Review: Apple Computer iPod Hi-Fi Speaker System

Review: Apple Computer iPod Hi-Fi Speaker System 1

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.

Review: Apple Computer iPod Hi-Fi Speaker System 2

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?

Review: Apple Computer iPod Hi-Fi Speaker System 3

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.)

Conclusions

If sustained sound quality at high volumes was the only measure of a great iPod speaker system, ratings would be easy to assign, and iPod Hi-Fi would be at or near the top of the pile. In fact, the iPod-specific speaker market has grown so considerably over the past three years that some people may want it only for this reason, and we certainly wouldn’t dissuade them – or other readers – from giving iPod Hi-Fi a try. Apple Stores will no doubt stock all of the speakers we’ve referenced above, so if you’re really curious enough to try them for yourself, we’d advise you to try systematic tests: the same song on each system at the same volume, with the iPod’s equalizers off and the speaker’s own equalizers set to your preferred settings. That way, you can get an idea of what’s best for you.

Review: Apple Computer iPod Hi-Fi Speaker System 23

From our perspective, however, the aggregate assessment of a speaker system should also take into account factors such as typical-volume performance, dynamic range, pricing, design, size, and practicality. Considering all of these factors, and despite its good (if warm) low-volume sound and strong performance at high volumes, iPod Hi-Fi falls somewhere in the middle of the semi-portable speaker pack. Because of its comparatively high price, staid design, and underwhelming treble response, it’s hard to recommend to typical iPod users over Altec’s inMotion iM7, Bose’s SoundDock, or JBL’s On Time for most of their listening purposes. Even Klipsch’s iFi has recently fallen in price to as little as $200, making it a comparatively aggressive alternative to iPod Hi-Fi. Except when placed at the far end of a large room and cranked up, these options will provide listeners with great audio experiences at lower – potentially considerably lower – asking prices. It’s hard to believe we’re saying this about an Apple product, but pay the Hi-Fi’s premium only if you really need the extra horsepower and don’t mind its extra size and weight.

As our readers have suggested, it’s hard not to feel like something is missing from iPod Hi-Fi – not just video or data ports, or an RF remote control, any of which would have been useful. Rather, Apple needed a big feature to justify its big asking price, like an internal AirPort Express for wireless iTunes integration, or the cutting-edge, paradigm-shifting industrial design we’ve come to expect from the company’s products. They’re nowhere to be found. And so, apart from its raw power, which won’t be useful for many people, the only stand-out feature here is the optical audio-in option, which iPod-only users currently have no reason to try.

For these reasons, we consider iPod Hi-Fi to be a missed opportunity for Apple, and one that would benefit tremendously from evolving into a wireless-enabled version 2. Until then, it’s a speaker system that will satisfy the audio needs of certain listeners – and good enough to earn our general recommendation – but it will also give most of the iPod third-party accessory development community reason to breathe a sigh of relief.

Our Rating

B
Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod Hi-Fi

Price: $349

Compatible: iPod 3G, 4G, 5G, mini, nano

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81 comments
  1. I don’t think the weight of the Hi-Fi should be listeds as a “con” since it doesn’t cause it to be too un-portable. The weight is a good thing when it comes to sound quality, especially bass. 🙂

  2. I think what people need to realize here is that it does what it needs to do very well. In the limited time I listened to it; I liked that it was able to fill a room with good clean sound. In no way will the Hi-Fi be a replacement for for my legitimate audio system. If I want to hear good sound, I don’t pick up my iPod or listen to my computer…I listen to the original CD. What I don’t like is that Apple has the audacity to call it an audiophile quality system that will replace a high end rig. I think what they should say is that it is as close to audiophile quality as you can get for the form factor. In terms of reviewing the sound quality, it needs to be compared not to current iPod-centric speakers, but to current mini stereo systems…like the Denon/Mission, JVC or Tivoli systems. If you are going to call it an audiophile system, then you should ideally compare it to a proper two channel rig using small monitors (Paradigm Atom with an inexpensive integrated amp). Of course there is no way the Hi-Fi can create the soundstage a pair of speakers can provide. The current crop of iPod speakers are either repackaged computer speakers or are really better suited for near-field listening. To say that not having tweeters means that it can’t produce quality highs I believe to be an uneducated statement. Current advances in driver technology can produce some high quality sound. The general public is led to believe that bright highs and deep bass means it’s good. I’m reminded of how the consumer market tends to think that high power (like the $150 500WATT receiver) means that it is good. People need to learn that even frequency response and good soundstage is what creates a sound that is close to a live performance. To my ears, the Hi-Fi is the perfect solution in an environment where you want to provide quality, room filling, sound but aren’t in the position to do critical listening.

