Review: Sony CPF-iP001 Cradle Audio for iPod
Pros: Sony’s first iPod-specific audio system; a multi-component, 2.1-channel speaker collection with a unified speaker dock, a separate metal-encased subwoofer, and a remote control. Good remote performance, and generally fine out-of-box sound.
Cons: Substantial design and brand premium - while audio performance is acceptable, it’s outstripped by component systems selling for half the price, particularly as system’s bass is muffled by odd subwoofer design. Power switch located only on subwoofer; system remains in idle power mode unless that switch is turned off. Design is more Sony-specific than iPod-specific; virtually unchanged from similar product released for Sony cell phones.
In one sense, Sony’s Cradle Audio for iPod (CPF-iP001, $250) docking speaker system is history in the making. For years, the Japanese company - maker of the Walkman and its numerous, less popular heirs - has been an iPod-specific accessory holdout, with headphones and earphones constituting its only iPod-compatible offerings. Though several of its products were carried at Apple Stores, the company was clearly not looking to see the iPod succeed; in fact, it released a seemingly never-ending stream of competitors and talked repeatedly about unseating Apple in the digital music player market. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the company released this Made for iPod system. Is it a breakthrough?
Sort of. As it turns out, CPF-iP001 is based heavily upon Sony’s MDS-80 Home Audio System for cell phones, which was released in mid-2006 and remains the priciest Sony Ericsson-branded speaker for mobile phones. (The company’s other phone speakers - MPS-60 and MDS-60 - are lower-end, portable designs.) With the exception of an iPod Dock Connector rather than a Sony phone connector on its base, almost nothing has changed between the MDS-80 and the CPF-iP001, so while this system signals the start of a new official relationship between Sony and Apple, it’s neither entirely new technology, or especially amazing as an iPod-specific design. In fact, it’s the sort of digital audio product Sony has previously been pilloried for in the past: a design with acceptable looks and sound, but also a significant issue or two, and lacking great value for the price relative to competing offerings already in the marketplace.
The Cradle Audio for iPod includes several components. Most often photographed is the unit’s silver “S-Master” digital amplifier and fixed-distance twin speaker system, which has a triangular matte metallic body, chrome sides, and a mostly plastic iPod dock at front center. Three simple lights (power, line or iPod input, and surround sound on or off) are on the unit’s top left side, along with an Infrared icon. Volume buttons and a function (line or iPod dock) button on the top right.
Sony’s iPod dock is pretty interesting. The Dock Connector locks in one of three positions - centered for full-sized iPods and minis, left for the first-generation nano, or far left for the second-generation nano - while a metal bar slides in and out to provide iPod back support. It’s not the best iPod dock we’ve seen, but its adjustability is novel, carrying only one consequence relative to the Apple-designed Universal Docks we’ve tested: we found that it was especially important to seat an iPod nano squarely on the dock, because if it’s slightly off-level, the audio won’t work properly. Additionally, the package includes a clear sticker that’s supposed to be attached to the dock to protect your iPod. We’re not sure why it’s necessary, but it seems like the sort of thing that should have been attached by the factory rather than the user.
Other than a large S-Master logo, the back of the digital amplifier and twin speaker dock is pretty bare: there’s a power port and a line-in port, the latter aided by an included auxiliary audio cable, but nothing else. As there’s no Dock Connector or USB pass-through port, you can’t use CPF-iP001 as an iPod-to-computer docking system. There isn’t even a power button on the system, a surprising omission.
That part is saved - sort of - for Cradle Audio’s far less photographed component, a mandatory, standalone metal-encased trapezoidal subwoofer, which has an almost entirely black metallic casing and enough cable to sit comfortably on the floor or on a table as you prefer. It’s the existence of this part, and the fact that it’s required in order for the silver speaker dock to work, that precludes CPF-iP001 from being used as a portable system. We were more than a little surprised to find that the subwoofer has only a single vent, and a small one at that, on the back side - relative to other subwoofers we’ve seen, its bass driver has very little room to breathe. Similarly, such a large box - the shape of a gold bar, only with three times the volume - would normally be a natural for the floor, but it contains the unit’s only power switch, so you’ll need to mount it on a table unless you want to leave the system on at all times or stoop down to flip it off.
