Why iSheep are better than LemmingS

Apple are evil. Apple suck. Apple make rubbish sh*t. They can’t research. They can’t build. And most of all, they can’t make good-sounding devices. That is because they rely on a stupid, baa baa customer base of fools whose brains are mush, whose limbs are mutton, and who walk on cloven feet. Apple cater to iSheep, the brand of humanoid who buys up any new crap from Apple, just because it is an Apple product. And iSheep deserve nothing less than contempt, or better yet: the lynch mob.

Urban Dictionary has a good pragmatic use of the word, ‘iSheep’.

Person 1: “Look at Kate with her new iPod nano.”

Person 2: “But she only just got a new iPod a few months ago.”

Person 1: “But now the iPod nano is the newest thing, so that old iPod is obsolete!”

Person 2: “What an iSheep.”

But, if iSheep suck, LemmingS (Sansa Lemmings) are worse: their bowels are moved sick by Apple, spraying out shi*ty lies, succumbing to hate-based marketing, and worst of all – shunning the use of their brains in order to belong to an elitist niche.

iSheep originally was a campaign by Sandisk to promote its own line of Sansa media players. That line had a couple of things going for it: compact size and support of the excellent alternative firmware: Rockbox. Sandisk have come a long way since then, offering good-sounding players such as the Fuze and Clip. But, in their mild success, they have lost an important item: support of Rockbox.

Rockbox allows a digital audio player (DAP) to skirt its original firmware with something useful. Imagine the following: parametric EQ, Replay gain, gapless support, a long list of supported formats, skins, games – Rockbox is the bloody bee’s knees for the portable audiophile. iPods through generation 5,5 support it, but have been locked down since the debut of the Classic.

Audiophile hackers supported the iPod with Rockbox. Their hard work turned the Apple’s music player into an audio paradise. Sansa dropped support for it in favour of their OS – a confusing, erratic mess which supports a baby’s handful of codecs, a rubbish EQ (admittedly better than Apple’s), horrid battery life, etc.. And the same Sansa who blame Apple for toppling today’s teenagers with stupidity, who argue that their sound is top, who in every way, are spiteful and envious, don’t even support gapless playback. So, that favourite concert album of yours will go like this: “And I, will always (gaaaaap) love you.” Refreshing ain’t it?

All of that said, I own a Sansa Fuze V2. I had gone out to buy a Fuze V1, a player which has been mostly hacked to run Rockbox. The Fuze V2 doesn’t run Rockbox and as such sits on my desk. Despite sounding quite decent, it is hardly audiophile in comparison to the lowly iPod, but LemingS rally to it as the bloody second coming in the portable audio world. It can do no wrong. It cannot be beaten. It can drive any earphone. It is bloody Steve Jobs.

I also own several Sony players, have gone through Cowons, HiSound, and Meizu, and started my portable audio life hating everyone who owned anything but Minidisk. For audiophiles, each offer something, but take away far more. Sony has a pretty, warm, organic sound, and can drive low Ω dynamic earphones well. But its recent players hiss brutally, lack power for proper headphones, and just like Sansa, forgo gapless support. The Meizu has a pretty good 10-band EQ, a warm sound sound and slim design. But it hisses like the Sony, suffers bass roll off, and load on firmware issues. Cowon? Imagine Apple iPod’s sound with compressed stereo and bass roll off. At least the company apply industry-leading BBE effects and an okay EQ.

Apple DAP’s ain’t perfect. The iPod is a neutral sounding player, not exciting. It isn’t warm, it has the WORST EQ on the face of the planet, only supports industry-standard codecs, and is popular, meaning you can see it most everywhere. Despite this, it outputs great 20-20 000 Hz response when paired with all but the most hard-to-drive balanced armature earphones. It sustains a much better than average stereo channel and low distortion. But Apple never, ever advertise the fact that the iPod is an audio performer – it isn’t their prerogative.

When Apple lift a finger, the world holds its breath. People get excited. Fans roar.

Why? They make good products. The iPod line has faults, but as far as experience, is the most complete mass-produced piece of kit in the world. Gapless, album art, large storage size, great navigation, battery life, power. iPods have low amounts of hiss, drive dynamic earphones well, and stand out from the crowd with excellent stereo separation.

