Pros: A powerful single-enclosure iPod-docking speaker system that delivers superior midrange and bass detail at high volumes, rivalling or exceeding the peak performance of low-end 2.1-channel audio systems with separate components. Simple controls and an included six-button Apple Remote make system easy to use. Runs off of wall power or batteries and includes carrying handles, thereby semi-portable. Charges iPod with wall or battery power.
Cons: Top existing all-in-one iPod speaker systems deliver better dynamic range (particularly treble response) at close distances; our favorites also include independent, incremental bass and/or treble controls. No video or data ports on back. Staid design, high price, and top-mounted iPod dock detract from appeal. Nearly seventeen-pound weight with batteries renders it the heaviest of all semi-portable speakers we’ve seen.
On February 28, 2006, Apple introduced a premium iPod speaker system called iPod Hi-Fi ($349), a white box with rounded corners and a removable black fabric front grille. Hi-Fi contains three significant speaker drivers, uses Apple’s Universal Dock standard to mount any Dock Connecting iPod on its top, and includes an Infrared Apple Remote to let you control the iPod from a distance. Immediately after the announcement, we brought you photographs and early details from the Hi-Fi’s first demonstration in Cupertino. Less than 24 hours later, we’ve updated our First Look with new comparative photos and additional hands-on details, which you’ll find below.
In order to fully understand our perspective on Apple Computer’s new iPod Hi-Fi ($349), a new all-in-one speaker system with an iPod dock on top, you’ll need to put aside both the hype surrounding its announcement, and the highly critical response its design and pricing have thus far received. Speakers should never be judged by their marketing, nor criticism from those who haven’t heard them. And in this case, you’ll also have to avoid the obvious – seeing iPod Hi-Fi as a direct competitor to existing iPod desktop speakers such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-), Bose’s SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+), and JBL’s On Time (iLounge rating: B+). They’ll all compete for your dollars, but they’re actually very different types of listening devices.
As suggested but not fully explained during Apple’s unveiling, iPod Hi-Fi is designed for a “ten foot” listening experience – not ten inches or two feet, but ten or more. It is also the most austere-looking iPod listening device yet released, which is really saying something given the intentionally stark look of Bose’s earlier SoundDock, and the beauty of Altec’s iM7 and JBL’s On Time. For these reasons, it will neither look nor sound its best sitting right next to you, on your desk, or on the floor; Apple actually suggests you place the speaker at ear level, specifically on a “stable, hard surface, away from floor and ceiling,” with “room to breathe on all sides.” This largely explains why the device was initially demonstrated by the company at the far ends of four large rooms: it is a simple but undeniably powerful audio source, designed primarily as a substitute for the separate speakers and amplifier of a 2.1-channel home stereo system, rather than as a boombox or table radio. It also includes its own remote control, which is literally necessary to take advantage of its horsepower.
There are, however, a few problems. Apple has rhetorically placed itself in competition with virtually every premium iPod speaker by touting iPod Hi-Fi as an “audiophile-quality” system that can go “on the road” with D batteries. In so doing, the company simultaneously sparked debates on appropriate iPod speaker pricing, practicality, and quality. Most riled up were notoriously finicky audiophiles, who immediately seized upon Hi-Fi’s size and specifications to suggest that it would never meet their needs. Some correctly questioned whether “audiophile-quality” sound is necessary or desirable for typical iPod users, whose collections consist of compressed, distorted music. Still others saw the $349 price point as ridiculous given the large number of more affordable systems, including attractive, great-sounding options like Altec’s iM7 (below). And no matter how angry or confused people may be, virtually everyone has the same question: how does Apple’s first iPod speaker system actually sound?
Our comprehensive review below considers each of these key issues, and more. As with other significant reviews we’ve posted recently, this one’s broken up into a number of key clickable sections that you can expand based on your specific needs and interests. We hope that you find it useful.
iPod Hi-Fi: General Design, Pack-ins, and Packaging (Click here for details.)
Controlling and Customizing iPod Hi-Fi for iPod and AirPort Express: The Pros (Click here for details.)
Controlling and Customizing iPod Hi-Fi: The Cons (Click here for details.)
A New iPod Main Menu Option: Speakers (Click here for details.)
A Few Words on “Audiophile-Quality Sound” and Lossless Audio (Click here for details.)
Audio Quality: Overall, and Comparisons (Click here for details.)