The Perfect Audio Enthusiast Christmas Gift
Santa L. Claus
What?!! An Ipod review in Stereomojo?
Well, yes and no. The story goes like this:
I was checking out the Red Wine Audio/Omega Speakers room at the New York Audio Show. Red Wine owner Vinnie Rossi was telling me about his amps and new products for future production. All of a sudden he says, “Hey James, you need to hear THIS”! He whips out an Ipod with an impressive looking cable attached to it and proceeds to plug it into the preamp.
“Vinnie”, I sighed, “Stereomojo doesn’t do Ipods. You know we’re pretty specialized in what we review…”
“I know, but just listen!” He plays some female vocal from the Ipod and the sound is amazing.
“But Vinnie, we don’t DO Ipods..”
“It’s not an Ipod, it’s my IMOD! I’ve modified the Ipod so that it sounds as good as a lot of CD players costing thousands.”
“Yeah Vinnie, it sounds great, but we only do high-end two-channel….”
“Well think about it, James. The Imod is two-channel and it is definitely high-end, and it’s a great value, too. Stereomojo is interested in value, right? And is it not two-channel?”
He had a point. No one has ever accused Vinnie of being dumb. A few weeks later I sent my 5th generation Ipod to Red Wine Audio. A few days later I got it back, the back of the ‘pod now sporting a cool plaque reading “Imod by Red Wine Audio”. Vinnie had also included that very impressive cable that fit the Ipod’s socket and broke out into two RCA’s.
My ‘pod already had a ton of lossless files burned from some of my reference CD’s. So, I plugged it into my reference system and fired it up. Hearing a player in a hotel room through unfamiliar amps, speakers and cables is one thing. Hearing it in your home on your reference system is something else. What I was hearing from the Imod really was “something else”!
Just insert here all the typical audio superlatives and jargon you usually read in a “rave review”. I was impressed. “A-B’”ing it to the heavily modded Pioneer Elite DV46 player (which we reviewed and determined equivalent to players costing in the low thousands) showed the Imod to be quieter in both sound quality and operation (the Pioneer’s transport is rather loud).
The Imod’s soundstage was less grainy and instruments emerged from a quieter background. That just makes sense since the Imod does not have to contend with noisy AC lines and plays from a hard disk rather than a CD. It already has a great shock resistant system which also means great resonance and vibration rejection, so it doesn’t need to be mounted on an expensive audiophile rack. Setting on my wonderful Stillpoints rack did not make any difference – a first for any product! Of course, the Imod is absolutely transportable while your CD player is not. Advantage Imod.
I cannot say that the Imod bettered the modded Pioneer in terms of soundstage size, dynamics, midrange clarity, bass performance or treble purity and detail. The Pioneer probably sports much of the same replacement caps and circuitry as the Imod. So, call it a wash. Still, that is saying a lot for a mere $249 Ipod upgrade. The Pioneer mod was much more.
But how does it compare to a stock, identical Ipod? I borrowed one from a good friend and transferred the same lossless files to it. From note one, it was no comparison. Bass control and quality stood out like NBA players at a dwarf’s convention. Next I heard an obvious improvement of the soundstage. Quieter, deeper, wider and more layered. The image was suspended much higher above the speakers as well. Dynamic contrasts had improved significantly. Midrange was much smoother and silky, All in all, a vastly more musical and engrossing presentation.
So, what chicanery did Vinnie perpetrate on the Apple cashcow? First, Vinnie explained the factory version already contained one of the best DACs on the market – a Wolfson to engage in a little name dropping. As you may know, Wolfsons are used in many very high-end, big name disk players. “The problem is, everything after the Wolfson is pretty much junk”, explained Vinnie. “It was just a matter of finding the best caps and circuitry I could fit into the case. The goal of the Red Wine iMod is to significantly minimize the analog signal path that follows the output of the internal Wolfson Microelectronics DAC chip”.
“Junk? What junk, Vinnie?”
