When I first started getting into hifi audiophile gear one of the first things I wanted to improve was the sound of my workout setup. Music is so influential when exercising. I have found many times that the extra motivation I need to push myself is hidden within the notes of some of my favorite workout tunes. Sound quality plays a big part in that visceral energy that pushes me to do more and run further during my workouts. It also gives me some time to focus on listening to new musical finds, in addition to “Eye of the Tiger” on constant repeat.
The purpose of this rig is to achieve the best quality with the most energy, while still retaining the mobility and durability that is mandatory with equipment exposed to the turbulence that accompanies running and working out. It is not to be considered an all-around setup. I put together this rig with hopes of achieving the most engaging and energetic sound possible. To that end, this could be a fun rig to just sit around the house and relax with, but there are many more possible alternatives (that are more flexible across different music genres) when ultra-portability is taken out of the equation. There are a few drawbacks that accompany a rig that maximizes portability. I prefer to workout with noise-isolating IEMs, but it is generally hard to achieve a massive soundstage. The amplifier used here delivers one of the deepest and widest soundstages for its size, but IEMs still really can’t compete with what a full-size headphone can deliver in this regard. I also would have liked to include a battery-powered external DAC like the Cypher Labs Algorithm Solo, but given the additional weight and relative size, it just wasn’t feasible to run with. With that same logic, higher-end digital player offerings from HiFi Man and ColorFly had to be overlooked. This was done not only for portability reasons, but I couldn’t recommend exposing such expensive units to the harsh environment that they are not intended for. The last thing anyone wants is to shorten the lifespan of their expensive gear.
The first element of this rig is the player. Apple’s iPod Nano was selected for portability and ease of operation. This DAP was designed with working out in mind, so durability shouldn’t prove to be an issue in the long haul. The Nano is also advantageous over the smaller (and cheaper) Shuffle in that is offers the full 30 pin apple connection (the shuffle has only a headphone output). This connection can be used with a Line Out Dock (LOD) connector to bypass the headphone amp for a theoretically cleaner signal. I can say from experience that headphone output from Shuffle is not ideal, especially when used in conjunction with another external amplifier. I am happy to report that the Line Out audio from the current-generation Nano is relatively clean, and surprisingly much much better than my 1st generation iPad Line Out. Upon further testing, sound quality did show improvement with the addition of a CEntrance DACport CX in the chain, but again, mobility restricts its use.
The Apple Nano is a solid upgrade from a shuffle in terms of both usability and sound quality. Touch screen navigation make perusing your entire library or just finding your favorite power song much easier. The top-facing sleep/wake button also forwards to the next song when double-clicked. I find a workout mix on random shuffle complements this button’s click feature nicely. It is important to note that Apple navigation buttons featured on headphones and headphone cables will not work when they pass through the amp with this setup, so you will be stuck with the on-board Nano controls.
The connector I used in this rig was an inexpensive LOD model ($10 on Amazon) from Fiio called the L9. More expensive alternatives are available should you be so inclined, provided that it is long enough to make the turn around the corner of the unit. ALO audio offers a high-end alternative with its Low Rider iPod LOD cable ($119). I would recommend using a cable that is as short as possible and utilizes right angle connectors in order to reduce wear and tear on the amp and player sockets.
The amp used in this setup is the Ray Samuels Emmeline Shadow (full review here). It was selected mainly for its size, weight and synergy with IEM headphones. The combined weight of the Nano and Shadow is totally manageable when clipped to shorts or running pants. The collective unit is accompanied by a slight tug when running or jumping, but nothing that would affect your workout. I find the rig is best implemented when clipped (using the built on Nano clip) into a front side pocket with the amp weight resting on the pocket seam. This allows for easy access to volume controls and reduces the chances of the unit falling out. I find that thin pants fare better with the clip. I have never had the player fall out utilizing this technique; the clamping force of the Nano is enough to hold everything in place.
The rig is lashed together with two of your standard mobile audiophile rubber bands, I got mine from an ALO amp I had on hand. The bands are double-wrapped around the amp. Three straps are located underneath the Nano (to protect against scratches to the amp) and one in the clip to secure the Nano to the amp while still leaving enough room for the fabric necessary to attach to your pants. I also recommend using a small clip to attach the headphone cable to your shirt around neck level. This will reduce cable noise (from rubbing against your clothes) and reduce tension in the cable line. The combination of sweat, intensive movement and too much pressure pulling down on the cable can cause IEMs to rotate around in your ear. This can lead to an uncomfortable fit and you may not even notice it until the earpiece is jabbing you the wrong way in your ear canal. A cheap headphone clip provides an easy solution to this workout plight.
This setup will complement most any IEM or earbud you combine it with. I prefer to run with IEMs, but I would always recommend paying special attention to your surroundings as you run with this type of headphone in. IEMs usually are accompanied by a sound-reducing ear seal, which can be dangerous for outside running. I have found that emergency vehicles and other loud outside noises can still be heard over the music, if played at moderate levels. Applying simple common sense and staying attentive to your surroundings should be enough keep you out of harms way. If you would like to truly reach for the audio-nirvana stars, I would recommend combining the rig with a pair of Jerry Harvey audio JH16s (for the bass lover) although I have noticed truly exceptional performance from the more moderately priced JH5s as well.
The two main improvements this rig provides over a standard headphone output are increased resolution/fidelity and vastly improved bass presentation. From my experience headphone outputs on the iDevices have been a little lean on the bass. Pushing the bass from the internal EQ options resulted in a bloated and mushy low end. Bass from this rig combination is tight, textured and more pronounced, which is extremely fortunate as tight good bass goes a long way to contributing to the energy and excitement perceived in music while on the go. When you are listening to music through headphones in the quiet of your house, bass is relatively easy to hear and enjoy. When you are running down the street or riding your bike, bass tends to suffer the most from outside interference. Sounds from cables rubbing against your clothes and your body movements all produce somewhat bassy sounds when using noise-isolating IEMs. This setup attempts to overcome these audio obstacles with clear, solid, enjoyable bass representation. Therefore, a little extra bass in the overall mix may actually feel more appropriate when working out. This rig is also extremely transparent, so you will not be able to get away with low resolution MP3s as easily as you would with other DAPs. I highly suggest you rip your music to a lossless format for best enjoyment. iDevices do top out at 24 bit/48 kHz, so the highest music resolutions will not play on a Nano unless you down-sample them.
If you are looking for the best sound you can achieve with a rig that is portable enough to run with, this is it. Pair these components with your favorite IEMs or high end earbuds and you will have a winning combination for inspirational hifi sounds during your workout.