The iPad and other tablets are popular because they're good at a wide range of functions -- Web browsing, game-playing, emailing, listening to music and reading. For smartphones, add phone-calling and text messaging.
But while they may be jacks-of-all-these-trades, they're not masters of all of them. Necessary compromises render these multi-function devices only so-so at best for some, especially reading and music. And that's created a market opportunity for manufacturers of great new single-function devices that really are masters of their own trades.
Chief among them: Amazon's Kindle Voyage is the best e-reader on the market, by a sizable margin. For listening to digital music files, the new Fiio X3, brought out by a Chinese company that had already made a name for itself in high-end audio, is simply amazing and available at an amazingly low price. Even BlackBerry, which was given up for dead not long ago, has come out with a new hand-held, the Classic, with a physical keyboard that restores much of the ease of emailing that has been lost to smartphones' on-screen keyboards.
Let's start with reading. Tablets and smartphones have built-in e-readers to serve the burgeoning market in ebooks, but for many users (me, for example), reading a book on an LED screen is a painful experience. Even the sharpest pads don't approach the resolution of a printed book and the backlighting, even when dimmed, creates the sensation of trying to read while staring into a car's headlights.
Backlit e-reading may even be hazardous to your health, according to a study just published by the National Academy of Sciences. The authors found that reading on an iPad or other light-emitting screen just before bedtime suppressed their subjects' sleepiness at night and left them drowsier the next morning. The implications are scary: disturbed sleep cycles are associated with increased risk of breast, colorectal and prostate cancer. "These results indicate that reading a [light-emitting] eBook in the hours before bedtime likely has unintended biological consequences that may adversely impact performance, health, and safety."
If you must read on an e-reader (as I must) the Amazon Kindle is a far superior choice. Amazon's latest version, the Voyage, offers print so sharp it's virtually indistinguishable from the print in a book. The subtle illumination of its frontlit screen resembles that of a page under a lamp, and is very comfortable to read on. Pads don't come close. The two earlier-generation Kindle Paperwhites are also frontlit but blotchy.
Another plus: Because the Kindle does one thing and one thing only, users can't be distracted by the impulse to check their email, browse the Web or play a game of solitaire. Like previous Kindles, the Voyage incorporates an "experimental" Web browser, but it's so slow and crude that I've never met anyone who uses it. The Voyage's major downside is its $199 price, a big jump from earlier Kindles. But if you're a fan of e-readers, this is the one to own.
It isn't clear if the frontlit Kindles produce the same sleep effects as iPads; the sleep study was conducted in 2010 and 2011, before they were on the market. But they're certainly not as headache-inducing.
On to music. Apple introduced the iPod in 2001. It wasn't the first digital music player, but its convenience and style revolutionized music on-the-go. It also intensified the debate over whether the MP3 digital format would permanently kill the quality of recorded music. Many audio experts found the sound quality of iPods acceptable, with the fifth-generation iPod Classic (2006-2009) often regarded as the peak performer.
But the experts seem to agree that sound quality has deteriorated sharply since then, especially in the iPhone 5. Why wouldn't it? Most users are listening in noisy environments such as their cars or outside on the street. Apple's commitment to selling music players with the capacity to store full collections of music digitized at the most demanding, but space-hogging, "lossless" formats has waned. The company no longer sells its 160-gigabyte Classic; because it expects most users to stream their music from the cloud, digital capacity is almost irrelevant. But a compressed and streamed music file heard via an iPhone is the antithesis of high fidelity. I've written before about Apple's steady abandonment of the music lovers who made the original iPod a huge success.
For years, industry observers have been declaring the audiophile market dead. But it's showing distinct signs of life. Fiio's X3, introduced this year for less than $200, is an iPod-sized unit that offers simply astonishing audio quality, comparable to CDs played on high-end equipment. Heard through decent headphones, music on the X3 is a revelation, with a presence, depth and texture you won't hear anywhere but from a live stage.
The X3 restores the polish even to music indifferently ripped from CDs or downloaded at low bitrates. On super hi-resolution files such as those downloadable from firms like Acoustic Sounds or HDTracks, it really shines. On my test track, Stan Getz's "Samba da Sahra," Getz's sax has the sweetness and immediacy, Laurindo Almeida's guitar the verve and George Duvivier's bass the heft and color that were lurking in the standard CD recording, but only dimly perceptible.
The X3 accepts a 128-gb microSD card, which gives it a capacity close to the iPod Classic; unlike the iPod, iPad and iPhone, it will play almost any lossless format, not just Apple's. On the downside, its user interface is just awful; though successive firmware upgrades have improved it.
Fiio joins several other firms in the market for mobile audiophile devices, but units from rivals such as Astell & Kern are much more expensive. Some audiophiles, evidently, are still willing to shell out thousands in search of the best sound. Soon to enter the market is rock star Neil Young's crowd-sourced hi-res Ponoplayer, which is "designed to be the next best thing to live music." It will be out sometime in 2015, priced at $399.
How big are these specialty markets? There are no reliable figures. Amazon refuses to disclose its unit sales of Kindles. Audiophiles always have accounted for a tiny slice of the $20-billion home entertainment market in the U.S.; the Consumer Electronics Assn.'s estimate of $200 million in high-end audio sales in 2010 was 60% lower than it was in 1998. It's unclear, however, what's included in each category.
Plainly, entrepreneurial companies see opportunity in marketing quality. The high-tech industry often has been damned for making us dumber, deafer and blinder. But there are green sprouts poking through the blight.