Review: Chestnut Hill Sound George Digital Audio System for iPod
Pros: A feature-laden all-in-one iPod speaker system with most of the best features from leading AM/FM clock radios and iPod display remotes, capable of being user-customized in sound, and eventually both looks and non-iPod attachments, as well. Includes relatively sophisticated black-and-white display remote with iPod-mirroring controls, strong AM/FM radio tuner, and audio quality rivaling top $300 all-in-one iPod speakers. Bass and midrange performance are especially impressive.
Cons: Price is high by iPod speaker standards, and doesn’t include standalone remote control charging base, which will be all but necessary if you frequently carry the rechargeable battery-sapping remote into other rooms away from the speaker base. Precludes access to iPod’s built-in controls, and remote provides no scrubbing or other video playback access; system doesn’t include video features. Though audio performance is generally very impressive, distortion creeps in at top volumes.
As was the case with JBL’s earlier On Time, which straddled the fence between uber-designed, expensive iPod clock radio and a traditional all-in-one speaker system, categorization was our biggest challenge when reviewing Chestnut Hill Sound’s new George ($549). Whimsically named and aggressively engineered, George is the latest “jack of all trades” iPod accessory - a powerful, user-customizable all-in-one speaker system that looks like an oversized clock radio, plus a relatively advanced wireless remote control that shares certain features with KeySpan’s class-leading TuneView.
With only a few exceptions - one predictable, the others not - we actively liked Chestnut Hill’s first product for what it is: an audiophile-quality all-in-one iPod speaker, at audiophile pricing. If you’re not turned off by the number $549, you’ll find its unique feature set worth reading about.
Understanding George: Not (Just) a Clock Radio
Our first reaction to George - and the one most of our readers are likely to have - was pure sticker shock. Judged on its appearance, the system looks basically like an oversized iHome iH5 or XtremeMac Luna - a clock radio with an iPod dock on top, and what appear to be two total speakers inside of a larger, more bass-ready chassis. True, Chestnut Hill has included certain sophisticated touches that elevate George above such $100-$150 offerings - silky, removable fabric speaker covers, a higher-resolution display, and comparatively few scattered buttons - but then, its mostly white plastic body, with a dimple-textured top, isn’t that much different, either.
As it turns out, while budget-conscious users would reasonably make such a comparison and likely find the smaller and substantially impressive Luna a better value for their pure clock radio needs, Chestnut Hill doesn’t want George to be seen as a clock radio - or, at least, merely a clock radio. Sound quality and remote ignored for the moment, it’s better in this regard than most products in that category. Its screen simultaneously has enough room for the digital clock, iPod track information, menu options, and some slightly-too-abstract icons.
It also boasts highly configurable dual repeating alarms, each set to your choice of sources - including iPod tracks, playlists, and specific volumes - and three additional alarms called Nap (off until X minutes have elapsed), Sleep (on until X minutes have elapsed), and One Time (on at any specified time, non-repeating). While George doesn’t have one of the best repeating alarm settings we’ve seen in top iPod clocks - weekday versus weekend versus all-week - it’s otherwise very strong in this regard.
Understanding George: The Face as Remote Control
But the idea of using George as “just a clock radio” almost entirely ends when you realize that its clock face completely detaches from its body, becoming a wireless remote control. So disassembled, the system looks less like a clock and more like a white Logitech AudioStation or Bose SoundDock - a $300 all-in-one iPod speaker - but with a more substantial, iPod-like control system. After really listening to music and radio stations through George, it turns out that this comparison is the more appropriate one: if you think of the system as an AudioStation with alarms, a display remote, and more nuanced audio functionality, you’re properly understanding the package.
There are many things to like and dislike about Chestnut Hill’s remote - the component that, according to the company, is most responsible for George’s $549 price tag. To start with the positives, it uses a relatively new wireless radio communications standard called Zigbee rather than line-of-sight-dependent Infrared, and consequently communicates much better with the iPod and speaker base than the 20-30 foot, straight-shot distance we typically see in all-in-one systems. We were able to control a George-docked iPod upstairs from all corners of a large house, even including the entire downstairs, with no significant problems. If the remote’s not around, you can silence the system automatically with a “Quiet” button hidden inside the remote charging panel.
The remote also provides very substantial access to the docked iPod’s music menu functionality. Using its integrated, ratcheting and center button-equipped dial, you can navigate what appears to be a nearly identical version of the old black-and-white iPod interface, and even skip quickly to specific areas of your collection. Eight numbered, backlit buttons are mapped to let you cut directly to specific letters of the alphabet - a nice feature for users with more capacious iPods and huge artist or song lists. While in a facsimile of the iPod’s Now Playing screen, the current time is always found on the top right, and a track progress timer is generally on the bottom right. A button on top serves as a kind of snooze bar, pausing iPod playback and muting the radio or auxiliary input; the unit’s other dedicated play/pause, track, and menu buttons are arranged around its dial in a satisfactory but not always convenient array.
