Turn up the volume!

Back in 2005, I won a first-generation iPod Shuffle at a conference for being the most engaged participant or something (i.e. for being a loud-mouth).


The Shuffle is a horrible piece of kit, of course. It has no display, no way to navigate between albums (only track-at-a-time), no EQ, only the crudest battery-state indicator (OK vs. not-OK), and Apple’s appallingly clunky proprietary disk format which means you have to wrestle it to the ground before you can add songs.

Yet eight years on, it’s still the MP3 player I use the most, by far, and for one simple reason. I can hear the damned thing. Every other MP3 player I’ve owned is too quiet to hear when on a plane, or when running on a treadmill, and for most music even when I’m on a bus.

I understand that volume limiting is “for my protection”. But as with so many things for my protection, I think I’m better able to make that judgement than the people imposing it. They, for example, don’t know that I listen to a lot of music that was mastered in the 1970s, back before the loudness wars destroyed dynamic range. An accidental casualty in that war has been all the music not compressed to hell and back, which is now inaudible on modern players.

So while I’d love to upgrade to a player that can hold more than 1 Gb of music, and that lets me navigate properly, and has all the other bells and whistles, it seems that I’m stuck with technology nearly a decade old if I want to actually hear anything mastered with more subtlety than Metallica or Miley.

Is there an obvious solution that I’m missing?

9 responses to “Turn up the volume!

  1. I guess the first step will be searching for the adequate headphones. It can make a huge difference in terms of volume, especially in noisy environments. If the problem is the external noise, maybe some in-ear monitors will help.
    Here there are some ideas (I like that page) http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/innerfidelitys-wall-fame-ear-monitors

    Another problem could be actually your ears. So, just to be sure, I’ll try to comment that to a doctor so he can take a look, and discard any serious issue. E.g. ear wax can be a problem for some people (including me ;-)

    In case you truly need a boost in volume, maybe something like this can help (http://www.amazon.co.uk/FiiO-E11-Portable-Headphone-Amplifier/dp/B0053KWDES/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1379333031&sr=8-5&keywords=headphones+volume+boost) But I’ll try to check the other stuff first.

  2. Yes, I recognise that the headphones are important — but I am flatly not in the market for $1000 phones and never will be. Also, when I’m running I’m much more limited in what I can use, because it has to be something that stays in my ears, so it really is up to the player itself to get the job done.

    Good point on earwax buildup, and worth looking into. But if that is a problem, surely fixing it will make the ambient noise louder, as well as the music.

  3. Yes, I’ve just realised after posting that all the recommendations where too expensive ;-) Even the $100 one! There are also in-ear monitors for much less (in Amazon you can find models for less than £5). I just pointed to that page to show the kind of headphones because I like it and the description of the kind of headphones.
    The in-ear ones are attached to the ear channel, so they are perfectly suitable to use while running, they’ll stay on the ears better than other.
    On the other hand, they can be a little uncomfortable, as you feel something stuck in your ear. I’ve never been totally comfortable wearing them, but the noise isolation is great. I walk to work, so I don’t really want to totally isolate me from the surrounding noise (I still want to hear cars passing by), which is another thing to keep in mind.

    About the earwax thing, it makes the sounds to be “muddier”, not only lower the volume. Again, I’m saying it just an example of something that could reduce hearing capabilities.

  4. I could be mistaken but isn’t the volume limit enforced in the EU only? Perhaps having someone buy a player in the US and shipping it to you will bypass the limit.

  5. Jaime, thanks for the suggestions. What you say about wax makes sense, too.

    Daniel, I’d not heard that. No idea if it’s true.

  6. Definately the phones can be a solution or not; you don’t need to spend huge sums of money to get good ones (but it can be tempting.. hit up a good headphone shop, and don’t pick up an expensive set to listen to.. everything else will sound like hell by comparison. Like going back to SD TV after using an HD TV .. tough, but if you’d never sampled 1080p then 480p is fine ;)

    Anyway .. I’ve got an old pair of HD477 Sennheisers; I think they started at $150CDN but now are about half that, but are excellent phones; I’ve found my ears are not so discerning as I thought so they measure up quite nicely to $300+ phones, for the kinds of music I listen to anyway, in the environment I listne to; I also picked up, recently, a pair of Klipsch in-ear earbuds .. when we had the twins I wanted to listen to video/audio without risk of keeping them awake, and also to block out incoming screaming .. and they work well; but again, about a hundred bucks.

