If you think back over the last few years, it’s fair to say that few devices have had a more profound effect on the way we listen to music than Apple’s ubiquitous iPod. Millions and millions have been sold, and for many music (and movie) lovers, the iPod has become the listening/ viewing system of choice. The appeal is obvious, because the iPod offers its owners the opportunity to carry with them and to access hundreds if not thousands of stored songs as well as pieces of video content. What’s not to like about that?
Well, two things have been missing from the iPod picture thus far: true top-tier sound quality and a good set of high-quality video outputs. Cool though the iPod is, one catch has always been that it forces users to listen through its own decent but not great analog audio electronics, either through earphones or the pass-through analog audio outputs of a dock. Similarly, the iPod only allows you to access video content through its miniature screen or the pass-through composite video output of a dock. The bottom line is that iPod fans have had no choice but to take a “grin and bear it” attitude toward the iPod’s performance limitations—until now.
Wadia Has a Better Idea
Wadia is a 20-year old specialty company from the Midwest whose sole goal has been to build some of the most technically advanced and great-sounding digital audio components the world has ever seen (picture the Ferrari Enzos of the digital audio world and you’ve got the general idea). But more recently, the firm has set a new goal for itself, which is to build a reasonably priced component that would let music (and movie) lovers tap the latent performance potential of the iPod. In short, the idea was to turn Apple’s multi-hundred-dollar handheld player into a music server that could go toe-to-toe with servers (and CD players) costing thousands of dollars. And that is exactly what the Wadia 170iTransport aims to do. How is this possible? On the audio side of the equation, Wadia’s strategy is as simple as it brilliant: the 170iTransport extracts digital audio data from the iPod directly, deliberately bypassing the player’s so-so analog audio electronics. In this way, the digital audio data can be routed to the digital inputs of an A/V receiver or to an outboard DAC (digital to analog converter). Either way, the resulting sound quality is light years ahead of what you’d normally hear through the iPod itself. On the video side of the equation, the 170iTransport makes no attempt to bypass the iPod’s electronics but rather presents pass-through video signals via S-Video or component video outputs—the highest quality output formats the iPod can support.
• Digital and analog audio support for the iPod Nano G1, G2, and G3; iPod Video; iPod Classic; and iPod Touch.
• Video: Component video output support for iPod Nano G3, iPod Video, iPod Classic, and iPod Touch (note: the iPod Video plays through S-Video outputs only).
• Accessories: Assortment of dock adapters for the iPods above, digital audio cable, power supply, and remote control.
Remote: The 170 iTransport comes with a minimalist remote that provides six basic control functions: previous track; next track; play; pause; a MODE switch that disables digital audio outputs, enables analog audio outputs, and takes older iPods out of “Extended Interface” mode; and a pair of buttons labeled “-“ and “+” (which have no effect on 170iTransport, but provide reserved functions for future Wadia products).
Video: To check out the Wadia’s passthrough video capabilities, I hooked the 170iTransport into my home theater system, using component video and digital audio cables, and then played a clip of the Pixar short film Jack Jack Attacks (initially part of The Incredibles release). Picture quality was better than expected, with good contrast, nicely saturated colors, smooth shading on the animated characters’ faces, and no apparent noise. The Wadia provides no onboard image processing, though, so that it does not “clean up” images from the iPod. Instead, it does a thoroughly competent job of converting the iPod’s video signals to component video format, flaws and all.
Audio: To try out the Wadia’s digital output, I connected the 170iTransport to a high performance outboard DAC which was hooked up to my reference stereo system. I ripped some test tracks to create losslessly encoded digital audio files in ALE (Apple Lossless Encoding) and WAV formats—the two formats Wadia recommends— and loaded them on a current generation iPod Classic, which I used as my test player. I listened carefully to the test tracks through the Wadia/iPod/ DAC combo and then—as an acid test—played the same tracks from the master CDs, using a high-quality CD player whose digital output was plugged into the same DAC I used for the Wadia/iPod tests. This made for an ideal A/B comparison, since the only things that changed were the digital source components themselves.My comparison tests convinced me that the Wadia/iPod/DAC combo performed at least as well as, if not better than, the CD player/DAC rig, with overall sound quality rivaling the performance of far more costly digital disc players or music servers.
The Wadia/iPod/DAC combo produced a remarkably smooth, clear, richly detailed sound, with rock-solid stereo imaging. If you use a good DAC, as I did, you’ll be amazed at how much more musical information the Wadia is able to extract from the iPod; instead of sounding like a good, but ultimately limited pocket player, the iPod suddenly becomes a serious—very serious—highend audio component. Wonderful.
On “Joy Chant” from Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek’s Elixir [ECM], for example, the Wadia/iPod combo did a beautiful job with the song’s heady mixture of melodic percussion, played in a syncopated style that sounds like a cross between an Indian raga and gamelan music, accompanied by an exuberant saxophone line. The song is rich in harmonic overtones that resonate within the recording space, and the Wadia/iPod combo captured them all with rare warmth and sparkle, so that the sax, in particular, seemed to float in the air a few feet out from my listening couch.
How did the Wadia/iPod/DAC combo fare in comparison to the CD player/DAC combo? Very well, thank you. While you might think two digital sources playing the same digital material (the Wadia/iPod combo playing ALE and WAV files, and the CD player reading the same CD’s from which those files were ripped) would sound identical, the fact is—as audiophiles have known for years—they don’t. While the two sources were close enough in performance that I had to listen very carefully to pick out differences, the Wadia/iPod/DAC combination sounded a little richer, smoother, and delivered super-stable stereo imaging. By comparison, the CD player/DAC combination sounded a little less rich and smooth, offered perhaps a hair more midrange and treble detail, but produced slightly flatter and less three-dimensional images.
All in all, I’d either call it a draw or a split decision in favor of the Wadia/iPod combo, which is pretty remarkable when you stop to think about it. With the help of the Wadio 170iTransport and a good DAC , the iPod becomes a high-capacity, low-cost, portable “music server” that can hold its own in comparison to comparatively expensive and very well-regarded high end audio components.