Radio tuning is also integrated into the remote, with a feature called “Bandless tuning” enabling you to move straight from the AM dial into the FM dial without pressing an AM/FM button. Though the idea’s an interesting one, it proved more of a hassle than a benefit during our testing. Besides the fact that tuning uses two of the remote’s face buttons rather than the dial, which is busy adjusting volume, there were times when we wanted to quickly switch from FM to AM and couldn’t. You’ll need to aggressively use presets, which like the iPod alphabet-skipping feature let you jump to areas of the dial by using the remote’s eight numbered buttons.
There were other things about the remote that we didn’t like, some of them significant. Before you can use the remote, you’ll need to place an included battery pack in its back compartment, and between uses, you’ll need to keep it charged either by docking the remote inside George or using an optional $50 charging station.
We’re not sure which part we liked less: the fact that the charging station is sold separately, or that the remote we tested required at least daily recharging. Left sitting on an ottoman at a distance from the base, the remote’s battery was dead well before the end of a day of testing - even when it was going into sleep mode, and requiring a “waking” up screen, throughout the course of the tests. When we first saw George on display at a trade show last month, a company representative told us, mysteriously, that users would really want to get the charging station, and we think we now know why: if you don’t keep the remote sitting in or near one, you’re going to have to leave it inside George most of the time.
Battery life aside, the remote has some other quirks. From what we could see, though it duplicated the iPod’s music menu navigation nicely, we couldn’t scrub - switch positions within - a currently playing song. Neither the dial, again used for volume, nor the track buttons had any effect on current track position. This is more significant because your iPod’s own controls become completely unusable while inside George - it switches into OK to Disconnect mode, and constantly displays a company logo rather than its own menus.
And though the remote is generally very fast at displaying and cutting from place to place in iPod menus - the benefit of good data caching - its wireless technology is somewhat susceptible to interference, particularly at greater than 30-foot distances where walls are involved. While simple iPod controls - play/pause commands, for example - seem to work pretty well at all times, there are points at which the remote lags significantly behind volume switches, menu navigation requests, and occasionally displays of currently playing track details.
Overall, our feeling is that George’s remote control is a major potential selling point with a few pretty substantial issues - some potentially remediable through future firmware upgrades, but others, such as battery drain, perhaps not. In its current form, the remote is better in most regards than ABT’s weird little iJet Two-Way, but not the rival of KeySpan’s well thought-out TuneView, which not only uses a color screen, but boasts substantially better battery life, iPod Now Playing controls, and video/photo functionality, too. More on that last point, below.
Understanding George: The Audiophile-Quality All-in-One Speaker System
We won’t mince words here: George’s single strongest feature is its audio functionality. As you may be aware, we’ve previously taken some contrarian views on heavily marketed all-in-one iPod speakers, noting that we weren’t blown away by the value of high-priced offerings from Bose ($300 SoundDock, B+), Klipsch ($400 iFi, B+), and even Apple ($349 iPod Hi-Fi, B), which have asked users to reach deep into their pockets for designs that struck us as less than fully worth their asking prices. Similarly, while George isn’t everything it should be for its $549 sticker price - a deterrent that will keep away all but the most serious listeners - it’s good enough that audiophiles will consider it a worthy high-end all-in-one, and a spiritual continuation of the legacy of Tivoli Audio’s iPod systems.
For instance, tuning kinks aside, its AM and FM radio tuning are both very strong, with relatively low static levels that compared favorably to Logitech’s value-laden $300 system AudioStation, sometimes besting it - particularly on the FM portion of the dial. The only thing missing by comparison is a seek feature, but its more aggressive 24-preset system - aided by simple on-screen preset selection options - mostly makes up for that.
Similarly, George goes toe to toe with the AudioStation - in our view, the very best all-in-one iPod audio system we’ve tested for its price - on iPod and auxiliary audio playback. On one level, Chestnut Hill’s decision to physically layer 1.25” tweeters on top of its 3.25” midrange drivers - and hide its 4” downfiring subwoofer inside the cabinet - doesn’t do George any favors. Like us, you’ll initially find it hard to believe that there enough drivers inside to really do justice to the spectrum of audio an iPod - particularly one loaded with lossless music - can contain. But in a series of tests over several days, George demonstrated precisely why first impressions and small packages can be deceiving.