  3. Thanks for the review guys. I actually like the look of the iPod Hi Fi but not the price. I think all Apple branded stuff is overpriced, although I have given in and bought 3 iPods and several Apple branded accessories – but not this one. Based on your review of this unit and others on this site for other brands I decided to buy the JBL Creature II. I don’t like the way it looks, but the sound is good, if somewhat weak on the midrange. I do like the price, ie much cheaper. Of course the JBL speakers don’t really integrate with the iPod, but among all the accessories I bought I got the iPod Dock and Apple remote; this combination works well with these speakers.

  4. Question: If I am trying to fill a room with quality sound from my iPod and no other source, why wouldn’t I just buy a 2.1 system like the Klipsch ProMedia? I could hide the subwoofer and the satellites could be placed well apart for good sound. My iPod could sit on top of the woofer, plugged into its charger. Why would I buy any of the white systems over such an option? Someone, please offer arguments so I can choose wisely.
    Thanks!

  5. Thanks for your review Jeremy.

    I can’t help but wonder though..

    What about users primarily interested in airport applications?

    For me, the Hifi is an attractive option. I can use it wirelessly with my powerbook, or move it to another room for use with my iPod. I have yet to see any of these mini systems provide digital audio input, seamless iPod/airtunes integration, and portability in one package.

    Moreover, for those using airtunes, would it not be the case that we could make significant adjustments to its said treble deficiency through the manual settings offered in iTunes? I’m in your corner with these ridiculous iPod preset equalizers, but it seems that for airtunes users, there exists a lot more flexibility in tweaking this thing.

    I realize that there are cheaper versions of iPod music stations out there, but I’m attracted to the utility and simplicity of a high quality sound system I can use in different rooms via my powerbook or iPod. Am I missing something or has someone else provided anything similar?

    Comments appreciated.

  6. Earlier today I went to my local Apple Store to check out the new Hi-Fi. For a premium price like that, I expected a lot. I didn’t get it. I don’t know if someone had already blew it out, but it just didn’t have it. Thanks for posting your opinion on this and for giving it the score it deserves. I work at a place where I hear the IM7 and the Sounddock everyday. It may be on par with the Bose, but it does not have the full range of the IM7. You can find the Altec from $190 to $250. Just from the bang for the buck, you can get that and a home dock for less than the price of the HiFi. This is a great company, but I hope this isn’t the way things will be from now on Apple. We expect more.

  7. I acutally bought the iPod Hi-Fi, and am very please with it. I had an iM7. It’s sound quality is absolutely amazing, and the design is nifty, not disgusting! I don’t understand why so many people said no to this product…

  8. I took this review with a grain of salt (after poor review of e4c headphones (which are amazing).
    Boy I’m glad I did. I live in a loft 1000 sq. ft. and this thing is shockingly loud and clear and fills the whole place up with sound… I love it, it will make your jaw drop when you hear how much sound this little (yes little, it’s only 6.6″ tall) box can put out. Go to the apple site and check out actual real world user reviews and you will see everyone is loving it. As far as design???? it is a speaker, what the heck do you want, remember form follows function, and when it comes to speaker less design is more… they are meant to be heard not seen, once you have it you will see price is justified, the unit is solid as a rock, everything about is high quality.
    Hope this helps anyone on the fence and skeptic of this review.

  9. Many of the negative reviews of the Hi-Fi stem from Steve Job’s ridiculous claim that it could replace most peoples’ home audio systems. While I truly believe the Hi-Fi is a great product, it most certainly is NOT going to replace any half-way decent primary sound system. And it shouldn’t be expected to.