“The low quality stock SMT coupling caps after the internal Wolfson, before the stock opamp. The cheesy Opamp output stage. The low quality stock SMT coupling caps after the opamp output stage. There’s the minuscule circuit board traces that carry the analog line-out signal. The SMD resistors and inductors directly in the signal path. Then, in the stock Ipod dock, the signal path includes a dock connector plug, a very cheap ribbon cable, more minuscule pcb traces, SMD resistors, and finally the line out jack”.
“So you replaced all that cheapo junk with better quality stuff”?
“Nah. I just bypassed it! I took the analog line out signal off of the Wolfson DAC chip and sent it directly to the dock connector pins. This completely bypasses all the components listed above that degrade the sound quality of the line-out of the Wolfson . However, unlike the 4th Generation iMod, we are not able to fit the high-end Black Gate Non-Polorized NX-Hi-Q coupling capacitors inside of the5G/5.5G models. Luckily, I found a solution! We have teamed up with ALO Audio, a highly-regarded cable manufacturer, to introduce the iMod Dock Cable. ALO has found a way to install the capacitors in the dock plug of the cable itself, thus it is required for use with the 5th generation iMod. You must purchase the cable separately from ALO Audio's website.
Taking a look at ALO.com, you will see that they offer several versions from $99, all specially designed for the Imod. Repeat, you must use one of these cables with Vinnie’s 5th generation modification. If you have an older Ipod, the situation is different. You can read about it on the Red Wine site or call Vinnie.
Vinnie added “Run the iMod without the AC power/charge cable connected. This will isolate the iMod from AC power supply noise, because the iPod will only be running off of battery power”. I did not run the Imod with charger inserted, so I cannot verify that, but it makes sense and I have no doubt that Vinnie is correct.
“By the way James, the Blackgates need about 200 hours of burn-in to reach their best performance”. And I had done the comparisons with less than 200 hours. Hmmm. It’s only going to get better? Since I penned this review, I have used the Imod extensively, particularly on flights to various audio shows via my Sennheiser noise canceling phones. Vinnie, of course, is correct. It does improve quite a bit over time. Added note: If you fly a lot, you MUST get some good noise canceling phones! Not only is your flight and music experience much better and quieter, but you arrive at your destination much fresher, energized and relaxed. After my first flight, I bought Linda a pair and she has had the same non-exhausting experience as I. Of course, the Imod is a no-brainer as a source of music and entertainment. It plays videos and even has games.
Does the Imod improve the sound of regular mp3's and other formats that are not lossless? Short answer; yes. Needless to say though, the higher the bitrate, the better the sound.
I should mention that I attended the Florida Headfi Meet a few months ago. I have never seen so much incredible headphone gear and esoteric headphones in one place before. I was flabberghasted! One thing that stood out was that practically everyone there had Ipods upgraded with Vinnie's Imod. They all raved about it and were often using them as sources for their megabuck headphones and headphone amps. All those folks are very picky about their sound, so that is a rather large endorsement of the Imod.
If you are wondering about the new Apple ITouch player, Vinnie is not going to offer an upgrade for it. Nor the Iphone. Nor the new 6th generation Ipod Classic. The good news is, on Ebay alone there are thousands of eligible Ipods for sale pretty cheap. If you don't have one yet, for about $400-$500 for an Ipod and the upgrade with cable, you can have a super-dooper, high-end quality, portable music source.
Vinnie Rossi's Red Wine IMod must be the biggest no-brainer purchase in high-end audio. I defy you to show us a digital source that sounds better for the money, whether it is portable or not. The fact that the IMod is at home either in your pocket during a jog, flight, wasting time at work, listening quietly late at night via phones, or as a main source in your stereo system, makes it one of the most versatile high-end products on the planet. And check this out: The notorious WAF is no factor at all! It will make the perfect audiophile Christmas, birthday, anniversary, tax refund or graduation gift
Because of its great bang-for-the-buck, Vinnie Rossi's
Red Wine Audio IMod
Red Wine Audio