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Positive Feedback ISSUE 67
I-20 iPod Dock
as reviewed by Steve Lefkowicz
This will be a pretty short review, as I'm pretty sure most true High-End audiophiles don't really care about iPod docks. But then, I'm not really writing this for the type of audiophile that would write off something like an iPod as a source. I am interested because from what I can tell, the future generations of audiophiles and hobbyists are more interested in their iPods and downloads than in another $1000 interconnect or $10,000 CD player. Even my own son, who has two very nice sounding systems in his college apartment (1), uses his iPod Classic as his sole source for his entire music library. Most of his friends have iPods, though none have anything that could be called a stereo system.
Now, if we can just get this next generation, the iPod generation, to simply understand and accept the fact that putting higher quality files on their iPods to start with, actually sounds better, and therefore would be more enjoyable, than heavily compressed files, we can get these "kids" started on the right path (2). The next step would of course be getting them to move up to better headphones, then a good headphone amp. Finally, we can then move them away from the headphones, and into the realm of a real, room filling, music sharing, and wonderful sounding stereo system!
Fortunately, the industry has personalities like PFO's own Mike Mercer leading that charge. The rest of the industry simply has to embrace Mike's ideas and work towards getting new people into this hobby. It is the future.
It would seem that simple iPod docks that allow you to plug your iPod into your stereo or home theater system would be pretty common. Two years ago before my son left for college, he shopped for a small, inexpensive dock. I was surprised by how little choice their was in the general market. Radio Shack has one for $49, a simple analog pass-through, though with an all-important remote, and Gini Systems (3) has something fairly similar (the iConec) in both function and price. Then there are the pricier docks that allow feeding the digital signal out of an iPod into an outboard DAC, while a few even have their own built-in DACs, claiming superior performance to the iPod's built in DAC. Marantz, HRT, Pro-Ject, Wadia, TEAC, Luxman and Peachtree all offer products in this category. One more is the focus of this review, Pure, and their little $99 model I-20.
I'm not sure where I first became aware of Pure products, but when I searched Amazon.com for "iPod Docks" to see about picking up a second dock for my son, there it was. It looked pretty cool, certainly more visually impressive than his Radio Shack dock. But then I noticed that for $99, it had its own DAC and digital outputs (both SP/DIF and TOSLINK) to stream the digital signal to the DAC of your choice. Instead of placing an order, I contacted Pure about a review sample.
The Pure I-20 certainly looks nice enough. It is pretty modern looking in a basic, simplistic way. It doesn't require those little adapters that I've seen used on other docking stations, and both my iPod Classic and my wife's iPod Nano fit easily and securely. The remote works fine on all menus and functions, though the display on either iPod is too small to see from across the room. I pretty much only used it for adjusting volume or advancing to the next track, two functions I feel are absolutely necessary.
I decided to look at the I-20 from a few different viewpoints. First, I wanted to see how it worked overall, and compared to simply plugging a cable into the headphone jack of my iPod, using just the 320kbps files stored on it. Then I wanted to compare using it to feed an outboard DAC. However, then I went one step further, ripping a few Apple Lossless files to the iPod, to see how it compared to my server playing the same files, through similar DACs.
If you are the type of audiophile that runs screaming from the room at the thought of being subjected to a compressed file, or insist that doing so will ruin your hearing, make you sick, or otherwise ruin your day (4), skip this part. Otherwise, please understand that the difference between listening to a 320kbps file and an Apple Lossless file (or a FLAC, WAV or other full resolution file) is somewhat similar to the difference between listening to an entry-level source and a more upscale, higher end source. Would I choose to listen to my precious LPs on a cheap old Technics direct drive linear tacking table with a cheap P-mount cartridge? No, I wouldn't. I would pick my Linn or any modern decent entry-level turntable every time. However, if that was all that was available at the time, I would use it rather than not listen to my LPs. Same with digital. I would (and do) listen to 320kbps files when that is what's available (such as on my iPod). Otherwise, I choose original CDs or higher resolution files on my server.
It really is that simple.
At least I feel good about having convinced my son, when he got his first iPod, that he's better off buying the CD and ripping at 320kbps, than to buy a 256kbps download from iTunes. In a few years when he graduates, and wants to set up a full time audio system complete with a server (or even a CD player), he'll have all his CDs. And for now, since I store his CDs for him, I get to listen to them all. Not bad since we share quite a bit in terms of musical taste.
With that said, let's see how my iPod sounds using the I-20.
First comparison was simply comparing the sound using the analog output of the I-20 (thereby using its internal DAC) to the sound of the iPod using a cable attached to the headphone output. Surprisingly, just for background music, I have hooked either my or my wife's iPod up to my main home stereo this way more than a few times. An inexpensive Audioquest Evergreen cable (about $29) works nicely for this. I have about thirty full CDs of Christmas music on the iPod that aren't on the server, and played it that way for my wife last Christmas season. I also have about a thousand other tracks on my iPod that aren't on my server, mostly because I haven't gotten around to buying the CDs yet. I won't put less than full resolution files on my server.
Well, the difference here was generally pretty obvious and clear. Playing through the I-20 dock was generally better in almost every way. I say "in almost" just because the better the file being played, the bigger the improvements in sound. Quite honestly, on a few low-resolution MP3 files I have (128kbps or less) I heard no difference at all. But on the bulk of the 320kbps files that populate my iPod, things were pretty consistent.
Playing through the I-20 instead of the headphone jack, everything was noticeably more dynamic and lively. Additionally, and overall, top-to-bottom everything was just better defined, clearer, and more incisive. However, since these are still compressed files, they do not sound as good as the full resolution files off of my server, or from the original CD played on my Marantz SA8001. No surprise there, even if on some tracks, the difference between the 320kbps file and the original CD weren't as big as expected, especially on pop oriented, processed and dynamically compressed music.
