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Reviewer: Phil Gold
Source: Meridian G08 CD Player
Integrated Amp: Perreaux Radiance R200i
Speakers: Wilson Benesch ACT1
Cables: Nordost Valhalla Power Cables (5 ft), Nordost Valhalla Interconnects (3 ft), Nordost Valhalla Triwire Speaker Cable (8 ft), Monster iCable (7 ft)
Power Conditioning: Chang Lightspeed Powerline Filter
Headphones: AKG K1000
Room size: 24' W x 12' D x 8' H
Review Component Retail: Apple iPod Mini 6GB: $249 + $39 for Mini Dock; Apple iPod Photo 60GB: $449 + $39 for Photo Dock; Crystal Piccolo iPod Cable: $299 for .5m, $399 for 1m, $599 for 1.5m
|You've seen 'em everywhere, right? They're for kids. Compression ruins the music. You can't be serious! Well, I am serious. I'm going to review the iPods as source components in a high-end system. No holds barred. I'm putting these iPods up against my reference CD player, the Meridian G08, which costs 15 times the price of the iPod mini and has nowhere near as many functions. You think you know the answer already? Well, you can skip to the end to see if you're right but then you'll miss the fun along the way.
Before running these tests, I tried to keep an open mind. I heard a pretty spectacular demonstration at the 2004 CES of Wilson Audio speakers, hosted by Dave Wilson himself where an iPod was the surprise digital source hidden from view. I never would have guessed.
|The truth is the iPod can sound spectacular - but only under certain circumstances. Let's take it one step at a time. Here's how I set the experiment. Using Apple's free iTunes software (Mac or PC), I loaded a number of high quality CDs into my library using a wide range of sampling rates for AAC, then again in some high bit rate MP3 and finally using Apple Lossless Compression. Then I loaded this library onto both iPods to prepare to do battle against the original CDs played through the Meridian G08. For those of you unfamiliar with the G08, it follows a long line of breakthrough CD players from Meridian. While it doesn't sit at the top of their line (that honor falls to the 800 series), the G08 in my experience is unbeatable in the sub $5,000 class. The amplifier is my trusty Perreaux Radiance R200i and the speakers are the Wilson Benesch Act 1s, freshly upgraded with Bybee Quantum Purifiers. I wired the entire system with Nordost Valhalla power cords, interconnects and triwire|
|speaker cables except for the connection between iPod docks to the amplifier. I tried two cables here, the first Monster's iCable ($29.95 for a 7ft length), and the second the much more expensive Crystal Piccolo iPod cable ($399 a meter). Before jumping into the listening tests, a few things about the iPods themselves. First the packing is simply superb, the instructions are crystal clear and who can resist the Jewish grandmother's admonition on the box, Enjoy!
Next the user interface - first rate. You all know by now of the touch-sensitive wheel, the embedded buttons, the sleek elegant case, the choice of colors on the aluminum clad iPod Mini and the trademark white plastic case of the iPod photo. Not the only way to do it but it works, it's easy to learn, it's fun to use and cool to look at. The screens are clear and bright, black and white on the iPod Mini, color on the iPod Photo which also sports an extra display line. Battery life is much improved over earlier models, 18 hours on the Mini and 15 hours for the Photo. These times are put to shame by the battery life on some of the new Sonys but hold up well by industry standards. But it's unforgivable in 2005 that the batteries are not user-replaceable. When they go -- and they will go -- you have to send the unit back to Apple, who will send you an exchange unit for a handsome fee.
iTunes brings an excellent interface to Mac or PC, which is easy to use, remarkably fast at transferring files and never failed me. The only problem I had was on initial installation when two copies of iTunes loaded themselves simultaneously. I particularly like the way the iPod automatically picks up any new tunes in your library as soon as you connect the USB cable and instructs you when it is safe to unplug the iPod from the computer. These days, one USB cable is all you need for both loading files and charging your iPod. I would much prefer to see a mains charger in the package for the times you're on the road without a computer. The iPod Photo has this, the iPod Mini doesn't. Apple, please rethink this one!