Even the unit’s third key part - a matching silver and black Infrared remote control - doesn’t include a power button. But it otherwise provides a lot more access to the system’s subtly-integrated functionality than Cradle Audio’s sparing built-in controls. There are iPod menu navigation buttons, iPod track forward and backward buttons, and a play/pause button, plus volume, bass and treble controls, an artificial surround sound button, a Function button to toggle between line-in and iPod audio, and an equalization off button to turn off the bass and treble enhancement. The remote works well from 30-foot distances as a line-of-sight way to control the iPod’s contents, though as with all iPod menu-navigating remotes, that functionality remains practically limited given the small size of iPod menu text.
On the spectrum of smart iPod speaker engineering as we’ve seen it, the Cradle Audio system rates about a 7.5 out of 10: subwoofer-mounted power button and remote-dependent other controls aside, it’s interesting to look at and generally easy to use, though not an especially great visual match for any iPod save the silver nano and now discontinued silver mini. What’s more interesting is its audio performance, which we’d describe as good overall, but disappointing for the dollar - the sort of speaker setup that would stand out much more in the uncluttered Sony Ericsson accessory market than the iPod one.
In all honesty, we had no idea what sort of sound we’d be hearing when we first saw subwoofer-less images of the CPF-iP001, but once we cracked open the box and saw what Sony included, we had some ideas: our guess was that the system would roughly equal JBL’s recently-released Spyro and Spot speaker systems, which can be had for less than half Sony’s $250 asking price. The added value would come in Sony’s dock and remote, which need to be purchased separately for $40-80 if you’re using a JBL or other iPod dock-less component audio system; both systems would have the disadvantage of subwoofer-mounted power switches.
As it turned out, the Cradle Audio system wasn’t bad in an absolute sense - it produces acceptable, not impressive sound out of the box - but it also wasn’t up to snuff with the much less expensive, B+-rated Spyro or Spot. Like Sony’s design, both of JBL’s systems use individual “full-range” left- and right-channel audio drivers, paired with a separate subwoofer to provide oomph in the bass department. Yet whereas JBL lets you position its durable, fabric-cabled satellites wherever you desire, creating a wider apparent sound stage and superior stereo separation, Sony locates the drivers alongside the iPod dock at a fine but not adjustable fixed distance. Despite their similar sizes, JBL’s satellite drivers have slightly better treble performance than Sony’s, even when the Sony system’s treble level has been boosted to its limits; the systems have similar midrange sound and detail.
It was a disappointment, but not a surprise, that both of JBL’s systems embarrassed the Cradle Audio design in bass performance. Sony’s odd little subwoofer produced more mechanical, stilted bass than the smoother Spyro and Spot subwoofer, which used both superior ventilation and user control to its advantage. Though we weren’t enamored with JBL’s rear-mounted bass knob - front mounting is better, and remote control is the best - its systems’ lows were lower, and bass curves noticeably softer than Sony’s. Cradle Audio’s subwoofer sounded like a decent speaker was trapped and muffled inside; no matter how Sony’s bass setting was tuned, low, medium, or high, JBL’s larger enclosure and superior venting produced consistently better results from song to song.
In our view, there are two conclusions to be drawn from the information above: first, Cradle Audio is an underperformer relative to its $250 price tag, whether you’re comparing it to a $130 speaker set with a $70 Apple dock and remote addition, or the even better-valued, $100 Creature II system with the now commonly $50 Kensington Stereo Dock. Not only will you be paying a premium for Sony’s styling, but you’ll also get less impressive audio - particularly in the bass and stereo separation - as a consequence.
The second point is more nuanced. Though it’s overpriced, CPF-iP001 isn’t a bad system, or even a bad start by Sony into the iPod accessory market. If you’re the sort of person who makes purchases based on the Sony brand name or styling without doing any A-to-B audio comparisons, you might well be happy with its sound out of the box. We’re a bit harder to satisfy, because we consider $250 a fairly substantial amount to spend on any iPod speaker set, and we’ve seen so many truly great iPod systems for that price or less. Plus, we know Sony can do better. We’ve been big fans of the company’s budget earphones in the past, and hope to see it recapture its glory against newer, more aggressive competitors. While simple price and subwoofer tweaks could make Cradle Audio a much better option, we’d prefer to see a more dramatic redesign with greater attention to the specific aesthetic and sound needs of iPod users. In any case, we’re looking forward to seeing more Sony iPod accessory releases in the future.