Review: Blue Raven Maestro 1070
If there was any truth to the old saying, "talent borrows, genius steals," the Maestro 1070 ($199) would earn Blue Raven a Mensa membership. An almost unabashed clone of Apple's iPod Hi-Fi, this all-in-one speaker system might have seemed downright brilliant a year ago, when the Hi-Fi was being criticized for not meeting value expectations at its $349 price. However, as interest in Apple's speaker has deservedly cooled off, Blue Raven's "nearly the same thing, only $150 cheaper" proposition isn't as exciting today.
Both systems start with the same general premise: toss three total speaker drivers into a single heavily reinforced plastic enclosure with two front-mounted breathing ports for the bass. Apple coupled two 3.15” full range drivers with a single 5.12” subwoofer, and Blue Raven followed suit, laying its parts out in almost precisely the same way as the iPod Hi-Fi did. Both have a universal iPod dock on top, with volume buttons in front. Apple’s buttons are touch-sensitive, while Blue Raven’s are pressure-sensitive, and accompanied by a play/pause button.
There are other changes, small and large. Apple put an Infrared remote control sensor to the left of the subwoofer; Blue Raven moves it to the right. Apple includes a multi-colored light to let you know the speaker’s receiving remote signals; Blue Raven does not, but rings its top-mounted buttons with blue lights. Both have detachable face plates, but Apple’s is fabric and reveals a clean speaker surface; Blue Raven’s is plastic, adorned with chrome rings, and comes off to show a much less attractive surface that probably shouldn’t be revealed to the user. A set of larger, more conspicuous dock inserts is included in the box, along with a plain audio cable. To its credit, Maestro 1070 comes in two versions—one black (shown), and one white, but next to the iPod Hi-Fi, this design looks comparatively low-class.
A few other differences on the units’ bodies are also interesting. Maestro 1070 is physically a bit larger than the Hi-Fi, lacks Apple’s compartment for six D batteries, and runs only off of its shorter, non-detachable power cable. Thus, its side handles aren’t as prominent as Hi-Fi’s, and it’s not going to be tossed into the back of your car for a tailgate party or day at the beach. It has an analog-only auxiliary input port, rather than the dual analog/optical port on Hi-Fi, but adds a video out port for use with fifth-generation iPods. There’s also a power switch, which like the play/pause button on its top is a reminder that the engineering inside isn’t up to snuff with the Hi-Fi, which turns itself on and off automatically without the need for a power switch, and realizes an iPod is playing without the need to hit a second play/pause button; Maestro 1070 doesn’t.
Though we can’t claim to be huge fans of the Apple Remote that comes with iPod Hi-Fi, Maestro’s remote isn’t great, either. Besides the fact that you never know from the 1070’s face whether it’s receiving commands, the 12-button remote actually has a few you’d like to be able to gauge, including bass and treble buttons without an obvious “return to default” button. Track controls, iPod navigation buttons, an input select button, mute and volume controls all appear here too, with labels and shaky responsiveness that make Hi-Fi’s simpler but more reliable remote seem comparatively great. We had problems getting Maestro to respond to commands from 10 or more feet away, and couldn’t control it across a room without light interference, like we could with Hi-Fi.
Though we felt obliged to point out these issues up front, the $150 price difference between Maestro 1070 and iPod Hi-Fi would be enough to help some users get past Maestro’s limitations, assuming the audio quality was similar. On that front, Blue Raven has mostly succeeded, albeit again in a qualified way. We’ve mentioned many times that we didn’t really like how iPod Hi-Fi sounded, either on overall detail for its $349 asking price, or on bass-skewed sound balance regardless of price. By contrast, Maestro 1070 comes close enough to Apple’s audio performance that many listeners would initially have trouble telling the difference, and sells for $150 less—despite the unit’s other issues, the primary reason for our general level recommendation.
As with the iPod Hi-Fi, Maestro 1070’s sound signature is dictated substantially by the type of drivers Blue Raven is using: the relatively large full-range drivers are unassisted by dedicated, smaller treble drivers, which limits the system’s high-end capabilities, but when combined with the big subwoofer driver at center, the system is well-equipped to produce relatively warm sound. That’s what it does: though more discerning listeners will note that the sound at normal volume levels is a bit flatter than Hi-Fi’s, not precisely as low-reaching or warm, and also has a little more distortion on the low end, most listeners will find it to be quite comparable.
One of iPod Hi-Fi’s most distinguishing sonic features was its unusually strong performance at ear-splitting volume levels, which as more careful listeners we don’t generally view as important, but note for those who do. Predictably, the less amplified (70-Watt) and internally reinforced Maestro 1070 steps down from Hi-Fi in high-volume performance; it’s not quite as loud at its peak, the distortion evident at lower volume levels becomes a bit more pronounced as it is turned up, and interestingly, Hi-Fi’s treble sounds comparatively better at the higher volume—Maestro becomes flatter.
It’s worth only a brief note that though Maestro, unlike the Hi-Fi, includes bass and treble controls on the remote control, they don’t have a huge impact on the sound; there’s no way to make the system magically outperform the Hi-Fi, or even rival the balance of a comparably priced system such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7, which does a better job of presenting sound that simultaneously sparkles on the high end and thumps on the low end. Similarly, unlike the Hi-Fi, Maestro doesn’t enable iPods or iPhones to call up the Speakers/iPod Hi-Fi menu option that applies either a generic bass or treble boost to these devices’ audio, but this isn’t much of a loss in our book; we prefer iM7’s truly user-adjustable levels, and would have liked Maestro’s more if they did more.
Overall, Blue Raven’s Maestro 1070 can be understood in two ways: as a slightly less classy and powerful alternative to the iPod Hi-Fi, it’s also substantially less expensive, and a good value for those who liked Apple’s concept except for the price. Alternately, it’s a mid-priced, generally simple all-in-one box with more bass power than most of the $150-$200 iPod speakers out there. Derivative though it may be, Apple has licensed it as an official Made for iPod product, most likely because its looks, diminished features, and somewhat weaker performance prevent it from being a complete substitute for the Hi-Fi; you’ll have to decide whether these compromises are acceptable given the savings you’ll achieve.