Review: Sonance iPort In-Wall Docking System
Pros: A premium in-wall docking system for the iPod that permits clean, recessed mounting of your music collection, with numerous options for external control and distribution of the audio.
Cons: Not the right solution for low-end users - pricier than Apple’s own options by a wide margin. Could benefit from integrated RF processing and video-to-wallplate distribution.
In order to understand the appeal of Sonance’s new iPort ($599.00) Docking Station for Dock Connector-equipped iPods, you may need to walk a few steps in someone else’s shoes: specifically, those of an iPod lover from two or three years in the future.
Until now, Apple’s marketing emphasis for the iPod has been on portability: X thousand songs in your pocket, X Gigabytes wherever you go, and so on. But as Apple’s new marketing materials suggest, the company’s 2005 master plan for the platform is focused on a different aspect of portability: making the iPod useful in all of the places where people listen to music. With subways, sidewalks, and airplanes fully covered, the next two locations are the car, and the home.
Admittedly, there are already many inexpensive in-car and in-home solutions, and each fulfills its respective need pretty well. If your car only has a radio or a cassette deck, you buy a $10-40 FM transmitter or cassette adapter and get decent audio. Similarly, if your home has an existing stereo system, you buy a $40 Apple Dock and some cables; otherwise, you buy a dockable speaker system for $85 and up.
But there’s a different segment of the market that’s not looking for “pretty good” solutions - these consumers want outstanding elegance and quality, or something much closer to it than a low-end FM transmitter or dockable speaker system can get. And they’re willing to pay through the nose for the privilege: $900 headphones, $300-$400 dockable speakers, and $150-400 car installations with direct line-in ports are just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to permanent in-home audio, many people are willing to go even further.
As a maker of premium home audio solutions, Sonance is squarely targeting consumers who want those elegant, “how the other half live” audio systems - the ones people buy if they have the extra cash sitting around. The company’s multi-thousand-dollar, permanent in-home installations have one thing in common: the ugly cables and boxes are all hidden away, with speakers and cabling located inside your walls, and sophisticated multi-room amplifiers hidden away in closets or other shadowed recesses. Whether you’re listening to music or watching a movie, the experience is like being in a theater - you don’t see speakers, wires or gear; you just hear the sound. Wall-mounted or hand-held controls provide access to the hidden systems.
Now Sonance has released iPort, a in-wall iPod docking system that gives the premium consumer an elegant way to integrate any 4G, photo, or mini iPod into an existing or planned in-wall system. It’s designed to be professionally installed, but a talented do-it-yourselfer could probably pull off the work with enough electrical and home construction knowledge.
For reference, though we had the opportunity to play with iPort units in actual in-wall installations prior to receiving reviewable hardware, most of our testing (and photography) was conducted with a testing box. As such, our pictures don’t convey the clean look of an actual installation, so we include a sample shot of one of the in-wall systems we checked out, just for comparative purposes. The looks of actual installations in individuals’ homes will obviously vary.
As the iPod-specific in-wall mounting extension of Sonance’s other product lines, each iPort kit includes four key components. First is a white or black recessed ABS plastic iPod mount that goes inside your wall - the single most visible part of the system, along with the second part, a set of interchangeable cradles and back plates that fit different iPods. Third is a power supply that plugs into any standard wall outlet, and fourth is something called the “iPort Wallplate” - a panel with two female RCA connectors (for left and right speakers), a port for a power supply, and a port for an IR connection. Sonance also includes audio and FireWire-to-DC cables that are used behind the iPort.
If the Wallplate sounds like an odd pack-in given the in-wall nature of the system, consider the realities of a typical in-wall installation. The wallplate connects the iPort to the external power supply, supplying power to the iPod and the iPort. While the exposed wiring doesn’t look good on the test box we’ve photographed, the wallplate is likely to be hidden away in a closet or recess invisible to the user, so the wires won’t be seen. This gives an inexperienced individual installer a “safe” way to connect the iPort without playing with live electricity; a professional installer might or might not drop the power supply behind a wall instead and hide it completely.
Additionally, as the iPort can be used to distribute audio to multiple rooms throughout a home, the Wallplate’s RCA jacks could be used to connect the iPort to an outside-the-wall stereo system. The IR port is there to link a compatible stereo’s IR system with the iPort. Users have other in-wall options for both of these features as well.
Finally, to make the most of the iPort in a multi-room installation, you’ll most likely want an optional component: a separate iPod controller, which can be as simple as a volume knob or as sophisticated as an in-wall touchscreen LCD control panel.