Unlike most of its competitors, Chestnut Hill doesn’t call special attention to its bass and treble controls: George has a little bass level knob on its back that you might notice when first setting the system up, but the real options are hidden in a System Settings menu called “Audio:” you’ll find 15-stage bass and treble adjustment screens (-7 to 0 and +7), a bass frequency dial with 60, 80, 100, and 120Hz settings, and a treble frequency dial with 8, 10, 12, and 15Khz settings. Though George’s default settings are pretty good without adjustment, tweaks to the treble, and particularly the bass, can add more than a little extra oomph and sparkle to both iPod and radio audio, as well as user-preferred emphasis on the mids.
To quantify the results, George’s subwoofer not only goes a bit lower than the otherwise similar AudioStation, but also lets you hear extra detail in that bass. Somewhat superior midrange detail also helps George’s staging: though the system’s stereo separation suffers a little from having its four front-firing drivers so close to each other, if you’re sitting in front of them, you can clearly hear separate instruments in front of you in a way that similar but smaller and cheaper systems can’t replicate. Our overall impression of the system’s sound is that it delivers in virtually all the ways that audiophiles would expect - thanks to its dedicated bass, mid, and treble drivers, good tuning, and user-configurable levels, this is isn’t a boom and tizz box; it’s the sort of balanced audio system that long-time listeners will be able to appreciate.
Volume is a somewhat different story: George easily bests lower-end systems, but begins to distort noticeably near the top of its AudioStation- and iPod Hi-Fi-like (read: potentially ear-splitting) range; by contrast, AudioStation and iPod Hi-Fi are relatively distinctive in that they perform with comparatively little distortion even at peak volumes. Even still, George is one of the better all-in-one performers we’ve heard, as it sounds great at all volumes save for its peak, and isn’t too bad even when it’s reaching past its most comfortable range.
As a final set of notes on George’s feature set, the cabinet’s rear has a USB port for system updates, power, antenna, auxiliary input and pre-out ports, a headphone port, and both a vent and the aforementioned bass knob for the integrated subwoofer. Two external antennas are included - one AM, and one FM, and attached to the unit’s back without any difficulty. What’s most missing from the package - both in the remote and in the base unit’s hardware - is any sort of video cabling or other video support; though George could conceivably sit alongside a TV, it was clearly conceptualized in the period before the growth of the fifth-generation iPod (with video), and designed to appeal to audio lovers.
Chestnut Hill has disclosed but not yet fully executed some interesting hardware expansion plans. In March, the company plans to offer “furniture grade” replacement side panel kits in cherry, black walnut, and oak, each with accompanying fabric grilles. The panels will replace rather than sit on top of the unit’s existing side panels, enabling George to better blend into various wood surroundings; pricing has not yet been announced.
Additionally, George’s included Universal iPod Dock on top has been designed for future expansion: it pops right out of the system, revealing a second connector that Chestnut Hill says will be compatible with non-iPod devices and possibly future Apple offerings without the Dock Connector. Five included Dock Adapters allow it to work with iPod minis and full-sized iPods; you can also obviously use the Adapters packaged with nanos and fifth-generation iPods, as well as an included auxiliary audio cable that works with iPod shuffles, Dock Connector-less iPods, and other audio devices.
Because George brings so much to the table - clock radio, wireless iPod display remote, and a powerful all-in-one speaker system - and does each feature at least pretty well, there will be some who insist that it should receive our highest recommendation. In our view, however, this is a very good but not great product overall, the mark of our general recommendation rather than our higher one. While this is the sort of speaker offering that will attract audiophiles looking for both sound and simplicity, it falls a bit short of mainstream appeal for a few reasons, most notably its price, its value for the dollar, and the performance of its remote control.
There’s no doubt that the $549 Chestnut Hill is asking for George - leaving aside the optional $50 charging base - could buy a lot of audio hardware, including a very nice set of 2.1-channel speakers and a more robustly equipped TuneView display remote control. Some users might see the latter option as necessarily superior, but as has been demonstrated amply by the success of Bose’s SoundDock, there are some for whom all-in-one simplification trumps raw component value, and the wealthier, more audio-obsessed members of that group will find George to be appealing.
Speaking for ourselves, though we understand Chestnut Hill’s explanation for its pricing - namely, that all the advanced parts in the display remote are most to blame for the system’s cost - what you get in that remote, namely, a black-and-white, audio-only facsimile of older iPod interfaces, with serious battery drain concerns, isn’t compelling enough in our view to justify the system’s price premium. It’s good engineering in good packaging, but needs more polish to be worthy of such a steep price point.
In sum, what George delivers is this: the approximate equivalent of today’s best $300 all-in-one iPod speaker systems, plus the functionality of a relatively advanced clock radio, and the option of an almost fully realized display remote. If that collection of features suits your fancy, as we expect it will for some serious listeners, consider George worthy of an in-home audition. But if price or bang for the buck are major factors in your decision, you’ll do well to look at less expensive clock radios or all-in-one speakers, or just assembling a similar system from several parts.