Review: Xitel HiFi-Link Stereo Connection Kit for iPod
Pros: A dock with audio and video outputs, a comparatively very strong Infrared remote control, and an optional knob for SRS-TruBass enhancement, which works well. Largely compatible with Apple’s Universal Dock standard; provides clear AV output with TruBass off. Charges your iPod.
Cons: Large remote control lacks volume controls - the only such integrated docking system we’ve seen with this limitation. Priced the same as DLO’s expensive HomeDock (and more than Kensington’s well-equipped Stereo Dock), yet omits an S-Video port and video cables, and has no computer synchronization feature, the latter a minor issue. Look of components lacks the visual polish of Kensington and Apple designs.
When we first saw Xitel’s HiFi-Link for iPod (
$80), we thought that it was just a bigger, more expensive version of Kensington’s Stereo Dock for iPod (iLounge rating: A-) - it’s a glossy white dock and remote control combination touted as a way to connect your iPod to “the best stereo system in the house.” But as it turns out, it’s a little bit more than that: Xitel has actually come up with something that’s actually halfway between the Stereo Dock and DLO’s HomeDock for iPod (iLounge rating: B) in features, and a bit different, besides. If it wasn’t for a few omissions in design and pack-ins, it might have rated much higher.
[Editors’ Note - 2/7/06 - Following publication of this review, Xitel dropped the price of HiFi-Link, now reflected above. No other text in this review has been changed.]
The HiFi-Link package includes 10 main pieces: a large white iPod dock, five Universal Dock Adapters for the dock, a stereo audio cable with gold-plated RCA plugs on both ends, an adapter to convert the audio cable to a female 3.5mm port, a power supply, and a remote control with batteries. Xitel has chosen to include Dock Adapters 1-5, which are tailor-made to fit the iPod mini, 3G iPods and black-and-white 4G iPods, rather than 6 and 7 for color 4G iPods. It turns out not to matter much: adapter 5 fits even the thickest 60GB 4G iPod, and of course, newer iPod 5G (9 and 10) and nano (8) models include their own Adapters.
While both Xitel’s and Apple’s adapters fit properly in our testing with the HiFi-Link, a positive that wasn’t the case in Kensington’s recently released SX2000 Speakers, Xitel’s adapters didn’t fit in our Apple Universal Dock. They were also harder to remove from the HiFi-Link than other docks we’ve tested. The “universal” experience continues to be more of a goal than a reality at this point, but as long as you’re using Apple’s or Xitel’s parts in Xitel’s dock, you’ll be fine.
It’s worth only a brief note that HiFi-Link’s dock lacks something found on two of its three competitors: a Dock Connector or USB port for computer synchronization. As with Kensington’s data port-less Stereo Dock, we don’t think this omission seriously hurts HiFi-Link, as it’s clearly intended to be used with a stereo system and not a computer. Unlike Apple’s Universal Dock, which uses its Dock Connector port for charging and/or synchronization, HiFi-Link uses its separate power supply and dedicated power port to properly recharge iPods. We had no problems doing so in our testing.
The electronic distinctions from the Stereo Dock are found on HiFi-Link’s back. Surprise: there’s a composite RCA video port next to the left and right audio ports, and it works well. Surprise 2: there’s no video cable in the box to make use of it. By comparison, Apple’s own $39 Universal Dock includes an S-Video output rather than a composite port because of S-Video’s enhanced picture quality; composite video can already be obtained from the iPod’s top headphone port. And like Xitel, DLO includes a composite video output on HomeDock, but also includes a six-foot video cable and a separate S-Video port just in case you want it. Xitel’s implementation - noted on the box with a sticker - appears to be a last-minute addition that wasn’t totally followed through.
The more prominent new feature in the package is HiFi-Link’s addition of a bass enhancement knob: Xitel has picked SRS Labs’ TruBass as an option, and through a dial that first clicks “on” before adjusting TruBass’s level, permits you to avoid having any impact at all on the iPod’s clean audio output. When we tested iPod output without TruBass on, HiFi-Link sounded just as we expected, neutral and clean, passing through the iPod’s line-quality output without incident. The alternative, of course, is to turn the TruBass knob up smoothly until you like the elevated bass, which we tested in a 2.1-channel home stereo environment: it smoothly elevated bass levels in both our floorstanding speakers and our subwoofer, creating a more noticeable “thump” for all of our music. Whether “the best stereo system in the house” really needs SRS enhancement is up to you - the effect is more useful with a small set of speakers that naturally lack for bass - but the addition of the option won’t hurt anyone.
Of all of the components in Xitel’s package, the one that struck us as the most unusual is its remote control. There are two reasons: size and buttons. Despite managing to have fewer buttons than even the Apple Remote, it’s much bigger than any of the others we’ve seen paired with a dock to date, and still Infrared, which means that it can’t be used to control music through walls. But there’s one advantage to its size: rather than the small lithium batteries used by competing remotes, HiFi-Link includes two AAA cells, and uses them to provide a superior Infrared transmitter. We use a challenging test environment with fluorescent lights, which pushes Infrared systems to their limits. When Kensington’s and Apple’s remotes stopped working reliably 15 feet from their docks, Xitel’s continued on to 25 feet before failing. In less stressful test environments, expect this distance to increase even further, great IR performance by any measure.
But there’s another difference between the Xitel remote and others we’ve tested: there are no volume controls. The buttons are only used for play/pause, track forward and backward, and playlist forward and backward. Audio purists may appreciate the fact that Xitel requires volume adjustments to be made at the speaker level rather than the dock, but as Apple has proved with the Universal Dock and its variable line-out port, offering the option to dampen the iPod’s top volume level with the remote needn’t compromise audio quality. Given how large the HiFi-Link’s remote is, the option to use a similar variable volume control would have been appreciated, and will be missed by many people. It’s the single biggest reason behind our limited recommendation of this product.
As with all docking devices, aesthetics and value also play a significant role in our ratings, and on these points, HiFi-Link is only okay. By comparison with other options we’ve tested, each of Xitel’s components is more than a bit underdeveloped aesthetically, with size and curves that aren’t as pleasing to the eye as they are “just acceptable.” Apple’s smaller components achieve the same ends and are less visually intrusive; for most people, they will be better options than Xitel’s.
The value equation is a bit harder to measure. On one hand, Kensington’s Stereo Dock comes with virtually the same components, looks nicer, and sells cheaper: $10 less if you shop at a non-discount retailer, and over $25 less if you shop at an online store such as Buy.com that sells both products. Even DLO’s HomeDock, which carries the same retail price, sells for a lower street price and comes with more in the box; its remote is less powerful, but has more buttons, and it includes video cabling, which HiFi-Link does not. But Xitel’s package offers two things that its competitors lack: a remote control with greater Infrared distance and a bass adjustment knob. If those features are important to you, or if you prefer its smaller dock footprint to DLO’s larger one, it’s worthy of your consideration. Otherwise, we’d opt for the less expensive Stereo Dock or Apple’s Universal Dock and Remote combination instead.