MSB Technology iLink Digital iPod Dock
The impact of the Apple iPod is obvious -- visit a coffee shop, a mall, or any downtown street corner, and youll see someone with an iPod. Its one of the most successful electronics devices ever. That success has inspired a plethora of third-party add-on products -- cases, cables, headphones, and docking stations that allow you to connect your iPod to a home audio system. In fact, new places to dock your iPod are popping up faster than zits on the face of a teenage McDonalds employee.
But so far, these docking stations have been a source of frustration for the audiophile who wants to use an iPod with a home audio system to achieve the best sound possible. Until now, every way of connecting an iPod has simply passed the players analog signal along to your home system. This means that, in terms of sound quality, audiophiles have been at the mercy of the iPods built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Now, for a pocket player, the iPods built-in DAC is actually pretty good -- it sounds better than the DACs in some full-size CD players. But it doesnt sound better than a true high-end DAC, which is why hardcore audiophiles who want to get the most from their portables want to do so by getting at the digital stream inside the iPod before it reaches the players DAC, and shooting that signal into their own high-end DACs.
Thats what MSB Technologys iLink does. Its squarely aimed at the audiophile market, where its digital-output capabilities will be most appreciated and its hefty price of $1995 USD makes the most sense, based on the sound quality it delivers. On paper, its an audiophiles dream.
The iLink is an L-shaped cradle measuring about 5"H x 4"W x 2.5"D -- a little bigger, wider, and deeper than an iPod. In looks its nothing like the sleekly styled iPod itself, which is more or less a masterpiece of modern industrial design. Instead, the iLink looks chunky, despite its small size. But this shouldnt be surprising; most audiophile companies arent so much concerned with cutting-edge aesthetic design as with achieving a high quality of sound.
On the back are three digital output connectors -- RCA coax, optical TosLink, XLR balanced -- for connecting to your DAC (you must supply your own digital cable). Inside the iLink, leading up to these outputs, is something crucial that youll never see, but will probably hear if your system is of high enough resolution: The iLink has circuitry to buffer and reclock the digital stream before it leaves the iLinks connectors. This is done to deliver a perfect, low-jitter bitstream to an outboard DAC. In fact, MSB Technology claims reference-level digital performance in this regard, which is why they also claim that the iLink can replace your CD transport. Also on the rear is a small connector for the external "wall wart" power supply. However, theres no power switch -- you leave the iLink on at all times. On the front is the docking connector for the iPod, which the iLink recharges while its docked.
However, you cant just use any ol iPod with the iLink. No off-the-shelf iPod outputs a digital signal; if it did, devices such as the iLink would be everywhere. Rather, MSB Technology must modify your iPod. The cost of one mod is included in the iLinks $1995 price; if you want a second iPod modified, MSB will charge you $199, which is nearing the price of a 30GB iPod itself. And if you dont have an iPod at all and dont want to go through the hassle of buying one and shipping it to MSB for modification, MSB will sell you a modified 80GB iPod with an iLink for $2349. For this review, MSB supplied me the whole kitnkaboodle.
The modification doesnt add any weird holes to the iPod or harm its appearance. Instead, all mods are done inside; the digital signal is output through the connector thats already on the units bottom. The only thing that indicates that an iPod has been modified is a legend engraved on its rear panel: "iLink Digital Upgrade by MSB Technology."
All this talk about modifying iPods brings up one important thing: When MSB does their thing, your iPods warranty from Apple is voided. Obviously, this is something to consider before buying, especially as the cost of the iPod with mod is about $500. But I suspect that audiophiles who want access to that digital bitstream will have no problem with an unwarranted iPod.
Heres what else you need to know about the iLink: Included in the $1995 price are a small remote control and a nifty little RF connector that attaches to the bottom of the iPod. The remote has some very basic features: track skip and pause, and a digital volume control. As youll see in my comments below, I didnt find the remote all that handy. On the other hand, the RF connector made up for that a bit. This transmitter allows you to wirelessly transfer the digital stream from iPod to iLink -- you can hold the iPod at your listening chair, or walk around the room with it, without keeping those bits from making their way to your DAC. Neat, but not without limitations; more on that below.
Finally, the software: MSB supplies none, nor do they need to. Rather, you use iTunes to fill your iPod with music, as any iPod user would. However, its critical that you use the Apple Lossless compression format. Apple Lossless is, as its name implies, a non-lossy digital audio format: all of the musical information taken from the CD remains intact. This is unlike, say, MP3, a "lossy" format that, to save hard-drive space, throws away musical information it deems insignificant. To make sure iTunes rips tunes in Apple Lossless, go to Edit > Preferences > Advanced > Importing, and select Apple Lossless Encoder. Its that easy.
