Review: Kicker iKICK iK500 Stereo System for iPod
If there's any consistent sort of comment we have come to expect from iLounge readers when a new product is introduced, it's some variant on aesthetics: we've read enough "this thing looks too big," "too cheap," and "too ugly" comments to know that our readers are at least as design-sensitive as we are. So when we received Kicker's new iKICK iK500 ($350), we were not initially impressed: the world surely does not need another expensive, boxy iPod speaker, and iKICK's combination of an angular matte plastic body and metal speaker grilles would be enough for many users to kick it to the curb without even turning it on.
But unlike perhaps 80% of the speakers we have tested in recent months, the iK500 has something else going for it: seriously impressive audio, and by “seriously impressive,” we mean that it sounds good enough to be worthy of consideration regardless of what you think of its looks. To be clear up front, iKICK iK500 is built by a car audio company with a “strong bass, high volume” philosophy, and that’s what this device is. It is not an all-in-one clock, radio, and iPod speaker dock like its most impressive $300 competitor, Logitech’s Pure-Fi Elite. And it is not a portable boombox like Harman Kardon’s $350 Go + Play or Apple’s now-discontinued iPod Hi-Fi. It is, quite simply, a 8.5” tall x 19.2” wide x 8.4” deep, wall-powered speaker system for your iPod, and what it does, it does very well.
Inside iK500 are two 3/4” tweeters, two 5” woofers, and a rear-firing square 6” reflex subwoofer. Readers will recognize this total of five drivers as our preferred orientation for any iPod audio system; arrays of five (or more) drivers can offer specialized, dedicated high-, mid-, and low-frequency speakers rather than forcing fewer generalized drivers to strain and ultimately perform less impressively. Compare this with the otherwise impressive Pure-Fi Elite, which uses 1” tweeters and 4” woofers; Kicker’s tweeters are a little smaller, while its woofers are bigger for greater strength at high volumes, and its reflex subwoofer is a dedicated bass piece that Pure-Fi lacks. Though the driver choice accurately suggests Kicker’s emphasis on big, bassy sound, the array is better balanced than the hardware in both the iPod Hi-Fi and Go + Play, as well, neither of which included dedicated treble drivers. Kicker also uses a digital signal processor to provide automatic equalization of songs to match the characteristics of its drivers, a feature often missing from speakers designed by smaller companies.
Practically, what this means is that when you put iKICK next to Pure-Fi Elite, you’ll be able to tell immediately that Kicker’s bass reaches lower because its rear-mounted subwoofer can handle most of the bass, rather than forcing the 5” drivers to cover the mids and lows. You can hear more high-frequency detail than with iPod Hi-Fi or Go + Play. And you can crank up the volume to outrageous levels—like the peak of iPod Hi-Fi’s—without profound distortion. At a high volume, iKICK continues to sound very good, particularly on the low end. However, at average volumes, it produces sound that leans warm like a powerful car stereo, unless you adjust it, and even then, you mightn’t hear the sparkle of a perfectly tuned JBL or Harman system. Fans of lower-volume, lower-bass listening may feel better off with other sound systems we’ve recommended.
To compensate for different tastes, Kicker has included separate bass and treble controls that not only work as they’re supposed to, but offer graduated +1 steps from -9 to 0 to +9 rather than the chunkier and often times distortion-inducing fewer steps in competing systems. These adjustments, as well as volume, are handled with a simple tuning knob on the system’s face above the iPod dock, along with a nicer than expected blue backlit screen. You can also switch from dock audio to the system’s line-in port, and use rear-mounted RCA-style left and right audio outputs to connect the iPod dock to another audio system.
A simple ten-button Infrared remote control is included to let you adjust the system’s output from afar rather than damaging your ears up close. The remote includes iPod menu navigation controls in addition to the standard track and volume buttons found on most iPod remotes; otherwise, it’s a pretty typical design, and works as expected.
As a $350 audio system, currently discounted to $300 only as a “special introductory price,” iKICK iK500 isn’t groundbreaking: systems such as the Pure-Fi Elite offer more features and similar, if not equivalent, audio quality for less. You can also do better on cabinet design for the price, assuming looks are important to you. But if you love bass and high-volume audio, iK500 should be on your short list of speaker options; its strong sound will impress you, if you don’t mind paying a little bit more and compromising on cabinet design to get it.