Wadia 170iTransport iPod dock

The Short Form
$380 / WADIA.COM / 734-786-9611
Snapshot
The first "Made for iPod" dock to deliver a direct digital signal is destined to change the way audiophiles think about Apple's music player
Plus
• Bit-perfect digital output • Video output capability • Works with any system that has a digital audio input
Minus
• No onscreen menus • Very basic remote control • No optical digital output • No pilot light or power switch
Key Features
• Coaxial digital output • Component- and S-video pass-through • Analog audio pass-through
Running a full Sound & Vision test report of a seemingly basic iPod dock might seem like overkill. But then again, Wadia's 170iTransport is an iPod dock unlike any other - one that promises to change the way audiophiles think about Apple's wildly successful portable player.

Since the Apple iPod was introduced about 7 years ago, most audiophiles have tended to dismiss its capabilities. Sure, audio geeks may own one for casual listening on the go, but few would admit to playing it through their tweaked-out high-end systems.

I was a latecomer to the iPod fold, having used a Toshiba digital music player for many years. But I broke down and bought an iPod Classic last year and soon realized that most of its sound-quality limitations weren't directly related to the player itself but rather to Apple's throwaway earbuds. After switching these out for a set of Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro in-ear headphones, my iPod listening experience took a quantum leap forward.

While the custom-fitted Ultimate Ears 'phones significantly improved my iPod's sound, the downside was that they also ruthlessly exposed the sonic limitations of the 128-kbps compressed music files I had downloaded from Apple's iTunes store - a problem I worked around by ripping my own CDs using the Apple Lossless Codec (ALAC). This solution proved wonderful for travel, yet when I connected the iPod's analog audio output to my home audio rig, the sonic shortcomings that I experienced kept me reaching for my original CDs.

If you were to carefully check the connection layout of the iPod's 30-pin dock connector, you'd find that a digital audio output is not included in the specification. Wadia's engineers explored this issue with Apple's iPod engineering team and, to their surprise, learned that there actually is a way to make a dock interface with the iPod's authentication chip and enable digital audio output over the 30-pin connector. The 170i's digital output offers the potential of improved sound quality over the iPod's own D/A conversion by letting you send signals to an outboard receiver or digital-to-analog converter (DAC), and it's the only such dock on the market to feature's Apple's official "Made for iPod" logo.

The 170i is compatible with all iPods from the fifth generation (iPod Video) on up, along with all Nano, iPhone, and Touch models, although the functionality does vary somewhat depending on the model in use.

The 170i's component- and S-video outputs can deliver any video programs stored on an iPod, but they can't be used to display its menu system on your TV. A tiny remote control lets you skip tracks, pause playback, and switch over from digital to analog outputs, but that's about it. And once you have played through an album or playlist, the Skip buttons let you move to another album or playlist. Your iPod's click wheel and display remain fully functional when it's docked in the iTransport, although you'll need to get up from your chair to navigate the menus on its tiny screen.

SETUP

Housed in an elegant 8-inch-square aluminum box, the 170i retains most of the look and feel I've come to expect from Wadia products, despite being built in China and selling for a fraction of the cost associated with the company's more familiar megabuck gear. The dock doesn't offer any controls - not even an indicator light to let you know it's been powered up.

Along with the component- and S-video connection (which can also deliver a composite-video output), rear panel jacks include stereo analog audio and a coaxial digital output. Power is provided by a small wall-wart power supply. Outside of the digital audio output, all connections simply pass along the analog signals that are normally available on the iPod's dock connector.

PERFORMANCE

Playing uncompressed WAV files on the iTransport should provide a bit-perfect digital signal that's identical to the original source. To test this claim subjectively, I ripped several of my reference CDs to the iPod as WAV files, and then compared the playback via the iPod/170i combination to the original CDs played on an Alesis Masterlink ML-9600. Both were connected to a Perpetual Technologies P3-A DAC with its upsampling function switched off.

Music on an iPod can be stored using lossy digital codecs like MP3 and AAC and lossless ones such as ALAC, along with the uncompressed AIFF and WAV formats. Before delivering its digital output to an outboard DAC, the 170i first converts everything to the 16-bit, 44.1-kHz standard CD format. Wadia claims that ALAC files can actually lose some information during conversion back to CD format, so it recommends using uncompressed AIFF or WAV files to get absolute bit-perfect performance. I did try comparing some files encoded with ALAC with the original WAV files, and to be honest, I could not reliably detect any performance differences. (Apple Lossless compression typically cuts the file size in half, so this seems like a good way to go if those massive WAV files start to eat up too much precious drive space on your iPod.)

Choral music can be a particularly brutal test for revealing problems with digital audio. Playing "Voca Me" from the album Free by the English boys' choir Libera, I detected no audible differences whatsoever between the original CD and its WAV file played through the 170i. This result was repeated for each disc I tried, and at times I actually felt that the 170i version might have sounded a tad more spacious and open. Whether this was just my imagination or a case of the Wadia dock providing the DAC with a more robust digital stream remains open to debate! Nevertheless, any perceptible differences were truly infinitesimal.

And MP3 files, especially higher bit-rate ones that have been properly encoded, can also sound excellent through the 170i. Still, when I had the original CD available for comparison, typical MP3 compression problems such as papery, flat-sounding high frequencies and a general lack of transparency became evident.

As I said earlier, I blame the limited quality of the 128-kbps MP3 files sold on iTunes for the iPod's shaky reputation with fussy audiophiles. A few alternative music download services offer much higher-quality files, however. One of the best is HDtracks.com, which offers uncompressed AIFF and FLAC versions of recordings from a bunch of smaller independent labels. FLAC files won't play on an iPod, so I instead downloaded an AIFF copy of The Persuasions Sing the Beatles from the audiophile Chesky label. I also happen to have a copy of this exceptionally natural-sounding a cappella recording in my CD library for comparison, but again, as with the ripped WAV files, I could not detect any clear differences between the CD and the HDtracks download.

BOTTOM LINE

Working exactly as promised, Wadia's 170iTransport lets you extract CD-quality digital audio from your iPod, although it could benefit from a more capable remote control and some additional navigation features. Still, with the music industry moving away from selling physical CDs and toward a music-download model, it's good to know that iPod-owning audiophiles now have a way to make that transition without compromising performance.

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