As stunningly great as it is, the iPod has one bottleneck that compromises it as a source for serious listening through a high-end home system. I’m talking, of course, about the unit’s integral digital-to-analog converters and analog output stage. The only way to access music on an iPod is through its own analog output, which, not surprisingly, has limited sound quality.
That’s unfortunate, because the iPod’s powerful capabilities (it is essentially a hand-held music server), revolutionary user interface, and low price make it an attractive source component. When music is stored as WAV files or with Apple Lossless coding, the iPod can deliver perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the source. The “sword in the stone” is the inability to bypass the iPod’s integral DACs.
The problem has now been solved by MSB Technology, which has come up with the iLink—an iPod docking station with a digital output that connects to an outboard digital-to-analog converter. The iLink also includes a tiny wireless transmitter that plugs into the iPod and allows you to sit in your listening seat with the iPod, access your music library, and transmit it to the docking station’s digital output. The only catch is that you must send your iPod to MSB for a modification that taps into its digital bitstream. Alternatively, you can buy from MSB an iLink with an already modified iPod for an additional $350 (bringing the price to $2349). With the wireless transmitter installed or with the iPod in the iLink docking station, the iPod’s digital output appears in S/PDIF format at the iLink’s coaxial, AES/EBU, and TosLink digital outputs. MSB claims that the iPod is a better-sounding source than the original CD played on any CD transport because it reads the audio data from a hard drive rather than from lessreliable optical media.
I auditioned the iLink in my system by connecting its coaxial output to the digital input of an Arcam AV9 controller. I compared the sound from the iPod (Apple Lossless) with CDs of the same music. I should note that it’s best to select the track or album from the iPod and put it down in one spot. Moving around with the iPod can result in signal dropouts. You’ll also have to get over your natural tendency to try to use the iPod’s thumbwheel to adjust the volume; that must be accomplished with the preamp’s remote control.
Those two caveats aside, the MSB iLink performed flawlessly. It took less than 30 seconds to connect the iLink and get it running. In back-and-forth comparisons between the iPod and the CD, I heard no difference in the sound. There’s not much more to say about the subject; the iPod/iLink is indistinguishable from CD. That, however, is a significant and unprecedented achievement.
Of course, you can assemble your own music server with a computer and an outboard DAC with a USB input for less money, but you won’t get the iPod’s portability and terrific user interface.