTunes to update your iPod. You just need the iPod Drivers et voila. I myself use the Free CopyTrans to drag and drop my files. Makes the shuffle even better!!

    • Reply May 23, 2014

      ohm image

      Hmmm… Windows?

      • Reply May 23, 2014

        Tronco

        I’ve been using my iPod Classic since 2006 with Linux. Just plug it in and drag and drop your music to (and from) the iPod like any other external drive. Works great and I would trade that simplicity for iTunes.

        • Reply May 23, 2014

          ohm image

          Thank you Tronco. I’ve known about such services, but I’m not one generally to fool around. I quit fooling around after hitting 28. I’m a solid man of the book now.

          • Reply May 26, 2014

            Tronco

            When I bought the iPod in 2006 I gave iTunes a try. It looked very fancy and it was very easy to rip my CDs and DVDs and transfer them to the iPod.

            But I have more than one PC and I was quite surprised to see iTunes on PC #2 delete all the content of my iPod when I just wanted to add some music files. At that time you could only manage your iPod via iTunes from one PC, don’t know if that ever changed. So I let iTunes go and never again had any trouble or missed iTunes. Just drag and drop, copy and paste from the file manager. When I connect the iPod to my computer my favourite player pops up and I can listen to my music immediately. I like it, it’s simple.

            From my personal experience, fooling around means using iTunes.

            • Reply May 26, 2014

              dalethorn

              Today the iPhone can use only one computer, but iPods and iPads can use any of the authorized computers (if all are connected to the Internet, maximum five? Not sure). There may be some other condition, but not sure about that either.

  • Reply May 23, 2014

    George Lai

    I loved my very first iPod bubblegum stick. Yup, 512 MB. Enough for one DSD track today! I think I had three.

    • Reply May 23, 2014

      ohm image

      I’ve had four. What do I win? My plea at the end of this drunken essay? True. We need another iPod shuffle, in its original form, but with more storage. Whad’ya say, George, two DSD tracks this time?

      • Reply May 23, 2014

        George Lai

        We are getting old, Nathan, when we reminisce. Readers born in the late 90’s will go “you serious? Half a gig?” But to be serious that’s why I still cherish my iPod Classics – always on, always remember where you stopped, auto-standby, long long battery life. Nowadays the players are so bloated, and people want to play games on them, surf the net, watch videos etc. It’s the music, people. Ah, the good old days.

        • Reply May 23, 2014

          ohm image

          Are we that old? Just wait till the next Back to the Future, mate. I’ll show you up!

          • Reply June 28, 2014

            Eric Thompson

            solder a 64gb micro sd in there!

        • Reply June 28, 2014

          Eric Thompson

          ipod nano is still a think haha

  • Reply May 23, 2014

    Vasilis Rapanakis

    A bit OT but what earphones are the black ones and what is that GORGEOUS cable that goes with them????

    Can’t see me going back to a shuffle if only cause 512MB won’t cut it but I would have loved a simple screenless player with 4GB and good SQ. I only carry with me 200 320Kb AACs so that should be plenty.

    • Reply May 24, 2014

      ohm image

      The earphones with the gorgeous cable are FitEar Parterre.

  • Reply May 23, 2014

    dalethorn

    I have 3 of the new Shuffles – 2 gb each. I use them for certain genres on outdoor walks. The current Shuffle will drive a v-moda M100 very well and the sound is perfect for outdoor play.

    • Reply May 24, 2014

      ohm image

      The new shuffle isn’t bad at all, but it’s not the lovely sound of the first gen. I also have the new one.

      • Reply May 24, 2014

        dalethorn

        I never had the original shuffle, but I did have the first Nano until I gave it to someone last year. I don’t remember exactly how good it was, but it wasn’t a lower quality sound compared to the last 2 generations of Nano I have now. There has to be a bunch of audiophile portable device users inside of Apple, and I’d guess none of them have influence enough (even combined) to get the bureaucracy to upgrade their audio chipsets. There’s a rather large difference in sound from a current iPod Touch or iPhone driving (for example) an ATH M50 directly, or using the lowly PA2V2 amp from the LOD connector. That right there says they need to upgrade those sound processors.

