There is a way to make your music sound better. Well, OK, there are LOTS of ways to make your music sound better. If you’re looking to improve your digital music, beyond new speakers, amps, and so on is a bit of technological wonder called the DAC, or Digital/Analog Converter. This is what turns your music files into something analog you can actually hear.
Receivers these days tend to have built in DACs, but just because they’re there doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any good. A great sounding DAC can smooth out your digital audio, making it sound more natural and realistic.
Firestone Audio’s tiny ILTW packs a lot into a tiny frame, for not a lot of money.
First, the name. On the box and the DAC itself, you’ll find a cryptic designation: “I <3 TW.”
That’s a heart, by the way (turn your head 90 degrees to the right). I’ve also seen it written as iLove TW, I LOVE Taiwan, and I L TW. I’m going to stick with ILTW as it’s the least annoying to type.
As you can gather, Firestone is a proudly Taiwanese company, and like their frenemies across the strait, they tend to make cool, technologically advanced gear for small money. The ILTW certainly has the goods on paper. It’s an asynchronous DAC, meaning it doesn’t rely on your computer’s clock to generate its signal. This is a good thing, and most high-end DACs today do something to minimize the computer’s clock’s effect on the audio. Inside is a Wolfson WM8740 chipset.
It’s a tiny thing, actually, maybe the size of three decks of cards, stacked. The top lights up with a backlit line drawing of island of Taiwan and the word “Taiwan.” I guess they really love Taiwan. Oh, wait, that’s the name of the. . . I get it.
The back panel has just a USB input and a stereo pair of analog outputs. The Ethernet cable is for connecting to other Firestone Audio equipment, not for network use.
For testing I used a Simaudio 340i integrated amp, which has the dual benefit of being a great sounding amp and having its own excellent built-in USB DAC for comparison. I used a pair of KEF Q300 bookshelf speakers, which sound great and I know quite well.
The ILTW is the least expensive DAC I’ve reviewed. Even if it weren’t, direct comparisons are difficult as iTunes/MediaMonkey must be shut down and restarted every time you switch a DAC. So there’s a significant A-to-B delay, rendering comparisons suspect in the best of circumstances. That caveat said, going back and forth numerous times I’ll offer that the built-in DAC in the 340i sounded a little more open, while the ILTW had a slightly smoother midrange. The Simaudio DAC was a bit more “natural” sounding, but the ILTW has little of the brittle harshness typical of lesser DACs I’ve heard in most mid- and low-end receivers.
Where the ILTW shoots above its class is in the high-resolution arena. After installing the included drivers, you can send the ILTW up to 192 kHz/24-bit audio. Such audio isn’t common, unless you frequent a site like HDtracks.com. That'll cost you, though — the main problem I have with HDtracks is that it doesn’t let you buy many individual tracks. iTunes this isn’t, as in most cases you’re forced to spend $30 or so on an entire album. What is this, the Dark Ages? Maybe I only want “The Girl from Ipanema” and not all of Getz/Gilberto. Maybe I already own Jerry Garcia, David Grisma, and Tony Rice's The Pizza Tapes on CD and only want a few favorite tracks.
Actually, from that last one you can buy certain individual tracks. So I bought (re-bought, technically) “Long Black Veil” and “Rosalee McFall.” At 88kHz/24-bit, Grisman’s mandolin takes on a whole new level of realism. I also picked up Janos Starker’s beautiful 88kHz/24-bit Bach Suites for Solo Cello and 2 Cello Sonatas. Starker’s cello had a rich, robust sound that could never be reproduced on any compressed medium.
The ILTW is a great compact, entry-level DAC, with the added bonus of high-resolution digital audio conversion. I imagine there are a lot of people with older or cheaper receivers for which the ILTW would make an excellent upgrade. Check out the Firestone Audio site for US distributors, or you can buy the ILTW on Amazon.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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