Hybrid Amp, Cube S Speakers
Company: Lars & Ivan / Grace Digital
Price: $450, $300-500
Compatible: iPod 4G, 5G, classic*, mini, nano*, touch
Lars & Ivan Hybrid Power Amp + BoBo, Cube S Speakers
As we have noted in many prior speaker reviews, the sheer number of highly similar iPod speakers released over the past several years has left users with bored, and with only several reasons to pick one product over another: pricing, sound quality, design, and special features are the major differentiators. Rather than releasing "yet another all-in-one iPod speaker," Lars & Ivan has instead opted to aim at the upper end of the iPod speaker market with component-based speaker and dock systems that can be mixed and matched based on your budget and the type of sound you prefer. The result is the iPod-docking Hybrid Power Amp PA-40Ti ($450), and two types of speakers called BoBo ($300/pair) and Cube S ($500/pair). We've opted to rate them separately because the parts aren't necessarily dependent on one another, and offer different levels of appeal.
Of the collection, Lars & Ivan’s Hybrid Power Amp is the part that will inspire the most debate. Measuring roughly 14” wide by 9” deep by 3.25” tall and weighing nearly 9 pounds, this dock is—like other tube-based amplifiers we’ve tested—a very large and not especially sexy combination of an iPod dock with an amplifier capable of outputting 40 Watts of sound to two satellite speakers and a subwoofer if you have one. By contrast with the sleek alien shapes of JBL’s and Harman’s iPod audio systems, Hybrid looks like a metallic toy spaceship from the front, which bears a four-device toggle knob, blue-ringed power button, and volume knob, along with a top that reveals twin vacuum tubes. Silver, white, and black versions are available. The back has RCA-style stereo inputs for three additional devices, and a RCA/composite video out port, as well as gold posts for speaker connection and an RCA-style port for the optional subwoofer. A plastic remote control is also included in the package, as is a USB cable.
Our favorite Lars & Ivan components were unquestionably the BoBo speakers, which are the clear and opaque plastic models shown here, possessing a look highly reminiscent of Celestion’s AVF302 glass speakers, yet designed as bookshelf- or tabletop-ready and therefore requiring much less space. Measuring roughly 10” tall by 7.25” wide by 7.75” deep, the BoBo speakers each contain a combination of a .75” tweeter and 4” midrange driver, and incline slightly on a flat surface with integrated aluminum stands. Thanks to excellent molding of their plastics, they’re visually indistinguishable from the AVF302s in materials, and both attractive and distinctive compared to most speakers out there. Their small, pressurized speaker wire holders are easy to connect, though not designed for use with banana post-style connectors, and our review set didn’t come with any cables.
Then there are Lars & Ivan’s Cube S speakers. Housed in piano-finished black or white 9” by 9” by 9” wooden rounded cube cabinets that stand on aluminum spikes, Cube S’s drivers are 5.25” bass speakers, with coaxial coupled high-frequency drivers. Some companies would use 5.25” drivers solely as low-reaching subwoofers; Lars & Ivan instead tucks them behind cool circular fabric grilles and has them do their best as full-frequency drivers. Like BoBo, our Cube S review units didn’t include their own wires; as with the Hybrid Power Amp, the posts are larger, traditional ones.
Putting aside sound concerns for a moment, Cube S has only one major physical design issue: its spiky feet are, in a word, destructive. They tore up the surface we use for shooting our photos, and left deep marks in any other semi-soft surface they touched. We didn’t feel safe placing them on glass or wood surfaces, and though they serve a purpose—namely elevating Cube over a surface where its resonant, polished cabinet might scuff or not perform properly—the mounting solution shouldn’t be anything sharp. Rubber feet, or larger, rubber legs, would have been a much smarter alternative. That having been said, the Cube S and BoBo speakers both look even nicer in person than in photos; here, eight-layer lacquering and nice metallic front styling has produced cube speakers that would look great in any modern home or office.
We approach expensive, tube-based amplifiers such as the Hybrid Power Amp with a certain—well, heavy—degree of skepticism, because you can got a truly great name brand 100 Watt, 5.1 channel, audio, video, and radio receiver these days for half or less this price. Lars & Ivan’s pitch is that Hybrid is worth the premium because of its vacuum tubes, which some audiophiles praise for producing “warmer” sound than all-digital amplifiers, as well as its larger than life industrial design, and features such as USB connectivity and video out. For this particular component, we can’t agree.
Though iPods are digital media players, they almost* invariably transform their digital content into analog output before you hear it through the headphone port on top or the Dock Connector port on bottom. The asterisk reflects one exception to this rule: some recent iPods now have the ability, when connected to as-yet-unreleased, premium docks, to transmit their audio as an “all digital” data stream to be decoded and played back exactly as originally intended. The Hybrid dock is not one of these docks; in fact, its video out port doesn’t work properly with the iPod models released last year, and due to its large size, chances are very good that you’re not going to use it as an iPod-to-computer dock, either. In other words, this is basically just an audio dock with an amplifier, albeit a large and heavy one.