        • Reply June 2, 2014

          ohm image

          I have nano 1, 2, and 3. From 3 sound power output started to go downhill. But the nano has always been one of the best out there. Mind you, older versions’ output impedance is higher than necessary.

  • Reply May 25, 2014

    SallyMaeSusan

    Hey, girls! What’s with all the whining about iTunes?
    It couldn’t be any more straight forward, could it?!?

    • Reply May 25, 2014

      dalethorn

      If you have a Mac, like a 256 gb Macbook Pro Retina you paid $2000 for, and you run iTunes, it sucks up about 70 gb of your precious 256 gb **just to run iTunes** when the music is already there. The player is OK, but there are better players. Today with iPod Touch and iPhone, you can get better players on those devices too – Dirac for Apple earphones, Audioforge for other headphones.

      • Reply May 26, 2014

        SallyMaeSusan

        Thanks for that; I must check out Dirac and Audioforge though I’m a little concerned about screwing something up; I’m no tech-head…

        • Reply May 26, 2014

          dalethorn

          Dirac is just a substitute player, for playback only. I would not buy anything using any but the regular player. But then again, I would buy music only from a computer and then transfer to the i-device, so as to properly back up the tracks on a backup drive. Audioforge is also a substitute player for playback only. With Audioforge, and possibly Dirac, any new songs transferred from the computer don’t show up properly until I shut down the i-device and then re-start it. Dirac is truly a miracle for Apple earbuds and Earpods. Audioforge is just an equalizer, so can’t harm anything.

          • Reply May 27, 2014

            SallyMaeSusan

            🙂

      • Reply May 27, 2014

        Lucas Bertolini Pizzo

        What, you mean you think iTunes forces you to let it copy everything to its Library folder?

        Edit > Preferences > Advanced > uncheck “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library”. Now it won’t copy unless you use the “Automatically Add To Library” folder to add stuff like I do.

        (This assumes you’re under Windows. I think on OS X the path is iTunes > Preferences > etc)

        • Reply May 27, 2014

          dalethorn

          That’s great! You found it! Now when I upgrade or get a new computer I can set that setting along with 100 other settings Apple will hide in 100 different places (BTW, this setting was not where you said). And BTW #2, each time I get a new computer it takes the Genius guys at the Apple store about 2 hours to find the things I need to set. And they *still* haven’t found how to make the network reliable, or why the iPhone (but not the iPod or iPad) is restricted to one computer only for transferring music and videos. But thanks for this tip.

          • Reply June 2, 2014

            ohm image

            Dale, I must agree with Lucas. That has been available since… at least the beginning. iTunes sucks because it is such a waste of processing power and is no longer music-centric despite being called ‘iTUNES’. It is however, not at all proprietary. All folders are open and you can do whatever you want with them. It uses a tree like every other music app does, but has far better search/indexing functions than most.

            • Reply June 2, 2014

              dalethorn

              I disagree. iTunes is an excellent player, lacking only a good parametric equalizer such as Audioforge. I don’t have any objection to its features at all. What I objected to was the Apple computer O/S which is horribly non-intuitive.

              • Reply June 3, 2014

                SallyMaeSusan

                Yes, a proper equalizer with lots of little bars would be good. Then there would be no reason to get an app…

                • Reply June 3, 2014

                  dalethorn

                  Lots of bars doesn’t help. A parametric equalizer needs only 7 that are user-definable, but I don’t know that Apple would be willing to do something that progressive. Without Jobs, they’re just another lumbering giant going the same way as IBM and Kodak.

                  • Reply June 4, 2014

                    SallyMaeSusan

                    Noooooooooooooooo….

                    • June 4, 2014

                      dalethorn

                      The good news is, there are lots of small companies represented here that have exciting products, so we make ourselves less dependent on the big monoliths.