We tested the first four components that come with the standard iPort installation, as well as the optional volume knob, and found that all worked as promised. The iPort wall mount fits into a 4 1/8” x 5 7/8” by 3” hole in your wall, which is typically cut using an included cutout template by a professional installer with a drywall saw. Once installed, the iPod mount is sturdy and can easily be customized for iPod minis, standard iPods, and iPod photos with the three included sets of cradles and back plates. Sonance uses embossed hard plastic images of the iPods for the back plates, and attractively fills their “screens” with foam spacers that keep each iPod properly positioned inside. Not surprisingly, the power supply properly powered and charged each of our test iPods without incident, and the dock appropriately distributed audio to both the provided test speakers and the iPort Wallplate’s audio distribution ports.
Sonance provided a volume knob plate for our review, and it also worked as promised to deliver clean amplified audio from the iPod’s line-quality Dock Connector port. The company’s in-wall speakers sounded great in our test box, as did other speakers connected via the Wallplate.
As an alternative, Sonance sells a particularly nice touchscreen system called the Navigator K2 ($550). The K2 lets you turn listening “zones” in your home on and off, adjust volume levels, and flip between audio inputs (iPod, radio, etcetera) with a simple button interface. Though one wasn’t available for our review, we came away extremely impressed by the prototype we played with at the San Francisco Macworld Expo in January, and thought it was perhaps the single best element of the entire Sonance system. Sonance’s iPort-specific touchscreen design was described as still subject to change, essentially giving users in other rooms access to an on-screen representation of the iPod. The only better high-end remote iPod-style control we’ve seen is the (incompatible) $399 remote sold by Sonos for its competing Digital Music System, which lacks direct iPod and iTunes Music Store compatibility.
You can also control your iPod remotely with an infrared remote control. Infrared emitters are located inside the iPort system, and allow it to relay IR signals that come from the keypads of Sonance and certain distributed audio systems. One shortcoming of the iPort system is that you’ll need to buy TEN Technology’s naviPod/naviPro series remotes, or DLO’s iDirect to actually control the iPod with infrared - and attach the IR receiver to the iPod’s top while docked. Unfortunately, none of the iPod-specific remote controls is capable of controlling the iPod’s volume, so high-end buyers will really want a programmable remote that can handle volume adjustments for the full Sonance system, and learn the IR commands to control the iPod. Assuming, of course, that they don’t own one already.
As a final feature, the iPort does support video output from iPod photo hardware. The video comes out of the back of the iPort to a 3.5” mini port, which then gets converted with an inexpensive part to an RCA-style connector. Regrettably, the iPod’s video doesn’t get piped to the Wallplate - any connection needs to be made behind the wall, and will likely be made by a professional installer. And though Sonance’s instruction manual indicates that photos and slideshows can be distributed to multiple screens in an iPort-equipped home, the company also told us that the video has a distribution limit of 100 feet, and says that video “is typically meant to go to the local TV or display where the iPort is mounted.” A sophisticated video distribution system would likely be necessary to achieve a multi-room photo display from the iPod - assuming anyone really has a need for this. If a true movie-playing iPod ever emerges, we assume that the demand for such a feature will increase: iPort AV, anyone?
While the average Joe will feel entirely comfortable with one of Apple’s standard iPod Docks or iPod photo Docks, the iPort provides a high-end in-wall alternative that will almost entirely satisfy the needs of a different consumer: the “money’s no object, make it look clean and simple” homeowner. Other than cutting a hole in the wall and self-developing a solution such as this one, there’s no other directly comparable option to the iPort for this sort of consumer, and thus rating the iPort is a modest challenge.
Overall, we recommend iPort specifically for its target audience without reservation. Having positioned the iPort as one component in a much larger in-wall “whole home” system, Sonance offers optional add-on speaker, distribution and remote control solutions that high-end in-home buyers will love. For these individuals, the cost and effort of adding a naviPod/naviPro or other IR remote solution will be trivial, and the clean appearance of the wall-mounted iPod will be worth the expenditures.
In a perfect world, the iPort would use RF rather than IR, or at least feature an integrated IR processor that doesn’t require users to unplug both the iPod from the iPort and a receiver from the iPod. And it would include even more sophisticated video control and distribution functionality for iPod photos and the next generation of iPods, assuming the latter will even be cradled in a dock like this one. But given how few iPod users today have photo capabilities, the iPort will do a good job for most of its target audience, and we think it or something like it will become increasingly desireable as the iPod’s in-home potential is further exploited over the next two years.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.