Written by 5:35 am Headphone + Accessory Reviews

Is Portable Audio “The Thing?”

Paul Wilson wonders about portable audio…

I’m almost willing to bet that for most young people under the age of twenty, a set of ear buds, at the very least, or a set of inexpensive headphones, is something akin to a permanent appendage. Hopelessly, constantly connected to some sort of portable player is how we see most young people today. And why not, it’s something they see every day by countless people so imitation being the most sincere form of flattery…

APR-Astell - Kern.jpgFrom the shaded sonics of iTunes, music has progressed to devices like Pono and Astell & Kern. These devices, despite what might be thought of them, offer better sounding music than the compressed, musically diluted reproduction of Mp3. From there, we audiophiles, and those of us who tell ourselves we really care about the music, hope beyond measure that someday soon, these young people will envision better sonics and graduate to high end audio.

So are the youth of today simply imitating what they see sports figures, or some other notable person frequently in public scrutiny doing, or are they so dedicated to portable audio for some other reason?

Most audiophiles have some form of music in almost every walk of their life. For me, I have an iPod hooked up in one car and have satellite radio in both cars. I have the big system downstairs and a small system upstairs although I seldom use it. I even catch myself sometimes singing in the shower. Yet all the times when I’m not in the car, the house or the shower, I have, well, nothing. My last business trip by plane found me basically bored stiff because I wasn’t interested in reading anything, so, I just sat staring out the window at the clouds. It sure seems like that would have been a perfect time for a portable player, like the guy sitting across from me was enjoying. I wanted to ask him if he was an audiophile but chose not to because I didn’t want to bother him.

APR-Pono.jpgIf you’ve been keeping up with the articles and reviews for Pono you will know that controversy has been their constant companion. First, the questions regarding whether or not it was worth the money. Then there was the review about how Pono didn’t sound any better than an iPod. I bet Neil Young didn’t have a “Heart Of Gold” over that. Astell & Kern has managed mostly positive press, and has remained out of the fray, preferring instead to apparently keep a lower profile.

Portable devices, whatever their sonics, do serve a purpose. They keep us connected to music. Simple as that. No more complicated than that. We can trash the sonics, and in the case of Mp3 perhaps deservedly, but the bottom line is they give the listener something a home-based system will never provide: music on the go.

That young people who listen to Mp3 are not overtly concerned with sonics is clearly and unassailably obvious. Audiophiles are concerned and there’s the problem we face; how do we initiate the uninformed? Of course that presupposes the unformed have any concern whatsoever about becoming, as our definition of informed implies, an audiophile.

I have a friend with a sixteen-year-old son. Like many young men his age, the Mp3 player and the ear buds go wherever he goes. My friend and his son were at my house not long ago and as we listened to music, this young man sat there with his eyes wide open. He was enamored with what music could sound like beyond the confines of his iPhone. When they left, before reaching the car, he put his ear buds back in.

That’s really it, isn’t it? As wonderful as a home-based system might be, it’s not portable. I’ll have to admit that I didn’t really get that. I’ve never been a particular fan of headphones in general and I find ear buds highly uncomfortable. So using either one is just not something I have ever cared about or practiced. I’m in no way doubting or diminishing the sonic quality of audiophile grade headphones and the various players available. Hardly. I’ve listened to some amazing gear at audio shows. I just don’t want to use them myself. Call it a personal choice willingly made.

Aside from the obvious, that being portability, a device such as the more notable ones out right now, along with a pair of headphones, have become very highly sought after. Is it no wonder that more and more manufacturers are introducing their own version of a portable player?

Clearly, this somewhat newfound practice, specifically portable players with CD or better resolution, while mostly new to audiophiles, has been around for a long time in some form or fashion with varying sonic quality. Anyone remember the Sony Walkman?

APR-Sounds - Good.jpgIn the short-term future I think we will continue to see advancements of portable players like Pono and Astell & Kern. There are obviously others as well – more than space allows mentioning. It may well be considered a first step in the audiophile evolution, that is, a young person moving from Mp3 to a portable device with improved sonics. With better players also come better headphones, maybe then a system.

If, like me, you find things on your head and in your pocket unfulfilling then you can watch how things change. If, like most people, you do enjoy using them, headphones and portable players are not only the perfect choice for music on the go, they’re the only choice. And as technology advances they will be a choice that will continue to sound remarkably, profoundly good.

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