One thing that was generally noticeable was a slight brightness from the I-20. It just seems that there's a small upper midrange emphasis, not enough to be a problem, but something you notice in direct comparison with the iPod's direct output. But overall, I'd take the sound from the I-20 over using a cable from the headphone jack.
From a standpoint of using it straight as a dock into your system for playing from your iPod, it does the job, and does it well enough. The little remote works well and sound quality tracks the quality of your files, with a small but significant improvement over a cable from the headphone jack or an analog pass-through like the Radio Shack.
But then, you have the option of using either an RCA SP/DIF or TOSLINK optical output to feed into your outboard DAC. For the most part, I only had one DAC available with either of those inputs, the Wyred4Sound μDAC. I hooked up both; using inexpensive Belkin PureAV cables (about $7 each) that seemed appropriate for something like this. Then I just had to flip the little switch on the μDAC to select TOSLINK or SP/DIF. There was no comparison. Whereas the TOSLINK sounded thin, tinny, flat, and significantly worse than the direct output from the iPod's headphone jack, the SP/DIF connection was a significant improvement. The upper midrange emphasis was gone, and pretty much every characteristic I normally mention in a review was improved to some degree. I also had the opportunity to play this into the SP/DIF input of the ModWright KWI200 integrated amp, with similar if even more impressive, results.
Switching to some Apple Lossless files, I ripped a handful of files in that format from CD, to my iTunes library (which is separate from my music server library) to sync with my iPod:
Good People from Jack Johnson's In Between Dreams
Fred from Allen Holdsworth's live recording Blues for Tony
More Real Cats from Bedroom Wall's I Saw You Coming Back To Me
When the War Came from The Decemberists' The Crane Wife
Peace of Mind (Acoustic) from Rebelution's Peace of Mind
Then it was easy to make a playing on my server with the same five files, so I could start them together and simply switch inputs back and forth on the μDAC (now between SP/DIF and USB). Granted, we were also comparing JRiver Media Center sending FLAC files using a direct link (Kernel Streaming) via an Asynchronous connection to the USB input of the μDAC to the iPod sending it's Apple Lossless files via SP/DIF to the μDAC. But you know what, that's the comparison that would be relevant to me and my system. I do not have iTunes on my server anymore, and except for the files I loaded before getting JRiver Media Center (which were Apple Lossless) most of the files on the server are FLAC.
That's just the way it is…
The end result was in some ways surprising, but in most ways was pretty much what I expected. On its own the iPod/I-20/μDAC combination playing Apple Lossless files was actually a pretty satisfactory little server system. There weren't any serious flaws, and nothing really that would detract from a lengthy enjoyable listening session. I've spent enough time listening to the μDAC in my system to know it is a very high quality DAC, capable of superb sound. The I-20 clearly gets the digital information from the iPod and sends it out without any errors or issues. And the iPod? We've all known for a long time that it's a remarkable little device. Give it a good quality file and someplace worthwhile to send the information, and it works.
Compared to my music server, I have to say that the dedicated server/JRMC combination was better, and in every category, but not always by as much as I had expected. It was certainly more transparent, slightly better dynamically, a little more neutral tonally, had better tone and definition in the bass region, and was airier and clearer in high frequencies. Probably the biggest difference was in soundstage width and depth. The iPod system simply created a smaller overall soundstage, with less well defined images. I would liken the difference to what you get listening to a record on a good budget turntable versus a good mid priced turntable, maybe like comparing a $400 Pro-ject to my Linn. They are both good, but one is overall simply better (5).
The biggest limitations I see are the small hard drive (160GB) and the 16-bit 48KHz maximum resolution of the iPod. Even though my son is only nineteen years old, he would not be able to fit his entire music library on 160 GB if all the files were Apple Lossless. That's one reason he still saves everything as 320kbps files. When he graduates college and sets up in his own apartment or house, I'll get him a proper inexpensive notebook to dedicate as a music server, with JRMC, a decent DAC, and even help get all his CDs loaded as FLAC files.
However, that doesn't diminish the quality and usefulness of the I-20 being reviewed here. If you use an iPod or iPhone (or I suppose, an iPad) and want to hook it up to your system, the I-20 does the job, works nicely and offers a lot of versatility. I like having it in my system for times when my son has friends over who want to share music, they can take turns popping each of their iPods on it and playing their tunes. That certainly beats sharing one side of an Apple ear bud like I've seen so many kids do.
For $99 (usually less if you shop around a little) there's no reason not to get one. I'll probably get a second one. I'll keep one for myself and send one off with my kid for college next year. Steve Lefkowicz
I-20 iPod Dock
(1) His desktop system in his bedroom includes a pair of Linn Kans fed by a pair of Antique Sound Labs AV8 mono tube amps, using the iPod in a Radio Shack iPod dock. In the living room of his apartment, he has a larger system using old Large Advents powered by a mid 70s Sansui integrated amp. We went for a vintage "college dorm sound" like we would have had when we were in college. They plug the iPod in via a cable from the headphone jack, though the I-20 in review here will likely replace that soon.
(2) I say "kids" though I also should point out that I also have almost my entire CD collection on my iPod Classic as 320kbps files, and listen to it a lot, either via good headphones and a portable headphone amp, or plugged into the audio system in my car when driving. Most adults I know have their iPods and use them quite a bit.
(3) Gini Systems is the US importer of Audio Space electronics. www.gini.com
(4) All things I've been read via various Facebook audiophile groups and other audio discussion forums over the past couple years.
(5) For those with long memories, Simply Better was one of Linn's early slogans. I still have a T-shirt from the early 1980s with that slogan and the Linn logo on it that I got from the dealer when I bought my LP12.