Review: Logitech AudioStation High-Performance Stereo System for iPod
Pros: A best-of-class all-in-one docking speaker system for the iPod, featuring a recessed Universal iPod Dock with matching adapters, good Infrared remote control, AM/FM radio tuning, and auxiliary input and output ports. Integrated LCD screen provides a clock, radio text displays, and access to numerous user-adjustable settings, including treble, bass, and screen brightness. Truly great sound at any volume, tuned to the user’s preference.
Cons: Staid design. Only available in black. Slight performance oddities in AM radio, remote, and touch controls under some circumstances.
There are two known facts about all-in-one iPod speakers. First, there are better options out there than Bose’s well-known SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+). Second, and despite that fact, the SoundDock remains the most popular such speaker by a wide margin. With the release of Logitech’s new AudioStation High-Performance Stereo System for iPod ($300), we think that’s about to change.
Unlike the numerous SoundDock wannabes that have emerged over the past two years, the AudioStation is a class-leading option in virtually every way: it dusts the SoundDock - and equals or betters other top-ranked options in its price range - on sound quality, adds features such as a clock and FM/AM radio, and offers fully user-adjustable sound. Consequently, after years of testing pretty good alternatives, AudioStation has emerged as the first all-in-one desktop iPod speaker to merit our flat A-level high recommendation.
Design and Pack-Ins
Painful as it may be to fans of high design, the modern, tube-like styling of Altec Lansing’s spectacular inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) has proved a sticking point with some potential users, leading everyone from Altec to Logitech to subsequently design more conservative, boxy iPod speaker systems instead. The AudioStation is a prime example, blending the simple, slate-like sensibilities of the SoundDock with some meatier, audiophile inspirations from Apple’s more expensive iPod Hi-Fi (iLounge rating: B): the unit is almost entirely black, with two removable fabric speaker grilles alongside an inset iPod dock, which sits atop a digital clock and a panel of seven touch-sensitive buttons. Removing the grilles yields four silver-rimmed speaker drivers - two sets of 1” tweeters and 4” woofers - which compare both visually and audibly to the three drivers in the more expensive iPod Hi-Fi. At roughly 16.25” by 7.5” by 4.75”, AudioStation isn’t the largest all-in-one we’ve seen, but it’s bigger than the SoundDock.
While AudioStation won’t win any beauty contests, its staid design delivers many functional attributes many people have wanted, such as a single enclosure without an iPod dock protruding from its front (SoundDock), sticking out of its top (iPod Hi-Fi), or using a proprietary hinge system (iM7). Instead, Logitech uses Apple’s Universal Dock standard and includes 8 matching black Dock Adapters, which look and fit great; newer iPods such as the aluminum iPod nano come with white Adapters that will fit but not color-match the AudioStation. The company also includes a large floor power cube and detachable FM and AM antennas. Though there’s an AM antenna already inside the unit, you’ll probably find that you’ll need to disconnect the wires and attach the external one instead.
Logitech’s styling is very similar to the SoundDock’s from the rear, except for the antenna inputs and three added ports: composite video and S-Video out, plus an auxiliary input for use with non-Docking iPods and other devices. Thanks to this design, and unlike the SoundDock, AudioStation can output your iPod’s video to a television set while the speakers are working, or allow you to connect a computer to the system to share the speakers with your iPod and the radios. The only thing missing is a computer synchronization port; AudioStation does not serve as a syncing iPod dock, though it does charge any docked iPod while in use.
The final piece in the package is a large, AAA battery-powered Infrared remote control. Seventeen buttons provide access to multiple audio sources, full iPod and speaker controls, muting, sleep, and power on/off, a spacializer, and numerous menu options that are accessed through AudioStation’s integrated LCD screen. In our testing, the remote control’s performance ranged from impressive to odd by Infrared standards - under some circumstances it could communicate from a full distance of 30 feet away with the base, while at other times, it struggled at greater than 7-foot distances, with light interference not an apparent factor. Line-of-sight was key to its performance, even at close distances, but by Infrared standards, it generally worked well.
LCD Screen and Touch Controls
Most unique to the AudioStation’s front is its inclusion of a LCD screen that serves multiple purposes: whether the unit is on or off, there’s a nice, easily readable clock in its center, capable of being set to 12- or 24-hour time at your preference. This clock - and all of AudioStation’s on-screen text - is light writing on a black background rather than the brighter black writing on light background favored to some users’ chagrin by companies such as iHome. Amazingly, Logitech lets you set separate brightness levels for the display when the unit is powered on and off, so that the clock and menu options are never too distracting.
The screen enables you to shift through a variety of different options. Using the remote or the unit’s built-in capacitive control panel, you can change from iPod playback to FM1 and FM2 - your choice of single radio stations - then AM, then auxiliary input. On supported stations, RDS text displays will appear on the screen, allowing you to see details about the currently playing music, or with increased frequency, advertising. AudioStation displays enough text at once that this feature actually looks good - better than in many car and portable RDS-ready FM tuners we’ve seen.
