Because of the high level of interest in Klipsch’s new iFi speaker system, we’re happy to present this expanded, feature-length preview of the hardware. However, the iFi units currently making their way into reviewers’ hands are not final production hardware, and as such we will not assign a grade or treat the unit as finished until we’ve had an opportunity to use the actual systems shipping to stores. As we note below, there is at least one noteworthy glitch Klipsch has attributed to the early status of the unit we’ve received, so we hope you’ll wait for our coverage of the final iFi production run model before making your ultimate buying decision.
Big News, Big Speakers
Every “first” for the iPod market is a cause for celebration around iLounge, and in that regard Klipsch’s release of the iFi ($399.99) is an exciting event indeed. Last year, speaker systems dedicated to the iPod hit the $200 and $300 price thresholds for the first time; if nothing else, the 2005 debut of iFi suggests that there is now enough of a market for premium iPod audio components to keep a major speaker manufacturer happy.
Klipsch definitely fits that bill. Its refrigerator-sized $15,000 speakers remain the envy of serious audiophiles, even though the company now offers entry-level $100 systems (see our ProMedia Ultra 2.0 coverage, here) that can be carried with two hands. When that inexpensive system was released late last year, Klipsch told iLounge that it was working on something that would prove a better value than Bose’s astonishingly popular $299 SoundDock. We were intrigued. And surprised when iFi was actually revealed.
Given its pricing, the iFi system wisely straddles the fence between an iPod-specific speaker system and a more general-purpose multimedia system. Unlike the SoundDock, it includes an audio line-in port that can be connected via cable to your computer or another stereo audio source. Like the SoundDock (and less expensive systems), it includes a iPod dock and a remote control, thereby adding value that a traditional multimedia speaker system does not. Both audio sources can be connected at once, so iPod music can be playing in the background while you’re using a computer – a nice feature for those whose iTunes libraries aren’t handy.
iFi’s metallic gray plastic remote control is oval in shape and features five rubber buttons, organized vertically. Plus and minus control the speakers’ volume, track up and down (rather than right and left) control the iPod’s current track, and play/pause turns both the system and iPod on and off. That’s one less button than Bose’s SoundDock remote control, which unnecessarily offers separate power controls for the speakers and iPod. Even if you’re using the iFi with both a computer and the iPod at once, pressing the play/pause button to pause the iPod achieves the same function as turning the iPod off by itself.
There are three interesting things about the remote control: first and most positive, it’s RF-based rather than Infrared, an improvement on Bose’s offering that Klipsch claims works from a distance of 100 feet (not including the impact of going through walls), and doesn’t require a line-of-sight view of the iFi’s dock. Our preliminary testing yielded solid results regardless of whether objects were in the remote’s way. Second and less positive, the remote’s orientation of track forward and backward buttons upwards and downwards is a little unusual – left and right would have made more sense. Third and least positive, our first remote didn’t work at all – an issue Klipsch attributed to the pre-final production status of the early unit. However, a second remote we received today worked perfectly, and we hope that the final production hardware doesn’t have remote-related issues of any sort.
The iFi’s dock – called the Control Dock – is also made from metallic gray plastic, and includes five sizers to fit varying sizes of iPods and iPod minis. Early 1G/2G iPods and iPod shuffles can’t be docked, but can connect via the audio port on the subwoofer’s rear. Shaped somewhat like a flattened egg, the Control Dock includes two buttons that flank a subtle dial: there’s a “subwoofer” button, a “mute/standby” button, and a panel of LED lights. Press the subwoofer button and the dial allows you to adjust the strength of the subwoofer’s rumble, as indicated by lights on the LED panel. A second press (or never hitting it in the first place) turns the dial into a volume knob, with levels similarly indicated on the panel. The mute/standby button quiets the system (but doesn’t pause iPod play) with one press, indicating mute mode with a flashing of the LED panel, and turns everything off when held down.
What’s missing from an audio standpoint is a treble control, a feature we’d noted to Klipsch some months ago that we loved in JBL’s systems, but aren’t surprised to see that they omitted. In a reference-grade system, accuracy is typically the aim rather than user-adjustable settings, but we (and many readers) enjoy the feature when it’s included.
Unfortunately, in a more significant design limitation paralleling the SoundDock, iFi’s dock doesn’t synchronize your iPod with your computer – a greater omission in the case of the iFi because of the ease with which its three detachable components would intergrate with a computer. Consequently, you dock your iPod in iFi for music and charging, but not for computer syncing – a limitation we wish had been engineered around.
The Speakers and Early Words on Audio Quality
The more significant distinction between SoundDock and iFi is the quality of the components used in iFi’s speakers. Rather than designing the system around a small bass speaker and satellites, the company opted to use relatively substantial components from the lower-end of its reference (read: low-distortion) series of products. iFi thus includes an eight-inch subwoofer that the company describes in serious tones as a “woofer” because of its bass resonance, and two RSX-3 satellites that are larger and more impressive than the parts in the highly-rated JBL Creatures (iLounge rating: A) and Encounters (iLounge rating: A-). Because of all the parts and their weight, the iFi box was so large and heavy that the FedEx guy needed help carrying it – a major difference with the all-but-portable SoundDock.
The satellites even include magnetically detachable plastic and fabric grille guards that can be used or left off as you prefer. The speakers look at least as good without them, but we’ve tended to keep ours on – they add a touch of class to the techie look of the unmasked RSX-3s.
Though we don’t want to draw complete conclusions on the iFi’s audio quality until we have a truly final review unit in hand, the pre-production iFis offer a sonic experience that outstrips Bose’s – and pretty much all other iPod-specific speaker systems – by a fair margin. You’d have to be deaf not to notice the bass power of the included subwoofer, which doesn’t need to be on full blast to create sub-sonic vibrations, and creates rich sound regardless of whether it’s filling a room or playing quietly. And because of the unit’s three-piece design and included cabling, you have the freedom to create as much stereo separation between the satellites as you desire – something missing from the SoundDock. Connection of the cables is effortlessly easy because of good quality cabling and speaker terminal design, while the firing angle of each speaker can also be adjusted via a screw on its base.
We’ll have more to say on the system’s audio quality and comparative performance in our review of the final product, but for now, it suffices to say that Klipsch’s premium pricing is attributable to iFi’s sound and the remote-controlled iPod dock. As similar and/or smaller systems could be assembled at lower prices, our review will look carefully at the iFi’s value and performance compared with other available options.