If you're serious about listening to the iPod through your stereo, you'll have to invest $39 in the appropriate dock. The dock is the only way to get a line out from your iPod, although you can simply use the headphone outlet instead (but that keeps the volume control in circuit with a small loss in sound quality). The docks are both beautifully designed. The Photo Dock provides charging and syncing via FireWire or USB 2.0 plus an S-Video Link for seeing your photos to your TV - plus that line out connection. The Mini Dock forgoes the S-Video link.
Enough of this. If you want to know more, pick up any number of magazines. How does it sound in a high-end system? First let me tell you how the Mini compares to the Photo. In a sense, the Mini sounds like transistors and the Photo like tubes. The Photo is slightly warmer while the Mini offers more detail and a wider bandwidth. Don't get hung up on this, the differences are subtle - miniscule compared to the differences between either iPod and the Meridian. First make sure you are listening through the dock's line out, not the unit's headphone socket. The Photo's headphone output is woolly and lacks definition but the Mini narrows the gap so should sound better for regular headphones use than its big brother.
|I mentioned two different cables to connect the iPod to the amplifier. Surely it makes no sense to use a cable more expensive than the iPod itself. Who in their right mind would do it? I had requested the fancy Crystal Piccolo iPod cable not just because I thought it would be a good match for the iPod but also because I wanted to be as fair as possible to the iPod to give it the best chance to excel. Well, the iPods came and went in six weeks with the Crystal cable nowhere in evidence. A .5m length ($299) arrived a month after Apple reclaimed the iPods. But my splendid family promised me an iPod for my birthday to help keep me entertained while I exercise. So I now own a shiny blue 6GB iPod Mini. I was able to perform the extra testing on my personal iPod.
This Crystal cable doesn't look like much. Two very slender braided silver-shielded wires encase silver/gold conductors wrapped in a Kapton insulator covered by a clear Teflon jacket with very substantial RCA jacks at the amplifier end. But what an amazing difference this cable makes. It has changed my opinion of the iPod entirely. Look what I wrote about the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 [DG 427 303-2] using the impressive looking Monster iCable ($29.95). "Piano sound clear but not the Gilels I know... doesn't have the impact ... orchestra and piano drown each other out a bit ... orchestra a bit shrill ... horn drowned out at climax." I had a problem just now as I listened to the same piece again with the Crystal cable. My plan was to play 5 minutes with each cable, then another 5 minutes through the Meridian. But I simply could not bring myself to stop the third movement at the 5-minute mark. I just had to listen to it all the way through.
|Okay, so I let the cat out of the bag already when I said the iPod can sound spectacular. Just when is that exactly? "Eleanor Rigby" from the Beatles Yellow Submarine Songbook [Capitol 7243 5 21481 27] will do it. This track sounds terrific on the iPod - either iPod. There's no mistaking Paul's voice, the strings have strong attack, the celli have depth and weight, the image is stable and every instrument is clear. But "Eleanor Rigby" sounds better still on the Meridian - Paul's voice has greater immediacy and intimacy, the image is much firmer, there is far more detail in the strings and the cello is much tighter. If the iPod sounds spectacular, it does so on its own terms, not when placed next to the mighty Meridian.
|So the secret to a spectacular sound through the iPod may just be to start with a phenomenally well-recorded track. No kidding! You could say the same about any $100 CD player. Actually, that's pretty much a fair comparison. Here are some other pointers. iPod works best with tracks recorded at fairly high levels and with music that doesn't contain a lot of high frequency energy. iPod can sound a bit abrasive with cymbals but so do most inexpensive CD players - and quite a few expensive ones. At the other end, iPod does|
|unexpectedly well in the mid bass but tuneful low bass with a strong drive is beyond it. The midband is its strong suit and the level of detail is impressive. Unlike the reference Meridian, the iPod is quite fussy about the material you play. Pick carefully or play Eleanor Rigby on infinite repeat and you'll do just fine. But there are some types of music where its weaknesses can really come between you and a full enjoyment of the music. Another recording where the iPod does a great job is Mahler's First Symphony in the fabulous Bernstein Concertgebouw live performance from 1986 [DG 427303-2]. How come it does so well on heavyweight champion Mahler? First, by Mahler's standards, this and the fourth symphony are lightweights and second, by any stretch of the imagination, this is an amazing recording. It sounds just great on the iPod but magnificent on the Meridian.
