Review: Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0 Smart Speakers
Pros: A high-fidelity component stereo system with an integrated iPod dock, as well as the ability to connect and power an AirPort Express. Clean, functional design available in high-gloss white, black, or red colors. Extremely easy set up and great out-of-box sound that delivers superior overall audio performance to top $300 and $350 competitors, especially at high volumes.
Cons: Lack of bass and treble controls restricts sound signature to a company-set default, which while impressively balanced and detailed doesn’t fully replicate the low-end performance of competing alternatives. Certain functional oddities, such as rear-mounted power and volume controls, and a lack of optical audio input for AirPort Express, detract from otherwise nice design.
Ever since iPod speakers flooded the market, we’ve rarely found ourselves enthusiastic about new releases: most of the speakers out there are generic-looking, nothing special-sounding, and a little too expensive for their own good. So when we say that we really liked Sierra Sound’s iN Studio 5.0 Smart Speakers ($399), take that in the increasingly jaded context it comes from: it takes a lot for us to like speakers these days, and admittedly even more to love them.
The difference between us really liking—our B+ rating—and loving—an A- or A rating—can be summed up in three words: price, features, and design. Any speaker selling at the $400 price level needs to deliver major improvements over our top-ranked $300 speakers to merit an A-level rating, and though iN Studio 5.0 won us over with great out-of-box sound, and has several design and feature elements in its favor, it’s a hint shy of the high-water marks we’ve seen in less expensive competing products. Like Bose’s extremely popular but not universally impressive SoundDock, we’d recommend iN Studio 5.0 to people who value simplicity and neutrality over raw value for the dollar.
Sierra Sound’s concept is a, well, sound one. Rather than building yet another all-in-one-cabinet iPod speaker, the company has added an iPod Universal Dock and a 50-watt bi-amplifier to a pair of large, high-gloss, wood-cabineted speakers. Described by the company as possessing “studio monitoring quality,” the speakers each contain a 1” tweeter and a 5” woofer, with a tuned rear port for the woofer. Connecting the system is as simple as running a single 9-foot cord from the left speaker to the right one, and a power cable from the left speaker to the wall. It’s controlled with a 16-button Infrared remote, plus a volume dial, a three-way switch*, and a power switch on the left speaker’s back, right below the iPod dock.
Whether you pick the speakers in black, white, or red, the remote’s white, and the cables—power, speaker-to-speaker, USB, S-Video, and stereo RCA to minijack audio, are black, while the left speaker’s ports— two auxiliary inputs, an S-Video output, USB port, and auxiliary power port—are silver and black. Universal Dock Adapters are included for nanos and 5G iPods, but the system can also accommodate 3G, 4G, and mini models, as well.
We’d describe iN Studio 5.0’s cosmetic design as quite good, if not quite the best we’ve seen in the component speaker category. The final production version is shown in black here, and does not have the conspicuous Sierra Sound logo found on the pre-production red version photographed in our earlier April 16, 2007 pictures. We were really glad to see this changed; it cheapened the look of otherwise nice speakers.
Though the red-colored versions may be a bit too-stand out for all but the flash-obsessed, we really liked the black version’s straightforward metal grilled presentation of its speaker drivers, and the simple circles on each cabinet’s faces. The high-gloss finish and weight of the speakers compare favorably to the best we’ve seen in this price range (and sometimes higher), as well. But we have seen better-looking cabinets, such as Mondo’s Mint system, which used Apple-styling cues to develop corner radiuses, accent grilles, other little touches that seemed even more iPod-specific than iN Studio’s design.
Where iN Studio seriously impresses, however, is in sound—a category in which Mint was comparatively lacking at a similar price. Far too many premium-priced speakers fail to beat the sound quality of a properly tuned Logitech AudioStation, which we still feel is the best $300 iPod speaker system we’ve heard. Sierra has done a great job of tuning iN Studio to deliver two things we really appreciate in a high-end iPod audio system: a great default sound balance, and believable stereo imaging.
