Affordable Ways to Enhance the Sound of Your iPod and iTunes… by Michael Mercer

Mike and I have been talking via Twitter for a few weeks now,  thanks to Gary Morrision (of Plinius fame) and we have mainly been talking about how we can, as Mike puts it, “spread
our audible disease to the masses”.

For a while now I’ve been wanting to write something on the topic of getting the most from your digital music collection (and specifically talk about the Wadia range of iPod products) so when I came across an article Mike wrote I thought, well, I’ll be honest, it’s better than what I would have written! So anyway I asked Mike if I could re post it here and he not only agreed, but sent me the unedited version of the Wadia bit… Mike you rock, keep up the great work and you’re welcome here anytime!

– Brendan

Mike in his happy place

As a music addict I constantly download and stream tunes I cannot get in physical formats. As a HiFi enthusiast I also make every effort to ensure the music I am listening to sounds the best it possibly can—though it can be frustrating trying to coax quality sound from digital music devices. But if you know what you’re doing, it is possible to enhance the sonic integrity of your iTunes, iPhone, and iPod-based music systems at a reasonable price.

So how to do it? One of the answers lies in an essential part of any digital playback system, a component the high end audio community has been focused on improving for many years: the DAC (the digital-to-analog converter). Every digital player, whether it be a simple CD deck or a Blu Ray unit, has an internal DAC. We are analog beings and process auditory information in analog. No matter how many bits your digital system offers, the resolution, the sample rate, the bit rate; all the information needs to be converted back to analog in order to hear it. This is where some systems shine and others falter.

The biggest sonic obstacle lying in your digital path to better sound is your computer’s internal DAC. If you’re using the headphone jack/output (as most people are) to drive your desktop speakers or your stereo system you are relying on the computer’s internal DAC for the digital to analog processing which more often than not compromises sound quality.

Here I’ll discuss two different devices to improve your computer’s sonic performance, available at both your local HiFi dealer (yes, they do still exist) and various HiFi websites. Some will even allow you to demo the unit before making a final decision.

The Wadia 170i transport

The Wadia 170i Transport

The Wadia 170i Transport is an iPod dock (not a DAC actually), but it is no ordinary dock.  Most consumer units may allow for the physical docking of your iPod and even give you access to the screen’s menus via your flat panel and other neat features, but they do nothing with regard to the digital processing of musical information.  Most of the docks offered simply pull the analog signal from the iPod (thus relying, again, on an inferior DAC, this time in the iPod itself).  Wadia was the first to build a component that not only accesses the digital datastream of the iPod, but actually pulls that datastream out through its COAX output (this cable looks just like the standard RCA interconnects you typically use, but this one needs to be a dedicated digital cable for best results).

The Wadia is larger than other docks, but stylish.  At 8″ wide x 2.7″ high x 8.0″ deep, and weighing in at 4.6 lbs, this thing is hefty and just about half the size of your average component.  It supports most iPods, and comes with multiple plastic inserts to accommodate different models.  It does not support the iPhone, but Wadia is about a month away (last I checked) (It’s available now in NZ – Brendan) from introducing their new 171i Transport which will provide iPhone support.  Needless to say they are on their game (which is also why the company has a stellar reputation for performance in audiophile circles).

The main sonic advantage of this component is it allows the user to incorporate a better external DAC.   If you happen to own a surround sound receiver for example (that does Dolby Digital EX and DTS for movies) then you probably have a digital COAX input (how you would normally get your multi-channel sound) then you can use it in conjunction with the Wadia.  This input leads to your receivers internal DAC, which, if it’s of decent quality, will sound far better than using the headphone output of the iPod.  Even if you don’t have a surround sound receiver, many new stereo receivers have digital inputs as well, though most of the receivers sold today are fully surround sound equipped (so, you’re covered).

The back end of the 170i transport

When we first got the Wadia iTransport I was a little skeptical as to how much better the sound could be through my iPod.  The iPod wasn’t, after all, for me, something that I relied on for good sound.  It was merely the digital carrying case for all the music I wanted to listen to on the go.  Does this sound familiar?  I was stunned to hear just how much better some of my compressed files sounded actually!  Mostly live DJ mixes, usually around 192k mp3s, sounded more dynamic and had far more bottom end than I even thought possible for an mp3 file (some music seems to lend itself better to certain forms of compression – I find anyway).  The uncompressed files offered another level of musical reference entirely.  The atmospheric sounds of Radiohead’s Kid A sounded just as lush and textural as they did when I played the production CD (and my CD playback system is no slouch).  However, as the old adage goes; crap in, crap out.  If the files you are playing sound like shite to begin with, they’re not going to get any better with the Wadia, but if the file is decent you will be able to hear far deeper into the music than ever before.  Do uncompressed (or even less compressed, such as AAC files) take up more space in your hard-drive?  Of course they do, but everything is about compromise; everything.  Me; I’d rather spend a little more money on more hard drive space – and they are far less expensive now than they were even two years ago.

The bottom line here: The Wadia 170 iTransport costs a little less than an iPhone, so doesn’t it seem worth it if you can turn your iPod into a far better sounding piece of hardware?  Again; the source itself is always the most important thing, but if you fill your iPod (or just use a fair portion of its memory) with decent sounding music the Wadia will help you unlock its sonic potential; potential most people don’t even know exists (or even care about).  I can’t live without mine, and that is perhaps the best thing I can say about it.  By the way:  It also has video outputs, so you can download movies off iTunes onto your iPod, and then dock it to the Wadia, giving you access to that movie on a bigger screen.

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You can continue reading the rest of Mike’s article over at The Daily Swarm

For more info on the Wadia range of products checkout:

Wadia 170i Transport $749

Wadia 171i Transport $899 (iPhone Supported model)

Wadia 151 PowerDAC Mini Amplifier $1999 – Matches above Transports, stunning unit.

Follow Mike on Twitter and also check out Positive-Feedback where Mike writes…

Thanks to Mike again for this great post, so are you ready to go digital?