Rocking the Rockbox Page 2

Benefits of Rockbox
No matter how easy they make the installation for Rockbox, leaving the device as-is with the original firmware will always be easier by default. So what exactly does Rockbox do that makes it worth bothering with?

A lot.

First of all, Rockbox enables the playback of FLAC files on the Apple devices, which are not capable of doing so natively. This one item is enough to make it worthwhile in my opinion. I archive all my music in FLAC format, so the iDevices had always been off limits to me unless I wanted to go through the trouble of converting everything to Apple Lossless format. In addition, Rockbox handles file transfers via the straightforward drag and drop method, effectively banishing the usual iTunes requirement. I’m not as rabidly anti-iTunes as some folks, but I’m not a huge fan either, chiefly due of the FLAC limitation. With that requirement out of the way, my iPod and I get along just fine.

Moving away from the Apple products and focusing more generally on what Rockbox is capable of - the word to remember is “control”. Rockbox gives more control of your sound, with adjustable channel balance, a variable cross-feed, a very high quality EQ, and other sound adjustment options. It gives you complete control over your playlists, including the ability to modify or delete existing playlists, or create multiple playlists of your own directly on the device.

It gives you total control over the display with the ability to load different themes, of which many choices are available. And we aren’t talking about the usual “themes” where you can change some colors around or maybe swap backgrounds – Rockbox allows complete customization of every aspect from layout, font, colors, icons, text size, album art, battery meter, bitrate display, and pretty much everything else on your screen. The Rockbox website already has a large collection of choices (the players I own range from 40 to 100 choices each) and advanced users can even build their own from scratch. If you are in love with the stock appearance, most players have a theme available that approximates that look fairly closely.

I could go on and on about the features that Rockbox has – cuesheet support, gapless playback, ability to delete and rename files, support for numerous formats (including ALAC playback on non-Apple devices), advanced bookmarking, wakeup alarm, ReplayGain compatibility, multi-language support, etc. Some players might have native support for a few of these features but none offer anything close to the total package like Rockbox does.

One feature completely unique to Rockbox is the voice mode. When properly configured, Rockbox can actually read menus, directory names, and track titles out loud. Think about the implications there – visually impaired users would obviously benefit, but so would anyone who wants to keep the player in their pocket while using it, or navigate tracks while driving without causing an accident, etc. English not your primary language? Prefer to use Thai, Greek, Norwegian, Korean, or Turkish? Rockbox can accommodate that as well, with a total of 30 language options. These are the same 30 choices that apply to the standard non-spoken menus.

There are other features like games and utilities that I don’t have the time to go into here. Suffice to say that Rockbox is simultaneously very accessible to the non-techie and very robust for the power user. That’s a hard balance to achieve.

What if I don’t like it?
Another well thought out idea on the part of the Rockbox team is the dual boot option. By simply holding a key during startup (keys differ by model), the user can boot into the stock firmware and use it like normal. This is great for new users who might be nervous about switching cold-turkey. Rockbox generally supports accessories such as docks and FM transmitters, but there are literally thousands of those out there, and no way to guarantee compatibility with all of them. If you end up with a model that doesn’t fully work with Rockbox, you always have the choice to boot to the stock firmware instead.

If you end up completely hating Rockbox for whatever reason, the removal process is just as easy as the install was. In most cases the Rockbox utility will handle the whole thing for you. You’ll be back to your original setup in no time, as if the whole experiment had never happened.

In my experience, choosing a portable DAP can often become an exercise in drawback avoidance. Some players have great hardware but are completely let down by their software (anyone remember Toshiba’s Gigabeat models? I thought not). Some have competent software that is missing many key features (Sansa). Some tie you down with proprietary software that is more restrictive than you might like (Apple). Rockbox levels the playing field and allows the user to choose based on other factors like size, weight, screen, storage capacity, etc. I love being able to choose between my small, medium, and large players and get a consistently high quality user experience across all three of them.

If you have not yet tried Rockbox for yourself, I encourage you to check it out. The price is right, the process is easy, and it is completely reversible if you change your mind. A big thank you goes out to all the hard working folks who contributed to the project in their spare time for the benefit of the community.

Rockbox website home page and download page.
Monster Anythingbutipod Rockbox thread.
Head-Fi threads about Rockbox usefulness, sound quality, and crossfeed.


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 ) 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

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.

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 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!