Tell Tale Tech: Simple Sounds


(Lucy Sutton/Observer Archives)


Think back to the last time you used your MP3 player. It might have been five years ago. Possibly longer. Maybe you still use yours. But for the vast majority of people, they have gone the way of Pluto. Fondly remembered, but forgotten and mostly ignored.

And while the days when everyone walked around with a MP3 player have long since passed, their presence and influence lives on in nearly every modern smartphone. But not in the way they should.

When you open the music player on your phone, regardless of your mobile OS, you will only find the remnants of once great music players. Apple replaced the iPod with their generic and glossy Music app. Microsoft ditched Zune for the hollowed Xbox Music. And Google has adopted a cluttered travesty called Play Music. None of which offer any improvements over their predecessors. Instead, all three companies sacrificed function for design and gave us fancy animations and colorful graphics, hoping no one would notice the difference.

Sadly, device hardware has also seemingly forgotten its roots.

Sound quality has probably taken the most significant hit of all. Very few phone manufacturers seem to care about offering any high quality audio capabilities on their products. It’s all processors, megapixels and pixel densities for them. A few try to improve speaker output, but this does little to change the sound coming out of a headphone jack.

Device design has also taken a turn for the worse. Without dedicated physical buttons, music playback has gotten unnecessarily complicated as well. Want to lower the volume of the music? Oh wait, now your phone has gone into silent mode. What about play/pause controls? Better navigate back to the music app or lock screen. Touch screens do not offer much consolation either, as they are simply not as intuitive as dedicated hardware buttons.

While maybe not feasible on a smartphone, all of these shortcomings could easily be addressed and perfected on a standalone music player. In fact, many past devices had already done so, before their shelf lives were tragically cut short.

Case in point, the iPod Classic and iPod Nano were masterfully designed with good software, long battery lives and still unparalleled click wheel interfaces. It took a few generations, but both models eventually reached a point when they were nearly flawless. And now, Apple isn’t offering even a single device with this design. (I don’t count the Shuffle.)

Older Sony Walkman players also come to mind for their music-centric interface and renowned audio capabilities. Interestingly enough, Sony has even released two new Walkman models focused on sound and build quality. However, both are mired by buggy software interfaces, touchscreens and wholly unreasonable starting prices.

Few devices on the market now even come close to reaching the brilliance of these earlier players. Reasonably-priced devices with weeks’ worth of battery life, elegant interfaces and stellar audio can only rarely be found –  like the elusive perfect New York bagel shop.

But there is a definitely a market for such devices. Many students, myself included, listen to music for at least a few hours every day and usually do so on a smartphone. But when the battery eventually dies off, we are all limited by our access to power outlets. And given the length of most USB cables, that’s not much of a range. By contrast, MP3 players can pull off absurdly long battery lives simply because they are not drained by unnecessary sensors or wireless connections.

Drag and drop interfaces for transferring music would also be welcomed with open arms, as none of us want to be tied down to proprietary software. Even the ability to add music without worrying about file formats would be more than enough to lure in many people. After all, not all of us have “legitimate” music libraries.

I will be the first to admit that there is a great convenience in carrying only one device, but there are times where I don’t need or even want all the features of a smartphone. I take comfort in knowing that the only thing a MP3 player does, or ever will do, is play music. No frills. Just pure listening bliss. And I know I’m not alone. So, let’s bring them back.