Best Listening Gear for Long-Term Travel


Winter 2004

By Steve Knopper

AC/DC's "Back In Black" blared from huge speakers on the top of Sgt. Danny Martin's military vehicle as he and some fellow U.S. Army troops rolled into Al Qaim during the Iraq war. They had to turn down Angus Young's bombastic power chords upon arriving in the city, so as not to upset the locals, but nothing pumps up a road-tripping American male quite like "You Shook Me All Night Long." "It kind of cheered 'em up a little bit," Martin recalls. "It seemed like a scene out of a movie."

But there's a key difference between real-life Iraq and one of those Vietnam War movies where soldiers crank Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze" out of a staticky transistor radio. This is the first digital-music war, and the soldiers rolling into Al Qaim had hooked up a portable MP3 player to their vehicle's makeshift stereo.

"I listen to music at the times I know I won't have to listen for anything else," says Martin, a military journalist in Baghdad, who rotates 1,000 MP3s on his Sony MPDAP20U, a DiscMan-sized device that also plays CDs.

For soldiers in the Middle East -- not to mention long-distance hikers, frequent business travelers and others far from home -- MP3 players are the ultimate portable-music accessories. They play invisible digital copies of songs, so there's no physical compact disc or cassette. And converting a song into an MP3 is easy; just stick a CD into your computer and "rip" with MusicMatch, Apple's iTunes or similar software.

"If you're going to be in Baghdad or traveling a lot -- somewhere where the climate is less than forgiving and sandstorms can blow -- an MP3 player has no real moving parts," says Stephen Gates, the Consumer Electronics Association's senior manager of communications. "With nothing to break or get scratched, and as small as they are, that's clearly the way to go."

The industry standard, deservedly, is the easy-to-use Apple iPod, which is the size of a deck of cards and gets a lot of hype for its 30-gigabyte hard drive that can store 7,500 songs. But the iPod's hard drive is a smaller version of the one inside your personal computer, so it has mechanical parts that can be jostled, causing skips. Lighter and more indestructible are flash-drive players, such as Creative Labs' Nomad MuVo 128MB, which can be a little frustrating because they tend to hold less than four hours of music.

Swearing by the Archos Jukebox Recorder 20, which at 12.3 ounces is almost twice as heavy but more rugged than the iPod, is Staff Sgt. J.J. Johnson, who brings Billy Joel's "Greatest Hits" and Jane's Addiction's "Ritual de la Habitual" with him everywhere he goes in Iraq. It certainly helped when Johnson served at Saddam Hussein's fallen palace, setting up an American press center.

And days before shipping out to Kuwait, Capt. Kory Brendsel finished transferring thousands of songs from compact disc to his Creative Tech Nomad Jukebox Zen player. It's more affordable than the iPod, with slightly more options, but takes longer to transfer multiple music files from your computer to the player. While working out at Camp New Jersey, in Kuwait, Brendsel and the guys in his unit strapped the player to portable speakers -- NXT's SoundpaX cardboard speakers and Creative Tech's TravelSound i300 speakers are lightweight and effective, although not as rich as home-stereo speakers -- to blast 50 Cent's "What Up Gangsta."

"It's a good way for somebody to put on their favorite song and think about the last time they heard it -- driving in their car, or out at a club," says Brendsel, a New Order fan who recently returned home from the Gulf to Colorado Springs, Colorado. "That's one of the ways soldiers escape, if you will. You think about your friends, your family, your country -- all those things. It's amazing how valuable music can be to a person."