Theres one more important thing that MSB doesnt tell you, but it seems that everyone who cares enough about sound quality to go to the trouble of encoding in Apple Lossless does -- or should -- know. After you select Apple Lossless, youll notice another option: "Use error correction when reading Audio CDs." By default this is off, and when its off, CDs rip faster. However, when this option isnt selected, read errors made by the computers drive mechanism can supposedly slip through. Ive never noticed any problems, but on various digital-music forums Ive visited Ive read plenty of stories of users whove experienced dropouts when that option wasnt ticked; others have experienced poor sound quality. (Dropouts are complete losses of sound -- its not something youll miss.) Therefore, select it; it should guarantee you a bit-perfect transfer. However, the ripping speed wont likely be as fast -- a small thing, probably, when youve spent two grand on something like the iLink and are looking for the very best sound possible.
I used the MSB iLink with my Stello DA220 DAC, which has been in my reference system for years. I used DH Labs Silver Sonic D-75 and i2Digital X-60 coaxial digital interconnects to connect the iLink to the Stello, to see if either cable would make any difference in the sound -- they didnt. I also used the Silver Sonic D-110 AES/EBU cable, which connects to the DACs XLR jack -- it seemed subtly better than the coax cables, about which Ill explain more below. My Theta Data Basic CD transport was also connected to the same DAC coaxially (again, the D-75 and X-60 yielded similar results, but my transport doesnt support an XLR digital connection). This allowed me to do A/B comparisons of ripped files through the iLink with the original CD as played by the transport.
I did most of my auditioning of the iLink with the Janszen Model One active loudspeaker system (review in the works). Because the Janszens are fully powered speakers, I needed to add only my Blue Circle BC3000 preamp. Analog interconnects were Nirvana Audio S-Ls.
I also did some auditioning using the stand-mounted Usher Audio Be-718 speakers, powered by Simaudios Moon i-7 integrated amplifier and connected with Nirvana S-L speaker cables. In this second system, the front end remained the same.
The first thing I did was to sync the MSB-modified iPod with my iTunes-ripped files. Then I docked the iPod in the iLink. As soon as I cued up a song on the iPod and pressed Play, sound rushed from my speakers. Everything was A-OK, which kind of impressed me -- computer-based gear doesnt always work that easily right off the bat. Then I picked up the iLinks remote control and found that, well, it didnt let me do all that much compared to what a plain ol CD players remote control allows. The remote has track skip, play, and pause controls, and a digital attenuator to adjust the volume. I dont need the remote volume control -- my preamp has that -- and those controls are few, to say the least. The MSBs remote is disappointing, particularly in light of how rich in features most consumer electronics are today.
I resorted to controlling the iPod directly while it was docked, which offered much better functionality. However, it wasnt a cure; its not that easy to use a docked iPods controls -- the player was designed to work best in the palm. Luckily, MSB has a solution: an RF transmitter that clips into the iPods bottom port lets you venture away from the iLink, iPod in hand. Compared to using the remote control, or trying to control the iPod while it was docked, using the iLink this way was much easier. In fact, the ability to wirelessly stream music from the iPod gave me a glimpse of what we can soon expect from other small, digital front ends.
But MSBs iPod RF transmitter wasnt flawless -- it liked a direct line of sight to the iLink receiver. If something got in the way -- such as my speakers or, more often, my hand -- dropouts occurred. This happened often when I wasnt careful about how I was holding or pointing the iPod, and it got frustrating enough that often I wouldnt hold the iPod in my hand after Id cued a song to play. Instead, Id place the iPod on the arm of my listening chair, where nothing, including any part of me, would get in the way of a clear path to the iLink.
Furthermore, I wasnt sure if it was possible to degrade the RF-transmitted signal enough so that sound quality would be decreased, but not enough to cause a full dropout. In other words, would the iLink accept a less-than-bit-perfect transfer from the RF transmitter and still play what it could? There was no way I could test that reliably, so I phoned MSBs support number, and the gentleman there confirmed to me that it would. Hmmmm. Therefore, for my most critical listening, I docked the iPod in the iLink and resigned myself to the fact that I couldnt have all the convenience I wanted from the iLink if I also wanted from it the best sound possible -- at least for a critical review.
In terms of sound quality alone, however, I cant complain about the iLink. I A/Bd ripped music files against the CDs theyd come from, and, at worst, the iLink matched my Theta Data Basic transports sound quality playing the original CD. Most of the time, though, the iLink sounded better -- not in the bass, where I heard no real difference, but in the midrange and highs. Furthermore, the soundstage delineation also improved.
