the tone zone

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Tone zone intro| Comparison table | Making quality mp3s | Beware the P2P hunters!

The tone zone sets out some of the choices you have for carrying music with you on your travels. It also contains help for converting commercial CDs to the mp3 format at the highest quality.

Why take recorded music at all when you travel?

You might be surprised that I'm beginning this survey of "music on the road" with an examination of why it's a good idea to have portable music with you at all. On the other hand, you might be the type who prefers to seek your relaxation in other ways less solitary than clamping headphones over ears and drifting off into your own world. You might get all that you need from local music, going to recitals or concerts, talking to folk you meet along the way. If you're this type, there's nothing here for you. 

This page comes from my belief that using music on trips (and I'm talking of something longer than a week here) can help concretise the experience in ways that sightseeing and meeting locals can't. It's long gone in any other part of memory, but playing King Crimson's "The Sheltering Sky" takes me right back to Northern Sumatra in the wet season. I also miss my music when I'm away from it for any appreciable time - it's not a crutch to lean on when the going gets tough - it helps me to see the music from the perspective of the new surroundings, like I often see my own thinking.

The options - what I looked at and what I didn't.
Many options exist for carrying music with you as you travel. I've left off  DAT (Digital Audio Tape) players and recorders from this overview. I can't see that they offer any real advantage for casual users over Flash memory mp3 player in either quality or storage capacity.

I'll try to keep this listing up to date, but this is an area of rapid change, and next month another device may appear at a lower price and greater capacity than what I studied, so check the manufacturers' Web sites for the latest information (some links on the next page).

What you decide to take depends on how much money you want to spend and how little quality and variety you're prepared to put up with. A long trip in somewhere with little other stimulation (through the outback in wet-season Australia, for example) might suggest an extensive music library so you don't get over-exposed to the same pieces. Also, where you are able to reload the music on your player counts. Some machines need you to use an Internet-connected computer with either a USB or Firewire port to move files on to them - consider where you're bound and if such facilities are likely to exist before choosing. An ultrabook/netbook computer or smartphone with wifi connectivity allows downloading of songs from free wifi hotspots around the world, providing you have an iTunes or Usenet subscription.

My choice might be right for you...
My own choice (for the moment) is a compact and cheapish Flash mp3 player (not Apple), with a pair of headphones (Koss Porta Pro folding) to go with it. My particular player has an integral 8GB flash memory. It uses a microSD card for expansion, and with a 32GB card and songs encoded at between 192kb/s and 320kb/s (high quality), I can pack thousands onto the resulting 40GB of space. The player and cards travel in the headphones case, and the entire kit weighs less than 100 grams. When I'm bored with the music, having Rockbox firmware allows me to play games on the unit's tiny display, and the player itself was inexpensive enough that I won't shed too manytears if it packs up while I am away, gets stolen, dropped into a river or trodden on.

CD/CD mp3 players:
CD players are really cheap and fairly rugged, if a little bulky. Many will play not only regular, audio CDs but data CDs recorded with mp3 tracks. The players usually have lengthy electronic shock-protection, so that jolting and jarring on buses and trains doesn't upset them. You'll spend a lot on batteries, though, if you don't/can't take the mains power adaptor with you for use in your hotel (or if you're somewhere without electricity). Consider a solar charger and rechargeable batteries in any case if you are going somewhere reasonably sunny.

Don't use the standard jewel cases to carry your CDs. Put them into thin, lined plastic sleeves (such as the double-sided sleeves made by Case Logic). You can buy these sleeves as replacement liners for the zipped CD carrying cases you see everywhere (you could go the whole way and buy the case with its liners included, but they're quite a bit bulkier to carry and often fiddly to get CDs in and out of). Even twenty CDs packed one atop the other in plastic sleeves use little space, and if you enclose the stack in a stout freezer bag wrapped in spare clothes your music is well protected. Even so, don't take original discs with you - burn copies of them... it costs only a little extra, but avoids heartbreaking potential loss later.