Let's go through the repertoire. If I've told you the absolute best track, it's only fair I tell you about the dark side. Avoid deep bass, strong jazz rhythm sections and complex material. Stay away from late Mahler, the Count Basie Orchestra and heavy metal and you should avoid most of the pitfalls. When the iPod fails, it fails because its image doesn't always fill in the hole between the speakers; because PRAT isn't its middle name; because deep bass is not well defined, high frequencies can be splashy and harsh; and lastly because the gentle decay of long held notes and delicate harmonics and sheen around string tone are not its strong suit. Let's get real; this is too much to ask. If Apple were giving us all this, it would be ridiculous overkill for an MP3 player in its customary portable role.
Back to the Beatles. "Nowhere Man" highlights the difference between the two iPods. The Mini has more drive and energy than the Photo and projects a better image too, although it remains concentrated at the speakers. The Photo gives us the music from further back and I found the sound more coherent, particularly the vocals. The Meridian has much better vocals than either and the guitars have stronger attack, with a lot more detail and lower bass weight. The image expands to fill the room. "All You Need Is Love" sounds a bit thin on the Meridian -- never offensive -- with only a hint of the strong bass underpinning I've heard on vinyl. It just lacks swagger. Play this on the Mini and the image, never strong, collapses around the speakers and the excitement evaporates. Curious that examples of the best and worst the iPod can do are to be found on this one CD.
Finally Bach Keyboard Concerto No 1 played by Murray Perahia and the Academy of St Martins In the Fields [Sony Classical SK 89245] sounds quite good on the Meridian. You can hear the pedaling, the dynamic range is wide and the piano is planted firmly center stage. The strings on the other hand are a bit thin and the piano doesn't have much presence. The iPod Photo loses the focus of the piano and moderates Perahia's wide dynamics.
Now I'll switch to my next question. How does the sound hold up when you reduce the bit rate? On most tracks, I found only small differences when moving from lossless compression to AAC 320kbps (the highest of the lossy AAC compressions). That's good news indeed since the file size is less than half that of the lossless compression. This means you can get more than twice as much music onto your iPod and not really be much the worse off for it. In fact here's a table showing you the file sizes of one track under a variety of sampling rates:
|Uncompressed - 70.0MB
Lossless - 35.6MB
MP3 320 -17.0MB
AAC 320 -17.0MB
AAC 192 - 0.3MB
AAC 128 - 6.9MB
AAC 64 - 3.5MB
AAC 16 - 0.9MB
|The track in question is the second movement of Haydn|
|String Quartet Opus 20 No 2 which lasts 7m23s. On the Meridian, the period instruments exhibit subtlety of sound, strong dynamic contrasts and a sweet string tone. The treble is refined and extended and the image is suspended across the room. The harmonics are subtly captured and there is a most musical feel to the presentation. This is a superlative achievement since this is one of the hardest discs to get right. Many a system sounds edgy and thin on this material. Switching to the iPod Mini and using lossless compression, the first thing you notice is that the pace of the music has slackened and the image has receded towards the speakers.
The instruments maintain their color and the distortion remains low but there is a considerable loss of body in the cello and to a lesser extent, the violins. But there is no edginess to the sound and that is quite unexpected. Rather more disappointing is that when there is a strong sound from one instrument, it seems to drown out the quieter instruments, indicating a power supply that can't quite keep up. Switching quickly back to the Meridian, the image expands and fills in the gaps between the speakers. The dynamic contrasts are more fully realized and the string tone is sweeter, the treble more extended and there are harmonics I didn't know I was missing through the iPod
Stepping down a notch to AAC 320, the sound is not quite as clear as the Lossless Compression, the string tone slightly homogenized but the differences are small. The string tone remains sweet most of the time, with occasional patches of roughness, and there is a slight but discernable loss of body and purity of tone. MP3 is not as efficient as AAC and this was clear when I tried MP3 at its highest setting, 320kbps. While the file size is the same as the AAC 320, the sound quality is seriously impaired. The openness at the top diminishes and the viola loses presence, often being masked behind the violins in unison passages. There is less detail in the tonality of the instruments and some of the fine delicacy achieved in shaded passages is lost. It's harder to make out that these are period instruments. But -- and this is a big but -- the sound is still very listenable, coherent and colorful.
