Review: Geneva Lab GenevaSound S
There's no third-party accessory maker quite like Geneva Lab, which quickly made a name for itself with the simultaneous April 2006 releases of Model L and Model XL, two gigantic iPod audio systems that were literally capable of serving as both conversation pieces and speakers: their lacquered wood cabinets and minimalist style were changes -- and positive ones -- from the numerous garish cheap plastic audio systems that preceded and followed them. But there was a non-trivial problem: due to Geneva's initially "naive" understanding of manufacturing and distribution costs, the company's already expensive pricing shot upwards and upwards after L and XL's release, such that the $599 Model L eventually became a $999 speaker, while the $1,075 Model XL now sells for $1,999. A smaller version, Model M, was subsequently released at $500, shooting up to $799 before coming to rest at $699; an even bigger home theater storage-sized speaker called GenevaSound HT retails for $3,999. At these prices, the company's products went from just barely mainstream to truly nichey, the sort of lineup that only makes sense with an installed user base as huge and diverse as that enjoyed by the multi-million selling iPod and iPhone families. [Updated July 13, 2010: A revised version of GenevaSound S is discussed at the bottom of this review, with a rating boost.]
This month, Geneva debuted its most mainstream product yet: GenevaSound S ($300), also known as the Model S, a distillation of the best-known features of its prior systems into a considerably smaller enclosure—one that can actually be sold in retail stores and carried out by customers without strong-armed assistance. Evoking the word “cute” more or less spontaneously, particularly by reference to its bigger brothers, GenevaSound S is actually one of the nicest-looking small iPod and iPhone audio systems we’ve ever seen, coming equipped with one feature that is so seriously impressive that people may fall in love with it on first sight, as well as a few annoyances that may bother early adopters to no end. It is, in short, a system we’d recommend to users who are more style- than price- or sonically conscious, and willing to live with idiosyncrasies in order to have an eye-catching little speaker on their desks or elsewhere in their rooms.
On their desks? Could that be possible in a Geneva Lab product? Yes: GenevaSound S measures roughly 9” wide by 7” deep by 5.5” tall, and weighs 7 pounds—a toy by comparison with the 38-pound Model L. The light weight and four rubberized feet allow it to be placed on a desk without problems, while an included plastic and metal stand raises it to a height of 8.5”, just right to see the red LED clock screen hidden behind its metal front grille. You can choose from the same white, red, or black body colors as its predecessors, each with the same high-gloss lacquered finish and mostly wooden case; the silver feet, stand, and Geneva badging are the same on each unit, and included silver Infrared remote controls differ only in button colors, which are matched to the speakers’ bodies.
To underscore one point before we go further into this review, GenevaSound S is a beautiful looking piece of audio hardware. The simple, rounded box design is classy, clean, and particularly impressive when it’s elevated with the stand, a part that we felt should have been included with the larger Model L and XL units even before they shot up in price. Unpacking and assembling everything from the $300 box leaves you with a sense that you have just acquired something of actual value, unlike so many of the cheap, plasticky speakers we’ve tested and found to be better inside than out, or weak in both regards. Geneva Lab does a great job of creating solid-feeling, sharp-looking speakers, on par with the very best we’ve seen from top competitors.
Functionally, GenevaSound S is a considerably stripped down version of its older predecessors. Most notably, it contains only two drivers with a total of 30 Watts of power, a big step down on paper—if not quality—from the multi-driver 100-Watt Model M and L units. Less importantly, it loses the slot-loading CD player found in all of the other models, a feature we couldn’t care less about, and there’s still an FM radio inside, plus a single alarm for the aforementioned clock, with the tuner, clock, and an iPod/No iPod display sharing the same four-character red LED indicator. An auxiliary audio input is found on the unit’s back, and the included boxy remote has six radio presets, clock and alarm setting buttons, and bass and treble controls.
The clock radio and alarm functionality in GenevaSound S are both okay rather than thrilling. Geneva Lab includes a telescoping silver antenna for the radio, which we found necessary to actually tune in stations, and equally easy to initially connect and accidentally disconnect when we were moving the unit around. Tuning is accomplished in 0.1 steps, which is less than optimal for U.S.-based users but fine for international markets, and reception is solid so long as the antenna is attached and the unit’s in a decent location in your room. You can easily program the clock—sadly, on military time—as well as the alarm, which basically wakes the system in the mode that it was previously left in, radio or iPod playback, or sounds a tone if the system was left on too low of a volume level. We’d classify all of this as unimpressive, though it all works; a DAB radio version of Model S for users outside the United States will also be available.
There are two surprises in GenevaSound S. First is a capacitive top control panel; second is a motorized dock that rotates to a closed position when no iPod or iPhone is placed inside. We don’t think we’ve ever used these words together before, but here goes: these are simultaneously two of the coolest and stupidest features we’ve ever seen implemented in an iPod or iPhone audio system. Press the power button—brilliantly nested in a little concave corner of the top surface—and the touch panel lights up right next to the dock. Our eyes popped when we saw lights glowing from the lacquered top surface, and we loved the volume dial found next to the dock: it’s a flat glowing circle, like the old third-generation iPod Scroll Wheel, and turns up or down as you swipe on it. Other buttons are further towards the back, near the power button.
But there’s a problem. The volume controls are so close to the dock that you can easily brush the volume upwards or downwards accidentally when you go to access the iPod or iPhone’s screen and controls, as you may want to for menu navigation. (* See update below.) Situating the volume dial on the other rear corner would have been a much better idea, though probably not as easy for the company’s engineers. As a consequence of the design as it is, you may well decide, as we did, to be extra gentle when accessing the iPhone or iPod, and to rely as much as possible on the remote to control the unit. Even so, we accidentally hit the controls again and again. This shouldn’t be the case, but it was.