    Rather than engage in obvious exaggeration, Jobs should have said that the Hi-Fi is the ideal companion to the iPod for moving music to a picnic, to the pool, to the vacation home, the office, a bedroom, etc. while providing a level of tonal accuracy not found among competitors offerings. In this context, the Hi-Fi is an absolute winner.

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to the top-performing entrants from Logitech, Bose, Klipsch, and Altec Lansing. In my opinion, the Hi-Fi does a far better job than all of these at producing sound that seems like REAL music. Credit designer Victor Tiscerano – a reknowned audio designer of very high-end audiophile gear – who clearly sought to avoid the tipped-up “boom & tizz

  10. Just re-read my review and wanted add the following regarding the weight of the Hi-Fi… Though it’s doubtful anyone would want to carry this around on their shoulder (ala ’70’s boombox), it is still sufficiently light and well balanced to easily carry from the bedroom to the patio to the pool to workshop, etc.. For goodness sake, it’s only 15lbs! It’s far lighter than a set of golf clubs, a case of soda, or the child many of us carry up/down the stairs 250 times a day! Plus the handles really make it easy to lift. C’mon folks, I know this place is called the iLounge, but we don’t have to be quite so sedentary!

  11. One curious design gaffe: The documentation for Hi-Fi says for best sound the speaker should be mounted at ear height. Yet the dock is mounted on top of the unit, tilting back as if it were to be accessed from above. If you really did mount the speaker at ear height, you would have to stand on a ladder to operate iPod’s controls. I know there’s a remote, but that has limited functionality–can’t navigate your playlists. Maybe Apple’s planning to release a special step-stool for Hi-Fi? I hope they release it in black!

  12. I don’t know why Apple and everyone else I’ve seen comment on the iPod Hi-Fi didn’t raise the fact that while it may be just fine just for the iPod but why didn’t Apple make it to be used with their computers ? Why have Mac owners go out and buy a set of speakers to use with their Macs and then have to also buy the iPod Hi-Fi just to go with their iPods ? It sure would look good sitting behind my iMac G5 Intel and would sure sound good too. I think you goofed Steve !

  13. Not to pile on the IM7 (for it too has it’s merits and it is $100 less than the Hi-Fi), but it bears mentioning that the tray/mechanism that holds the iPod is very very fragile. In fact, at the Apple Store that I visited yesterday, the mechanism was broken to the point that the tray wouldn’t close. One of the associates indicated that it has happened often to the display models and hence they get replaced every few days. She added “they get an extraordinary amount of abuse here, far more than they’d get at home.”. While this may be true (or may not – as I have some pretty clumsy friends), each of the three Hi-Fi’s had small crowds gathered around them and were working perfectly despite the iPod being lifted/ replaced seeming every 30 secs and being played very LOUD. None of these units (as far as she knew) had yet been replaced.

    My point, the Hi-Fi seems MUCH more durable. So much so, that this alone would justify much of the price differential.

  14. iLounge took the time to do controlled tests against multiple speakers and explain the results. So far the only disagreement I’ve seen with those results is in the opinion of whether Hi-Fi’s sound is better for the masses. You seem to think it is.

    Different reviewers are entitled to different opinions. No one has to re-review something just because your opinion is different.

  15. By the way, you say:

    “If you want to hear the music the way the artist intended it (my preference), I think the Hi-Fi is the best of the iPod all-in-ones.”

    You claim that you know what the artist intended? Truthfully, no one does, sometimes not even the artist, because recording engineers and producers are at least as responsible for the final sound as the artist. All you really know is that the Hi-Fi sounds like you want it to sound like. Produce some evidence of artist’s intent and some graphs to show exactly how the Hi-Fi replicates that with a 17-inch (or less) soundstage.

  16. I was skeptical about the Hi-Fi when I first read about the announcement. When I saw the first picture of it, I fell in love. It is minimal and very powerful looking. I was concerned about how it sounded though, but coming from apple, I knew that it couldn’t sound that bad. I went to Best Buy and they had a display and one in stock. I put a test ipod in and was blown away. Even with the bad acoustics of the wharehouse like environment, the thing sounded amazing. It blew the sound dock out of the water. As for the weight, I like it being heavy. At least it won’t topple off a table with a bump, or roll off of one like the im7. It feels solid and substantial. The sound dock feels light and unable to produce good sound. I bought one and I am loving it. Go and try one out before making preconceived notions.

