Review: Klipsch iFi Speaker System
Pros: High-quality 2.1 channel speaker system dedicated to iPod use by virtue of its included charging dock and RF remote control. More powerful than any iPod-specific speaker system we’ve seen, with outstanding bass and low distortion-to-volume ratio.
Cons: Weight, size, and price tag are bigger than any other iPod speaker system to date; digitally incremented low-level adjustments of both volume and bass aren’t as fine-tunable as in competing 2.1 systems; remote control is awkwardly designed and may have other issues; design cues are questionably appropriate given the look of today’s iPods.
Two weeks ago, we received a pre-production version of Klipsch’s iFi Speaker System ($399.99) for the iPod, and published an extended First Looks feature discussing the unit’s basics. Late last week, we received and commenced testing on one of Klipsch’s first final production units, and today we offer this review of the actual hardware that will soon be arriving in a store near you.
Big News, Big Speakers
As you’re probably already aware, the iFi - a play on “hi-fi” or high-fidelity sound - represents a couple of firsts for the iPod accessories market: it’s the first iPod-specific speaker system to break the US$300 price point established last year by Bose’s SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+), and it’s unquestionably the largest, heaviest set of speakers ever to be designed around Apple’s portable music player. The iFis ship in a box that weighs about 50 pounds, with the 43 pound iFi components themselves roughly ten times the weight of the SoundDock. It’s enough that some people - in our experience, including FedEx drivers - will flinch at trying to carry it themselves.
At the time of its release, we noted that the SoundDock fit into the category of quasi-portable speakers - ones that are small enough to carry around, but practically are likely to remain in one place. By contrast, iFi is more than firmly in the non-portable category, like JBL’s Creatures (iLounge rating: A), Encounters (iLounge rating: A-), and SoundSticks (iLounge rating: A-), as well as Klipsch’s affordable GMX-A 2.1 speaker system and Altec’s FX6021 systems we looked at in our first 2005 Buyers’ Guide. Once you put iFi down somewhere, you won’t want to move it often, if at all.
But the difference in portability doesn’t preclude direct comparisons between the iFi and SoundDock - to the contrary, Klipsch invited them by knocking Bose’s price to performance ratio, and promising since late last year that it would deliver something substantially better. Now that Klipsch is asking people to spend $100 more than the iPod’s most expensive prior speaker system, audio enthusiasts are expecting an answer to one question: does iFi deliver the best iPod-dedicated audio experience yet? We’ll answer that question below.
Given its pricing, the iFi system wisely straddles the fence between an iPod-specific speaker system and a more general-purpose multimedia system. Silver in color and featuring four primary components, it is the first dockable iPod speaker system to include a separate subwoofer, and the first not to match the white bodies of Apple’s full-sized iPods. Why go silver? Amongst other companies, Klipsch believes that this color will go better with upcoming iPods, which many people expect will look more like 2004’s aluminum-bodied iPod mini than the glossy white iPods pioneered in 2001. Today, that’s only a potential issue for the 10+ million people who own iPods other than the silver mini.
Somewhat regrettably, Klipsch didn’t engineer completely new speakers to compliment the iPod: instead, it opted to use existing components from the lower-end of its reference (read: low-distortion) series of products. Thankfully, the company chose pretty well. iFi includes an eight-inch subwoofer that Klipsch describes in serious tones as a “woofer” because of its deep bass resonance. Unlike the SoundDock, this subwoofer includes an audio line-in port that can be connected via cable to your computer or another stereo audio source. Both audio sources can be connected at once, so iPod music can be playing in the background while you’re using a computer - a nice feature for those whose iTunes libraries aren’t handy.
The iFi system also includes two RSX-3 satellites that are larger and more impressive than the parts in the JBL’s Creatures and Encounters. Each RSX-3 includes its own .75” compression driver for reproduction of high (treble) and high-mid notes, plus a 3.5” driver for mids and lows (bass), an unusually balanced design for a satellite. As such, the subwoofer enhances the satellites’ lows and expands their range with true rumbling sub-sonics, a fact that’s especially noticeable when the volume’s turned up. Because of the unit’s three-piece design and included cabling, you have the freedom to create as much stereo separation between the satellites and subwoofer as you desire - something missing from the SoundDock.
On the aesthetic side, each satellite includes a magnetically detachable plastic and fabric grille guard that can be used or left off as you prefer. The speakers look at least as good without them, but we’ve tended to keep ours on - they add a touch of class to the techie look of the unmasked RSX-3s. Connection of the cables is effortlessly easy because of good quality cabling and speaker terminal design, while the firing angle of each speaker can also be adjusted via a screw on its base.