Apple’s 30-pin port supports Line-level output and a range of IN/OUT functions including studio-quality recording devices such as the Alesis Protrack. You can also easily attach high-quality portable headphone amps to it, and even coax digital output from its 30-pin arse. Apple’s ubiquity has forced its contempt, but at the same time, harnessed its true potential as an audiophile device.

iDevice users don’t have to buy from iTunes, but they have to use the software. And iPod users can forgo the software for tranferring files, instead using Songbird, a Mozzilla software. There are others. But, Apple, in partnering with music labels, have had to lock a few things down. Unlike brands like Cowon and Meizu, pirating music from iPod to computer is a lot harder to do. You can’t just plug your iPod and unload all your torrent-acquired songs to a friend’s computer. No, Apple’s support of the music industry won’t allow that.

While IceCube “turns haters into mashed potatas”, Apple turn iPod-haters into cave dwellers, users who argue pointedly for and against hardware, not for function. Sansa, Sony, Cowon – each company is superior for a certain function, but when their abilities are weighed, they lack. Apple sound quality (SQ) is the Suxors – can be seen around the net and is argued by elitist ignoramuses. But SQ, like performance should be a gauge, not an opinion.

A car’s speed isn’t judged by its looks or its interior or the fact that it can shoot rockets from its arse, it is judged by benchmarks. In the same way, sound quality is best judged by benchmarks. It isn’t a wishy-washy ejaculation of ‘wow, that bass is ‘da bomb!!’, or ‘oh my, I can hear someone coughing in the background’. Whether you do or do not like the neutral sound of Apple’s iDevice and iPod line means nothing in terms of actual sound quality. Like speed, sound can be qualitatively assessed by the following benchmarks: square wave, chirp, frequency sweep, channel bleed, and audible hiss – each of which determine how well hardware sustains itself against a ‘control’ sound wave. If a piece of hardware cannot do those things, it is deficient against a standard. On one hand, it doesn’t mean that a device ‘sounds’ bad, but it means that its performance is sub-par.

In all hardware tests, including loaded (with earphones attached in parallel to the output), Apple products do as well, or better than most of their colleagues. So, unless you really prefer bass roll off, sound quality has nothing at all to do with anything Cowon. SQ as a maxim is opinion at best, and that is the hard part. Opinion is formed by many items, but most often by external stimuli. In Apple’s case, the opinion about a company, about their products, the ‘fashion culture’, ubiquity – none of which amount to sound or quality. Items such as EQ can be benchmarked for distortion and overall use – Apple fail completely with regards to EQ. Otherwise, however, ‘SQ’ as thrown around by ‘audiophiles’ is simply a byword which stands in the place of sound signature, that telling sound which you may or may not like. If you are looking for something different-sounding, then go for it, but know that it has nothing to do with sound quality, it has to do with preference.

Ears and brains enjoy certain sound, certain marketing schemes, certain companies, but are fooled at so many instances. Sandisk’s iSheep was in some ways a great marketing campaign – it distanced its products from Apple’s, but at the same time, it alienated a customer base. What iPod user, after seeing a Sandisk advert would want to change from their iPod? They cornered one market – the easily-encouraged Apple hater. But, they also, in stodgily attacking Apple, back-pedalled their own marketing: while critiquing Apple for creating sheep, they polarised the DAP market into another Baa baa DAP sheep segment: if you don’t buy Sansa (or anything but iPod), you are a sheep. However, it also means that you MUST succumb to other, more overt marketing tactics.

iPod on top!

Apple don’t have a good EQ and you are tied into iTunes (to a certain extent), but in attacking Apple’s customer bass, Sansa made slaves to another thinking: that in order to not be an iSheep, you must be a LemmingS. After years of hating Apple’s iPod, I am a happy iPod touch owner. I use headphone amps, good earphones, and enjoy my music. I’d also happily use my Sansa Fuze V2 if it afforded me as quality of a music experience as the iPod. The same can be said of any portable which combines a good user experience with real, gritty SQ backed by benchmark performance – Apple haters – you can have your hiss, your gaps, your trite stereo separation, and your sense of humour.

As it is, I’m an iSheep and proud of it.

Still hate the iPod? That’s fine, but at least take a few minutes to stalk haughtily down TMA’s headphone oubliette.

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