Review: Kensington Stereo Dock for iPod
Pros: Exceedingly convenient docking, charging and remote control solution designed to connect an iPod easily to any existing home stereo system. Compatible with all Dock Connecting iPods. Build quality and looks are up to Apple’s own standards; street price makes this an affordable alternative to buying Apple’s Dock, a separate remote, and cables.
Cons: Remote control is infrared-based and communicates only if within line of sight of the dock, requiring additional precision at or above 20-foot distances. Audio isn’t true line-out; sensitive ears or speakers may find a hint of amplified noise. May cause purchase hesitation at full MSRP.
Could it be? An innovative alternative to Apple’s official iPod Dock? Kensington’s Stereo Dock for iPod ($89.99 MSRP, $60 and up street price) is just that - the first real functional improvement on the $39.00 Docks Apple’s been selling for years. A couple of little kinks aside, the Stereo Dock offers both a good value and an easy stereo connectivity solution for most iPod owners.
To understand the Stereo Dock’s appeal, consider how iPods are connected to existing stereo systems today. Hard-core listeners want the iPod’s best-quality audio output, which comes off of its bottom Dock Connector port, and can only be accessed using a device that connects to that port. So you’ll need to buy at least three separate items - a Dock, a remote control, and an audio cable - in order to make a iPod-to-stereo connection with peak audio fidelity. (A fourth item - a cabled power supply - comes with most iPods, but sometimes requires additional purchases.)
Besides looking awkward and requiring top and bottom attachments every time you want to attach your iPod to your stereo, this high-end solution has another limitation: you won’t be able to adjust the iPod’s volume unless you connect your audio cable to the iPod’s headphone port or have a second remote control for your speakers. No standalone iPod remote control can change the volume level of audio that comes off the iPod’s bottom Dock Connector, so unless you use the headphone jack for audio output - a no-no for audiophiles - you’re limited to changing tracks and pausing playback.
There are two cheaper options that achieve similar results. You can skip the Dock and just use the iPod’s headphone port instead, but then you’ll need to stand your iPod up on its bottom, and accept that the audio quality from the headphone jack won’t be as good as from the iPod’s bottom Dock Connector port. Alternately, you can use Nyko’s cheaper Stereo Link Cable (iLounge rating: B+) and a remote, but you still won’t be able to adjust the iPod’s volume. Additionally, neither of these cheaper options will let your iPod’s battery charge while it’s connected to the stereo.
In one package, Kensington attempts to solve all of these problems - and almost entirely succeeds. You begin with a white glossy dock that’s similar to Apple’s, but larger. Kensington’s dock can accommodate all current third-generation, fourth-generation, and photo iPods, and though there’s no spacer in the box for iPod minis, they can be used as well without a hassle. Chromed metal piping runs through the dock’s front and side faces, then up in the back to form a gentle reinforcement for the backs of full-sized iPods. Two clear rubber bumpers prevent metal-on-metal contacts.
Unlike Apple’s Dock, the back of Kensington’s has a small bright green plate with audio output and power ports - there’s no Dock Connector port. You connect the included white power adapter cable and seven-foot white stereo cable to the back of the dock, then to your wall outlet and stereo. Once the power is on, the dock’s top Kensington logo glows red - like the buttons of third-generation iPods - and your iPod can charge while pumping music out to your stereo.
The omission of a Dock Connector port has only one consequence - you can’t use the Stereo Dock to sync with a computer. That limitation is inherent in the product’s name, and it’s clear from all the pack-ins that Kensington never intended its product to sit next to a computer. Just bear in mind that this isn’t a complete substitute for Apple’s Dock; it’s an alternative.
Kensington’s big innovation here isn’t the dock, which looks nice, or even the bundling of the cables, extra power supply, and dock in one box: it’s the remote control. Powered by two included AAA batteries, the white remote feels substantial in your hand, and its five buttons all light up in red whenever you press one. You can leave it on the top of the Stereo Dock when it’s not in use, as it fits neatly into the chrome pipes behind your iPod.