And there are also settings menus: besides the unit’s own brightness, there’s a setting to let you pick whether the iPod’s own screen is always on, briefly on, or always off during playback, as well as user-selectable volume, bass, and treble controls for the speakers. Finally, there’s a very simple graphic visualizer that can be turned on during any type of audio playback - it’s cheesy and stuttery enough to be nearly worthless, but it’s there.
As with the remote control, Logitech’s touch-sensitive front panel generally works well. When the power’s on, white lights glow behind the seven buttons; when it’s off, the power icon is dimly illuminated - all very nicely done. The buttons aren’t always as sensitive as one would hope, doing better with multiple presses than when they’re held down, but the inclusion of this panel is on the whole a very cool touch for the design.
Sound Quality and Radio Performance
In two words, we’d call AudioStation’s sound design “best of” - it takes virtually all of the best features from all of the top speakers we’ve seen, and places them in a single enclosure. Let’s say you liked the iPod Hi-Fi’s warm sound and powerful top volume, but wanted a speaker that also sounds great at lower volumes, like JBL’s Radial (iLounge rating: B+) or Altec Lansing’s iM7. Or, viewed from another angle, let’s say you really don’t like the sound balance of any speaker you’ve heard, and really want to tweak bass or treble to your desired levels. Simply put, AudioStation provides all of these options, and more.
There’s one thing we have to note up front. We could spend a lot of time going through AudioStation’s performance relative to the Bose SoundDock, but it suffices to say this: the SoundDock isn’t in the same league. Several other comparable systems have matched or exceeded its performance, so we don’t use it as a benchmark for anything but one factor - default out-of-box sound. At the same average volume level as the SoundDock, without any tweaks to its default equalization, AudioStation produces cleaner, bigger sound, similar to what Altec delivered in the impressive iM7. At higher volume levels, where the SoundDock and iM7 distort significantly - levels even JBL’s Radial can’t reach - Logitech’s speaker sounds great. It’s loud enough to fill a cavernous two-story room with music, more than enough for most applications.
We also put AudioStation up against the heaviest all-in-one speaker hitters out there to see where it would fail, but frankly, it didn’t. Just as with its lower-end travel speaker mm50 (iLounge rating: A-), Logitech has tuned the AudioStation to deliver default sound that just about anyone will like, but here, you have significantly more power - enough to come within an inch of the more expensive iPod Hi-Fi at its screaming peak, without distortion. Even Altec’s iM7 can’t claim to do this, and yet AudioStation produces very little amplifier hiss, considerably less than the iPod Hi-Fi at above-average volumes. AudioStation also produces tight, clean bass that can be set to rumble even lower than the iPod Hi-Fi, and treble that’s missing from the Hi-Fi even when set on Treble Boost.
The biggest benefit of AudioStation’s bass and treble settings is that they effectively allow you to create the type of sound you like - warm and rich, clean and precise, or something in-between - but here, with good speakers to back up the equalization. We noticed a little distortion when the treble was cranked way up - a very common phenomenon - but surprisingly little when the bass levels went up, which was excellent. This feature was the single biggest omission of Monitor Audio’s otherwise excellent i-deck (iLounge rating: A-), and contributes significantly to making AudioStation a superior offering overall.
There are only two things that some users might take issue with in AudioStation, but we consider them relatively small issues given the quality of the overall package. First is a simple limitation of the all-in-one chassis: there are most certainly multi-component speaker systems with large, dedicated subwoofers that can produce even lower, earth-rattling bass. Given the overall size, price, features, and power of this system, we can’t possibly criticize it in this regard; you’d need to radically change its dimensions and pricing to improve its performance further.
Second is the radio performance. The good news here is that unit and external antenna positioning can both help you to improve the sound of both FM and AM reception on AudioStation, and that when they’re good, they’re very listenable, particularly in the FM spectrum. Logitech even includes a 5-bar signal meter (with S for stereo) to let you know how strong a station is coming in. Unfortunately, neither the AM or FM band is entirely static-free, and the AM reception could really use a bit of additional work. With the external antenna attached, we found that the AM reception was affected by factors such as having an iPod docked, and our favorite local stations weren’t quite as clear as they sounded on Tivoli’s super radio iPAL (iLounge rating: B+), even when they were showing up as 5-bar strong. As good as it is, we’d like to see the radio get even better in iterative updates to this product.
Pricing and Conclusions
At the time Bose’s SoundDock came out, we were somewhat put off by its simple styling and high price relative to its audio performance. Though it has taken some time to appear, AudioStation delivers so much more in all regards that even the most jaded listener would have to concede that it’s an all-star offering - equally capable of powerful, deep sound and quieter, more nuanced audio, with full user adjustability, quality radio tuning, and a nicely implemented clock in the center.
Of course, iPod users do have other all-in-one options - if you’ve considered the SoundDock, you can get a virtually equivalent experience for $100 less with Athena’s more recent iVoice, and if you want something with better sound and power than the SoundDock with more unique styling and a lower price, Altec’s iM7 is still a top alternative. But if you have $300 to spend and want a SoundDock-like system with more features and much better sound, AudioStation should be at or near the top of your list. By taking the best features from all of the top all-in-one speakers out there, and delivering them in a single chassis at a reasonable price, it fully merits our high recommendation.