As great a product as the iPod is—and it is truly spectacular—it has an Achilles’ heel for discriminating listeners: its digital-to-analog converter and analog output stage. The iPod’s D/A converter and output amplifier are by necessity sonically compromised, restricting the iPod’s usefulness. No serious listener would use an iPod at the front end of a high-end system. That’s a shame, because the iPod is a brilliant device in its functionality, execution, and user interface. It can also store hundreds of hours of music with perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the source.
Leave it to Wadia Digital to create a product that capitalizes on the iPod’s strengths while completely eliminating the sonic shortcomings that have relegated it to ancillary listening environments. That product is the 170 iTransport, the first Apple-sanctioned dock to tap into the iPod’s digital bitstream and present that bitstream to an outboard digital-to-analog converter of your choice. The iTransport allows you, for the first time, to bring the iPod’s functionality to a high-end system with no excuses—for just $379.
The 170 iTransport looks like a traditional Wadia product in miniature, all the way down to its pointed feet. The flat top surface holds the docking connector, which accepts all iPod models courtesy of a supplied variety of dock inserts. The rear panel presents the iPod’s digital output in S/PDIF format on an RCA jack. You simply connect this output to any outboard D/A converter and the iPod’s sound quality is now determined by the quality of that D/A converter. For those of you without an external D/A converter, the iTransport offers analog outputs. Note that the iTransport doesn’t have an internal DAC; rather, the iTransport simply routes the iPod’s analog outputs to the iTransport’s rear-panel jacks. For those with video iPods, the iTransport offers S-video and component-video outputs. An external power supply plugs into a rear-panel jack.
Controlling the iPod via its click-wheel is made easier by the open iPod-mounting design (iPod docking stations in which the iPod is flush-mounted make operating the click-wheel difficult). With certain iPod models (Nano G1, iPod Video), the click-wheel interface is disabled when inserted into the iTransport, and a small supplied remote control provides basic functions, such as track forward/backward and pause/play.
The iTransport was extremely simple to set up and use. I unpacked it, popped in my iPod Classic, and was listening to music within two minutes of opening the box.
As expected, the iTransport sounded like the DAC to which it was connected. I store music on my iPod using Apple Lossless, which provides perfect bit-for-bit accuracy to the original with about a 40% reduction in storage requirements compared with uncompressed WAV files. In listening comparisons between the iTransport and the CDs from which the music was ripped, I thought the iTransport had a slight advantage. The iTransport had just a bit more space, bloom, and ambience than the CD. The recorded acoustic was slightly bigger, the spatial perspective was a bit more distant, and the sense of air surrounding instrumental images was somewhat more tangible and defined. The differences were slight, but noticeable. This impression is consistent with what I’ve heard when comparing music on CD with the same music read from a hard-disk drive (see my reviews of the Qsonix and Sooloos music servers in Issue 177).
The iTransport’s slightly-better-than-CD sound quality is a bonus; the real reason to buy the iTransport is that it turns your iPod (which you probably already own) into a music server worthy of feeding a high-end system. Anyone who’s used the iPod knows how much easier it is to access music using the click-wheel than finding the CD and inserting it in a player. It equates to more time listening and less time looking through racks of jewel boxes.
The Wadia iTransport is the coolest product I’ve encountered in some time. If you own an iPod, an outboard DAC, and a high-end system, the iTransport is, at $379, essential.