                    • June 6, 2014

                      SallyMaeSusan

                      Whew…

          • Reply June 2, 2014

            Lucas Bertolini Pizzo

            That’s rather an issue with Apple’s Genius recruiting policy as of late, instead of the OS itself. I also don’t understand what you mean with “why the iPhone (but not the iPod or iPad) is restricted to one computer only for transferring music and videos.”. Are you talking about sync?

            Finally, I checked both my Windows PC’s and my mom’s OS X MacBook’s iTunes, and both match the paths I gave for that option (Edit > Preferences > Advanced on Windows, iTunes > Preferences > Advanced on OS X).

            Perhaps you’re using a pre-11 iTunes build? I recommend updating it if that’s the case.

            • Reply June 3, 2014

              dalethorn

              Apple is a very scary investment. There are IOS apps that get upgrades where the functionality is ruined. Audioforge for example has been heavily damaged by its latest upgrade, yet I have several hundred hours invested in it now, and am dependent on its DSP for equalizing 34 different headphones. There is little doubt in my mind that at some point when I get a new iPhone or iPod Touch and need to get the good version of that app from my computer to the new device, I won’t be able to copy the working version of that app to the new device. That would not be an issue at all with a PC and any saved software apps I have going back to at least 1998. The premise of Apple’s UI is “for non-technical users” – i.e. people who won’t notice how certain functionality either gets lost, or gets increasingly harder to get to.

          • Reply June 3, 2014

            ohm image

            You could just let all the music stay in the iTunes library. I was reticent to do that at first, but then realised that iTunes organises music exactly like I would have anyway: artist: album: song. Its search functions obviate the need for organising by genre. The only other music application I use is Audirvana, which also allows me to keep iTunes going.

            But there is no reason iTunes should manage apps, non-music, non-media files. It is a strange app.

            • Reply June 3, 2014

              dalethorn

              I almost never use iTunes on a computer – its only real purpose for me is to copy files to my devices. And I find it very convenient and productive that it handles photos, videos, music, documents etc. I keep about 2500 MP3s, 2400 video clips, 3000 photos, and ~700 documents in various formats on each device, although with only 64 gb on the iPod and iPhone, my tech videos just don’t fit anymore. But hopefully they’ll at least up the new iPhone to 128 gb so I’ll be fully transparent once again. I find that having all of those files at-hand everywhere I go makes these devices the ultimate teaching tools, with examples of nearly everything I need to access to convey ideas to other people – at the moment they’re needed.

              • Reply June 3, 2014

                ohm image

                Are you on Windows? If so, I can see why you might think it okay if you use it for nothing else. If it was something you use for music, it’s bad news.

                • Reply June 3, 2014

                  dalethorn

                  Windows, Mac both. Many years experience with iTunes, Foobar2000, others.

              • Reply June 3, 2014

                L.

                I’m a pc user. I just install the iTunes driver and then use another real easy software to just drag and drop my files on my idevice. No more iTunes. yay!

        • Reply June 2, 2014

          ohm image

          Well said, Lucas.

        • Reply June 5, 2014

          dalethorn

          For the second time in two days, using the latest v11.x iTunes on the Mac, iTunes reset the 2 checkboxes so now it once again is copying all media to its own folder. I uncheck them and click OK, then reopen iTunes and they’re checked again.

    • Reply June 2, 2014

      ohm image

      It’s not a BAD music application as music apps go, but no music app should have to deal with apps, books, syncing portable devices for anything BUT music. It is a monstrosity that gets more and more monstrous every generation. It’s time to cut the chord and make iTUNES about TUNES!

      • Reply June 3, 2014

        SallyMaeSusan

        I see your point but it doesn’t bother me. Do you think we’ll get hi-res files and new chips in our phones and pods?

        • Reply June 3, 2014

          ohm image

          I think it is inevitable.

