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Music on the Nokia Eseries

(article first published on AllAboutSymbian)

I think it's fair to say that Nokia didn't envisage the target market for their Eseries communicators (E50/E60/E61 and E70) listening to a lot of music. Certainly the budget for quality audio output must have been fairly small, judging from the quality gap between their multimedia Nseries and devices like the E61 and E70. All of which is not to say that you can't listen to your favourite albums on the E61 and E70 - you can - but bear in mind that if you're in any way an audiophile then you may be a little disappointed. In my experience though, it's perfectly good enough for most pop and rock music.

Out of the box

There's not a lot of help from Nokia, out of the box. S60 3rd Edition includes a decent 'Music player' application, but on the Eseries this only supports MP3 and AAC (so no WMA - Windows Media Audio). Even more tellingly, there's only a cheap 'hands-free' mono headset, no use at all for music.

On the desktop side, PC Suite includes a 'Music Manager' application that can encode files in the fairly efficient AAC format, but which for the Eseries (and some of the Nseries) devices has crippled integration with the Internet-based CD lookup services*, meaning that it's impractical to convert any of your CDs into music for your communicator.

* though bizarrely, the same commercial database that Nokia restricts access to (Gracenote) is also used by the completely free version of the popular WinAmp.

With no help from the desktop suite, no stereo headset and with, for most people, only support for ready-encoded and relatively inefficient MP3 files, music playback on the E61 and E70 is in theory going to be fairly minimal.

Formats and conversion

Now, faced with the situation just described, and with the help of a couple of hints from others, I put together for AllAboutSymbian a detailed tutorial describing the use of the free version of WinAmp to identify, rip and convert to AAC+ format any CDs you choose, ready for copying onto your expansion card and playing back on the move.

I'm going to assume that you've now read this and have converted a dozen or so of your favourite CDs into folders of .aac files at 64kbps, twice as efficient as the same music in MP3 format with the same quality. You're all set and ready to rock. But read on, for some real world tips and notes.

Music player on the Eseries

  • HS-23Go stereo
    Firstly and most obviously, you need a stereo headset. Currently, no S60 3rd Edition device supports wireless music playback (a.k.a. A2DP), so head instead for a headset like Nokia's HS-23. This is the one with the loopy bit that goes round your neck and means the earbuds don't keep dropping out under the weight of their own leads. It also has a volume control rocker switch on the 'remote', integrating with Music player, and you can also answer incoming calls using the remote by pressing the main button. Highly recommended.
  • Stay clean
    If your E61 or E70 is anything like the one I've been using, the Pop-port tends to accumulate tiny specks of finger grease and general dirt. So when you plug in your wired headset, the sound cuts out in one or both channels and lots of wiggling is needed to restore the music. Very frustrating. The solution is to run a cotton bug soaked in tape head cleaning solution (or similar, e.g. meths or IPA) over the contacts once a week, to keep them pristine and ready for connection.
  • Update your library
    When you first start up Music player, you won't see any music. This is because it's all driven from the built-in 'Music library' - go to this in the menu and then use 'Update Music library' on the library menu. Your card will be scanned and all compatible tracks added, with their complete 'tag' info, e.g. artist, album, track name. You can then, for example, select an album and start playback at its first track.
  • No bass? Add some!
    One of the err.... characteristics of audio output on the Eseries is a relative absence of bass response, making music seem tinny and 'middle-heavy'. On the main Music player menu, go into the built-in 'Equialiser' and select 'Bass boost' and then 'Activate'. The result isn't perfect, but it makes a lot of difference and is well worth turning on.
    Bass boost
  • Control from outside Music player
    In addition to optionally controlling playback volume from your stereo headset (depending on which accessory you bought), you can also control volume easily from the active standby screen. Music player will appear, as if by magic, when a track is playing, showing the title and status. By moving the highlight down to this line (or pressing 'up' once if the highlight is on the top icon strip), you'll see the date at the top of the screen change to a volume control and you can then use left and right to alter playback volume.
    Music control
  • Forgive the crackles
    As I write this, there's a bug in WinAmp's 'aacPlus (HE-AAC) Encoder v1.2' encoder, meaning that any track that starts with significant volume gets a tiny bit of crackling added to the first couple of seconds of playback. This is something we'll have to live with for the time being.
  • Upside down
    Of course, with the Pop-port headset sticking out the bottom of your E61 or E70, how are you going to holster or store the device while music is playing? My solution is to put the device into the case or pocket upside down. This sounds strange, but it's just as accessible for reaching in and extracting it and the cable's poking out the right end!
  • Listening while you work
    Decoding AAC+ files doesn't seem to overload the processor in the E61 or E70, so it's quite practical to carry out other jobs at the same time, even in landscape mode (on the E70). Simply switch away from Music player and start or switch to another application. Thus you might be typing an article or replying to email while listening to your favourite CD!

Why bother?

Why am I making such a big deal of playing music on the Nokia Eseries? Why not simply switch to an Nseries smartphone, with its extra music capabilities (Windows Media Audio support, Media Player integration, CD recognition in Music Manager, etc.)?

Simply put, the E61 and E70 are the only Symbian OS 9 devices with a keyboard. And as I remarked a few weeks ago, sometimes you just 'gotta have qwerty'. It changes the way you use your mobile device. So, with the keyboard determining the choice of communicator, next stop is sorting out tunes to listen to while typing!

All text (C) Steve Litchfield, 2006