Then there’s the dock, which is programmed for whatever reason to swivel closed whenever you undock the iPod or iPhone, switching automatically to the integrated FM radio. We found the dock’s motion to be interesting, but an annoyance to use because you need to press the “Mode” button to re-open the dock almost every time you want to insert your iPod or iPhone. Geneva sees this as a dock protection feature; we’ve never had a problem with any other dock that would require such a thing. Additionally, the dock’s universal well was just a little too tight, making the insertion and removal of Universal Dock Adapters a challenge: we had to use a screwdriver to pry out the one included adapter when it wouldn’t fit our encased iPhone 3GS. Add to these little inconveniences the fairly high failure rates of capacitive touch controls and mechanized docks and you may wonder, as we did, how long Model S will continue to work properly. A one-year warranty mightn’t be enough under the circumstances, but we have to withhold final judgment on this point as Geneva’s systems haven’t had any issues yet.
Sonically, GenevaSound S has an obvious challenge to face: convincing users that sound quality isn’t everything at a $300 price point, a task made considerably easier but not eliminated by virtue of its impressive cabinet design. In our tests, it appeared that Geneva Lab used Bose’s SoundDock as a benchmark for sound quality, attempting to rival the SoundDock’s well-known sound signature mostly because that’s what people would expect at a minimum for the asking price. As we’ve noted many times before, however, the SoundDock is $100 too expensive for the sound and overall package it offers; using it as a benchmark isn’t a bad strategy, but matching its sound at the same price point isn’t going to blow anyone away, either.
The good news: at normal listening levels—say, 40 out of 100 on its volume dial—GenevaSound S does offer effectively the same sound quality as the SoundDock, though the two systems don’t have identical sound signatures. Surprisingly, GenevaSound S is a little clearer and stronger in the treble department, with similar additional clarity in the midrange, which made songs sound slightly more dynamic and detailed, offset by small differences in bass that occasionally made the SoundDock sound a little warmer. Neither system rivals the low-end performance of competing systems with dedicated subwoofer drivers, however; they’re much closer to each other in all regards than to, say, Altec Lansing’s iMT800, and don’t have the sort of thump or sparkle of the top systems we’ve tested at this price. Then there were two other surprises, namely that the remote’s bass and treble controls had little to no positive impact on GenevaSound S’s output, and that the SoundDock was capable of reaching a slightly higher peak volume level. The difference wasn’t huge, however, and one point bears repeating: those looking for serious audio horsepower will find more of it in many competing $300 systems we’ve tested, albeit with other compromises that need to be considered. One additional note on sound: iPhone 3G and 3GS units had no audio interference issues with the system unless they were in EDGE mode, at which point light TDMA noises could be heard modestly through the system during silences.
Sound isn’t the only factor we consider when rating a speaker, but it’s an important one, with aesthetics, features, interface and value all weighing on the final letter grade as well. Considered in its totality, GenevaSound S offers more bang for the buck than the SoundDock—no shock given that Bose’s product didn’t begin its life as a great value, and has barely evolved in the five years it’s been on the market—but although Geneva has released a more sophisticated device, some of the resulting complications detract from its comparative advantages. We loved the attractive, elegant cabinet design, and appreciated that the company added both a clock and radio to a roughly SoundDock-equivalent speaker system without boosting the price. On the other hand, we hated the interface issues that detracted from GenevaSound S’s ease of use, and found its sound quality to be acceptable only by reference to an overpriced benchmark. That said, we wouldn’t use the word overpriced for GenevaSound S, but there’s little doubt that its $300 price tag is as much a result of its aesthetics as anything else. If it wasn’t for its interface issues, GenevaSound S would have rated a little higher, but by the same token, if it was even a tiny bit more expensive, our rating would fall commensurately lower. It’s just about right where it currently stands; should it receive some substantial post-release fine-tuning, it’s the rare system that we’d consider revisiting.
Updated July 13, 2010: Following the initial release of GenevaSound S, Geneva Lab revised the unit in June 2010 with post-release tweaks that were worth mentioning in this brief review update. Most notably, GenevaSound S’s automatic switch to FM radio and hiding of the iPod/iPhone dock upon device disconnection has been fixed: pulling the iPod or iPhone now just leads the integrated display to flash “No iPod,” leaving the dock open until you press the power button to turn off the system. Turning the power on re-opens the dock, so only intentionally hitting the Mode button to switch to the radio will cause the radio to activate. This user interface change was just enough to push the rating of GenevaSound S from the originally issued flat B up to a B+, as it removes one of the biggest usage problems with the model we originally reviewed.
Geneva Lab has also slightly reduced the volume level of the clicking noise for the integrated control wheel, though it hasn’t relocated the wheel, a point that the company has strenuously argued is unnecessary. As the wheel doubles as a volume control and a scrolling control for iPhone or iPod menu navigation—the latter only after you hit the Menu button on GenevaSound S’s top surface—Geneva Lab thinks that its location off to the right of the dock continues to make sense, and suggests that you use its wheel rather than the controls on the iPhone or iPod. All we can say on this point is that we continue to prefer to use Apple’s built-in controls when we’re that close to the device, and that as right-handed users, we still accidentally brush GenevaSound S’s wheel accidentally when using the system atop a desk. Whether this is an issue for you or not will depend on the place where you locate the speaker, whether you’re right or left handed, and how you interact with the connected iPhone or iPod. We continue to feel that the wheel would be better located on the system’s left side.