The iFi’s last major piece is called the Control Dock, an iPod holder that’s made from matching metallic gray plastic and includes five sizers to fit varying sizes of iPods and iPod minis. (Early 1G/2G iPods and iPod shuffles can’t be docked, but can connect via the audio port on the subwoofer’s rear.) Shaped somewhat like a flattened egg, the Control Dock includes two buttons that flank a subtle dial: there’s a “subwoofer” button, a “mute/standby” button, and a panel of orange LED lights.
Press the subwoofer button and the dial allows you to adjust the strength of the subwoofer’s rumble, as indicated by lights on the LED panel. A second press (or never hitting it in the first place) turns the dial into a volume knob, with levels similarly indicated on the panel. The mute/standby button quiets the system (but doesn’t pause iPod play) with one press, indicating mute mode with a flashing of the LED panel, and turns everything off when held down.
Most notably missing from an audio standpoint is a treble control, a feature we’d noted to Klipsch some months ago that we loved in JBL’s systems, but aren’t surprised to see that they omitted. Designers of high-end audio systems often prefer to guarantee accurate reproduction of original sound rather than allowing users to control and distort output, but we (and many readers) enjoy the feature when it’s included.
Unfortunately, in a more significant design limitation paralleling the SoundDock, iFi’s dock doesn’t synchronize your iPod with your computer - a greater omission in the case of the iFi because of the ease with which its three detachable components can integrate with and sit next to a desktop machine. Consequently, you dock your iPod in iFi for music and charging, but not for computer syncing - a limitation we wish Klipsch had been engineered around.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the Control Dock’s digital volume and bass controls are respectable, but surprisingly not the equal in adjustability of Klipsch’s less expensive GMX-A 2.1 system. It’s harder to tune iFi’s volume precisely at low listening levels than it is with the GMX-A and other speakers that use analog volume knobs, a function of what we believe to be a bias in the system’s design towards higher-decibel listening. Similarly, it’s virtually impossible to turn iFi’s digital bass control to an overpowering level of thump at low volumes, a decision we suspect was made in the name of accuracy, but consequently gives bassheads a reason to prefer several of the cheaper offerings we’ve reviewed.
iFi’s fifth most important part is a metallic gray plastic remote control. Oval in shape, the remote features five rubber buttons, organized vertically. Plus and minus buttons control the speakers’ volume, track up and down (rather than right and left) buttons control the iPod’s current track, and play/pause turns both the system and iPod on and off. That’s one less button than Bose’s SoundDock remote control, which unnecessarily offers separate power controls for the speakers and iPod. On iFi, an extra button to turn off the whole system would have been a smarter idea, given that only the iFi can be connected to two audio sources at once.
There are three interesting things about the remote control: first and most positive, it’s RF-based rather than Infrared, an improvement on Bose’s offering that Klipsch claims works from a distance of 100 feet (not including the impact of going through walls), and doesn’t require a line-of-sight view of the iFi’s dock. Our testing yielded solid results regardless of whether objects were in the remote’s way; we even tested from a distance of two rooms away (25+ feet) and through three walls, and found that only at the furthest distance through all of the walls were commands occasionally not received. That’s quite good.
Second and less positive, the remote’s orientation of track forward and backward buttons upwards and downwards is a little unusual - left and right would have made more sense. Because of the design, we were occasionally confused by the order of the buttons when we grabbed the remote without looking at it.
Third and least positive, we’ve now tested a total of three remotes with mixed results. Our first remote didn’t work at all, an issue Klipsch attributed to the pre-final production status of the early unit, but a second remote we received worked perfectly, and the one in the final production unit box also worked without a problem. We’re generally comfortable with what we’ve seen recently, but we’ll have to wait for more user reports to feel 100% certain that the remotes are fine.
At the beginning of this review, we noted that audio enthusiasts want the answer to one question: does iFi deliver the best iPod-dedicated audio experience yet? The answer is a qualified yes, and the reasons for our qualification are as important as the reasons we say yes.
Last year, we noted that Bose’s SoundDock was an somewhat attractive offering because it required no tuning to create sound that 75-85 of 100 people would enjoy, even though a properly adjusted set of JBL Creatures at one-third (or less) the price sound even better. We also noted the general impact of the law of diminishing returns - that spending more money on audio equipment past a certain point generally yields fewer and fewer real benefits, ones that only audiophiles obsess over - and the fact that the SoundDock broke this rule by offering lower overall quality for the dollar than cheaper iPod-matching speakers.
iFi is a somewhat, but not entirely different animal. First, there’s no question that it legitimately sounds better than the SoundDock, offering a considerably larger apparent soundstage - even with iFi’s speakers at a distance similar to SoundDock’s - and more substantial bass that can be felt, not just heard. The latter point deserves additional emphasis: from across the room, at only a moderate volume level, iFi can still be perceived by the sense of touch alone. It’s an impressive feeling - and one Bose isn’t capable of delivering.
