Review: Cambridge Soundworks i765
One point about Cambridge Soundworks must be made before any other in this review: this company, storied before its purchase by Creative Labs years ago, still makes impressive little speakers. They mightn't always look beautiful, and they may sometimes have so many buttons and features that you know they were made for geeks rather than grandmas, but they do sound very good or great. So if sound was the only thing that mattered in the company's new i765 ($500), our rating would be higher; this 13.5" by 9" by 4.75" all-in-one unit packs dual front-mounted speakers and a down-firing subwoofer, and produces very nice sound indeed.
To Cambridge’s partial credit, i765 isn’t just another iPod speaker system; it can be thought of as a Bose Wave Radio-style all-in-one enclosure, only taller, with room at the bottom for the subwoofer to breathe, and a Universal iPod Dock on top next to a Snooze bar. Like the Wave Radio II, there’s a small digital clock on the front, an AM/FM radio inside, and the promise of shielded speakers for minimal TV or computer monitor interference. And, more like the Wave Music System, there’s a slot on the front for insertion of compact discs—better yet, i765 also plays DVDs. The company includes a rear-mounted video output port, both from the DVD player and the iPod, via S-Video or composite video, while audio output from CD, iPod, or the AM/FM radio can be accomplished through the speakers, an aux-out port, or a headphone port. Everything is controlled via front-mounted buttons, or a complex remote control that’s bundled in the package.
The “partial credit” stems from the realization that while i765 has a lot to offer, it doesn’t do everything well—it’s strongest on audio, but weaker on video, and so-so on interface. To start with its strengths, there’s the dual alarm clock, with separate settings that let you pick from a tone, radio station, CD, or iPod for each alarm, which can be turned on or off for a single time; there aren’t all-week, weekday, or weekend options here. There are also two sets of eight FM presets and one set of eight AM presets, and we generally really liked how i765 did at picking up local stations. AM and FM stations alike came in strong, with only a little location-dependent static on the FM dial and similarly location-sensitive interference on the AM dial; audio from both sounded bigger and clearer than typical iPod clock radios, and i765 accompanies the sound with RDS text data on the unit’s integrated text-only screen.
Cambridge’s generally impressive audio quality extends to the iPod dock and CD playback, which benefit from both a very nice “out of box” sound and the ability to be user-adjusted in bass, treble, and “stereo, mono, or wide” soundstage. Since the speakers are only 7.5” apart, the latter feature doesn’t make a huge difference, but the “wide” setting offers a little faux 3-D spatialization like that offered by companies such as Logitech in Pure-Fi series speakers. We’d compare i765’s sound to the better $200-$300 iPod audio systems we’ve heard, with enough bass presence to satisfy most listeners even without tweaking, and the ability to actually benefit a little from the user adjustments rather than just having them there for appearances. With a “loudness” setting that can be turned on or off to raise bass levels at low volumes—a nice feature that helps the system sound rich even if you don’t crank up the volume—i765 was obviously designed by people who know the common pitfalls of three-driver audio systems, as well as how to maximize the sound of speakers under different, common listening conditions.
Like other physically small iPod speaker docks, i765’s major audio limitation is in its ability to scale upwards in volume to loud levels. Distortion becomes an issue at roughly the point it which it can start to hurt the ears of a nearby listener, and rapidly ramps upwards to become unpleasant as the volume heads in the same direction. For most listeners, this won’t be an issue, but if you’re looking for something designed to fill a big room, or are planning to use i765 with a TV on the other side of a bedroom, look to a loudspeaker with bigger drivers rather than i765; the 1.75” front speakers can only do so much.
The issue with i765 isn’t so much audio as video: we weren’t especially impressed by the performance of the DVD player, or the video-out functionality of the iPod dock. For a $500 unit, the i765’s DVD functionality seems almost like a last-minute toss-in, lacking for the clean, higher-resolution output we’ve come to expect from even inexpensive DVD players these days; DVD composite video suffered from wavy interference lines, and thanks to the lack of upscaling functionality, looked relatively soft on our TVs. Interestingly, while Cambridge is using Apple’s iPod authentication chip, it only works to trigger video-out on iPod models, and not on the iPhone, though the iPhone can serve as an audio player—in Airplane Mode—without any issue. Regardless, the iPod video looked okay; it was a little more accurate coming directly off of Apple’s composite video cables than through i765. Since you pay a $100 premium for this video functionality over the company’s videoless 745i, it’s our impression that you might be better off with the less expensive system.
From an interface standpoint, i765 is okay, rather than great; complexity is largely to blame. Cambridge has packed 22 buttons and a dial on the unit’s face, plus an extra button on top, while the remote control actually has 43 buttons, coded in various colors and labeled with icons, numbers, and phrases. In both cases, the power button is the last of all the buttons, and the tuning buttons are found someplace inconspicuous in the middle. Consequently, changing CD/DVD tracks or tuning the radio isn’t hard, but it’s not intuitive as it should be, either; you’ll need to learn where the most commonly used buttons are. Oddly, two of the unit’s most prominent buttons are to set the clock—ones you’ll rarely use—and since almost all of the buttons are sized and shaped the same, it’ll take a little effort to discern one from the other.
All in all, i765 is the sort of all-in-one iPod system that we’d reluctantly categorize as a “near miss,” as it does some things very well, but others—particularly the ones that would most justify its $500 price tag—less than impressively. While it’s impossible to deny the convenience or appeal of a single unit that delivers quality stereo iPod, CD, and AM/FM radio sound, plus simple dual alarm clock functionality, and both DVD and iPod video-out features, it’s also very difficult to feel completely enthusiastic at this price level when the video is underwhelming and the interface is overly complex. Consider the i765 if the convenience of its complete package outweighs your need to have sterling video performance, and if you’re tech-savvy enough to handle quite a few controls to use all of its features; otherwise, if you’re looking for an unusually powerful bedside alarm clock with CD functionality, look to the 745i as a potentially better option.