  17. I like the Apple iPod Hi-Fi and I bought it. It is capable of new standards of performance in this size and price range but requires tweeking the input to achieve best results. It likes extra bass and treble: use iTunes’ excellent 10-band equalizer, for example; Volume Logic helps too. Audio Hijack Pro lets you make and record even finer adjustments. Listen at a distance and set the speaker at ear level. The speaker CAN sound unimpressive, but with a little work it really is stunning.

  18. I find it interesting how the opinions on the Hi Fi sounds fall into one of two categories: either “Wow, this sounds great!

  19. Silver,

    “You know what the artist intended? Truthfully, no one does, sometimes not even the artist, because recording engineers and producers are at least as responsible for the final sound as the artist.”

    You missed my point (perhaps my fault for not being clear). What I’m trying to say is that the more familiar you are with the sound of real, unamplified acoustic instruments, the more you’ll prefer the sound of the Hi-Fi to the other offerings mentioned in this thread. Generally speaking, the more “truthful” speakers are to a real reference (acoustic, unamplified instruments) the more likely they are to be truthful to the artists intent on other “processed” types of music.

    Perhaps “accuracy” is an attribute that means nothing to you (which is fine, you’re certainly not alone), but it may mean something to others reading this thread.

  20. syd123,
    Quite how you can claim the Hi-Fi presents acoustic music in a faithful way, when its source is a digital music player where the music is compressed, is confusing. Unless you are ripping all your CDs to your iPod at CD quality bitrates – and even then there are true audiophiles who believe the best source is always going to be from a vinyl record (analogue).

    I seriously doubt that this is High Fidelity (the origin of the term Hi-Fi) because it is a one box design, devoid of the full range of driver units expected from high fidelity speakers units and it is using a compressed digital source.

    It might fill a place in kids bedrooms or studies or dorm rooms, but as a replacement to a good separates system with decent speakers, it will never be….

  21. Hi Bob,

    ..You’re absolutely correct in that the Hi-Fi is NOT true High Fidelity (at $350 how could it be?). I made this point as well in my first post in this thread. All I’m saying is that – of the similar offerings out there – I have found the Hi-Fi to come closest to sounding like real instruments. For example, when I hook my iPod up to the Altec Lansing IM7, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (to my ears) sounds like it’s being played on a synthesizer. On the Hi-Fi, the violins and violas sound less forced or tilted – more “real”. Again, your ears may tell you differently. But I still think it’s worthwhile for those who compare the Hi-Fi to the IM7, Bose Sound Deck, etc.. to have on their iPod recordings of acoustic music that features instruments with which they are very familiar. Play these through the devices and see for yourself which sounds most real.

    Is the Apple Hi-Fi the best choice for getting sound from your iPod for $350? No way! If that is your goal, I’d recommend going to Audiogon or even Ebay to buy a used NAD or Rotel integrated amplifier for $150, then buy a pair of entry-level Paradigm, PSB, or even Polk Audio bookshelf speakers for $200. This will get you closer to true “high-end” sound than the Hi-Fi will take you. Problem is, try playing that system on batteries, dragging it to a picnic, the pool, the patio, or to a vacation home.

    It is in this sense that the Hi-Fi is a great product.

  22. I think these speakers sound awesome. I went into the apple store today and listened to them, they are great. I dont understand why all these people are bashing them. They may be over priced, but what apple product isnt? IF YOU DONT LIKE IPODS AND IPOD ACCESSORIES THEN DONT BUY THEM! Go get some POS creative or iriver or whatever, but stop complaining.

  23. Note: We have removed a number of ad hominem references from the comments in this review, and closed other comments at the request of the original poster. Please keep your comments on-topic (the specific product being reviewed and compared), and do not resort to personal insults. Thank you.

  24. After listening to this the sound is good for the size of the unit, nothing steller. No where near Hi-Fi sound though.

    If it was designed with a more integral docking station, that allowed one to leave their ipod in its protective silicone or clear plastic hard case it would be worth the price though.

