iTubes For Your iPod

There's a basic rule that explains the audiophile's role in the audio food chain: The mass market accepts and then audiophiles perfect. Try to reverse that rule with something like, say, SACD or DVD-Audio, attempting to have sound quality drive mass-market adoption, and you get . . . the DualDisc.

With the obvious mass-market success of Apple's iPod portable, it would follow that smart audiophiles would want to make it better. One company taking that route is PsiberAudio, the brainchild of Andrew Conley.

PsiberAudio has just introduced its first two products aimed at the iPod tweaker: the iTube SE15, utilizing a high-quality KT88 in single-ended mode to produce 15W of "fluid musical" power, and the iTube PAS1, a passive line-level stereo preamp with input select.

Conley's story is one familiar to audiophiles. He's been manufacturing amplifiers and other electronic items on a one-off basis for over 10 years now. "It has been more of a custom service that I have been providing for friends and 'friends of friends' over the years," says Conley. "I have been urged numerous times by my satisfied clients to turn the 'hobby' into a business, but never acted on those recommendations."

That is, until the iPod review appeared in Stereophile.

Conley explains: "My first impression of the iPod and MP3-type music in general was a negative one. I was not fond of the idea of data compression that would sacrifice audio quality for the sake of download convenience. By chance, I read a review of the iPod in Stereophile that was forwarded to me by my father quite some time back and discovered that the iPod had a pretty good DAC and Apple actually had a lossless format as well.

"At that moment, it hit me like a revelation. I remembered the David Bowie film The Man Who Fell To Earth, in particular the scene with his futuristic and simple audio system and the 'data-sphere' which contained huge amounts of hi-resolution music.

"I see the iPod as the first real step in that direction. I have converted my entire CD collection, via a Meridian CD transport, into the Apple lossless format and have it stored on my hard disk array. I simply load various playlists into my iPod and enjoy. I envision that, as download speeds and bandwidth improve, Apple and even the record companies will be offering high-resolution 'lossless' digital downloads in the near future."

PsiberAudio currently has two versions of the iTube SE15 amp available: one for the US market (110V; 60Hz) and one for the European and Asian markets (220V; 50Hz). The price for either is USD$900 per pair. The iTube PAS1 preamp retails for USD$100.

But why use tubes? Conley says, "I've always loved the simplicity and pure analog sound of a tube amp. Transistors and digital volume controls look great on paper and boast impressive specifications, but at the end of the day the ear is an analog device with analog anomalies, as are the electromagnetic loudspeaker and associated acoustic enclosure. In my opinion, the tube, and in particular the triode, is the only way to amplify sound."

The SE15 amp sports three-dimensional hand wiring (no circuit boards), Teflon-coated silver wire throughout the signal path, 12% silver solder, Hovland Musicap capacitors, and a "massive" 1.2 Farads of reservoir capacitance in the power supply. The preamps use Alps Blue Velvet potentiometers.

It's an iSteal, especially when you consider that PsiberAudio manufactures its products completely by hand in Singapore, home to some of the fussiest product assemblers anywhere. Conley says that the company also employs stringent quality control including a test and burn-in process for each amp.

For now, the company sells its products via the Internet only and ships globally. According to Conley, a reseller network is being established, as well as a US office in northern Virginia. Also on the horizon for PsiberAudio is an improved passive preamp that features an integral iPod cradle and "vastly improved power supply to get rid of some of the 'undesirable' impedance characteristics."