          • Reply June 28, 2014

            Eric Thompson

            the iTunes eq is horrid haha

            • Reply June 28, 2014

              dalethorn

              The thing is, my investment in hires downloads is safe, my investment in CD rips is safe, and even my lo-res tracks from iTunes are safe. All in generic format, all backed up. But my EQ settings from Audioforge (which are a miracle) are not safe. As the vendor makes changes, the app is subject to change, and even the DSP may change. And then when the computer syncs the Apple device, the older app may be overwritten. You can update other apps and try not to update the one you don’t want to update, but the Apple UI can move the buttons as you press them and you then discover you’ve overwritten the app anyway.

              • Reply July 5, 2014

                Eric Thompson

                can you just save the track as a different MP3? “song X” EQv1, 2, 3 etc?

                • Reply July 6, 2014

                  dalethorn

                  The EQ’s would have to be very crude to account for 2200 songs that all would benefit from EQ, and each one differently. It would consume more time than I have. EQ’ing headphones is accurate per headphone if you give each one enough time, but it’s still approximate (or crude) since you’re using that sound with 2200 different tracks. The good news is it doesn’t take as much time as EQ’ing all those songs, and it’s also good in that you reduce or eliminate headphone colorations and resonance effects, so the larger part of the music does benefit from that headphone EQ. Trying to fix music that ranges widely in sonic quality, you’ll run into a lot of noise and distortion issues, and other things that get very complicated.

  • Reply June 2, 2014

    Nguyễn Công Bằng

    Hi, just wonder if higher shuffle gen still maintain its excellency ? I can only find shuffle gen 3 in my local. Thanks

    • Reply June 2, 2014

      ohm image

      Hello sir. The newer gen Shuffles perform very well, but are hard to use, and less friendly. They don’t plug directly into a computer, which is one of the amazing feats of the original unit. Apple released a one-of-a-kind in the original unit, nasties and all.

      • Reply June 6, 2014

        dalethorn

        The new gen shuffle plugs directly into my computers, with a USB-A plug to 3.5 mm miniplug into the shuffle headphone jack. Could not be simpler – charges and transfers songs from iTunes. The new shuffles play sequentially or randomly, and also feature a voice telling you which track you’re playing at the touch of a button, plus the charge status. The sound quality is excellent for an Apple i-device.

        Edit: The downside is the 2 gb limit.

        • Reply June 6, 2014

          ohm image

          Sorry Dale, I mean without the use of intermediary hardware. The old one doesn’t even need a cable of any sort. That is why it is the easiest. You can forget everything but your shuffle and still transfer files, listen to music, and never need a cable.

          The new shuffles have incredibly low noise floors, which is a blessing. And sound quality, as you mentioned, is very good. The first gen has the best quality output (noise aside) but then, it is rarely surpassed by anyone out there.

          • Reply June 6, 2014

            dalethorn

            Thanks – I bought one of the USB-stick shuffles for someone else and never used it myself. It appears now that Apple is readying a new audio system for new iPhones, but it looks like iPods are a dead end at Apple.

            • Reply June 11, 2014

              ohm image

              Likely you are right. But I hope not. I think Apple need to pay greater attention to what’s going on Asia. Rarely do I see a music lover listening through their iPhone or android device, unless that device is mated to a DAC. The regular people carry two devices: one for music, one for everything else.

              They’d be stupid to ignore the biggest mass of customers in the world- a group that rely on discrete devices.

              • Reply June 28, 2014

                Eric Thompson

                really? O.o

                • Reply June 28, 2014

                  ohm image

                  Yes, a lot of people carry one or even two phones plus a music device; certainly more here do that than in Canada or Europe.

                  • Reply June 28, 2014

                    George Lai

                    On a tangential note, people in Asia love large phones or phablets. Something Apple might be redressing with the iPhone 6. But back to music, Asians love their DAPs, the more expensive the better. The gold AK240 is practically sold out everywhere.

                    • June 29, 2014

                      ohm image

                      George: please don’t say that word. It was coined by a marketing team that was composed of unwashed nerds. There has to be a better word. All I can think of when I hear that marketing term is: fat, fart, tablet (medicine), and vomit.

                    • June 29, 2014

                      George Lai

                      It’s a phabulous word.

                    • June 30, 2014

                      dalethorn

                      Phablets are phun to use.

