Review: GINI Systems iTube Vacuum Tube 2.1 Audio System and iConec iPod Dock
Pros: A multi-component speaker system cosmetically designed to match the iPod, featuring a vacuum tube at the top of its subwoofer unit and an Infrared remote control. Paired with an optional iPod dock and a second remote control, enables user to listen to room-filling, pleasantly warm music from a distance.
Cons: Outperformed on highs, lows, and detail/distortion by top speaker systems sold for $100 less. Docking system has volume default and peak volume distortion issues relative to Apple’s docks; double remote controls and double power supplies are needed to use the system with dock. Aesthetic design is not especially impressive.
Vacuum tubes have been fetishized by certain audiophiles for years, but they’ve only recently started to appear in iPod accessories. Back in January, a company called i.Dream America showed off a $140 i-Classic speaker system with four faux vacuum tubes on an iPod dock; now a company called GINI Systems has released iTube ($349), a multi-component 2.1-channel audio system with a single but real vacuum tube mounted in its subwoofer chassis. It’s worth a brief note that iTube is based on but not identical to a system called i-Steroid, sold in Asia by Sonic Gear and shown in iLounge’s report on Singapore last year.
Two Boxes, One System - Sort Of
We typically don’t review multi-component speakers these days unless they include an iPod dock: there are thousands of dockless multimedia-style speakers out there, very few of which are truly of interest to iPod owners. To that end, GINI actually sells two versions of iTube: the $349 package is dockless, but a $379 version comes with an iPod dock called iConec, sold separately by the company for $69.
The standard version of iTube ships with four primary pieces: two substantial but bland-looking wooden satellite speakers, each with four rubber feet that came off too easily in our testing, a subwoofer with a single port at its bottom and a vacuum tube chamber near its top, and a five-button Infrared remote control that doesn’t work quite the way you’d imagine. Like the front of the iTube subwoofer - a cheap-looking design borrowed from Asia’s earlier i-Steroid speaker systems, which themselves borrowed from the front of Apple’s pre-5G full-sized iPods - the remote features “bass +,” “bass -,” “vol -,” “vol +”, and “mute” buttons in a Click Wheel-like arrangement, offering no iPod controls or other features. The remote is guaranteed only to a 10-foot effective range, not great by any standard, let alone that of a $350 speaker.
If you want iPod control, you add the circular iConec dock, which comes in its own box, and roughly duplicates the ports (S-Video and RCA audio out/Dock Connector synchronization) of Apple’s full-sized iPod docks, adding volume buttons and a red indicator light to the unit’s front. iConec includes its own 13-button Infrared remote control, power supply, and several adapters for its Apple-standard Universal Dock well. When you actually go to use iConec and iTube together, it’s clear from moment one that the pairing isn’t exactly harmonious. First, there’s the fact that they come with separate remote controls and power supplies, requiring you to use two wall outlets and both remotes to properly adjust volume and use the iPod. iConec’s remote controls only the dock’s volume, not iTube’s speaker or bass volume, though both have mute buttons that do the same thing.
As a second and more important issue, iConec hasn’t been calibrated to maximize its sound output to the iTube system. Apple’s Universal Dock essentially defined the correct way to make an iPod dock with variable-level volume out: the dock should default at peak level and be attenuated downwards if you prefer. Instead, iConec defaults at a much lower level, so every time an iPod is plugged in to the dock, you need to turn the volume level up. Unlike Apple’s Docks, iConec also introduces noticeable distortion into the audio signal at its top volume, a factor which significantly limits the appeal of this solution for its target serious listener audience. In our view, pairing this dock with iTube, or any $350 speaker system, is just not a good idea. Price aside, most prospective iTube users would do better to skip iConec in favor of an Apple iPod Dock instead.
iTube: Pricey, Decent Multi-Component Audio
Debates over the actual value of vacuum tubes for audio applications have been going on for roughly half a century, with certain musicians and audiophiles insisting that the lightbulb-like audio components produce warmer, more natural sound than smaller and less expensive transistor-based amplification hardware. Years ago, audio engineers famously measured the two solutions and found no discernible differences, but subsequent test results suggested that vacuum tube-based amplifiers delivered better apparent sound quality at higher power levels than transistor-based amplifiers; both created apparent distortion, but the vacuum tube solutions’ distortion sounded better.
We’re not going to enter that debate with this review, but we will say the following: at $250, iTube would be a nice-sounding audio system for the price, as it does deliver warm, ear-pleasing sound that won’t disappoint anyone expecting as much from a vacuum tube-based subwoofer. The system accentuates mid-bass and bass, giving any sort of music a richer flavor, while its satellite speakers provide enough mid-treble and treble detail to satisfy most listeners. As with most multi-component speakers, iTube benefits from its separate left- and right-channel satellites, which can be positioned up to six feet away from the subwoofer, and provide decent but not great staging - music is a bit flatter and more compressed-sounding than we prefer, lacking some of the dynamic punch of better speakers we’ve tested.
Put another way, iTube falls a couple of steps short of the standards set by speakers such as Altec Lansing’s excellent $250 FX6021 (iLounge rating: A), which means that for GINI’s $350 asking price, iTube is an only OK offering overall. In our tests at both normal and high-volume levels - the latter where we expected the iTube could shine over Altec’s tube-less design - the FX6021 delivered more detailed, lower distortion sound with both superior treble and bass extension, assuming you want it; whereas iTube has only bass adjustment controls, the peak of which falls short of the FX6021’s best thump level, the FX6021 also lets you calibrate your highs. Besides the FX6021’s superior default level of detail - a fact most likely attributable to its array of 12 properly tuned high- and mid-range drivers, the treble controls let users add additional sparkle and apparent crispness that iTube can’t match. Both systems are capable of delivering ear-damaging amplitude; FX6021’s sound at such levels is more dynamic, and its staging more believable.
Though we generally hate to rely on speaker size to tell the story of why certain audio systems sound the way they do, a few notes here may be somewhat telling, as most of iTube’s components have changed from those featured in the earlier i-Steroid. Sonic Gear’s original design paired 1” tweeters and 3” full-range drivers in each satellite, with a 4” bass driver in the subwoofer chassis. iTube instead includes a single 3.5” full-range driver per satellite - a design that typically compromises high-end detail to improve mid-range performance - plus a 5.25” bass driver, which through size alone can offer better bass extension than the original design, but still can’t compare with the extra treble and mid-treble harder or the bigger, Altec-tuned 6.5” bass driver in the FX6021. It’s worth noting that Altec’s subwoofer design fires from the front and ports at its back; iTube by comparison has no front, side, rear or top grille and instead channels all of its audio towards the floor, which is less than ideal for many listening environments.
In our view, the choice between the $379 iTube and iConec package or a less expensive FX6021 plus remote controlled docking package is an absolute no-brainer; we’d go with the FX6021, or other comparably excellent multi-component audio systems we’ve reviewed, pretty much any day of the week. If you’re seeking out a vacuum tube-based iPod speaker system just for the sake of finding one, iTube is an interesting novelty, but it will only impress listeners who haven’t compared it directly to better, cheaper systems.