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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

iPods for Anarchists

(Now here is a true Addict! ~Dani)

02:00 AM Sep. 27, 2005 PT

"Must-have" devices seem to instantly lose their charm for me when they're adopted en masse -- even when it comes to the iPod.

So, being a huge music nosher but not wanting to become a black silhouette plugged into the matrix via white wires in my ears, I decided to build my own.

How hard could it be? DIY modders around the world are designing and sharing rogue alternatives to brand name electronics. For those with curiosity, diligence and a rebel's spirit, it's quite possible to get your hands on a unique MP3 player and avoid selling your soul to tech conformity.

After searching around a bit, I came across an MP3 player kit named EchoMp3, designed by Belgian electrician Michel Bavin. I could buy it online for around $100 (not including a memory card), have it shipped to me and assemble it myself by following the instructions posted on his website. Not only was it sans logo, but it just looked cool. Nothing gives the finger to mass production like duct tape.

I had built a guitar amp a couple summers ago and figured I could handle a slightly smaller project. I just had no idea how small. When I giddily opened the letter-bomb-looking box and dumped out all the components, I had a gut check moment: The box of chips and bags of resistors contained, as far as I could tell, small, square ants.

Bavin's TechDesign website led me to a few instructional pages on soldering tiny components, but my clumsy first attempts at attaching the MP3 decoder chip onto the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) left an entire side of pins covered in solder.

It was time to call for help. Luckily I knew Raphael Abrams, an electrician recently moved from New York, who I had found through the Tech Design website. Abrams' portable MP3 player design actually inspired Bavin's EchoMP3. A few of Abrams' other designs had been used as animal callers for hunters and as a bus stop announcer for a public transit system in France. Without his expertise I would have been lost.

Using tweezers, a magnifying glass, a de-soldering wick and a lot of problem solving Abrams was able to guide me through some assembly techniques and send me on my way after a couple of hours' work. After an additional four hours of soldering on my own, I popped in the battery to the board, plugged in some headphones, turned it on and ... nothing.

I sulked back over to Abrams' apartment where he was also baffled, at least initially. After a few hours of trial and error, poking and prodding and going over all the solder joints again, we were able to get a consistent boot and triumphant playback of some Adam Ant MP3s we had thrown on my $50, 512-MB MMC (MultiMedia Card) to test it. "Goody Two Shoes" never sounded so good.

I then drilled, scraped and dremeled some holes in the project box that it came with (not a perfect fit by any means), and attached it all together with some store-bought screws. I personalized it by engraving "kPod" (KeithPod) on the back.

The player sounds great, looks cool and, thanks to my clumsiness with power tools, it's quite unique looking. The memory card can hold about 120 songs (comparable to an iPod Shuffle) but can only play linearly and has no file system.

This is truly only a labor of love and makes no sense for any other reason than to have made it yourself. You can buy other brand name players with included memory cards for cheaper, and you can even buy this particular kit already assembled for fifteen more dollars. On the other hand, you can't put a price on taking back a little piece of knowledge from the largely unknowable world of technology. I spent far more than 15 dollars in time and trips to the hardware store, but I wouldn't trade it for all the iPods in the world. Well, maybe a Nano.

End of story

Story location:,1282,68959,00.html
(great pictures at link)

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