Monday, March 17, 2014

Apple iPod nano 5th Generation MP3 Player - Cool, Stylish with Mediocre Sound

After having used the 1st generation Apple iPod Nano 2 GB for over a year and the 2nd generation iPod Nano 2 GB, I also tried a bunch of other MP3 players, including the latest Sony player (16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player). The Sony is my current player of choice due to its sound quality, battery life and ease of use. But iPods have always been known for their ease of use and cool features as well as appearances. So I decided to try a new 8GB iPod Nano with a camera and other cool new features.

From my experience with the 1st couple of generations of iPod Nano I expected good usability, but what about sound quality?

What is the 5th Generation Apple iPod Nano? 

The Apple iPod Nano is a compact MP3 player that is miniature, thin, has a 2.2-inch color screen, a click wheel, video camera, FM radio with pause feature and stores songs in the MP3, AAC, protected AAC (from iTunes store or compressed with iTunes) or WAV format in its internal flash memory. There are 8-Gygabyte and 16-Gygabyte versions of it, both available in variety of colors. The LCD screen lets you navigate the songs and also view stored photos as well as the videos recorded using its camera.

Similarly to previous models, the new Nano is compact, stylish and easy to use. The dimensions are similar to the previous versions. The Nano uses flash memory for storing your music/data and therefore is skip-free and less energy-consuming that hard drive based players. The new version has longer battery life (up to 24 hours for audio, up to 5 hours for video) and lighter/brighter screen than the previous generation.

There is now even a speaker (mediocre-sounding as it is) and a microphone for recording voice memos or sound for your videos.

Included Accessories

The player comes with small headphones (ear buds) and a USB cable.  The included headphones are mediocre in terms of sound quality, but are relatively stylish.


I have not looked at the manual but rather I started using my previous iPod Nanos out the box and was able to figure out the use in no time. For the most part. The bottom line here is if you have used an iPod or another MP3 player, there will not be much to learn, just as with previous models.

Still, if you did not use an MP3 player before, you will learn in no time. I found that the new Nano is very similar in terms of usage as the older one.


The Nano has compact rectangular shape with rounded edges on the sides. The build quality is solid. The front panel houses a bright color 2.2-inch LCD screen in the upper part and a circular control cluster with Play/Pause button at the bottom, Skip Back and Skip Forward buttons left and right of it, Menu on top and the unnamed Center button in the middle (serves as a click wheel).

The Nano's controls are locked or unlocked by sliding the small HOLD switch on the top side. The bottom side houses the dock connector and the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The player is so slim that the headphone jack takes up almost the entire width of the bottom panel. Although I find the fact that the headphone jack is at the bottom slightly inconvenient, but it is a convention nowadays with other players as well an also has packaging benefits. I am sure it would have been impossible to place it on the top panel, since the LCD screen, most likely, takes up all the internal space in that area.

The Skip Forward and Skip Back buttons skip to the next or previous song. When held, they fast forward or backward within the song. Be aware though that in my previous Nanos the internal contacts wore out and trying to push and hold the above buttons did not work anymore and resulted in skipping forward or back one track.

The MENU button lets you go to the previous menu level or, when held, to the main menu. The PLAY/PAUSE button lets you start or resume playback, pause it or turn the player off if depressed for several seconds. Same issue happened with my previous player, turning the player off became very difficult after using it for about a year. Hopefully the newer model is more durable.

The Nano features so-called click wheel. You can place your finger on any area within the outer control circle and move it clockwise or counter-clockwise to scroll through the menu items, change the volume while the song is playing or jump to any point within the song. Very cool and user-friendly feature and, at the same time, easy to control the speed of scrolling, volume change or moving within a track.

The player usage is exactly the same as with the previous generations of Nanos. But the case is less reflective and does not scratch as easily or show scratches as prominently as the 1st generation.

Click Wheel 

The click wheel functionality is really cool. Although there is no actual wheel of any kind, you place your finger on the outer circle of controls and move it clockwise or counterclockwise to scroll through the menu items, adjust the volume or move to any point within the song.

The tactile response of the controls is excellent, including the click wheel. And the Nano makes a short chirping sound when you push some buttons, which is a great confirmation as well. The only issue might be the potential durability (see above).

Comparing with my 16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player, the click wheel makes quick navigation a breeze. But the fact that it also serves as a volume control, whereas the Sony uses separate hardware buttons on the side makes Sony more user-friendly in volume control regard.


The Nano has a wide exposed connection port for use with a supplied USB cable. The supplied USB cable plugs into the port with some effort and you have to squeeze the ends of it to take it out. You can also use the USB cables from other iPods or the third-party made ones. I used one for charging from an AC adaptor bought for a low price online.

Battery and Charging 

The Nano has an internal battery that recharges while the iPod is connected to the powered USB port. When I connected to my computer, the LCD screen illuminated and the icon that indicates charging appeared. My Nano came charged about 90%. I still followed Apple's recommendation and fully charged it.

According to Apple, you have up to 24 hours of continuous audio playback time on one charge or 5 hours of video, which is the same as was the case with the 2nd generation Nano. Only the first generation model claimed 14 hours. Now, 24 hours is not horrible, but my 16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player features a 40-hour battery (and some sources claim 50 hours).

For transatlantic flights and traveling in general, 40 hours or more is preferred to 24 hours.

