It’s the time of year for saving money!
Audiophiles over the years have had to cope with some highly disruptive new technologies. First there was the wax cylinders, then 78’s then LPs, then cassettes, then CDs, then DVDs, then SACDs and DVD-As, then streaming…and it keeps going.
Cell phones have also caused some major product disruptions – try to find a new entry-level point-and-shoot camera – with new phones’ photographic capabilities approaching that of professional cameras that whole category of products was absorbed into cell phones. And as P&S cameras disappeared, selfie sticks took their place…
And the same thing could happen to stand-alone portable players.
Currently there are several good reasons for employing a portable playback device. The first reason is sound quality. Current generation portable players have better DAC chips and digital sections (they can use components that need more power). They also have better analog circuits and a more purpose-built internal architecture. All this better technology adds up to better sound.
Current generation portable players are also able to drive headphones that many smartphones can’t. Portable players have beefier and more refined output sections with lower noise. Also, the top portable players with wireless headphone options employ aptX HD and at least 4.0 BT protocol.
Storage is another area where portable players have an edge over smartphones. Even some of the less expensive portable players can handle large SD memory cards, and every portable player I’ve seen can take removable storage cards, so that you can easily carry a large library. With Some smartphones you can also use removable memory cards, but one of the most popular ones, the iPhone, lacks this feature.
Battery life can be critical during a long distance trip. Using a portable player means that your smartphone can sleep blissfully in your pocket while your portable player provides tunes. Some of the latest generation of players offer impressive battery life – the latest FIO M3 can deliver 24 hours of playing time! Combine that with one of the new portable back-up power sources and you could go for days without seeing a power source and still have music.
When I travel for work, I always carry redundant back-up systems for critical gear. This probably comes from my years as a commercial photographer. Some portable players have additional features that allow them to perform a number of smartphone functions when connected to a WiFi network. In an emergency, if my phone dies suddenly I can port some of its critical functions to my portable player.
Flexibility is another area where portable players offer some advantages over smartphones – many portable players can also serve as external DACs for computers or streamers.
One last thing that portable players can do better than smart phones – take abuse. I don’t mean that portable players are that much better made than smartphones (although some are), but that you can take them into a more hazardous environments and not worry about damaging your electronic lifeline, your phone. Sweat much when you work out? I do. But with a portable player strapped to my arm instead of my phone it doesn’t matter how wet it gets or how many times it gets bumped since it is a player, not my precious phone.
But phones keep getting better, more powerful, with greater capabilities. And with point and shoot cameras assimilated, their next target is definitely portable players…
Some of the most recent generation of smartphones have the ability to stream from higher resolution sources. This will eventually become a standard feature on most phones. Also, battery life on new smartphones keeps increasing. Combine that new phone with an external wiredDAC or wireless Bluetooth DAC and you can see how many people will find that they no longer need to own a separate portable player.
When will the end come for portable players? I suspect, just as with photographic gear, the entry-level side of the business will be affected first. But I can see that eventually all portable layers will become redundant as a smartphones absorb them into their Borg-like embrace.
Personally most times I’m going use my phone and wireless earbuds. But I still have a use for my iPod Shuffle and the earphones you recommended.
Audiophiles will always prefer a dedicated device. The great unwashed masses don’t care about music anyway.
An interesting question, as usual Steven.
I think this market will shake out to two distinct types – a low cost MP3-ish player tier and a higher price audiophile or enthusiast tier. The low end tier will service those who for one reason or another just don’t have a smartphone (younger kids come to mind). The other tier, much smaller probably, will serve the audiophiles who, either for reasons of SQ or convenience, are just not going to rely fully on their smartphone for music media consumption.
In a similar tech space, I can still buy good to unbelievably great cameras in spite of the ubiquity of cellphones and their acceptable (to most) but inferior integrated cameras. Best Buy still has a very large selection of cameras, and I am not under the impression that they are going the way of the Best Buy CD Racks. My cellphone camera is convenient, but just does not cut it as far as image quality is concerned compared to an excellent Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc. dedicated camera, one of which I am going to acquire as a self-gifted Christmas present.
Back to media players, at the moment, I use both a media player and my cellphone separately for their own distinct virtues. After reading your question, I decided to go to work for three days using just my Samsung Note 10, and left my Pioneer XDP-300R at work. The Note is OK with respect to SQ, but the lack of dedicated pause/stop, ff and rev buttons was a real pain. I generally keep Waze going on my phones screen, so skipping a track involved messing around on the phone way too much for rush hour traffic. Also, while you can mute Waze, I like the alerts and they “stepped on” the music playback which I do not care for. Normally I keep Waze going on my phone using the phone’s speaker and my player uses the car’s sound system and that’s the arrangement that works best for me right now.
Thanks for the thought provoking question, sir!