Rocking the Rockbox

If you’ve been around the forums reading about portable audio players, it’s likely that you’ve come across the term “Rockbox”. You probably wondered what it was. Maybe you even looked into the matter further but stopped pursuing it when it got complicated. In this article I intend to arm you with enough info to help you understand what Rockbox is, what it does, and ultimately if it is something worth trying.

Interested in hot-rodding your portable audio player? Read on.

Editors Note: I'm very happy to welcome John Grandberg to the very short list of contributors here at InnerFidelity. He's an avid headphone geek with many comprehensive reviews at Head-Fi under the screen name "project86." After recently answering my call for contributors, we discovered he has significant experience with Rockbox --- a chunk of software I've long admired, and am very happy to have reviewed here. Thanks for answering the call, John!

So what, exactly is Rockbox?
Simply put, Rockbox is an open source firmware that has been released for various portable audio players. If you are unfamiliar with the term firmware, think of it as the operating system that allows you to interface with the device. Consider the differences between Windows, OS X, and Linux – all three can generally run on identical hardware but each offers a very different user experience. Of course, they all do basically the same tasks in the end, but each has their own unique method of arriving at that goal. In the case of Rockbox, it does all the usual tasks of playing your music, but allows you to have more control over the way it is done, and sometimes actually unlocks functionality that was missing with the stock firmware (depending on which player we are talking about).

Still with me?
You haven’t even heard the best part yet – the price. Being an open-source project, Rockbox is completely free to use. No messing around with demo versions or limited trials. The only profit involved is through donations, which I encourage if you find yourself enjoying the product as much as I do.

Rockboxable Devices
Rockbox has been around for 10 years, so many of the players it initially supported are considered ancient by today’s standards. But there are a few reasonably modern devices on the list, with more in the works. The most significant models on the list include the Sansa Fuze, Clip and Clip+, as well as the Apple devices – 1st and 2nd generation iPod Nano and 1st through 5.5th generation full size iPod. Lately I’ve been using the Sansa Clip+, Sansa Fuze, and 5th gen iPod (60GB model), and I prefer all of them over their counterparts with stock firmware.

The team is constantly working to include more players – the iPod Classic is the one I’m most excited about, but there are some other notables such as the Cowon D2, Meizu M6, and Android Devices in general. Some of these are further along than others, and the list is ever expanding, so it is worth checking back every once in a while to see what’s new.

Not exactly a computer expert?
Not a problem. Rockbox is very easy to install these days - don’t be intimidated. The old process, which gave you a separate download for each individual device, was already pretty straight forward. But they now provide an installer program that basically does all the work for you; it really couldn’t be much easier. Connect your device via USB and the installer will automatically detect it and walk you through the steps.

The only thing I’ve encountered that wasn’t absurdly easy was with the Sansa players which require you to manually download an original firmware, because bundling it would possibly be a copyright violation. They do provide a link so it really isn’t hard at all, adding just a few clicks to the process. Basically, if you know your way around your computer, know which drive you player gets mapped to when connected, and are capable of following basic instructions, you should be able to handle the install just fine.

As with any situation where you are updating a firmware, there is a very small chance of things going wrong and ruing the device. I’ve done about a dozen installs over the past few years without a single error. In the event that you do “brick” your device, Rockbox.org has a thriving community forum where you can get help to possibly revive the unit. Overall the risk seems very small but I feel obligated to point out that it does exist.

So, what are the benefits?

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COMMENTS
itsastickup's picture

Rockbox doesn't really do much more than EQ and crossfeed when it comes to sound manipulation. That's already critically useful (I wouldn't buy a player that didn't have a parametric equalizer so that I can equalize out humps and resonant spikes, see here http://tinyurl.com/headfi-equal ) but after 10 years one might think a bit of tube-warmth or vinyl could be incorporated. There are a myriad of other filters out there also. I believe they need conversion from floating point to integer to work with Rockbox but that's not so hard and I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet: it's the kind of fun challenge that would appeal to an advanced developer.

I think that this may be partly because the rockbox developers are very conservative and highly resistant to suggestions. That can have its advantages, of course. Unfortunately in some of the threads I have witnessed that they are a little bit dismissive and curt; or it could just be a bit of developer aspergers that one runs in to more often than not (I'm a developer myself).