Let’s start with the imaging. In order to properly create stereo sound in a speaker system, you need to make sure that left-channel audio goes from the iPod to the left speaker, then repeat the process with right-channel audio and the right speaker. A surprising number of companies get this most simple step wrong. Then you use speakers and an amplifier that are capable of rendering the music clearly enough to bring out stereo details from the music, and make sure that they sound good in their fixed or user-positionable orientations. Properly set up component speakers will make you feel like you’re hearing things to your front left, center, and right, and with the right recordings, will make you think you’re hearing things off to your sides, and sometimes even behind you. Sierra’s speakers do a better job at providing this sort of imaging than lower-priced peers we’ve tested.
Then there’s iN Studio’s sound balance. Many of the speakers we test are noticeably deficient in one of three predictable ways: they miss the highs, or they miss the lows, or they do highs and lows well but miss the midrange. It’s rare that a pair of speakers does highs, mids, and lows well, but Sierra’s done a very good job on all of these counts: we spent several days running through test tracks spanning a wide variety of genres, and simply put, we really liked how everything sounded through the iN Studios. Songs sparkled where they were supposed to sparkle, thumped where they were supposed to thump, and had roughly the right amount of vocal “pop” from track to track. We’ve frequently praised JBL for delivering a great default balance from speaker to speaker, and that’s just what Sierra’s done here.
There are a few major differences between the iN Studios and the very impressive Logitech AudioStation. With proper tuning, AudioStation’s sound balance and detail sound virtually indistinguishable from iN Studio’s at regular volumes and similar speaker distances, but the balance doesn’t start out that way, and detail-obsessed listeners will find Sierra’s audio to be a hint more impressive, plus superior in imaging. The biggest difference is when you turn up the volume: Sierra does even better at high volumes, and its drivers sound mightier, especially in the low end, when pushed harder.
However, Sierra omits a major feature that Logitech, JBL, and other makers of high-quality iPod speakers now frequently include: user-adjustable bass and treble equalizers. Consequently, while iN Studio 5.0 has even more substantial woofers than Logitech’s, for example, you can’t make them growl as much at low volume levels as AudioStation can with its simple bass adjustable remote control. Sierra’s bass is noticeable and tight, but can’t be pushed to more aggressive levels like a separate subwoofer could.
And there are also a few other oddities of the design that you don’t see on most other iPod speakers these days. The remote doesn’t have a power button, and its volume controls basically only work to diminish the iPod dock’s volume relative to whatever the fixed volume level is on the left speaker’s knob—these are two annoyances that really need to become things of the past in high-end iPod speakers. One nice feature—a rear pass-through power port that lets you connect an Apple AirPort Express—works, but restricts you to analog-in rather than the optical input you might hope to use with such nice-sounding speakers, and rear USB and S-Video ports may or may not prove useful depending on where you intend to place these big (10.75” tall by 7.25” wide by 8” deep) speakers.
Not explained in the manual we received was an odd three-position metallic rear switch* that read “on, off, auto.” As it turns out, off is a second way to shut the system off, on keeps it on, and auto shuts down the system after 15 minutes of audio inactivity. This second switch turns out to be somewhat confusing, however, in that if you don’t use it instead of the other power switch, iN Studio loses its remote control/digitally set volume settings, and reverts to full blast on whatever volume setting the rear dial is on. Sierra suggests that you keep the switch on auto and let the system manage its own power. We’re not sure why the system was designed with two power switches if you’re not supposed to want to use either one, but we’d seriously have preferred a more streamlined power system, and a power button on the remote.
Given its price and some of its small design and feature kinks, our overall impression of iN Studio 5.0 is still a very positive one, thanks to its strong audio performance. Though we would have preferred to see its remote include bass and treble adjustment features rather than iPod menu navigation features, which become all but useless if you’re more than a few feet away, Sierra’s drivers deliver superior out-of-box sound to lower-priced competitors, including Apple’s own iPod Hi-Fi, and even higher-priced ones such as Vuum Audio’s VTi-B1. We hope to see more speakers from Sierra Sound in the future.
[Editor’s Note (*): The functionality of this three-way switch, suggested in the manual as an input selector, was updated based on an explanation later provided by the manufacturer.]