Posted by & filed under Audio.

We often use an iPod for audio demonstrations at ListenUp. But to get the kind of sound quality our customers are used to wasn’t possible from the iPod until a dock came out that allowed us to bypass the iPods internal circuitry and process the signal elsewhere.

The first Apple licenced product to do that is the Wadia 170 iTransport. The iTransport takes a pure digital signal from an iPod and outputs it via a coaxial digital connection. It does not process the sound, it is merely a means towards an end. That means the signal has to be processed by a stand alone DAC or one in a home theater receiver.

So why do all of this? Well the iPod was designed around the concept of listening to music on the go. I don’t think high fidelity sound was on the top of Apple’s list of priorities. Using the iPod as a storage device and as a interface to access that stored data means you are using its strongest points. The DAC chips in most home theater receivers are going to better than what is built into the iPod. The end result using the Wadia dock with a DAC is true CD player quality sound from the ubiquitous iPod. Instead of the iPod being the limitation, the DAC you choose will be.

To convince myself that using an iPod for audio demos was a good idea I had to compare it to a quality CD player.  Using the Wadia iTransport with a Musical Fidelity V-DAC I had a combined retail cost of $678, including a digital
coax cable. In that price class was the Rotel RCD-1072 CD player. (now discontinued) The Rotel retailed for $699. I had burned a few playlists onto CD that were also on my iPod. All files were ripped using the AIFF format. The rest of the system consisted of B&W 803D speakers, a McIntosh MC402 amplifier, and a McIntosh C220 tube pre amp. Sources were level matched within .5 dB.

Listening to “Here Comes The Sun” by the Beatles from their Love album I could easily tell the two sources apart.  I have sold the Rotel CD player for 4 years so the sound is very familiar.  The Wadia/Musical Fidelity combo was brighter, had more depth, and more stable imaging.  The separation of vocals was stunning. Through the Rotel everything was closer together, less layered, the sound stage kind of collapsed.

This played out on every cut I tried, Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” was more dynamic and exciting through the iPod,Christian McBride’s “Night Train” had more air and percussiveness, etc etc. The only aspect I preferred with the Rotel was female vocals. For some reason, singers like Diana Krall, Marti Jones, Carol Horn, all had more body when played through the Rotel. The brightness of the iPod system took away that palpable sense of having someone singing in the room. I didn’t notice it on instrumentation or even male vocals.

So in an attempt to have my cake and eat it to, I connected the Wadia dock to the Slim Devices Transporter digital input. The Transporter is a $2,000 streaming music device with an excellent DAC set built in. Cutting to the chase, it brought back that sense of “palpability” along with even greater depth and clarity.  I guess money and performance sometimes do go hand in hand.

I am not sure if there is a CD player that is $1000ish that can beat the Wadia/Musical Fidelity/ iPod combo. There might be some sonic trade offs here and there but with the Wadia you have great convenience and the flexibility to upgrade your DAC at anytime. I for one will not be going back to an “old fashioned” CD player.