                    • July 6, 2014

                      ohm image

                      Where are the moderators?!

                    • July 6, 2014

                      dalethorn

                      Trying to phix as many problems as they can I suppose.

                    • July 7, 2014

                      George Lai

                      Watching Phootball

                    • July 5, 2014

                      Eric Thompson

                      crazy wish i had money for a better dap

                    • July 6, 2014

                      dalethorn

                      Hi-price DAPs are good for people who can just plug in a SD/MicroSD card and go, and who don’t need to bring over any apps or settings from another device. DAPs are to a great extent like computer platforms (Mac, Windows, Ubuntu, Unix, Linux…) in that once you get beyond the simple interface and any adjustments (such as EQ) that you create quickly to get you started, then you move further into the land of proprietary and you can’t just jump to another platform without losing stuff.

  • Reply June 5, 2014

    Alton Britt

    Please help me decide between the Koss Pro DJ 200 and the UE 6000 for general music listening on Ipod Touch 5th and Onkyo 629 along with TV/Blue Ray movies via home theater linked to Onkyo. Would appreciate your response-thank you!

    • Reply June 6, 2014

      ohm image

      Alton, this question might best be asked in the FAQ section of the site. Alas I don’t have those headphones.

  • Reply June 7, 2014

    Chris Allen

    I must say, your photos are a charm. I currently use the 6th generation iPod Classic.. and it serves me well but I have been looking for something in a smaller form factor as I kind of dislike having to use pocket a large player like the Classic.. this looks like a wonderful solution. How much did you pay for yours ‘used’ if I may ask?

    Thanks,
    Chris A.

    • Reply June 11, 2014

      ohm image

      If you can live with the simplicity of the interface, a higher noise floor, and an indestructible plastic doorjamb, hit it up. I love mine. The many issues the shuffle have are problematic, but in general, the output quality of the 1st gen is top notch.

      The newest nano is also an excellent performer that enjoys all the advances of the new iPods, though with a slightly sharper/cleaner sound. I found the 1st gen fits my bill better. Of course, your mileage may vary.

      And thank you for the compliments.

      • Reply June 11, 2014

        Chris Allen

        I think I will jump on the first generation. I love simplicity and this certainly fits the bill. Thanks again so very much!

        Chris A.

        • Reply June 12, 2014

          ohm image

          Just remember to get an open box unit. Ones that still are in there box have their charms, but chances are that their 9 year old batteries have no charge is very high.

  • Reply August 14, 2014

    Pade

    the only i-Device I ever bought. Loved it ’til it died 3 years later.

    • Reply September 1, 2014

      ohm image

      The only iDevice I’ve owned 4 of.

  • Reply September 8, 2014

    Nick Turner

    Nathan, I have recently come by a 1GB 1st gen – love the device but it only seems to produce quality sound via the apple earbuds, trying to use with current headphones like urBuds or Monster isport produces only distorted sound. May be a simple question but can you confirm solutions to resolve this?

    • Reply September 8, 2014

      dalethorn

      The Shuffle will drive many full-size low-impedance headphones to listenable levels without undue distortion. Can you try any of those?

      • Reply October 2, 2014

        ohm image

        I should add that sensitive, high-ohm headphones, like the DT880 work great, too, at least at safe, sub-90 dB mean volume averages.

    • Reply September 18, 2014

      ohm image

      I don’t know what urBuds are, but if there is distortion, that could be for many reasons. One: too loud of volume will induce distortion from any source/headphone, but it depends on the spec of each. The other thing could be just bad earphone design, that only wants a weak input, but I doubt that is correct in this case. Another could be that the earphone drivers have been damaged, or have a hair on them that vibrates at louder volumes.

      I’ve not got the iPod shuffle to distort like that.

  • Reply February 13, 2017

    Bang

    Got an ipod shuffle 1st gen after your article.
    It sound very wonderful, high dynamic and excellent image…
    But the noise floor for my K10 is quite annoying. Do you think an portable amp can fix this ?

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