Hard-drive players.
Players which have a miniature hard-drive inside them have both advantages and disadvantages when you're travelling. The ruggedness of such players is less than, say, a cassette walkman, so you must be careful not to drop them. Additionally, you are limited to use below 3000m altitude due to the way hard-drives operate (I have heard sorrow stories where users who were unaware of this limitation took their iPod trekking and found it was ruined after drive seizure). Advantages are clear: the capacity is vast and you can record as well as play on the machines. Many players also let you access the hard-drive directly for storing files in other formats - so you can transfer your digital camera files when the memory card is stuffed to overflowing, for example. Newer players have passable colour screens that can playback digital movie files, though I find it curious that anyone would watch a film on a piddly little screen. Some players have a built-in FM tuner.

The original Apple iPod - re-branded in black or silver as the "Classic" - can be used on Windows computers as well as Apple, but there's a downside to it - you are tied to updating its 160GB internal drive on a computer (and that through the iTunes software), so a year in the Amazonian rainforest won't give you much opportunity to change your loaded song list. All iPods now have video playback ability. The iPod Classic's capacity is enormous - 160GB translates into around 40,000 songs (stored in standard mp3 format at 128 kb/s). There is a neat scroll wheel system to find the song title you want, with a backlit display showing what's selected. However, beware of low battery life (the Apple machine has a proprietary, rechargeable battery which will only fit in Apple's charger) and high prices. Other manufacturers are offering devices that are based on the original iPod concept - namely, a hard-drive and decoder with indexing software - and seem to be a little ahead of Apple in the battery life area. Many, however, prefer the iPod for its slimness and finger-friendly design. Confusingly, the iPod Nano player uses Flash memory, so is smaller and has better battery life than the hard-drive iPod player. Read the following section on this page to find out more about Flash memory-based players.

L: Apple iPod Classic, R: iPod Touch

Not the only Apple in the barrel...
Although most people might want the 'big name', there are alternatives to the Apple empire such as the Zen Vision:M from Creative Technology or the iAudio X5 from Cowon Systems. Unfortunately Microsoft exitted the portable audio market in 2011 and their Zune is no longer made.

Flash memory players.
Until a few years ago, Flash memory-based players were either too expensive or offered too little storage space (only 500MB) to be reasonable for taking on a trip longer than a weekend. Players such the iPod Nano changed that. What is attractive about Flash players is that they have no sensitive hard-drive to bottle out on you mid-trip, so can take a lot more bumps and knocks. The players are also generally slimmer and lighter than the equivalent HD player and their batteries last longer (Apple claims 24-36 hours without video). The newest versions of the iPod Nano will store up to 16GB of music - that's 4000 songs, quite enough for even a long trip. Another flavour of the Nano (in 2011), larger physically, is known as the "iPod Touch," with the old shuttle dial being replaced by a touch screen (I dislike touch screens with a passion - try getting the right selection when you can't see the display) and a design which mimics the popular iPhone. Capacities go up to 64GB; it will also play games and surf the Web, but byte-for-byte, and if you want simply a pure music machine, you'll pay more for all these extras (and that touch screen) than with the standard Nano. Personally, I feel the redesigned Nano is overpriced (even given the Apple loaded "fashion accessory" markup policy) compared with the Sansa Clip Zip (see below), which offers a lot more for less money.

I dismiss the much smaller iPod Shuffle, though it's cheap at around $65/ Euro55, as too limited at 2GB (500 songs) for anything other than a two-week trip. It's more useful for jogging or making the daily commute to work.

The most expensive component in any of these players is of course the flash memory. Prices of flash memory have come down fast in the last five years, but as demand exceeds supply at the moment (2013) it wouldn't be good to wait some years in the expectation that they will continue to fall - get the player you want now.

The Sansa Fuze has up to 16GB of memory, colour display and a simple button navigation. It will play a variety of audio formats, plus video and also features an FM tuner (you can record from it, as well as listen to it directly), something that the iPod Nano lacks. You can plug in a microSD card to expand its capacity. This tiny memory card is presently available in up to 32GB capacities, and I see no reason why you couldn't take a library of music on microSD cards for a really long trip. Also, unlike the iPod, its battery is removable, which I think is worthy of consideration when taking it on a longer trip. As well as being able to replace a faulty battery away from the player's service centre, you can double your playback time by carrying a spare battery in areas where access to charging juice may spotty (the Karakoram, for example).