Charging from fully discharged to 80% takes only 1.5 hours and full charging takes 3 hours.

Software Installation 

You can download the latest software from the Apple web site. The software in question is Apple iTunes 9, which seems to be an improvement on the previous iTunes, but not a revolutionary one. Again, I have to mention that with the Sony player I didn't have to download anything at all and simply used Windows Media Player 11 already installed on my computer.

Music Transfer 

You can select an option in the iTunes software that makes the iTunes automatically start once the iPod is connected. The iTunes looks cute and is easy to use. The iPod appears as one of the folders in the left pane of iTunes and you can drag and drop the songs you want from the Library folder that represents your music library. And unlike the earlier iTunes and the iPod Shuffle, you can drag MP3 files directly from your hard drive or any other drive onto your iPod in iTunes without placing them first into your music library.

As soon as you drag and drop the songs, the data processing and transfer to iPod starts. The message is also telling you that you cannot disconnect the iPod at this stage (to prevent data corruption). The LCD display on the iPod also tells you not to disconnect the Nano at this stage.

The Nano supports USB 2.0 Hi-Speed and files are copied very fast. The transfer speed exceeded 5 MB per second. The 8GB version of Nano can fit a little less than 8 GB of music, since in addition to actual files, there are several folders created and files with information about each song are written, including album art, etc.

Depending on song length and the bit rate, you can fit anywhere from 2,000 songs (at 128 kbps bit rate) to 1,000 songs (if you want better sound quality and use, say 256 kbps VBR). You can select the default compression method and bit-rate in iTunes settings (for CD ripping).

The Nano supports Variable Bit Rate (VBR) for better sound quality at the same bit rate as CBR (Constant Bit Rate). It also supports AAC, Audible format 2-4, Apple lossless, protected AAC, AIFF and WAV. What it still does not support (and unlikely will support in future) is WMA. Windows Media is not a good friend of Apple. I have some WMA files, so no chance of playing them on Nano.

Sound Quality 

Even in a portable device, the sound quality is very important to me. My Sony when I first got it became a benchmark for sound quality in a compact device. Its sound was immediately perceived as being better than that of the previous Nano I had, even without using the equalizer.

The new Nano was a letdown. The fact that the supplied headphones were only semi-decent was no surprise. The supplied ear buds lack bass and sound moderately bright overall with slight metallic treble, but the imaging was good, the clarity was decent. The supplied ear buds look stylish (even though they are white and thus do not match the Nano's color).

The single most significant improvement to the sound of any MP3 player is replacing the stock headphones. You do not even have to spend a lot to get better sound. I replaced the stock Apple headphones with the, tried and true, Koss KSC75, which is a larger headphone that is attached to your ear with a clip that curves around it.

I also tried the iPod with large enclosed Sennheiser HD202. Neither of these headphones costs more than $20, but both improve the sound dramatically. With both, the bass improved along with being able to hear warmer, more natural sound. Still, I was immediately disappointed by the iPod's lack of detail, dynamic range and definition in upper as well as lower frequencies. In fact, the sound was mediocre at best throughout the frequency range. Congested sound is not something I prefer, even in a portable device.

In the past I would fault the sound quality on the MP3 format itself. Now, I know that the same MP3 files sound much, much better on my Sony. And using lossless formats with this (and most other iPods) produces no improvement. I even tried Rockbox firmware with a previous version of the iPod and even using Rockbox's different MP3 decoder and its graphic equalizer provided no relief. Seems that iPos in general just have poor hardware when it comes to sound quality.

At least this Nano can play very loud, even with aftermarket headphones, which is not always the case with other players.

Unlike Sony players, which have graphic equalizers, the Nano only has multiple equalizer presets, all of them ineffective in curing the sound issues or compensating for the different headphones' uneven frequency responses. If you choose to get this iPod, I highly recommend Koss KSC75 headphones (reviewed here) to upgrade this or any iPod. At lest they sound decent, unlike the included buds.

Skip Protection 

The Nano players needs no skip protection as it has no mechanical parts (they use flash memory) and will not skip. It is also less susceptible to damage from drops, comparing with the players that use hard drives. The use of flash memory also results in lower power consumption and compact size.


The Nano has a bright and colorful 2.2-inch LCD display. The screen has a bright backlight and features nice color scheme. It is fluid enough for playback of the mediocre-quality videos you can shoot with the embedded video camera. The photos look vivid and sharp for the size of the screen.

FM Radio

The Nano has FM radio, which sounds decent. You can even pause live radio for up to 15 minutes, then continue listening. Clever.


Having used previous generations of iPod Nano, I have my concerns: scratch-resistance and the durability of controls. I have used protective silicone cases and film screen protectors with my previous Nanos and recommend them as a cheap insurance. As for the control durability (see above), let's hope Apple improved that area.

Pros: Stylish, features, camera, orientation sensor, pedometer, FM radio with pause, speaker, screen
Cons: Sound could be better, no graphic equalizer, price, battery life lower than competitors', have to use iTunes

Bottom Line 

Very pleasant in use, feature-rich and stylish, the new Nano is a good choice, provided you do not require very good sound quality. If you demand the best sound quality however (as I do), you will want to look at Sony players instead, for example the 16GB Sony NWZ-S639FR Digital Media Player. I have that model and it sounds much better

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