Brief Thoughts on Premium iPod Speakers

Backstage was originally created as a place where iLounge’s editors could share details about what takes place behind the scenes of the home page, preview articles that weren’t yet complete at the time of posting, and so on. We’ve cut back on some of that for various reasons, but today seemed like a good time to share a little.

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Yesterday, you might have seen the photo above—it’s Sierra Sound’s new $399 iN Studio 5.0 speaker system for the iPod, previewed in our First Look. Since it arrived, we’ve been putting it through its paces, feeding it Apple Lossless (and other) music, and comparing it against other peer speakers. I was tempted to sum this up as “just another Tuesday at the iLounge offices,” as we now spend a lot of time testing tons of different iPod speakers, many of which have plenty in common with one another.

We rarely turn down the chance to check out something new and exciting that’s marketed at iPod owners. In fact, we’re almost always interested in seeing cool new iPod audio gear, in hopes that something will offer our readers better performance at a better price than last year’s top product. Last year, we notably passed on reviewing a pair of speakers very much like the iN Studios, in part because the company was posting phony customer testimonials to iLounge—deceptive marketing tactics forbidden around these parts—and in part because the speakers really had nothing to do with the iPod, even though they were being aggressively advertised to iPod users. Unlike the iN Studio system, this alternative had no iPod integration or remote control; it was just a pair of white-colored speakers at a high price point.

 

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By contrast with that company, and with Vuum Audio’s VTi-B1 (above), Sierra deserves credit for actually integrating the iPod into a higher-end component speaker system, rather than just adding standalone amplifier and dock parts to a pair of existing speakers. As with Geneva Lab’s Model L and XL systems (below), I can’t emphasize enough how profound the difference is between these approaches.

 

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The unnamed company and Vuum expect you to connect several multicolored cables and two power supplies to separate docks just to make everything work. As you can see in the right side of the photo below, it’s a mess. Like the all-in-one Models L and XL, Sierra’s integration is far simpler. You plug one cable into the wall and another into both speakers; that’s it. You control (almost) everything with the included Infrared remote. And you get virtually identical functionality—actually, superior low-end from the iN Studio system—at a $300 lower price than the Vuum, which is price premised on the warmth of its audio. Similarly, for $100 more than Logitech’s all-in-one AudioStation, you’d expect it to sound better, and generally, it does.

 

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I mention this all because there are now literally dozens of companies trying to tout pricey new listening solutions as alternatives to last year’s designs, and more will be coming throughout the year. This week, The New York Times spotlighted iPod vacuum tube audio systems, without rendering more than a sentence of opinion on their sound quality relative to other options, and we’re expecting to see plenty of other high-end gear touted as the “next big thing” because of price alone. My advice is to be careful with your money, and don’t necessarily assume that “more expensive” means “better.” Going forward, you can expect us to continue to focus our attention—and praise—on systems that actually deliver superior iPod integration and sound quality for the dollar. At the $400 price level, it’ll be interesting to see how the iN Studio fares in that analysis.