Left to right: Sansa Fuze, Sansa Clip+, Sansa Clip Zip 8GB

Moving down the Sansa product line in size as well as price, you might find the Sansa Clip Zip attractive. It's a tiny player with a colour display (an improvement over the screen-less Shuffle from Apple) and a very reasonable 8GB capacity. The prices are great ($70/Euro60 for the 8GB version) and it's advertised as having 15 hours' battery life, although some users report lower. The Sansa Clip+ ($45/Euro40) has these features but with a simpler, two-colour display. Both of these Sansa devices have an FM radio and a microphone (for dictation) although no replaceable battery. However, they can be expanded with microSD cards (currently up to 32GB):

Tablets, notebooks, ultrabooks
When you travel with a small computer your music storage options expand enormously. To begin with, there's the internal hard-drive of the computer, which you are unlikely to use all of for pictures and documents unless you are shooting HD video. A pocket-sized, 500GB external hard-drive will serve for backups and more music storage, if you want it. Solid-State drives are available in high capacities for both internal and external storage purposes now, at very competitive prices. An SSD uses a lot less power when it runs than the older, mechanical drives.

Playback on a tablet or ultrabook uses little processor power, but switch off the display to conserve battery life. If you are lucky (and have the right computer and battery), you might see 12 hours between charges using the computer for mp3 playback. More likely, it will be less - bringing up problems with re-charges when you are travelling away from ready power. If you plan to trek away from roads, consider buying a solar charger to sit over the top of your rucksac.

As always, you shouldn't take your unique music collection on the portable computer. Copy it somewhere else before you leave home. It takes only a single power surge to cook a hard-drive and motherboard, and such things are quite common in under-developed countries.

Audio-equipped electronic readers (e-readers)
Some electronic book readers have audio playback among their functions. This is usually an afterthought; the playback options are rarely any fancier than play/pause/next/previous. As audio playback was intended to be used with audiobooks (someone reading a book), don't expect stellar audio quality, either. Nonetheless, I like the idea of having one device for two functions. If you have to buy a new reader, get one with electronic ink. The display is easier on the eyes, it's readable in sunshine and battery life is often much better than LCD versions.

Recent developments in flash memory storage capacity have enabled smartphones to become tenable alternatives to dedicated music players for carrying your music. Again, the appeal is that you already own the device for doing something else, and get the music playback as an extra. While their audio performance is usually rather subpar, the management of your audio files can be made very slick with optional apps, and you'll be able to download and refresh your collection online.


Be firm with the firmware
Hard-drive and flash memory players rely on firmware to perform their job. It is embedded software that bridges between the (usually Linux) operating system, the buttons and/or touchscreen and your player's capabilities. Don't get locked into believing you have to use the firmware provided with your unit. Other firmware may open your device up to richer indexing methods, better audio equalisation and even features (calendar, alarm clock, calculator and games) that were not in your original package. I strongly recommend Rockbox, which is open-source and has an incredible array of plugins. It currently runs on:

Apple iPod 1g through 5.5g, iPod Mini, iPod Nano 1g;
Archos Jukebox 5000, 6000, Studio, Recorder, FM Recorder, Recorder V2 and Ondio;
Cowon iAudio X5, X5V, X5L, M5, M5L, M3 and M3L;
iriver iHP100 series, H100 series, H300 series and H10 series;
MPIO HD300 Packard Bell: Vibe 500;
SanDisk Sansa c200, e200 and e200R series, Fuze, Clip, Clip+ and Clip Zip;
Toshiba Gigabeat X and F series.

Some words about formats and DRM
Few will want load a raw .wav file (straight off a CD) on their portable player: it takes too long to transfer, and the size of each file is enormous. The development of compression formats allowed music to be swapped via the Internet in the early 90's, then later made into a cash cow for big music companies through online music stores. The formats you'll encounter most often are mp3, AAC, WMA, OGG, FLAC and Monkey's Audio (APE). There are two essentials to remember when talking formats: lossy/lossless and locked/unlocked content (otherwise known as DRM). Some formats drop part of the audio content during the compression process - that is how an mp3 file is able to be up to ten times smaller than the original file taken off a CD. This is lossy compression. Mp3 and AAC are always lossy formats; WMA can be either lossy or lossless, as can OGG. FLAC and APE are two lossless formats which are becoming increasingly popular. Can anyone hear the difference? With the usual tiny earbuds and a 192kb/s mp3 file, original and lossy may sound nearly the same, but at a lower bit rate and on good speakers you'll hear the difference at once, especially on music where complex quiet pieces are interleaved with louder parts. As always, there must be a trade-off - in this case between quality (file size) and number of songs able to be fitted on the storage media.