Having established the superiority of AAC over MP3 at least on the iPod, I concentrated on the AAC performance at successively lower bit rates. 192 kbps gives a further loss of body and an almost complete collapse of the image size. You could drive a truck between the speakers and not hit a musician. At this level, leading edges are lost and the music fails to convince. Even the color of the instruments pales.
|128kbps continues the story, the sound diminishing to just suggestive of what might have been. At 64kbps, we are listening behind a thick curtain, all sense of pace is missing as are bite, detail, resonance and presence. I stopped at 16 kbps. It sounds like a wind-up gramophone without the hiss. But consider this. The iPod Photo could store over 7,000 albums at this level of compression and even the iPod mini could manage 700!
I could take you through a number of different tracks. Would the story be the same? Actually, no! I did mention how very difficult it is to do justice to that Haydn String Quartet. Most other recordings fare much better, never approaching the Meridian G08 but performing quite well and in some cases, very well under lossless compression, maintaining that good sound at least to AAC320 and in some cases holding up well at AAC 256, AAC192 or even AAC128.
|Patricia Barber's Café Blue [Blue Note 7243 5 21810 25] is a prime example. Barber's own "Too Rich For My Blood" is my favorite cut from this album. As usual, the Meridian takes no prisoners. Compared to the iPods, the decay is improved, the voice is much more focused, the bass extends deep and the mid-bass sounds so much richer. There is more definition too in the percussion and the|
|piano. While faster-paced, the track is so relaxed and exotic, it's no wonder audiophiles dote on this CD. I enjoy the fine harmonics and the presence in the plucked bass and being able to hear the exact pitch of each bass note.
Using Apple Lossless Compression, the iPod Mini holds up well. The percussion is clear and the plucked bass quick and precise. There is still no trace of sibilance in the voice. The image is wide and well defined while the music sounds relaxed and intimate. The drums have weight ands precision. Even when all the instruments are playing at once, it is easy to hear each one individually. On the other hand, the pace is rather lacking, subtle harmonics are missing and the voice has lost much of its focus. AAC320 is also clean and relaxed, very close to the Lossless Compression. AAC192 still sounds good, although the definition and the presence are both reduced.
If you are trying to squeeze as much music as possible onto your iPod, I would be happy at this level of compression for headphone listening unless your headphones are a lot more revealing than the supplied earbuds. Even AAC128 holds up quite well on this type of music. The music is still relaxed and tuneful while the top end is quieter and gentle no trace of harshness. The voice has now lost most of its presence and the dynamic range is dialed well back. One instrument is now harder to make out from another and the drums have lost much of their kick. I wouldn't go below this level for listening to music, although there's no problem listening to some of my favorite comedy albums at AAC64.
So I've taken you through two tracks in detail across a range of compression levels. These two tracks actually represent the extremes from all the tracks I tried and you can see how differently the iPod performs on them. So I can give you any hard and fast rules. I can't tell you that you'll always need Apple Lossless Compression to do reasonable justice to the music. Nor can I say AAC128 is far too compressed to be of any use. You have to take each track on its merits, experiment a bit and after a while, you'll get a feel for how to get a lot of good-sounding digits onto your iPod. Unless of course you choose the iPod Photo 60 whose capacity is so great that you can just set iTunes to the highest quality settings for all your music.
|So am I impressed? I am surprised by some of my findings, delighted by the ergonomics, disappointed by the uncomfortable earbuds, pleased with the belt clip for the Mini and of course my workout is|
|much more enjoyable than before. So please Apple, give us user-replaceable batteries, more comfortable earbuds and throw in an FM tuner.
I won't be feeding my high-end stereo system from my iPod. That's asking too much given the demanding type of repertoire I favor. But at this price ($249 for the 3.6oz Mini 6GB or $449 for the 6.4oz iPod Photo 60GB), I don't think I can ask for better performance for portable audio or even to hook up to powered speakers, a moderately priced stereo or a kitchen radio like the matching Tivoli iPAL. Thumbs up too for the Crystal Piccolo Cable if your budget will stretch that far.