    Redesign it so that there is a compartment that the ipod fits in, that allows you to hook it up with the varied cases, you can use a cable to attach to the unit, then close the lid. Then a small LCD display on the outside with a black background and white readout…and they would have had a design worth all the bravado surrounding it.

  25. syd123,

    I understand what you are trying to say about the quality of sound the hi-fi reproduces versus all the other competitors on the market. After listening to the IM7, and Blows products, I too feel that the hi-fi does a better job of being the best option as a portable, secondary listening system for those with ipods or any mp3 player. The volume that this speaker system puts out was MUCH greater than I thought possible. Compared to my buddy’s IM7 it sounds much more life-like and can fill a room much better than the IM7.

    Because of the batteries, I think this is going to be great on the boat, camping, tailgaiting, and in the kitchen.

  26. does it do audio books well? I have been testing speakers at stores and have not found a descent portable set that does both music and audio books well.

  27. From someone who works at an Apple authorised reseller, both the Bose and Apple sound docks generate a good quality sound that will satisfy most people’s requirements; Good Loud music, charging/AC operation, and semi portable (ie: holiday houses)

    These products satisfy the market they are intended to. If you (like some posts) want more, a local (Australia) retailer offers a mid range rotel/JBL package with dock and cables for $900ish.

    It always amazes me the idiots who post “It sound like sh1t”, “Bose are cr@p…”, “Apple don’t have enough features”, etc.

    iRiver have many more features than iPod, and what is their market share? iPod IS easily the best portable music package available. There is little argument.

    Bose sell very well and at very healthy margins. Their ease of use and lack of cables and large components appeals to a wide market.

    Personally I run mine through a NAD amp and Dynaudio bookshelf speakers because I appreciate that last 5% of quality. But I never use more than 25% of my amps power capability.

    As an audiophile I’d loved to see iPods encourage people back to quality HiFi components, but the truth is content (and ease of use) is more important than outright quality to most people.

    To all those Bose and Apple knockers, go back to the binary world you live in and let the rest of us enjoy quality products.

  28. One last thing to add though, I can’t stand the placement of the iPod on the Apple HiFi system. Many people complain that it limits the placement of the speaker system.

    The Bose system is the better designed product, but one can’t help thinking it seems at the end of it’s life. Please bring a new imporved version, or even just a next model up.

    Most customers I speak to couldn’t care less about aux in or dock connectors, these are placed in the living room or holiday house.

  29. lol.. pulled the submit trigger a bit too early… I bought the IPOD Hi-Fi about a month ago and just took it to my first large outdoor party for the summer. There were various other portable IPOD types of systems (Altec 7, SoundDoc etc) but only ONE clear winner. In fact two of my friends are off today to purchase an Apple IPOD Hi-FI . Its ease of use and sound quality at both HI volumes and very moderate (over dinner) were well received. yea they are a bit pricey, but so was my IPOD 5g and I dont regret either purchase for a moment.. both are outstanding products and together are unbeatable IMO

  30. There’s a lot of truth to the statements being made about withholding judgement until one has actually tested several of these systems. I just tested the Hi-Fi, the Altec-Lansing M602, Bose SoundDock and Logitech AudioStation. Using my own iPod, the AudioStation was far superior in sound quality to the other offerings. It was so good and obvious that another couple who was there listening with me also purchased an AudioStation despite likely being pre-disposed to the SoundDock.

    To each, his or her own.

  31. I live in Scotland and bought the Apple iPod Hi-fi from the Apple shop in Chicago whilst attending a conference in June. I took my Nano to the shop and tried all the speaker systems and chose this one based upon sound quality alone. The Bose Sound Dock came second. Over the years I have had a few iPod speakers and none come near to the sound quality here. I dumped my old hi-fi in my lounge and play all my music via the iPod and I’m very happy with the sound quality. I have a 60gb iPod that stores c. 15,000 tracks in AAC and MP3 and of course the great benefit is the playlist option. For my car I prefer a second 60gb iPod that stores tracks in Lossless as I find some music sounds thin. However I couldn’t recommend this speaker system more. It’s perfect even though it caused some issues getting the speaker back to the UK as hand luggage!

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