For example, when I played tracks rich in high frequencies -- such as "Cradle and All," from Ani DiFrancos Not a Pretty Girl [CD, Righteous Babe RBR-007D] -- the CDs through the Theta always had a splash and tizziness up top that Id thought were parts of the recordings. Via the iLink, the Apple Lossless versions were every bit as extended in the highs, but without the splash and hash. I was surprised. "Where did the noise go?" I asked myself. "Is my transport adding this grunge? Does it have something to do with the CD?" Obviously, there were a lot of variables at play: different digital file sources ("Red Book" 16-bit/44.1kHz vs. Apple Lossless), storage methods (CD vs. the iPods internal hard drive), and playback electronics (the Theta Data Basic vs. the MSB-modified iPod through the iLink). Saying that the difference was due to one of those variables and not the others is impossible. However, the improvements I heard playing music through the iLink-based digital front end were undeniable -- the iLink system was always equal or better.
These differences were just as apparent through the midrange. When I played Quartettes cover of Gordon Lightfoots "Song for a Winters Night," from Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot [CD, Borealis BCDNBM500], the singers voices were clearer, richer, and easier to discern in the mix. The highs, again, were cleaner, as if a hint of noise had been wiped away.
Furthermore, things improved just a smidgen more when I changed the iLinks connection to my DAC from coax to AES/EBU XLR (DH Labs Silver Sonic D-110 cable). The differences between the cable types were very subtle -- not nearly as obvious as the differences between my transport and the iLink -- but I learned from this comparison that there was still a bit of tidying to do at the top end. For example, the cymbals on Van Morrisons "Get On with the Show," from Whats Wrong with This Picture? [CD, Blue Note 93651], had a touch more clarity and, again, an ever-so-subtle reduction of noise and hash that I thought had already disappeared -- but these artifacts were reduced by one more notch with the D-110 cable in the mix. There was also a small improvement in the "air" around the instruments and voice that helped to improve the re-creation of the soundstage. But I dont want to make as big a deal of this comparison. As I said, the differences between these cables were very, very small, and might be undetectable in a system of lower resolution. Clearly, the biggest differences were between my Theta transport and the MSB iLink.
So if you have to use coax, dont fret -- the iLink is a strong performer in that regard. But if you can, try an AES/EBU XLR connection -- you might find the difference meaningful enough. Then again, that difference is subtle, so maybe not. Whatever the case, while I had strong reservations about the iLinks feature set, particularly for $1995, its digital playback was first-rate.
While I admired the MSB iLinks ease of setup and the way the dock streamed bits from the iPod to my DAC, I wasnt happy with the lack of features on its remote control, and I was mixed on the performance of its RF transmitter -- it was great with a perfect line of sight to the iLink, but frustrating when anything, such as my hand, got in the way. I cant give the iLink high marks for features, and because of that, I cant see it replacing my CD transport, whose convenience and features I prefer, even if means having to walk to my shelves to select a disc.
The MSB iLinks real appeal is what it was created for: getting the digital bitstream out of an iPod and into your own DAC. And that it does not merely well, but fabulously. I found that, regardless of source material, at worst the iLink matched the sound quality of my CD transport; usually, it bettered that quality. This was not something I anticipated when I first set up the iLink, nor did I expect that it was something that any iPod docking station would be capable of. MSB seems to have done a knockout job of getting an Apple iPod to put out sonic performance that can stand among the best.
The iLink will appeal to some iPod users, but not to all. I dont see it being used in low- or even moderately priced systems -- its just too expensive for that. Such systems are what low-priced cables and docking stations were designed for. Rather, I see the iLink most likely being used alongside a CD transport as another high-quality digital source by audiophiles who are serious about their iPods, and just as serious about integrating them into their home systems and getting the best sound from them -- and are willing to pay $1995 to do just that.
MSB Technology iLink Digital iPod Dock
MSB Technology Corporation
MSB Technology responds:
The staff of MSB Technology and I would like to thank Doug Schneider for his thorough and thoughtful review of the MSB iLink. The review sample was from our first prototype production run and some things have been changed since:
We feel that the exceptional clarity of the iLink that Doug describes when compared to a CD transport is a result of the elimination of the common "digital demon" that audiophiles refer to as brightness or that "the music is not coming from a silent background." There is a "smear" that blurs the overtones of instruments, hardens voices, and truncates recovery of the recorded space. As Doug noticed, the iLink is free of this "noise." Jitter levels in current CD players and transports that are not as low as they could be and the bit-replacing error correction that occurs in all CD transports have been identified as the main culprits.
The iLink system addresses both of these problems. The iLink system has been engineered using a proprietary clock-buffering method that reduces the jitter far below the best CD transports we have measured. Follow the setup instructions supplied with the iLink, and the iPod will have a bit-perfect copy of the CD, which also will not age or degrade over time as CDs will. The MSB iLink system is intended to achieve the superior playback of CDs, surpassing the best CD transports available. The iLink system is therefore a no-compromise front-end that we feel will improve the sound of any system from low cost to cost-no-object state of the art. Using it in combination with one of MSB's ladder DACs (either our Power DAC or the DAC III) yields what we believe is groundbreaking performance.