John Grandberg's picture
Well, there is also stereo width, dithering, and compressor settings to play with. Ultimately not a huge benefit but still. I tend to agree with you though - it would be great to have extra options to monkey around with. But I think the team is more concerned with getting the core functionality working across more platforms than adding new features at this point.
Limp's picture

…but I'm afraid I have to criticize you on your choice of references, among which are three Head-Fi treads. One is about a single person hopelessly trying to convince everyone else that Rockbox is useless, while the rest of the participants in the thread keep on repeating the same mantra (EQ, ReplayGain…), to no avail.
The secont thread is about the soundquality of the software (need I say more?)
What did I learn from clikcing these two links? Easy: not to to click the last one ;)

Luckily there is rainbow that leads to this treasure called Rockbox, and it's name is anythingbutipod.com

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Sorry, that's my fault. I rifled through search rather quickly. Please feel free to suggest some and I'll change the links.
Limp's picture

Head-Fi has its qualities, I'm sure, but you have to do a bit more than just rifling to find the good bits ;)

One of the absolutely most popular Rockboxed players is the Clip+, and this is the thread for that. Got most you can think of, and then some more.
http://anythingbutipod.com/forum/showthread.php?t=53702&highlight=rockbox

For most other stuff I don't think you can get any more useful information than what's already on the Rockbox site.

LFF's picture

Very nice article by a fellow head-fi member! I'm often surprised more people don't know about Rockbox and the benefits it has on certain players like the Clip+.

The short of it is...if your player can handle Rockbox then do it!

RudeWolf's picture

Don't get me wrong- playing FLAC is a terrific thing to have because too few players support this format. My question rather is if there is any increase in SQ for other formats compared to the stock firmware?

In any case for my portable I'm pondering to get the QA350, don't care about the "wav only" and crummy display as long as it plays well.

donunus's picture

The sansa clip+ for example can already play flac I think but using rockbox to play the flacs is supposed to extend the battery life. Can anyone here confirm this?

LFF's picture

Not only does it extend battery life but Rockbox also fixes a pitch error present in the original Sansa firmware. That is why Rockbox sounds better on the Clip+.

John Grandberg's picture
As LFF said, it's almost a must have for the Clip+. On my 5g iPod, battery life does seem to suffer a bit, but it's still very usable. The Clip+ seems to go forever without charging though.
itsastickup's picture

...is seriously reduced as soon as you turn on any sound manipulations, such as EQ, crossfeed, both of which I use. If I'm travelling on noisy services I use 'compression' to raise the volume such that I don't injure my ears. I also use 'balance' due to my left ear. I get perhaps 3 hours!!! I rather regret not getting the fuze. Unfortunately the fuze+ is a dud.

ultrabike's picture
ultrabike's picture

Installed Rockbox to the Sansa Zip. Beautiful! The guys actually found a way to squeeze the game Doom into it. That's right, killing monsters in that tiny screen was a blast. The game bubbles is a big hit... Well I can play bubbles while listening to my way cool music through the Zip! I also like the oscilloscope demo. The track info is beautifully rendered. And it dual boots to the original FW should you want to do that... I can play chess, sodoku, spacerocks...! I'm surprised at how relatively powerful the uP of the Zip is! Going through the games almost feels like this tiny player is really a machine gun disguised as a mosquito flapper... Who knows, give this thing the proper driver and a USB wifi dongle and if that works you got yourself something else!

I'm not going to go talk about SQ. It is really great. Guys like nwavguy have gone through the pain of characterizing it, and life was good. (He did the Clip+ which has the same audio front end and uP as the Zip)

I find the EQ settings very useful. I was playing with some bass boost for my Audeo black filter cute tips and the original FW EQ was just not working out for me (SQ degradation was not worth it). However, bass boost by 3dB using the Rockbox EQ is really nice.

Rockbox also gives you a lot more control over the player... Say you don't want the player to go blank after 15s... can do (you tell it never or how many secs...)

Rockbox is a must for the Zip.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Nice! Thanks for the note!