iWant: An iPod Pro

Let’s face it: the iPod is dying. Apple still sells the iPod classic – with 160 GB storage on a hard disk – the iPod nano, the iPod shuffle, and the iPod touch, but the iPod family, overall, is on its last legs. Look at these numbers, showing iPod sales over the past few years (source: Macworld):

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Apple’s still selling more than 12 million units a year, but that’s down from 19 million just two years ago. Compare that to iPhone units (source: Macworld):

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Apple is selling more than 37 million iPhones a quarter; the iPad sells more units than the iPod as well.

So, with this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a hard-drive based iPod (because of the storage capacity), with the ability to play high-resolution files, and with a digital optical output. This would allow users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, and have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate this when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to have more capacity than the current iPod classic: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), a 250 GB hard disk would hold about 200 albums. If you stuck with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 500 albums, which would be fine for most users. (Or, they could go to 512 GB of flash storage… Costly, but this is for a market that might be willing to pay for it.)

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an excellent DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Apple could use a similar quality DAC, and still come in at, say, $300 or so, with a goodly amount of storage.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that could stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?

22 thoughts on “iWant: An iPod Pro

  1. I agree : I find I have integrated my iPod Classic with my audio system but invested in a Fiio DAC .
    I would be in the market for a high capacity iPod with a better DAC. My iTunes library has grown to 238GB.

  2. My iPod Classic is very dear to me. The battery life is amazing. But I have always wanted flexibility (or at least improvement) in how metadata is displayed. I have had to truncate the album names of much of my very large music collection so I can see what’s playing on the iPod. I would like the option to turn off the album art so I can see more text. I would like album, track, and artist to all scroll. And a page that shows all the metadata.

  3. iPod Touch already has (had?) digital audio out via the 30 pin connector. Pure made a nice home dock that had a decent DAC and also allowed digital passthru to a better one. I didn’t see any of the portable DAC crowd rushing to build versions with 30 pin connectors – they’re all USB. So is the market big enough to support the investment? It would likely have to be from the ground up and support USB if you wanted an external portable DAC. You haven’t sold me on the use case that wouldn’t be largely covered by existing devices (phone, tablet, laptop) when you were in a location where you could actually notice a difference.

    • Yes, but the 30-pin connector is no more. There were a few expensive docks that could get digital audio from the device, but they were bulky. A digital optical output would be more efficient.

  4. Great idea for me. Currently using a Macbook Pro as the iTunes source library for DAC and HiFi. The ability to use a dedicated device just for music, plus the advantage of portability, would be a winner.

    Just not sure it is a market Apple want to be in. Your comparison with the Mac Pro and your choice of name – iPod Pro – should encourage them, of course!

  5. “Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?”

    The issue there is the margins on the Mac Pro are likely high enough to make it worthwhile for Apple to develop a radical desktop machine that will likely have comparatively modest sales at best.

    I like the idea a lot though. First of all though I’d like to see iTunes selling, and AirPlay supporting, high-res audio files, to bring the format to the masses a little more.

  6. I like the idea, but I see no need to go with a hard drive. What I see as ideal is a combination iPod touch and portable audio recorder à la the Zoom series. Slap in 512 GB of flash, a detachable XY microphone (or XLR dock) and you have a great 24/96 player & recorder in one.

  7. You’re misreading that chart, BTW.

    That first column isn’t “yearly total sales”, it’s Q1 sales (Christmas season, IOW).

    They sold about 35 million iPods in 2012.

    On topic, though, the market for an iPod Pro is so rarified that Apple won’t bother – and like Rob said, margins matter a lot; the Pro will be a money-maker.

    (Want an improved iPod that might work as a profitable product?

    iPod Touch, 256 gb of flash [holds almost anyone’s entire collection in modern high-quality encoding**], improved “hi-fi” output stage with a digital out [that idea is sensible!], marketed as e.g. “iPod Audiophile”.

    That might make money, especially since people would buy it “to have a 256 gig iOS device”; there are other uses for that, people who won’t ever use the digital [optical, I’m assuming?] audio out.)

    * I notice the math doesn’t work on the albums thing you suggest; I think you meant “20 dozen” albums; at 1 gig a piece, 24 albums is a mere 24 gigs, not 240. Plus 24 albums in a “pro” product at “pro” prices is obviously a loser.

    ** When the geeks at HydrogenAudio agree that nobody that isn’t magic can tell the difference between lossless and 256k MP3, let alone 256k AAC, it’s time to let “24 bit, 96k” output go, okay?

    A dollar says I’m right on an ABX test, with any taker accepted.

  8. It’s just a matter of time before Apple sells iOS device with 256GB flash storage. High-end DAC is the only missing link, but I am guessing one can connect DAC equipped with HDMI input + Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter.

  9. Studio Master Quality audio ( PONO) is coming and an iPod should
    be able and ready to lead that market with a Pro. Neil Young tried to get Steve Jobs to help out and he said he was receptive but the discussions never led to a product. The market for high end small DACs is exploding, why not model them in software . A Burr-Brown vs xxxxxxxx brand. Take it a step further and you could model tube amps and speakers. They could be sold in an App like store. You could listen to a pair of old JBL 100’s with an old Quad amp………and phono stages. Standard 96/24 files should be able to scale to some of the new 196/24 bit rate files like the new CSNY 1974 Tour album coming out soon. Once super high quality sound is experienced for the first time by folks who have only ever heard jankey computer speakers a conversion will take place like FM and HiFi in the late 60’s onward till they discovered that downloading was way faster than cassette tape…… and free, you did not have to buy or borrow your friends albums to record. Although I have some high end Denon cassette tape that still kicks butt.

    Apple should treat it as a small audio component you can carry as well. iRiver has one like that now. Meridian has two products- DAC prossessors only- and is building several car systems and I am not sure about home components. Apple can own this— but it was Steve that listened to vinyl and Quad ESLs when he went home at night……….and Genlecs on his desk! I don’t know about Tim and Jony.

    The iPod should live on as a state of the art product, because Apple can.

  10. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I would love a thinner, sveltier iPod pro with high storage. I’d even go with the click wheel and a retina display. I like the click wheel interface and for purely listening to music it works well. Love to see this… Imagine the current classic, thinner than an iPod touch and with a retina display… Sign me up!

    • Apple has a patent for a click wheel system that is really software that “floats” to the surface of the screen when you touch it and then disappears . Really slick- has all the same features and benefits of a real one- nice.

  11. I definitely want to see iTunes go 24/96. Macs all have 24/96 for some time now. There are also Apogee audio converters that plug into iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad.

    I think what will happen is 24/96 will be built into Apple’s iOS hardware platform across the line, including AppleTV, which will give you what you want for $99. But not for a little while yet.

    The good news is that Apple accepts 24/96 audio masters from music publishers. The backend of iTunes is already 24/96.

      • But not Studio Master Quality format- that is an algorithm that must be added for format playback . I read where some famous audiophile journalists said that it sounded AS GOOD OR BETTER than a 180 grm LP

  12. Spot on. With all the talk about accessories, why is Apple giving up on the walletPod? I was hoping it would bring it home: Create an iPod that would completely replace my wallet, with purchasing apps, an Apple Visa card. Make my front jeans pockets the new back pocket.

  13. Wouldn’t high quality headphones with AirPlay support be a better solution?

    Like you said, for that kind of scenario, you’re probably at home, or at least somewhere you could easily have your laptop. The problem is being tethered to a big sound system.

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