Review: Kicker Amphitheater
Last week, we covered a large collection of Bluetooth wireless speakers that spanned a wide range of different sizes and features. Today, we're continuing our speaker roundup with looks at three speakers with 30-pin Dock Connectors, a standard Apple is currently in the process of phasing out -- and a fact that each company has addressed in a different way. The speakers are JBL's OnBeat Venue ($199), Kicker's Amphitheater ($300), and XtremeMac's Tango TT ($150).
Kicker’s Amphitheater is easy to love but tough to rate. Back in 2008, we were genuinely surprised by Kicker’s iK500, a huge, plasticky iPod speaker system that looked like something Darth Vader might have kept in a TIE Fighter to blast out tunes—19.2” wide by 8.5” tall by 8.4” deep, it was imposingly large, built with five speakers, and incredibly powerful sonically, though somewhat cheap-looking. Also known as iK5, Amphitheater effectively repackages iK500 in a different package, remaining physically huge while lowering its price to a more mainstream level. This time, rather than recessing the central 30-pin Dock Connector within a restrictive and iPod-only nook, Kicker places it front and center as part of a glossy plastic stripe that divides large perforated metal speaker chambers. As the Dock Connector is flush with the plastic, it works with unencased iPads, iPhones, and iPods, but won’t make an electronic connection to most encased devices.
Now measuring 19” wide by 9.25” deep by 9” tall at its largest points, Amphitheater is still armed with iK500’s 5” mid-bass speakers, 3/4” tweeters, and a 6” rear-firing square subwoofer, but packs 50 watts of total amplification, up from 40 in the prior model. Beyond its increased size, the body also looks completely different. While still dwarfing similarly-priced all-in-ones such as Bose’s SoundDock, Amphitheater sports much cleaner lines and a more handsome balance of textures than its predecessor. Four buttons are found on the top—aux and mute buttons on the left, volume down and up on the right—while the back continues to fully expose the subwoofer, recessing a less than ideally located power switch next to a reset button, power port, aux in port, and USB port. Notably, the USB port is solely for device charging, and does not enable Lightning devices to connect for audio input purposes—a feature we’ve seen in some speakers as a hedge against Apple’s changing standards, and one that would have been wise here.
Amphitheater’s pitch is basically the same as the iK500’s—big sound in a big package—but with iPhone/iPad compatibility and nicer looks on its side. It largely succeeds in accomplishing these goals. Even when a full-sized tablet is placed on its dock, the system’s powerful audio isn’t impeded, thanks to wise placement of the tweeters off to the top edges of the curved face. Just as was the case before, Amphitheater is capable of reaching very loud, medium-sized room-filling volumes without exhibiting distortion in its audio, but it also performs very well at “regular” near-field listening levels, with treble and mid-treble response falling off only at very low volumes. At all volume levels, the unit’s strength is in its detailed midrange, mid-bass and bass performance, which is better than warm: it feels tight, rather than bloated, and generally lets you enjoy treble and mid-treble detail without giving up anything on the low end.
Kicker also goes further than most rivals in letting you tune the system’s sound signature. It has replaced the iK500’s integrated bass/treble-adjustment screen with an app-assisted eight-band equalizer that can be accessed from a docked iOS device, using your choice of sliders or presets to tweak the sound. Notably, the in-app changes are not applied in realtime; Amphitheater effectively downloads the setting you choose on the screen, unfortunately preventing you from hearing most of the changes as they’re happening. However, Kicker’s much-improved included Infrared remote control provides basic bass and treble changing buttons, and the app sort of allows you to play with spatialization, using a slider to move from “tight” to “wide.” This largely appears to be a treble boost and echo-enhancing effect, but it does make the sound pop more, and unlike the regular EQ tricks can be heard almost instantly as you’re making adjustments.
The single biggest knock against Amphitheater is the timing of its release: it’s still not available in stores as of today, and two out of the three device families it’s designed to be compatible with have already transitioned away from the Dock Connector it relies upon for audio, with iPads set to follow suit soon. Without wireless functionality, and with a rear USB port that’s solely for charging, it’s not going to be useful for future iPods, iPhones, and iPads unless you’re willing to separately purchase and somewhat awkwardly attach a Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter to it. That said, it does work with certain current prior-generation Apple devices—the iPod classic, fourth-generation iPod touch, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad 2, and third-generation iPad—plus many older devices, and it delivers a very good listening experience for all of them, which is why it merits our B+ rating. You can decide for yourself whether to invest $300 in Amphitheater; our gut feeling is that owners of older, legacy devices may consider it, particularly if there’s a price drop, while iPhone 5, new iPod touch, and new iPod nano users will hold off in favor of a Lightning- or wireless-based sequel.