Review: Monitor Audio i-deck iPod Music System
Company: Monitor Audio
Compatible: iPod 3G, 4G, 5G, mini, nano, shuffle*, 1G/2G*
Pros: A sophisticated component audio system for the iPod family, offering ten feet of user-positionable left and right speaker separation, and a central, resizable iPod dock with clean, powerful amplification. Superb sound quality for the dollar, with impressive detail across sound spectrum, beating out Apple’s more expensive iPod Hi-Fi at regular volumes. Includes great RF remote control and input ports for auxiliary audio and computer synchronization. Available in black or silver/gray versions.
Cons: Though detailed, bass reproduction falls short of lowest levels and sub-sonic thump offered by similar and less expensive speakers. No optical audio input.
Though Monitor Audio has spent the last year focusing on European sales of its component iPod stereo system i-deck (spelled in all lower case and with the dash, rather than iDeck), the company has now officially released the accessory for U.S. consumers at a substantially more affordable price. Introduced at $250 - down from an originally expected U.S. price of $350 - it’s most certainly one of our top iPod speaker recommendations, and good enough that we wrestled with A and A- ratings before ultimately settling on the A-.
Given that it has three decades of expertise in stereo design, it’s not entirely surprising that Monitor’s premise with i-Deck is the rare one that actually sounds better in person than it looks on paper. An iPod dock with a quality amplifier inside is paired with two large but not heavy satellite speakers, each possessing one four-inch mid-range/bass driver, and one .55-inch tweeter for treble. Together, the four drivers are capable of impressively reproducing almost all of the perceivable audio spectrum, and because they’re housed in separate enclosures, you can position each in your choice of locations up to five feet away from the dock - ten feet total. For those keeping score, these features of i-deck’s design enable it to provide better sound staging and regular volume sound quality than Apple’s $100 more expensive iPod Hi-Fi system; and unlike iPod Hi-Fi, i-deck also comes in your choice of two color schemes: the original silver and gray version, which hasn’t struck us as especially iPod-appropriate in coloration, or an all black version, which we strongly preferred. Other colors have been tested, and may be released in the future.
Both versions of i-deck are packaged with multiple sizer plates for all iPods from 3G to 5G, mini, and nano, each of which has its respective iPod’s top poking only a little over the central dock’s top - a better-looking and more secure design, in our view, than the one used by iPod Hi-Fi. Additionally, the dock has several ports on the back: there’s an auxiliary input port and included cable for older iPods and shuffles, as well as a docking synchronization port for use with a PC or Mac, and an international power supply with four sets of popular wall blades.
Notably, Monitor Audio also includes a nice wireless controller in the package: a radio-based remote that the company doesn’t quantify with specific performance guarantees, yet actually worked from distances of over 50 feet from the central dock, even with a partial wall in-between them. Unlike Infrared-based remotes, Monitor’s lets you operate the stereo from a different room, or without pointing the remote directly at the dock, which makes i-deck one of the better-equipped iPod speakers we’ve tested in this regard.
Our feelings on i-deck’s sound quality are a little nuanced, but overall, extremely positive. As suggested before, i-deck bests Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi at regular volume levels, delivering cleaner, more dynamic sound, and lacking the midrange/low-end bias of Apple’s design. This isn’t an easy feat for any speaker, let alone one that’s much more affordable than Apple’s. We also found i-deck’s sound signature - fixed, in that there are no bass or treble controls on the unit - to be highly appealing, a nice balance of response and detail across highs, lows, and mids. Voices and instruments popped out from the background in a way they didn’t on less expensive speakers, and live performances actually sounded a bit more lifelike. In fact, all of our standard test tracks sounded great when played through i-deck, and though we matched it up against speaker after speaker, we couldn’t find one at or below its price range (at least, when the cost of an iPod dock, remote, and charger were factored in) that sounded definitively better across the board for typical listening.
That said, i-deck has its shortcomings. Lacking a subwoofer - which is a bit of a surprise given the size of its central dock - the system cannot compare on deep, sub-sonic bass growl with the best of the systems we’ve tested, even those at lower price levels. For the same price, systems such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 deliver more thump for the dollar, should you want it, and there was even an obvious difference favoring the competition when i-deck was put side-by-side with JBL’s $100 Creature II speakers (iLounge rating: A), which we still feel represent the best possible value for the dollar for average users. Additionally, though the system’s top volume level is unquestionably incredibly loud, and it does a respectable job at its peak, Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi holds up a little better when pushed to its limits; Apple’s design also includes an optical audio input for connection to premium non-iPod audio devices, which i-deck lacks. Though it’s a trivial omission, we mention it because i-deck is more worthy than Hi-Fi of actually exploiting such a connection.
These were pretty much the only issues that precluded i-deck from receiving our unqualified A rating - despite what we feel to be superb audio quality, a very nice design, and great remote control performance, one of iLounge’s editors correctly opined that the unit’s bass response in particular won’t be right for everyone. As-is, the low-end is quite audible, tight and accurate in a way that sophisticated listeners will find pleasing to the ear, but bass fanatics will certainly want more, and find it in comparably- or lower-priced options. If you consider yourself an audio snob, like i-deck’s styling, and prefer your bass clean rather than boomy, we’d strongly recommend this system over the all-in-one options in its price range; otherwise, for the dollar, we’d point you in the direction of several JBL component systems, such as the Encounters (iLounge rating: A-) or Soundstick IIs (iLounge rating: A-) on quality, or the aforementioned Creatures on price.