Coax Higher-fidelity Music from Your iPod with the NuForce Icon iDo
Feb 22, 2012 10:12 AM,
By Jason Bovberg
A few years ago, in “What Happened to the Music?”, I lamented the (d)evolution of music from high definition to low-def digital files that we listen to on the run, favoring flimsy, uncomfortable earbuds over the rich, open sound fields of living rooms and other listening rooms, or even high-quality headphones. As I wrote then, “Music has changed in more profound ways than merely its delivery mechanism.” Yes, fortunately, over the years, we have evolved away from tape-based and vinyl-based media into the digital age. But even on CDs, we’ve been putting up with digitally compressed, compromised presentations of our music. It’s even worse on our portable music devices.
In our eternal quest for convenience, we’ve largely abandoned the concept of high definition in our music. The vast majority of the population is absolutely fine with the default 128kbps data rate that is the “acceptable norm” for downloaded music. To my ears, this representation of music sounds flat and compressed, with its sometimes obnoxious treble and crackly bass. The loss in fidelity is obvious. And yet, over time, given high-definition options (i.e., DAT, DVD-A, SACD), consumers have again and again chosen the low-def alternative, shrugging as if to say, “Who cares?”
Well, I care.
Today, I’m at the point where I’m just not listening to much music on CD (or on the aforementioned high-def disc formats). It took me a while, but I’ve come to the reluctant realization that the future of all music is digital. I’m still not happy about that realization, but I can’t deny what’s happening around me. For most people, music has become ear candy that they listen to when they need something to fill the boring spots in their lives. Music has become just the soundtrack playing in the background, but not for me.
Although the average iPod consumer has devolved the experience of music to the realm of the casual, I’ve found that it is possible—and increasingly easy—to coax tolerably rich sound experiences from the iPod. Even when I first got an iPod, I found ways to maximize its fidelity. You probably did, too. Changing the default 128kbps data rate to 256kbps or even 320kps was a tough bargain to make with the smaller iPod sizes back then, but today’s larger capacities (for lower prices) make it easy to choose the higher bit rate and enjoy music that’s automatically closer to the lossless ideal. (You can choose to download your music in a lossless format, but honestly I’ve found 256kbps to be a perfectly acceptable rate.) Unfortunately, some sites charge more for higher-fidelity tracks, which seems outrageous to me, but that’s a topic for another day.
Okay, if you’ve taken that essential first step of setting the download rate to be at least double the default, you might as well face it—you’re an audiophile in the age of low-fi music. To get the most out of the music you love, you’re taking extra steps beyond the norm. You have to expend a lot of effort to fix what shouldn’t be a problem. And yet to really step apart from the earbud crowd, you’ve got still more to do. See, the iPod (assuming that’s your device of choice) has a digital audio converter (DAC) that limits the capabilities of the iPod, particularly as regards the needs of audiophiles. What a discerning music lover needs to do is bypass that DAC (as well as the iPod’s built-in headphone jack) and pipe the media to a beefier, more capable DAC/amplifier. After you do so, you’ll experience one more essential uptick in the breadth and richness of your music.
I recently got to play around with one of the hotter options in this arena, the NuForce Icon iDo . This is a cool little device that doubles as a headphone amp and a DAC unit that’s perfect for living room use. I’ve been using it mostly at work with my trusty old pair of Sony MDR CD50 headphones, but I’ve also tested it at home, using its RCA and coaxial inputs to pump its power into my living room AV setup. In both scenarios, the NuForce has provided an obvious sense of oomph to the music that I’ve stored on my iPod.
The device stands 6in. tall in its little base—a diminutive but powerful piece of equipment that’s perfect for the office scenario. You simply plug the included 30-pin sync/charging cable into the rear, via the USB port, and connect your iPod. Attach the AC adapter, power it up, and you not only have a high-quality DAC/amp on your desk, you’ve also got an iPod charging station. I also find the large-profile volume knob on the face of the iDo to be extremely convenient—far better than having to touch the iPod and access the volume control that way.
I listened to several of my favorite albums while testing the iDo, snapping back and forth between normal listening conditions (earphones plugged straight into the iPod) and iDo test conditions (both earphones and iPod plugged into the iDo), and I could sense the difference clearly. Admittedly, these differences aren’t mind-blowing. If you’re a typically iPod consumer, you might not even notice them. But they add up. They return your music from a flat collection of bits to a cohesive, rounded, full-bodied experience. There were moments during testing when I noticed things in a given track that I hadn’t noticed in the iPod-only variant. I would go back and listen again to the non-amped version, and yes, this time I would notice whatever detail I’d missed. Returning to the improved version, I would realize that I only noticed it because the entire sound field had changed, become more enveloping and involving.
The same was true of my living room tests: The music became more open, less harsh, more inviting. The experience made me want to listen to more. In an era when we’re listening to music mainly to fill time, that’s a nice quality that true audiophiles can appreciate. At $250, the NuForce Icon iDo isn’t a cheap prospect. It’ll be up to you to decide whether the experience it provides is noticeably improved over what the iPod’s built-in DAC provides. To my ears, the difference varies from track to track—sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic. But it’s one more way that lovers of high-def music are getting the most out of their stubbornly low-tech devices. I urge you to check it out.