I'm gonna miss this little guy.
I'm gonna miss this little guy.
Andy Hermann

Is This the iPod Replacement We've Been Waiting For?

[Update, Oct. 18, 2017: After this article was published, I was contacted by a representative from Mighty Audio regarding software updates to their device. You can read their full statement below.]

Like a lot of change-averse music collectors, I reacted to Apple's recent announcement that it was retiring both the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle with a mixture of disappointment and resignation. I knew this moment was coming, but I've been dreading it ever since the iPod Classic bit the dust in 2014. And I'm hardly alone. Not since Netflix stopped sending DVDs in the mail has a major company risked losing so much of its customer base in order to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the future.

But the writing has been on the wall for awhile now, and I get it: The digital library is obsolete. Streaming is the future. Owning your own music collection is for Luddites and dinosaurs. Embrace the future and set your music free. Blah blah fucking blah.

I'm actually not opposed to streaming in theory. I have a Spotify premium account that I love and use regularly. I liked owning digital copies of all my music, but it was never a format I was especially attached to; it's hard to feel sentimental about files on a hard drive. The albums I feel like I truly couldn't live without, in the event of some future collapse of society (which seems increasingly likely these days), I've started collecting on vinyl, the most durable physical format for music ever devised. (Unless the future collapse of society involves fire — then I'm screwed. Vinyl melts.) The list of albums I need to own on vinyl is fairly short — a few hundred or so. The rest, I can stream.

But I do still have one big issue with streaming music, and that's portability. I like listening to music at places other than home or my desk at work — in the car, mostly, and because I live in Los Angeles, I spend an insane amount of time in my car. Like a lot of people, I don't have an unlimited data plan, but even if I did, I'd rather not make my phone my primary listening device. I need its memory for other things — apps, photos, videos, email. And anyway, I hate when playback gets interrupted by texts and alerts and Siri telling me to turn left in a quarter-mile. I like having a portable device that plays music, period.

When Apple Music launched in 2015 and trashed half my library of 20,000 songs with its janky cloud metadata, I tried to ditch iTunes altogether. But I came crawling back for one reason and one reason only: the iPod. Although there are plenty of iTunes alternatives out there, and a handful of other portable listening devices, there was no guarantee that any of them could actually talk to each other. As far as I could tell, amazingly, Apple had the only all-in-one hardware/software ecosystem on the market. Their dominance in the 2000s had been so absolute that all other competitors had abandoned that space. Their last major challenger had been the Microsoft Zune, and we all remember how that turned out.

But back in July of this year, a new product emerged that promises both to replace my beloved iPod Nano and make streaming music "on the go" a more viable option. It's called the Mighty and it's the first device that allows you to use Spotify on something other than your computer or your phone. What a concept!

In terms of design, Mighty is more analogous to the Shuffle than the Nano. It's a tiny square device with no screen, just playback controls, and a clip so you can attach it to your clothing when you're running or rock-climbing or weight lifting or doing some other strenuous physical activity, which Mighty's promotional video seems to assume is the only possible reason anyone could have for wanting a portable music player. (Side note: Why is all the marketing for music listening always so aspirational? I know we'd all like to pretend we only listen to music when we're at a fabulous dinner party or doing yoga on the beach or whatever, but mostly we listen to it while we're sitting at a desk or stuck in traffic.)

When you sync your Mighty with Spotify, it downloads tracks for future playback, so there are no data charges. Its memory is limited to 5GB, good for about 1,000 songs — a pittance for serious music collectors, but plenty for a week's worth of workouts or crosstown commutes. And anyway, this gadget's explicit reason for being is portability, not storage. As Mighty's FAQs explain, "The pain point we’re solving is to provide an on-the-go streaming music experience without a bulky smartphone."

So is the Mighty the magic iPod replacement all us iPod sentimentalists have been hoping for? Well, no. For one thing, even though it looks like a Shuffle, one thing it can't do, ironically, is shuffle. And I don't know about you, but one of my favorite things about listening to music on an iPod is never knowing what it's going to play next, and the cool little synchronicities that emerge from than randomness — the time my Nano played "Black Hole Sun" the day after Chris Cornell died, for example, or segued from a Moby track into one of Erik Satie's Gymnopédies so seamlessly that I recognized an influence that never would have occurred to me otherwise. Playing your music back in shuffle mode is like listening to a DJ who can only spin records from your personal collection — you get to hear familiar songs in unfamiliar contexts, and on a baser level, you get to constantly congratulate yourself on what great taste in music you have.

Then there's an even weirder quirk: The Mighty can only sync to Spotify playlists, not albums or individual tracks. So if you want to listen to that new LCD Soundsystem album on your morning jog, first you have to make it a playlist. Apparently this is a feature, not a bug: "We decided to stick with playlists so that Mighty is super easy to use with physical buttons," the Mighty's FAQs blithely explain, in a statement that makes no absolutely no sense. If you're going to force users to play songs sequentially anyway, why not sync albums? I know they're super old-school and all, but some artists still release them occasionally, last I checked.

But these are minor quibbles — especially considering the device's $86 price tag. By contrast, the last iPod still on the market, the Touch, will set you back at least $199 — and granted, it has four times the memory of a Mighty, but it's also basically just an iPhone minus the phone part. Compared to that, the Mighty's tiny size and Spotify compatibility make it seem like a steal.

I'm still not quite ready to cut the cord on my iTunes library and go full streaming — too much music still isn't on streaming services, for one thing, and I've invested way too much time and effort in my massive digital collection (which I was mostly able to restore from a backup hard drive, by the way — thanks for asking) to abandon it until I absolutely have to. But the Mighty is a step towards making streaming a bit more compatible with the way I, and most people, actually listen to music — when we're out in the world, cruising around, in need of a soundtrack to accompany that motion.

By the way, Mighty's developers might take note that, as much as they'd like to think everyone's using their nifty little clip-on gadget to bump some tunes while they're snowboarding or dancing in their driveway (seriously, that's what one person in the promo video is doing), the reality is far more sedentary and worth addressing on future generations of the device. One of the first reviews of the Mighty, from a writer for Wired, said listening to it in the car was his favorite "use case" and even added, "I want to glue it to my dashboard." I suspect that, once I get one, I'll feel the same way.

[Update: Anthony Pu, founding partner and CRO at Mighty Audio, contacted me after this article was published with the following statement: "Mighty will be releasing a major software update at the end of October. The update includes shuffle functionality, improved battery life, and a new feature called Stay Fresh, where Mighty wakes itself up at night and automatically updates all your Spotify playlists so you always have your freshest music."]

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