That’s not all. You can hear a bit more detail in iFi’s audio, and there’s less distortion at high volumes. Overall, as far as sound is concerned, iFi is bigger, badder, and louder than the SoundDock. And for $400, it damned well should be.
But then if you compare iFi with other 2.1 systems - such as Klipsch’s own GMX-A 2.1 ($149.95), which features large satellite and subwoofer components that are similar to but not as refined as those in iFi - the picture becomes a little clearer. GMX-A 2.1 comes with a cable that can connect to Apple’s official iPod Dock or its competitors; apart from appearence and the GMX-A’s lack of a remote control, the two systems are - not surprisingly - comparable.
It’s true that the GMX-A’s subwoofer can be driven into bass distortion and muddiness at low volumes, whereas the iFi’s bass is both more detailed and much harder to distort or over-exaggerate. While iFi renders every drum beat as a heavy bump only at the tail end of sticks striking calfskin; the GMX-A at peak bass lets you hear only the bump, with emphasis on the surrounding rumble. Under some circumstances, iFi even eclipses GMX-A in sound detail, and renders instruments more realistically as discrete components on a stage.
But these are differences the average person is unlikely to hear, or even appreciate, particularly at low to average “nearby” listening levels; in fact, they only become considerably more pronounced as you push the two systems harder. To some ears, the differences will even be mitigated by the GMX-A’s greater bass adjustability at lower volumes, especially since a substantial number of people like “too much” bass, and aren’t looking for “accurate” audio. Even if not, however, the GMX-A’s bass level can be tuned down to a level comparable with the iFi’s, and competing 2.1 systems from JBL, for instance, also permit full treble adjustment as well.
Given its price and substantial size, it shouldn’t be a surprise that iFi is being marketed as “the audiophile iPod speaker system,” a brilliant marketing move - one that appeals to the proven sense of inadequacy people have about audio equipment, and suggests the endorsement of people more knowledgeable. Plenty of people have purchased SoundDocks without seriously exploring other alternatives because of the Bose name, its simplicity, and the fact that it was the most expensive iPod-specific option available - thus probably the “best,” in laymans’ minds. No matter that less expensive options actually sounded better and offered greater adjustability.
Klipsch is relying on similar strengths - and legitimately superior sound than the SoundDock - to sell the iFi. Yes, in a battle between those specific products on audio quality, there’s no question that the iFi wins, and easily. But the SoundDock isn’t the only other option out there, and average people may well be fully sated by less expensive 2.1 channel offerings - especially given the significant price difference between them and the iFi.
The other issue is practicality. Measured by the standards of typical iPod users, iFi is a huge, heavy speaker system, doesn’t match the looks of currently shipping iPods (save for one color of iPod mini), and costs more than all but the highest end iPod photo. Viewed from another perspective, however, it’s probably not substantial enough for true audiophiles, who would be far less inclined to drop $400 on any iPod-specific speaker solution than pour it into a larger, more expensive, and more complete audio system that the iPod just incidentally integrates into. iFi sits someplace in between the low-end needs of mainstream consumers and high-end needs of serious listeners.
If sound quality and volume were the only factors we considered in a review, iFi would be an A-caliber product. Our grade of B+ should not obscure this point: if you can afford iFi, like the design, and have a legitimate need for its high-end sound, you won’t find a better-sounding dockable speaker solution for the iPod today. Like the SoundDock, it offers a combined docking, remote control, and audio solution that works very well while removing the buyer’s need to choose components from different manufacturers.
But at the same time, iFi’s size, price, and low-level volume and sound tuning limitations dampen its appeal, and there are less expensive options - even including the SoundDock - that people will find equally or better suited for their needs. iFi is not the system we were expecting from Klipsch, and though it delivers impressive audio, it does so with pricing and bulk that JBL and others hadn’t even contemplated - or needed to contemplate, based on the quality and popularity of their existing products. Given Klipsch’s considerable audio talents and demonstrated ability to produce great multimedia products at different price levels, we sincerely hope that the company will work on additional iPod options for more mainstream buyers, and look forward to seeing whatever they may be.