Unlike some of the other remotes we’ve tested, the buttons are large, properly spaced from one another, and don’t use rubber nubs: Kensington’s design is a simple, classy matte white circle with volume to the north and south, track backwards and forwards to the west and east, and play/pause in a green center circle. We really liked this design on looks and feel, though it’s simpler in functionality than, say, TEN’s naviPro EX (iLounge rating: B+), which offers a greater variety of iPod controls from a distance. Best of all, you don’t need to plug anything in to the top of your iPod to use the remote, so docking and undocking your iPod is easier than with the other standalone dock and remote solutions out there.
The front of the remote and the front of the dock share matching dark glossy surfaces, and therein lies the first of two issues we have with the Stereo Dock: Kensington chose to use infrared rather than radio for its remote control. As frequent readers of iLounge reviews may already know, the best infrared (IR) remotes don’t compare in broadcasting power to the worst of the radio-based remotes out there, because IR remotes need to point towards the sensors on their receivers in order to communicate. In other words, if you turn the Stereo Dock backwards, walk a foot or two away and point the remote at it, you won’t be able to control your iPod.
Similarly, IR remotes work from shorter distances than radio remotes, and can’t work through walls. We’ve achieved distances of over 100 feet with ABT’s radio-based iJet (iLounge rating: A-), for example, and used it several rooms away - Kensington’s IR remote by comparison boasts an “up to 30 foot” range, like all of the other infrared remotes, works stably at a straight-line distance of around 20 feet before multiple button presses and precision aiming become necessary.
Is this a major limitation of the Stereo Dock? That depends on your needs. If you’re planning to control your iPod and stereo from a nearby couch or kitchen table, you’lll be fine. However, if you’re trying to have music change or appear in one room while you’re in another, you might be better off with one of Apple’s Docks, a RF-based remote control, the extra cables and a separate power supply - easily a $100-120 expenditure. And even then, you’ll likely need to keep a second remote control around to adjust the volume of your speakers, unless you’re willing to use the headphone port for audio.
That turns out to be the second semi-limitation of the Stereo Dock - one that will not bother typical users, but may test the resolve of audio purists. Even though the Stereo Dock has what’s billed as a line-out port on its back, its remote control is capable of controlling the port’s volume level, a feature that many people (including us) have been anxious to see implemented, while others have chafed at the thought of distortion creeping into the iPod’s cleanest audio signal. And, in fact, there’s the tiniest hint of noise added to the Stereo Dock’s output that isn’t in the headphone port’s or standard Dock’s line-out signals - so little that you mightn’t hear it unless you’re standing right next to otherwise quiet speakers - but it’s there. Will average consumers care? No. They probably won’t even notice it unless they directly compare the flatline output of Apple’s official Dock with the Stereo Dock. Given how slight the noise is, only audiophiles - or people looking for reasons to grumble - will mind.
For current-generation iPod owners, Kensington’s Stereo Dock is very close to the ideal implementation of its concept - a great dock with all the cables and power you’ll need, plus a good but not great remote control. While its $90 MSRP is on the high side, its actual street price is reasonable when you consider the costs of the components it includes, and its superior integration thereof. It substantially simplifies an otherwise complicated stereo connection process and sounds only a hint shy of perfect - we mean those words - once connected.
That said, the Stereo Dock misses our flat A rating because of Kensington’s decision to go with an infrared remote. We’ve become accustomed to controlling our iPod at greater distances than IR permits, and while the included remote is surely better than the weak IR units bundled with Altec Lansing’s speaker systems, for example, it’s not up to snuff with what good iPod radio remotes can do today. Additionally, we opted not to lower the Stereo Dock’s overall rating based on its slight audio imperfection. However, If you’re an audio purist, mark this down a notch, and stick with two remotes and Apple’s Dock; that’s a more complex, more expensive, and aesthetically less satisfying solution, but will better suit your demands.