    You can spend hundreds, esp for bluetooth cordless fancy guys, or really well rounded made of rainforest wood pairs etc and so on, but you don’t really need to; if you need noise cancellation to keep sound out, or some really good over ear or in-ear pair, etc and so on.. do your research, and get a good reasonable pair.

    Its like anything else — theres low end, and high end, and the sweet spot; the sweet spot for phones I find is not in the leaning towards high end price, its leans to the low end; so the sweet spot is say $100-$150 (for me), where as high end phones are $500+. So the sweet spot is pretty good .. the audio quality is outstanding. I had to re-encode all of my music when I got decent phones.

    Note that it is generally regarded that Apple gear is _low quality_ audio; odd given Apple ‘high end’ production values, and prices, and iPod being arguably a music device.. buy such it is, lame audio chip in there. So most audio equipment made in the last decades is poorer than equipment made in the 70s and 80s (absolutely true); theresa large retro market in getting great old audio equipment, putting new caps in, cleaning the brushes ont he silver knobs, and good to go.. if you have space for a 2’x3′ peice of receiver :) Anyway, headphones etc are made for the current music .. the loudness wars stuff, and to make ipods sound good despite their shitty hardware.

    Many other mp3 players have much better audio chipsets in them and it really shows. (and hence, re-encoding all my music)

    You definately did hit on somethign with the loudness wars though; older music, encoded as-is, can be a problem; I’m using an obscure mp3 player (we built our own device!) and it sounds freaking great; but when picking an mp3 player, and a pair of phones, you have to do it with sampling and see; I ended up with an iphone for various reasons, and you have to take it to a headphone shop and jack in some phones and see how it sounds in the loud and quiet sample rooms, so you can have an idea before you buy. (and then go home and ordeer the phones online, to save 50% on what they’d sell you them at the store. Sigh :)

    One last point — remember, this is Apple; the guys who started making their audio equipment (ipods and iphones) with a non-standard plug, so that only their headphones (the shitty earbuds they include) would fit. Your $1000 phones.. nope, wrong plug until you got an adaptor. ikewise, when they introduced the stereo bluetooth profile, they (IIRC, could be werong as its been a few years) mucked it around so non-Apple phones woudl get mono, until everyone figured things out.

    They purposefully screw with the audio experience.

    This is a warning about the quality of their gear :)

    They got in a lot of trouble and smarted up at least, so only first generation iphoens and ipods had the lame plug; my trusty Sennheisers and Klipsh sound great in my iphone, and even better in other devices. (It is shocking to me that Apple uses lame chipsets for audio in the audio players…)

  7. I guess cheaper phones are louder per watt, although I can imagine expensive ones having more powerful permanent magnets. Btw have you compared your own different phones & buds for loudness?

    Given a mixture of wide vs. narrowed dynamic-range songs… this is just a dump of stuff I find it reassuring to know: There are options in “lame” to set the volume of a song when you export it. It also has an option that analyzes according to the ReplayGain method and sets that in a tag. The nice Python library “mutagen” reads and writes tags in mp3 and other file formats (see below). Finally lame can convert to raw pcm format (no headers so easy to read) so you could do your own analysis (I don’t agree with whatever level-detection algorithm iTunes uses).

    A nail file is a terrible piece of kit, when you’re looking for a steak knife.

    P.S. more randomness

    import mutagen
    def copy_id3(srcname, destname):
        """ Copy all ID3 tags from srcname to destname. """
        src = mutagen.File(srcname, easy=True)
        dest = mutagen.File(destname, easy=True)
        for tag in src:
            dest[tag] = src[tag]
  8. I personally like in-ear buds, and when my last pair broke, I did a bunch of research. I’m stingy, so price was included in my considerations. From the reading I did, I discovered the MEElectronics M9-BK Sound-Isolating In-Ear Headphone, which runs me $13USD. Best sounding earbud headphones I’ve ever had. The key is getting a good seal between the bud and the ear, this headphone comes with 4 or 5 options for fitting. The stock ones work great for my ear. If you give them a try, I hope they work out for you. I’m sure you already have long gotten rid of the stock Apple buds….

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