It's a Christmas Music Miracle

A hi-fi music player for Everyman.

Your music never sounded this good.

Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

In pondering your Christmas gift ideas, you will surely have considered, as I did, that hedonic adjustment of price indices seriously complicates judgments about changes in one's standard of living. Let's get that out of the way first.

A salient characteristic of modern economic growth is that products get cheaper and better simultaneously. Working out how much the price has changed with quality held constant, product by product and service by service, is hard. Yet to make judgments about whether incomes have risen "in real terms," that's information you must have. That's why real income is a slippery concept. Nonetheless, I am here today to raise your real income.

The Fiio X3 is the most wonderful example of "cheaper and much, much better" I have ever come across. I don't know how you pronounce Fiio, but for a little over $150, it's raised my standard of living remarkably.

The X3 is a digital audio player -- an iPod-like device -- that runs high-resolution recordings through an anomalously high-end digital-to-analog converter. The iPod or iPhone or Android smartphone you're using has an inferior DAC. You're most likely playing MP3's or some other file format that lost audio information when the original was compressed to a more manageable size. Your music sounds good, but not nearly as good as files that have been "losslessly compressed," run through a good-quality DAC, and played on decent headphones.

Good DACs have previously been imbedded in prohibitively expensive devices. Fiio has put one in this thing.

Let me reassure you that I am not talking about a barely perceptible, much less imaginary, difference in sound. You may have heard of audiophiles. Second only to wine snobs, they are sad people with empty lives. They claim to discern minuscule differences in the sound quality yielded by ludicrously expensive pieces of equipment -- differences that you or I could not hear and wouldn't be interested in if we could. They spend thousands of dollars on cables. I do not speak for audiophiles. I speak, as on all matters, for Everyman.

When you first listen to a high-resolution recording of your favorite music through this device, your jaw will drop. The music is fabulously detailed. Wherever you turn your attention, you can hear layer upon layer of sound. Single notes are rendered as complex structures of sounds, changing in character as they're sustained. Nothing jars: The word I want to use -- reluctant as I am to surrender to hi-fi foolery -- is "liquid." The music emerges from a silent background and presents an impression of voices and instruments precisely located in space. It's miraculous.

Now, be aware of certain drawbacks. The user interface is a joke. The buttons are in the wrong place. The screen is no good. It comes equipped with a negligible 8gigabytes of storage, so you have to buy a 64Gb memory card to go with it -- and even that is only enough to hold maybe 150 CDs worth of high-resolution files. (The new PonoPlayer, masterminded by Neil Young, will put some of this right, but it's more than twice the price and hasn't launched yet.)

The good news is that if you've kept your CDs -- you have kept your CDs? -- you can experience them anew, and marvel. The bad news is that you will have to rip them again, in a lossless format. This is time-consuming. As for the software you'll need, iTunes lets you do this, but since Apple has spent the past several years working hard to make iTunes unusable I can no longer recommend it for this or any other purpose. (I use XLD, which is free and does the job; there are many others.)

You'll probably need better headphones. Sound quality is limited by the weakest link in the file-DAC-headphone chain. Happily, I already had a good set. But another problem is only just dawning on me. For the past several years I've bought MP3 downloads instead of CDs. The list of albums I feel I need to buy again is growing at an alarming rate. Farther ahead, I discern another issue. The X3 supports files recorded at higher-than-CD resolution, which you can buy from specialist sites. At some point, I will give them a try. At the moment, I dare not.

Next year, I will share with you my list of the 100 most essential kitchen appliances. (I have issues with my friend Megan McArdle's far from comprehensive selection.) This year, I'll keep my seasonal listicle -- Excellent Gifts That, In View of the Late Date, You Should Have Bought Last Week -- down to one.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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