Review: Griffin Amplifi 2.1 Sound System for iPod
Pros: An all-in-one speaker system that rivals the audio performance and simplicity of Bose’s twice-as-expensive SoundDock, sometimes adding additional bass beyond the SoundDock’s capabilities. Includes Infrared remote control, easy-to-use power and volume knob with nice blue light ring, and internationally compatible power supply.
Cons: Styling and sound signature skew towards bass-loving men, versus the more gender-neutral, slightly smoother SoundDock, and vocals tend to stand out a little, which some users may or may not like. Very limited rear ports, omitting video-out and data functionality. No user bass or treble control. Top iPod dock is functional but not beautiful.
New speaker makers—even when they’re established vendors of other types of accessories—now instantly raise our suspicions. It’s far too easy these days for a Western company to slap its name on a system already on sale in Taiwan or China, raise the price by $50-100, and market it as its own. And there are other things that happen often with inexperienced speaker sellers, too: features don’t work, sound quality isn’t up to snuff with designs by bigger players, or the sound signature changes in the middle of the product’s life cycle.
Griffin Technology has for years been one of the leading vendors of iPod accessories, but its experience in speakers is decidedly limited. After releasing its only prior speaker system—the rebranded, Asian-developed, nothing special TuneBox for iPod shuffle—back in 2005, Griffin retrenched for an extended period to develop truly new speaker products. The fruits of that effort are beginning to appear on store shelves: Amplifi ($150) is an aggressively-priced, tabletop-sized competitor to Bose’s SoundDock, Journi ($130) is a feature-packed portable speaker system, and Evolve ($300) provides you with two wireless speaker cubes you can carry around. We review Amplifi and Journi today; Evolve is scheduled for release in July.
The good news about Amplifi and Journi is that they’re both competent new speaker offerings, and unlike so many of the alternatives we see these days, they’re actually groundbreaking in at least minor-league ways. Amplifi delivers unmatched sound performance for its $150 suggested retail price, so closely rivaling Bose’s $299 SoundDock that only looks and small sound differences are in Bose’s favor. And while Journi isn’t the sonic rival of its top competitor, Logitech’s mm50, it’s the least expensive portable iPod speaker that includes a rechargeable battery, remote control, and carrying case. Since they’re so similar to one another in price, the dichotomy is obvious: consider Amplifi if you need a tabletop speaker, and Journi only if you need something to take on the road.
Of the two systems, we thought Amplifi was the more impressive offering. While its black and silver colors, shape, and sound signature skew masculine—a point raised by our female reviewer—it does benefit from the sort of functional elegance that women will appreciate. We appreciated the simplicity of its only built-in controls—a single, black front volume dial, which is pressed inwards to turn power on or off, and turned left or right to adjust volume. The dial features a blue light ring similar to Griffin’s popular Powermate knob for computers, which most of us really liked. And Amplifi keeps its connectivity simple: there’s a plastic panel on the rear with power and auxiliary audio-in ports, nothing else. This will disappoint users looking for video out, data synchronization, or audio-out; we weren’t bothered, but you’ll need to decide whether any or all of these features is important to you.
We weren’t as fond of the nothing special plastic iPod dock on the unit’s top, which rather than using Universal Dock inserts comes with simple rubber sizer pads. It reminded us of the cheap-looking solution in Speck’s SpeckTone Retro, rather than the cleaner, more modern dock in XtremeMac’s Tango, and as with most iPod accessories, Amplifi’s surfaces tend to show fingerprints easily. But as feature issues go, these are minor. Griffin’s package is otherwise robust, including a six-button Infrared remote, four types of international wall power blades, a power supply, and four extra rubber feet for additional stabilization of Amplifi should the built-in feet prove insufficient.
Amplifi’s remote control is pretty good by Infrared standards. It duplicates the features of the SoundDock’s, offering play/pause, track, volume, and system power buttons, and works from comparable distances under identical lighting conditions. Like most IR remotes, it depends on you to point directly at the speakers to guarantee that button presses are received; the sensor thankfully does pretty well on off-center angles, though not as well as the SoundDock’s.
Looks and features aside, what was most important to us was that Griffin cared about getting the unit’s sound “right” relative to prior, similar tabletop speakers such as XtremeMac’s Tango and Speck’s SpeckTone Retro, and several steps were taken to ensure that. Amplifi’s enclosure measures approximately 13.75” x 8.5” x 5.5”, and is made entirely from wood save for its black metal front speaker grille and a few small plastic parts. Inside the cabinet are two front-firing 2-3/4” neodymium drivers and a down-firing, ported 5” bass driver, together creating a 2.1-channel audio system with subwoofer accompaniment for full-range drivers.
Though Tango and SpeckTone Retro used similar components, Griffin tuned them properly here, even though doing so resulted in some interesting compromises. Despite the fact that its 5” bass driver is larger and potentially more powerful than the 4” drivers in Tango and SpeckTone Retro, Griffin has surprisingly but wisely reined it in, delivering ample, controlled low-end rather than an overwhelming bass sound or dull thumping. The result is a system with a bass presence that alternates at or above subwooferless-SoundDock levels, depending on the way your music’s been encoded, a boon for those who really like low-end sound. Bass-heavy tracks we tested with Amplifi sounded quite good, and the system tended to bring out low-end warmth in other tracks, as well.
One other surprise in Amplifi’s sound was its treatment of vocals. Despite its bass warmth, Amplifi tends to make voices stand out from background instruments rather than blending in to them, an effect which will elicit different responses from different listeners. For some listeners—possibly many listeners—this will be a good thing. Others may feel less enthusiastic. When listening to the SoundDock, you get a sense that the vocalist is part of the band, but with Amplifi, the vocalist tends to sound like he’s standing in front of the stage. Combined with a somewhat rougher edge in the system’s treble, this factor is the only reason we’d call Amplifi a little short of the SoundDock on overall audio smoothness when the systems are placed right next to each other.
It’s worth a brief note that neither Griffin’s nor Bose’s system permits user bass or treble adjustment, a feature we tend to prefer in audio systems. But as we’ve said many times before, a good default sound signature goes a long way towards eliminating this need, and most listeners will like the way both of these systems sound right out of the box. Also, each one can reach screaming levels of volume without abrasive distortion, so if you’re looking to fill a room, either of these speakers will do the trick.
So if Amplifi is a hint under the SoundDock in overall sound and looks, how does it rate a higher recommendation? There are $149 worth of reasons to prefer Amplifi, and only two reasons to prefer SoundDock. Ideally, Amplifi would have a more gender-neutral design, at least limited user sound calibration, and a few extra ports on its rear, but as it is, this is a superb value for the dollar, particularly if you like a bit of extra bass in your music. While we still think Altec Lansing’s iM7 is a spectacular all-in-one audio system with comparable assets, you’ll have to shop pretty hard to find it priced close to Griffin’s MSRP. For these reasons, we applaud Amplifi’s aggressive pricing and quality sound, and consider it to be worthy of our high recommendation.