Some more on the formats:

MP3 is an abbreviation for MPEG Audio Layer 3. MP3 was the first generation digital audio compression format, invented by a team of German engineers who worked on a digital radio research program, and it became an ISO/IEC standard in 1991. A bit rate of 128kb/s is common, but for better quality you'll need at least 192kb/s.

AAC is an abbreviation for Advanced Audio Codec. AAC is the second generation audio compression format developed by the MPEG association. AAC delivers the same audio quality as the MP3 format but at the bit rate of 96 Kbps meaning it requires 25 % less storage capacity for the same quality.

WMA: Windows Media Audio, Microsoft’s audio compression format. WMA delivers the same audio quality as MP3 and AAC but requires, respectively, 50 % and 33 % less storage capacity. The WMA’s regular encoding bit rate is 64 Kbps.

FLAC and APE: Free Lossless Audio Codec and Monkey's Audio. Both FLAC and APE achieve compression rates of 30–50%, but this means that the resulting files are larger than a typical mp3 or AAC file (up to five times larger). Because they are lossless formats, no audio date is thrown out during encoding, and the sound is more like the original CD or live performance.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is incorporated into some compression formats such as AAC and WMA, locking the content until you have paid a fee for the track. Simply swapping songs between players will fail. DRM enforcement has gone hand-in-hand with a crackdown on file-sharing sites (see the tone zone page here), with the more popular ones such as Grokster and eMule going over to the pay-per-download model. The protection methods used can either bar any copying to another player, or restrict the copies (or CD burns) to one generation. Some download sites such as Rhapsody levy a monthly charge, with unlimited downloads, but with tracks which will lock and be unplayable if you leave the scheme. All I can say is, when you buy any music on the Internet, read the agreement carefully before you hand over your money. If you'd rather not play the DRM game with WMA files (and current Windows operating systems mean you will be out of luck however you try to copy a protected file) just make an Internet search for FairUse4WM.

Read more on DRM and the opposition to it here (or click the picture)

Ditch the earpieces!

My biggest tip for all of these devices is buy your own headphones. If you are at all interested in quality and comfort you won't want to use the earpieces supplied with most of them. Manufacturers save money on the overall cost by including very inferior earpieces most of the time. Quality headphones (with a band over your head, you can find folding models) - from Koss, Sony, Sennheisser and others - can lift the performance of your unit by so much that you will never understand why you didn't change earlier.

Splash out on speakers...
Once you've sampled the sweet sounds and freedom of proper headphones in place of earbuds, you might be thinking of extending your portable player outfit (and shoulders, if you're going to be travelling far with it all) a little more by taking miniature speakers along. As you might have guessed, you won't be getting anywhere near the pounding bass you'll be used to from your living room boxes by plugging a walkman into a plastic case featuring two 5cm cones, but many of them do sound surprisingly good for the size (although the Beats Pill 2.0 tries to capitalise on the name by delivering quite scrappy sound). You will actually hear more bass with good headphones (the Koss Porta Pro are remarkable in this respect, better bass than my Mission monitors), so the freedom element and use at parties are the selling points of miniature speakers. It is best if your speakers are truly wireless and feature Bluetooth connection to your portable music player or smartphone. If the bass makes the tiny speakers distort, you'll just have to turn the levels down a bit. One of the smallest speakers you will find is the Bose SoundLink Mini, which, although small, has a punchy sound that appears to be emanating from a much larger enclosure. It's rather expensive at around $200/Euro180, though. Almost as good, and quite a lot cheaper, is the Cambridge Audio Go v2. This speaker lacks the punchy bass of the SoundLink Mini, but has nearly double the battery life.
soundlink mini
You're on my mind (like a song on the radio).
Consider taking a radio if you think you'll get bored with the same music you have at home. Radios are generally very tough travel companions and they need no discs or tapes to feed them. With a multi-band radio you can listen to local stations and even learn some of the local language if you have time. In most countries with a Western presence there will be a station or stations playing "popular" music, and the cost of the media is precisely zero! A radio is very useful in today's changeable world - you might learn of weather or political problems from short wave broadcasts before you read of them in the local newspapers.

Happy listening!

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