Review: Tivoli Audio iYiYi Hi-Fidelity Stereo System for iPod
Pros: An all-in-one, strong digital AM/FM radio tuner and iPod speaker system with a great remote control, impressive LCD screen for clock, RDS text, and other displays, and sound that is solid if not groundbreaking for the price. Easy and actually fun to use, includes a mix-in port to let auxiliary audio blend with any audio source. Available in two colors.
Cons: Audio quality is a step or two below leading competitors with identical features and pricing. Cabinet design is visually polarizing. Not as versatile or impressive in stereo separation as company’s same-priced, earlier iSongBook.
After months of non-stop deliveries of iPod speaker systems, we now fully believe what we first began to suspect earlier this year: there are too many way-too-similar options out there, and it’s not going to get better any time soon. True standouts are few and far between, which is the reason we’ve decided to focus most of our attention on breakthrough products - ones that offer especially great design, features, and/or audio performance for their price points. Today, we’re doing reviews of two new big-brand premium speakers - Monitor Audio’s three-piece system i-deck plus ($329) and Tivoli Audio’s all-in-one iYiYi (pronounced eye-y-eye-y-eye, $300), which might have been blockbusters a year ago, but now sit closer to the middle of the pack.
Normally, we wouldn’t clump i-deck plus and iYiYi into the same review category, since they’re physically somewhat different: i-deck plus is almost identical to the earlier, less expensive i-deck (iLounge rating: A-), including the same large, user-separatable left and right speakers, while iYiYi places its audio drivers inside of a single, big housing. But that aside, the two new systems share almost all of the same features in common: both units use Apple’s Universal Dock standard and include adapters for use with older iPods, both include Infrared remote controls with iPod menu navigation features, and both include digital AM/FM radio tuners with support for RDS text displays. If a local station broadcasts advertisements, song or program details in text format over the airwaves, i-deck plus and iYiYi will both display that text on their integrated LCD screens - in 8-letter chunks - a feature that we can’t say is especially useful, but is interesting to watch on occasion.
The two systems also share another trait in common: price-, feature-, and performance-wise, they’re both rivals to Logitech’s recently-released and excellent 4.25” by 16” by 7.25” AudioStation (iLounge rating: A), an all-in-one system that’s noticeably wider but otherwise smaller than the 7.36” x 11.88” x 8.66” iYiYi but shorter, narrower and shallower than the 7.48” by 17.48” by 7.87” i-deck plus. And, to be blunt, the $300 AudioStation beats both of the new systems in almost all key dimensions of performance - the primary reason that we’re not going into exhaustive detail on each model.
In sum, iYiYi is a speaker system that will appeal largely to certain fans of Tivoli’s past speaker products - namely, those who wanted a design that had the warmth and bass resonance of the company’s earlier iPAL, but the twin speakers and iPod dock found in its subsequent iSongBook. Both of those systems were based heavily upon the company’s pre-existing, non-iPod designs, while iYiYi is the first unit that appears to have been built for the iPod from the ground up. Reader comments on the enclosure have been decidedly polarized, but having used the unit ourselves, we can say that we actually liked iYiYi’s housing a lot more in person than we did in photographs: the white and silver version we received for testing is a visual rival to Bose’s popular SoundDock without straying much from Tivoli’s recent design themes - it’s very similar to the iSongBook, only deeper and angled - and actually looks really nice in a home. (A black and silver version is also available.) Inside the box are twin 3” audio drivers, each a small step up from the 2.5” ones found in iSongBook and iPAL, eleven buttons, and two dials.
The controls are collectively a nice improvement upon those found on iSongBook. This time, the you can control power and change audio sources with buttons rather than knobs, and tweak the volume with a knob rather than buttons, changes we really preferred. Similarly, Tivoli’s new remote is its most fully-featured yet for the iPod, with 24 buttons to its predecessor’s 15 - iPod menu navigation buttons have been added, as have source selection, RDS, clock, alarm, and sleep timer buttons. The remote’s standard iPod, radio, and volume controls are augmented by album and playlist toggles, as was the case on iSongBook. As we’ve noted before, we’re not convinced that people need a way to navigate the iPod’s tiny on-screen menus from afar, but iYiYi’s remote makes this and traditional play/pause and track control access possible if you care.
Up close, iYiYi is easy and actually fun to use. Tuning radio stations on the unit is a snap thanks to the use of a dial, rather than buttons, and RDS data appears on the integrated LCD screen faster than on any competing speaker system we’ve yet seen. The screen is also really well-designed, automatically adjusting to light thanks to an integrated ambient light sensor, and basically always looking good, whether it’s displaying a clock (default), radio station information, or text. And in addition to an auxiliary-in port, there’s also a “mix-in” port that lets you add a layer of audio on top of any selected audio source - a neat way to let you overlap a docked iPod’s music on top of a computer’s audio, or choose to keep them separate. Additionally, there’s a line-out port that lets you access whatever’s playing through iYiYi - all that’s conspicuously missing is an iPod-to-computer synchronization port in either USB or Dock Connector format.