From an audio standpoint, what Hybrid does to the raw sound of your iPod is to give it a treble, mid-bass, and bass boost that results in audio that—as is commonly the case with tube amplifiers—sounds a little warmer than a receiver without any equalizers turned on. It goes without saying that you can achieve the same effect with any good amplifier’s EQ settings, and actually, you can probably do a little better, as Hybrid’s single output setting is unadjustable. It does not magically transform boring music into great music, or radically enliven audio; rather, the “vacuum tube effect” is akin to some mid-bass and bass exaggeration, and Lars & Ivan appears to be offsetting them with a little boost in the highs to prevent the sound from being overbearingly focused on the low end. Like Apple’s $39-49 iPod Docks, but unlike some less impressively engineered third-party solutions, the audio output is generally very clean.
Hybrid’s remote control is alright. On positive notes, it’s laid out in a relatively straightforward way, offering track and iPod menu navigation features, as well as repeat and shuffle mode access, a mute button, and an input toggle button; all of these buttons, and the power button, work fine as long as Hybrid’s front power button is depressed. When the power’s off, the blue ring turns to purple to indicate standby mode, and the vacuum tubes power down. The remote works fine from 30-foot distances, assuming it’s unobstructed and on a line of sight from Hybrid’s face; Hybrid’s volume knob spins when the remote’s volume buttons are pressed, too.
Less positively, and unlike similarly premium-priced speakers such as the B&W Zeppelin, the design of this piece appears to be an afterthought; it’s as generic as the remotes included with $100 speakers we’ve tested, and cosmetically not befitting an amplifier as substantial or pricey as Hybrid. Given how nice and clean the Lars & Ivan speakers look, Hybrid doesn’t look like it’s a product of the same designer, and the remote doesn’t appear to have been given anywhere near the attention of the other components.
In our experience, creating an audiophile-grade stereo audio system from components requires that a number of parts be included and properly tuned to work with one another. Ideally, you’ll have at least one speaker driver per channel for each of treble, midrange, and bass, as well as a clean connection to your docked iPod, and an amplifier that can drive the speakers without hiss or distortion. We also strongly feel that at higher prices, iPod speaker systems should include some degree of user adjustability—one person’s ideal sound is not the same as another’s, and paying $300 or more for a package should either guarantee universally great sound without adjustment, or the ability to tweak the sound to each listener’s satisfaction.
Unfortunately, both of the Lars & Ivan configurations fall short of these standards, partially due to their lack of user-adjustability, and partially due to limitations of the company’s speaker drivers. When the Hybrid Amp is paired with the BoBo speakers, the result is audio that sounds nice in the highs and mids, but lacks in the lows; these speakers aren’t tuned to rumble. By contrast, when connected to the Cube S speakers, Hybrid delivers warm, rich sound, but noticeably lacks in the highs and in sparkle. As we’ve seen repeatedly in large driver speakers, it’s obvious that the big 5.25” drivers were built primarily for low-end performance and strain to try and reproduce treble detail; the coaxially-paired drivers are there to help, but don’t deliver enough on the high end. At a lower price, this speaker design might make sense, but for $500 a pair, we’d think twice.
We tested BoBo and Cube with a Sony receiver we keep around for reference purposes, and noticed that though BoBo sounded a little overaggressive and sharp in the treble department when we connected it to Hybrid, this wasn’t an issue with the Sony on default equalization settings; BoBo’s dedicated tweeters don’t really need a boost to sound good. With the Cube S speakers, however, which are naturally midrange- and bass-inclined, Hybrid’s default equalization generally improved their performance; the boost in Lars & Ivan’s Amp made a little more of the Cube’s limited treble capabilities. However, we noticed more strain in the upper and middle parts of the spectrum when Cube S was running at higher volume levels on Hybrid, most likely because the speakers were being pushed more in a way that they aren’t as well-equipped to handle.
There is, at least for BoBo, a way to fill in the missing part of the frequency curve. Hybrid’s subwoofer output port provides users with the ability to connect a third speaker to the array, which would bring the total number of drivers up to five, and let you hide the bass driver away while still enjoying the added thump and warmth it offers. It’s unclear whether Lars & Ivan will sell its own subwoofer in the future—a simple one is included with the company’s non-iPod multimedia speaker system QQ2.1—but such an addition to the family strikes us as necessary to fill out the range. Unfortunately, Cube S wouldn’t benefit as much from an added subwoofer, as its omissions are in the upper and middle parts of the spectrum.
As iPod users, it’s hard for us to get excited about the overall concept here: between the $450 Hybrid Power Amp and the $300 or $500 speakers, your investment in a Lars & Ivan iPod system will range from $750 to $950 before the costs of cables or a subwoofer are taken into account, and what you’ll wind up with is a two-channel system with uneven styling and an at least somewhat off-kilter sound signature. We can’t in good conscience recommend the purchase of a complete system to our readers at these prices, especially given that Hybrid doesn’t fully take advantage of the video or more advanced digital out audio features of current-generation iPods, and that the $500 Cube S speakers look nice but are pretty limited in performance relative to what iPod owners are accustomed to getting for the price.
That said, the BoBo speakers come very close to exciting us, as they combine great design and very good sound in a package that is reasonably priced for what they deliver—at least, by standalone speaker standards. Their only issue is that they aren’t an aggressive value by reference to similarly equipped iPod audio systems such as the Logitech AudioStation, which for the same price delivers everything from the iPod dock and equalizer-equipped amplifier to an AM/FM radio and nicer remote control. We would recommend the BoBo speakers to design-obsessed users who are willing to spend the extra cash to add an affordable amplified iPod dock, and possibly a subwoofer, to complete the package.