Classic iPod Hackers Say There’s No Better Way to Listen to Music

Apple may have discontinued the last of the click-wheel iPods years ago, but a large community of iPod modders resurrects them for their sound and nostalgia

Illustration: Simoul Alva

MManuel Mantecon, who goes by Pichi, has several boxes stacked in his bathroom filled with iPod parts. When it’s time to fix one up for a customer, he takes the boxes down, including one shaped like a sewing kit that he refers to as his “iPod toolbox,” and refurbishes used iPods out of his bathroom in North Carolina. He works out of his bathroom because it’s a lot of moving parts, and he tends to leave a bit of a mess. “I know it sounds a little crazy, but it keeps everything out of sight,” Pichi said.

Pichi, 50, is currently out of the workforce due to multiple sclerosis but enjoys fixing up the classic Apple music players for people around the world, who find him through word of mouth or Reddit forums. In the last six or seven years, he estimates that he’s reconstructed hundreds of iPods.

Apple may have discontinued the last of the click-wheel iPods years ago, but Pichi is part of a growing community of tinkerers giving the devices new life. It’s not just for nostalgia (though that’s part of it): iPod modders say they earnestly view the devices, with a few modern tweaks, as a superior way to listen to music. That this elite audio quality is packaged in a device that is also dear to their heart makes it even better.

“The iPod is a pure device,” says Sean Kirvin, 28. “When using an iPod all you can do is listen to music. On the surface it may seem restrictive, in reality it frees you.” Photo: Sean Kirvin

The more popular modifications are relatively simple: updates like adding more storage or battery life, or installing firmware that allows for customization of the user interface or downloading games outside of Apple’s ecosystem. Few iPod modders are injecting the music players with wild features or stark new aesthetics.

Pichi said that he’s not that technical or “geeky” but got into iPod modding after his own iPod Classic’s battery died. He couldn’t find anyone to replace it for an affordable cost and felt like he was getting ripped off, so he figured he could do it himself. “I got my iPod wide open there looking like busted spaghetti with wires poking up everywhere,” he said. “So I just started messing around with it and changed the battery myself.”

“I defy you to [find me] a better music playback device.”

Soon after he figured out how to fix up his own iPod for a modest cost and found a dependable supplier for parts (a project that took two years), Pichi started restoring and selling custom iPods on eBay. A couple years ago, he used a Dremel to cut through the little metal frame inside a fifth-generation iPod Classic so that he could fit the device with a more robust battery and a new logic board. “You can actually squeeze these things together like a sandwich, but you gotta cut that piece out,” he said. The iPod was for Ben Schultz, a 29-year-old copywriter in Australia who Pichi characterized as one of the “diehard fans [of] that Wolfson chip.”

The Wolfson is an audio chip that converts digital data into sound. It’s not in every version of the iPod, but it is in the fifth-generation iPod Classic from 2005. Many people argue this one has the best sound quality of any iPod. Some say it’s the best of any portable music player. “Anyone who says vinyl is better than digital audio is sort of deluding themselves,” Schultz said. “I defy you to [find me] a better music playback device.”

Thanks to Pichi’s work, Schultz’s modded iPod now has about 100 hours of music playback and can hold tens of thousands of songs. Without any mods, the original fifth-generation iPod Classic lasted up to 14 hours with music playback for the 30 GB model and up to 20 hours with the 80 GB model. He now uses it to play, he says, “a lot of bootlegged live recordings, bootlegged remixes, even some official remixes, YouTube recordings, anything you think of that can be downloaded.”

It’s not just the sanctity of the sound or the lag-free listening experience that draws people to early iPods. It’s also that making modifications is, especially compared with working on modern Apple devices, fairly easy.

Photo: Sean Kirvin

“It’s so simple, it’s almost inviting you to augment it,” said Ollie Devine, an 18-year-old university student studying computer science in northern England who considers himself a modder. The front face is pretty forgiving and lifts off without too much prodding, and it only has a few pieces inside. “No glue, no awkward positions, no stinky design, no fuss.”

Devine also pointed out that it’s pretty easy to mess with the iPod’s operating system. Most tutorials online will direct you to Rockbox, which lets you change the device’s theme, font, and add games, among other things.

Max, a 29-year-old in Riga, Latvia, got his first iPod — a 4 GB, white, first-generation Nano — when he was 14. He said that he got bored about two months in with the device. Around that time, he met someone from the Latvian National University at a computer convention who taught him how to hack the iPod to run new games and other programs.

The original iPods had click-wheel games built-in, including Brick, Parachute, Solitaire, and Music Quiz. Soon enough, Max loaded his device with a custom firmware. “I was playing Doom under desks while attending classes.”

That’s pretty wholesome stuff, and it’s emblematic of the iPod-modding community. Few people are hacking into iPods to obfuscate their data, distance themselves from exploitative corporations, or exercise greater control over their devices. They want to play an old game. Return to a better digital sound. Or just to preserve a time when your playback device didn’t also store thousands of unread work emails, a million pings from the group chat, hourly spam risk calls, and targeted ads.

“It’s so simple it’s almost inviting you to augment it.”

“I do not do it for profit. I am not an iPod repairman,” said Cruz, a 58-year-old art educator in San Antonio, Texas, who asked to only be referred to by his last name because he works in the public school system. He internally upgraded four iPod Nanos and lined them up to match the color scheme of the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band cover.

“Maybe it’s due to a sense of accomplishment at revitalizing old tech for use in modern times. Maybe it’s due to a sense of loss at the what-if potential of a device with as simple a concept as an iPod could have evolved into. Maybe it’s due to knowing that one can personalize, modify, and alter an iPod to one’s needs, within reason,” Cruz said. “I know that I enjoy the time I spend researching, repairing, and revitalizing these small wonders.”

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