Review: Monitor Audio i-deck plus
Pros: The evolution of Monitor’s earlier, highly recommendable i-deck, now with a Universal iPod Dock, integrated AM/FM RDS radio tuner and screen, and more button-laden remote control. Preserves strong audio quality of prior model, which is most impressive in highs and mids, tight in bass, and offers user-positionable speakers.
Cons: Still lacks bass controls and low-end rumble of comparably-priced and less-expensive systems. Price premium is significant given modest feature additions; prior model is a much better value for the lower price. Remote control has devolved from RF technology to IR, losing distance and any-angle control features in the process, and becoming very line-of-sight sensitive. AM radio tuning is spotty.
After months of non-stop deliveries of iPod speaker systems, we now fully believe what we first began to suspect earlier this year: there are too many way-too-similar options out there, and it’s not going to get better any time soon. True standouts are few and far between, which is the reason we’ve decided to focus most of our attention on breakthrough products - ones that offer especially great design, features, and/or audio performance for their price points. Today, we’re doing reviews of two new big-brand premium speakers - Monitor Audio’s three-piece system i-deck plus ($329) and Tivoli Audio’s all-in-one iYiYi ($300), which might have been blockbusters a year ago, but now sit closer to the middle of the pack.
Normally, we wouldn’t clump i-deck plus and iYiYi into the same review category, since they’re physically somewhat different: i-deck plus is almost identical to the earlier, less expensive i-deck (iLounge rating: A-), including the same large, user-separatable left and right speakers, while iYiYi places its audio drivers inside of a single, big housing. But that aside, the two new systems share almost all of the same features in common: both units use Apple’s Universal Dock standard and include adapters for use with older iPods, both include Infrared remote controls with iPod menu navigation features, and both include digital AM/FM radio tuners with support for RDS text displays. If a local station broadcasts advertisements, song or program details in text format over the airwaves, i-deck plus and iYiYi will both display that text on their integrated LCD screens - in 8-letter chunks - a feature that we can’t say is especially useful, but is interesting to watch on occasion.
The two systems also share another trait in common: price-, feature-, and performance-wise, they’re both rivals to Logitech’s recently-released and excellent 4.25” by 16” by 7.25” AudioStation (iLounge rating: A), an all-in-one system that’s noticeably wider but otherwise smaller than the 7.36” x 11.88” x 8.66” iYiYi but shorter, narrower and shallower than the 7.48” by 17.48” by 7.87” i-deck plus. And, to be blunt, the $300 AudioStation beats both of the new systems in almost all key dimensions of performance - the primary reason that we’re not going into exhaustive detail on each new model.
Our comments on i-deck plus are considerably shorter than those on iYiYi for one major reason: much of what’s here, we saw six months ago in the original i-deck, which we really liked except for omissions relative to bass. Monitor Audio’s original design included neither a subwoofer nor any sort of bass controls, and though we very much liked the unit’s default sound signature - a very balanced, tight package with detailed high-, mid- and low-end sound - there was no escaping the unit’s lack of rumble or thump relative to offerings such as Altec Lansing’s iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) or Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi (iLounge rating: B). For its $250 asking price, though, it could satisfy virtually anyone save a basshead with its performance at any volume level, and its included RF remote control worked well - the reasons for our high recommendation.
In sum, i-deck plus is an i-deck plus some features, minus one, and plus a fairly hefty $79 premium - a bit too much, we think, given what’s changed. To quickly summarize the highlights of the i-deck design, which you can see greater detail here, the good points are these: Monitor has preserved the user-separatable speakers from i-deck, which we felt were amongst the best available in a component iPod sound system at a $250 price. It has also kept the angular styling of the unit, which looks striking in black, and also comes in a gray version. Composite- and S-Video output ports have been added to the rear, and its rear-mounted power switch has been removed, as well. Most notably, Monitor has added an AM/FM radio tuner with a blue-backlit LCD screen, plus the Universal iPod Dock, both generally positives.
We say “generally” for two reasons: first, the new dock is largely an improvement over its predecessor, with the ability to work with any Dock Connector iPod right out of the box, including second-generation iPod nanos. However, like most but not all black iPod speakers with a Universal Dock, i-deck includes white rather than black Dock Adapters, which look a little mismatched against the otherwise clean body design.
Second, the performance of the AM/FM radio tuner was mixed in our testing. On one of several positive notes, Monitor - like Tivoli and Logitech - has included RDS decoding capability for the FM radio, and uses the integrated blue LCD to display station-provided text whenever a station includes the text in its signal. The RDS decoding is quick, and can be called up manually if you want, resulting in only a split-second interruption of the audio signal. And the FM radio tuning is pretty good - it tunes stations roughly as well as the impressive AudioStation, with relatively low static levels when its integrated but user-positionable FM antenna is placed in the right spot. Six included preset station buttons on the unit’s front are easy to access - easier than AudioStation’s preset system - and also can be selected using the included remote control.
On the flip side, the unit’s AM radio isn’t great by comparison with AudioStation or iYiYi, both of which have made special efforts to include high-quality AM antennas. i-deck plus struggled to tune AM stations that the others could bring in fairly easily, and also exhibited a bit of weirdness: when first turned on, it tuned on the 9’s (say, 809AM) rather than 0’s (810AM), but normalized after it cycled once through the entire AM dial. Additionally, though it does have the aforementioned RDS support, its screen isn’t quite as nice as either of these rivals, and shows station-provided text only in steady blocks of 8 letters; both alternatives do a better job of displaying RDS text, if this feature even matters to you at all.
Additionally, i-deck plus has lost its predecessor’s great RF remote control technology in favor of Infrared, which has two obvious consequences - distance performance and the new requirement that you use line-of-sight pointing and clicking to control the integrated iPod dock. We found that the new remote was very line-of-sight sensitive, and didn’t work at all unless we pointed straight at the integrated sensor, which is found to the right of the screen - this was so-so by the standards of IR removes we’ve tested, a sharp contrast with the 50-foot distances we achieved with the original i-deck’s RF remote. To compensate somewhat for the switch in technologies, Monitor has added new buttons - iPod menu navigation, RDS display (“inf”), mode (AM/FM/auxiliary/iPod) and preset toggles - which vary in utility, but do provide access to all of the system’s features.
Overall, at its new price of $329, it’s our feeling that i-deck plus isn’t quite as great of an offering for the dollar as its lower-priced predecessor - you still don’t get the bass benefits offered by other systems at or below its price level, and you now lose the advanced RF remote control functionality of i-deck in favor of a less usable Infrared alternative. While its new FM radio features are generally positive, we weren’t impressed by the AM radio and felt that the premium over the prior model was a bit too steep given the net changes to the package. If you like i-deck plus’s physical design and can find it at a reasonable discount, consider it a viable option - our view is that the prior model is a substantially better value.