Review: Kensington SX2000 Speakers with Universal Dock
Pros: A visually unique docking speaker system for the iPod with charging capabilities, stated compatibility with Apple’s Universal Dock standard. Performs audio bi-directionally through its front and back, which may be useful if placed in the center of a room. Sound quality is better than we expected from the NXT flat-panel speaker technology.
Cons: Not as strong on audio performance (stereo separation, trebles, mids) as comparably priced options. “Universal” dock does not work with Apple’s 5G iPod inserts, include inserts for many previous iPod models, or permit iPod synchronization. Unlike comparable options, does not include a remote control.
Despite the fact that we’ve tested virtually every iPod-specific speaker system released to date, we don’t consider ourselves speaker snobs - some are better than others in specific ways, but we firmly believe that speakers can be designed to appeal to people with different budgets, aesthetic preferences, and tastes in audio fidelity and overall balance. There are places for pocket-sized speakers, bass-rich monsters, really attractive but less accurate ones, budget and premium options. They’re not all equally good, but it would be foolish to presume that there’s only one ideal speaker out there.
Kensington has been on an major roll over the last half-year, releasing some great FM transmitters, auto chargers, and even an excellent iPod stereo dock, all of which we have really liked. Now the company is trying its hand in the even more challenging speaker business with SX2000 ($160), a docking wall of sound measuring roughly 16” x 7” x 4”. The glossy white and matte gray system has what appears to be a single speaker panel that extends almost its entire length, and an iPod dock off to the right - a simple, iconic look. During the last week, we’ve noticed that SX2000 immediately evokes three comments from most people: “that looks cool” or some variant is generally first, “it can’t sound good” or the like is usually second, and “how much does it cost” is typically third.
After spending some good quality time with SX2000, here are our feelings on those points, in order: yes, the system is attractive, and in fact, it’s one of the slickest-looking iPod speaker systems we’ve seen. Kensington’s decision to pair with flat-panel speaker designer NXT most certainly went through a calculated cost-benefit analysis: by choosing NXT’s SurfaceSound flat-panel designs, you win potentially impressive aesthetic freedom, but necessarily give up a bit of audio quality, and immediately raise the eyebrows of any serious listener familiar with older NXT products.
The surprise is that SX2000 also sounds better than anyone would expect from an NXT design, particularly one that from the front looks decidedly un-speaker like. It’s not until you turn SX2000 around that you see two separate left and right driver enclosures and a matrix of vents that actually breathe as the system’s in use - as it turns out, this “bi-directional” design lets you hear your music equally well from the system’s front or back, though the stereo channels are reversed when SX2000 is turned around. This turns out not to be as much of an issue as you’d expect, though, as the system’s stereo separation is shallow to begin with - there, but not impressive. So from the front or back, it’s nearly the same.
That turns out to be one of its weakest audio points: Kensington and NXT have tuned the system impressively well given the limits of the flat-panel audio technology, resulting in sound that has surprisingly good mid-bass and bass presence, with just enough higher-frequency and mid-range response to pass muster, and satisfy “typical” listeners. So we’ll underscore that our rating is not as much a reflection of the system’s sound as its other factors.
It does bear mention that the system’s audio performance is not as impressive as Logitech’s mm50 (iLounge rating: A-) or JBL’s On Stage II (iLounge rating: B+), both of which are available for around the same price. While SX2000’s volume is comparable to mm50’s, with no major distortion at its peak, it can’t go up to On Stage II’s higher amplitude, and also doesn’t match On Stage II in treble response. More notably, SX2000 isn’t as strong on mids or highs as the mm50, and suffers most by comparison with its stereo separation - mm50 does much better here, with On Stage II a close second. All three systems have a little amplifier noise, but the SX2000’s high-pitched one is most noticeable, generally at high volume levels. When we put all three systems next to each other, mm50 was the overall champion, but because of its bass-rich sound, SX2000 would still win more than its fair share of fans. (None of the systems includes significant sound tuning capabilities; SX2000 has a set of volume controls and a power button on its front below its dock, nothing else.)
Where the system really has some issues - largely for competitive reasons - is on pricing. Over the last few months, the releases of mm50 and On Stage II have shaken up the $150 speaker category, and it’s now possible to get your choice of a really good sounding, truly portable speaker system with an Infrared remote control (mm50) or an almost equally convenient non-portable system with RF remote control for about the same price as the non-portable, remote-less SX2000. Like SX2000, both competing systems have charging iPod docks, but they also have pass-through ports for data synchronization with your computer, which SX2000 lacks. Its back is threadbare: there are ports for wall power and for output to an external audio source.
To its partial credit, SX2000 actually advertises a benefit missing from both Logitech and JBL’s designs: a Universal Dock. This is a new Apple standard that supposedly guarantees that any Dock Connector-equipped iPod will properly fit inside any Universal Dock-equipped accessory by using one of 10 current form-fitting plastic inserts. Apple’s own Universal Dock and Tivoli’s recent iSongBook both include plastic inserts for 4G and mini iPods - Tivoli even includes inserts for 3G iPods - while 5G iPods and nanos come with their own inserts.
By comparison, Kensington includes inserts only for the two most popular iPods: one for iPod minis, and one for 20/30GB color 4G iPods, which happens to fit 20GB black-and-white iPods as well. While this was a bit of a disappointment - and an issue for owners of any bigger iPod, given that they’ll need to provide their own dock inserts, or use one that’s the wrong size - the major problem was something else. The “Universal Dock” on SX2000 isn’t really that universal. It appears to have been made just a bit too small, so while it barely fits the plastic inserts for iPod types 1-8 - everything up to the iPod nano - it doesn’t fit either of the inserts for either 30GB or 60GB 5G iPods. As shown in our pictures, you can still mount the iPods by using a “too big” insert if you buy one separately, but that’s not the way any universal dock accessory is supposed to work. (An iPod shuffle adapter, shown below, will be sold separately in January for an additional $20.)
Additionally, SX2000 doesn’t include a remote control of any sort - an omission that we think will be a major distinguishing factor between the next generation of iPod speaker systems and its predecessors. The lack of a remote prevents both volume and track charges for owners of all current iPod models, which is disappointing given that both the mm50 and On Stage II are capable of doing both - On Stage II from a distance of 50 feet away, and through walls.
In our judgment, SX2000 has a single major selling point - its looks - which may well attract interest despite its other limitations. We have to admit that we like that part of its design so much - the reason for its limited recommendation and B- rating, rather than something lower - that it’s tempting to ignore its other issues and limtations. So we wouldn’t dissuade low-capacity 4G, mini, or nano users from trying or buying it if they liked the elegance of its aesthetic design. But there’s no getting around the fact that you can do more than a bit better in three separate ways - audio, remote, and docking - with other comparably priced options, and that there’s not as yet a way for new 5G iPod owners to properly use the dock. We hope and assume that Kensington will retool this one a bit, because it’s a good concept, and better in execution than we’d imagined, but not quite up to the standards of recent competitors.