Speaker quality aside, iYiYi’s digital radio tuning is a step above the iSongBook when the included external FM antenna is properly placed, and thereby one of the best we’ve heard overall in terms of static levels. If you don’t like cable clutter, you can detach the external antenna and use an integrated internal one, a feature we previously saw and liked in Logitech’s AudioStation. The unit’s 5 integrated presets per band are easier to access, though fewer in number than AudioStation’s, and the unit’s clock includes a single alarm, which can be set to AM/FM radio or beep modes.
However - and this is a big however - iYiYi’s aggregate sound quality is impressive mostly by reference to Tivoli’s past offerings rather than newer competitors, and even then, it’s not universally superior. On positive notes, Tivoli’s 3” drivers are its biggest yet for an iPod system, and thanks to great tuning, they do a better job of delivering full-range sound than most of the single-driver-per-channel systems we’ve tested - some listeners will even prefer its sound to that of the Bose SoundDock. (iYiYi’s audio sparkles a bit more than Bose’s, though iYiYi has a bit of excess treble coloration that’s noticeable in certain songs; SoundDock is flatter and warmer.) For iPod or radio use, iYiYi’s a stronger performer on volume, mids, and bass than the same-priced iSongBook, and similarly but not surprisingly better than the significantly cheaper iPAL - the substantially larger cabinet, and lack of any battery-powered option, makes this possible.
But by reference to its non-Tivoli competitors today, iYiYi doesn’t offer a lot of audio hardware for the dollar: AudioStation and i-deck are just two examples of the many same-featured systems that include two drivers per channel and consequently produce crisper highs and deeper lows than iYiYi. Both systems also accomplish superior stereo separation, with AudioStation excelling in part because of its wider chassis and i-deck permitting the option of full speaker positioning; iYiYi sounded surprisingly shallow in our tests, including by comparison to iSongBook, which included user-separatable speakers. Like its predecessors, it’s also important to note that it isn’t a trailblazer on high-volume performance; though it taps out at a higher level than the earlier iSongBook, not surprisingly, its two drivers exhibit a lot of distortion at their peak levels, and don’t sound quite as good as long-throw champs like AudioStation or Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi when turned up. Again, it’s not a surprise given the type of listening that Tivoli’s fans generally prefer, but this is a system made to excel at low to medium volume levels, not ear-splitting ones, while other systems tend to do better no matter what type of listening you prefer.
Aside from its volume and abilities to sparkle more at the high-end and thump a bit more at the low-end, AudioStation goes another step further by permitting the user to have full bass and treble control, audio customization options that are entirely missing from iYiYi’s otherwise impressive arsenal of features. Even though it’s great to have a default sound signature on a speaker system, equalization is important to many users, including us, and we continue to prefer to have the ability to tweak sound on an incremental level, just as AudioStation (and now numerous alternatives) enable users to do.
The big surprise here was iYiYi’s radio performance by comparison with AudioStation’s. Though neither unit was static-free, when both were placed in the closest to ideal location we could find, AudioStation’s renditions of both AM and FM stations sounded decidedly better, with what appeared to be fuller spectrum (better highs and mids) sound from station to station. As it turns out, iYiYi and AudioStation both include external FM antennas that can be coiled or left dangling, producing very different sounding radio reception based on how unfurled or properly placed they are. Both systems sounded bad when the antennas were coiled and left immediately next to their chassis, but improved radically when uncoiled and moved to the right position elsewhere, and under this condition, AudioStation sounded the best.
Viewed from a big picture perspective, iYiYi is a good all-in-one speaker system, with design, features, and performance that will appeal to many users, particularly existing fans of Tivoli products. It is easy-to-use, offers AM/FM/RDS radio tuning that is near the top of its class, and has both a very nice integrated screen and equally great remote control - at least by Infrared standards - that performed very well in our testing. As an all-in-one audio system, iYiYi is a solid option, and we would urge anyone still considering a Bose SoundDock to look at this as a viable alternative.
That said, iYiYi isn’t right for all users - polarizing aesthetics aside, it suffers a bit by comparison with top offerings from other companies, which continue to improve every six months, and in omissions relative to Tivoli’s last design, iSongBook, which offered battery-powered portability and user-separatable speakers - features we really liked, and enabled that system to be carried and used literally anywhere. Probably by design, each of the company’s offerings continues to stand out in some way after a newer system is released, a trait which should keep the entire Tivoli family viable for many moons to come.