We’ve noted in a number of recent speaker reviews that as the number of iPod-compatible speakers continues to climb, and as certain “sound quality for the dollar” metrics have been established, the major differentiators between options have become looks and pricing. Buying an iPod speaker these days is mostly a matter of finding an option that looks good, suits your budget, and sounds acceptable to your ears; breakthroughs are becoming fewer in number with every passing month.
Clockwise, from bottom left: JiSS-330, JiSS-550, i-Station Concert, Vers 2X, and iH82
Today, we briefly review five recent iPod speakers priced from $100 to $180, each with a polarizing body shape that will either immediately appeal to or offend your sense of good design. At the low end of the price spectrum is Jensen’s Banshee JiSS-330 ($100), an ultra-glossy black and chrome system with three speaker drivers, with the company’s bigger and more deluxe JiSS-550 model ($130) instead possessing five speakers. At the same price is iHome’s iH82 ($130), a two-speaker version of the $100 rounded cube iH80 OutLoud Portable Speaker System we’ve previously reviewed. Then there are Sprout Creation’s Vers 2X ($179), a wood veneer and plastic enclosure with two speaker drivers inside, and Logic3’s i-Station Concert ($180), an update of the previously released i-Station 8, which houses 9 speaker drivers—4 each on the left and right sides, and one 2.5” woofer for bass. Like many of the other speakers we’ve reviewed, each of these units has at least one major selling point, and one or two issues that prospective buyers should be aware of before a purchase.
When Logic3 released i-Station 8 a year ago, a promising idea was damaged by poor execution: the company had developed a large but still portable speaker system with its own blue-backlit LCD screen on top, designed to help iPod users easily see currently playing song titles from feet, rather than inches away, and offered the unit in white and black versions, each with a power supply, Infrared remote control, dock adapters, and clear plastic speaker-protective shield. Eight AA batteries—quite a few, by portable system standards—could power i-Station 8 when you weren’t near an outlet. Unfortunately, i-Station 8’s LCD screen depended upon a lengthy and inconsistent synchronization process to get song details from the iPod, and occasionally hiccuped, making the iPod begin playing songs from the top of its alphabetical song list. Users who could get past the problems, however, would find that the system’s sound was quite good for the $180 asking price.
i-Station Concert is the late 2007 version of i-Station 8: the chassis is the same, the speakers are the same, and the screen is basically the same. Details on the system’s audio can be found in our prior review, but suffice to say that i-Station Concert still is able to hold its own against the best $150 speakers out there, assuming you’re willing to play with the remote control’s bass and treble controls. While we preferred the wider soundstage in Logitech’s superb Pure-Fi Anywhere, which makes you feel like you’re inside the songs you’re hearing, Logic3’s array of drivers can be tweaked to produce a more personally satisfying balance of high- and low-end sound, with frequency response above and below Pure-Fi’s levels, and under certain conditions, it can sound smoother in the mids, as well. The danger is that i-Station Concert’s treble can sound harsh, and its bass boomy, for a more forced, artificial rendition of audio than Pure-Fi’s; proper adjustments bring Concert closer to Pure-Fi’s balance, but limit its range.
The biggest changes to i-Station Concert are in the non-audio extras. Logic3 has updated the screen’s font to make it thicker and even easier to read, tried to fix the bugs in the synchronization and display feature, and added one new component—an Apple authentication chip—which is supposed to ensure “compatibility” with current iPod models. Consequently, when connected to the third-generation iPod nano or iPod classic models, i-Station Concert now pulls up iPod song data without any delays, and puts it up on the LCD screen to be read, a major advantage over the prior model. Unfortunately, the feature doesn’t always work as well as that. With pre-2007 iPods, we found that i-Station Concert still sometimes struggled to display song titles, and needed to be reset for the feature to work, even after going through a similarly long initial synchronization process. Further, our iPod touch and iPhone weren’t cooperative with the feature at all. “Inconsistent” is the best way we can describe the on-LCD title display experience from iPod to iPod.
Then there’s the unit’s video-out feature. Because it has an Apple authentication chip inside, i-Station Concert is one of the only iPod speakers currently on the market that can unlock the third-generation iPod nano’s and iPod classic’s video out features. They actually work here, either with the built-in S-Video output, or the composite video output, so if you supply the proper, inexpensive cables, you can watch these iPods’ videos on any connected TV. On the flip side, however, i-Station Concert doesn’t display video from either the iPod touch or the iPhone, and has problems with video-out from 5G iPods, too, hanging at the beginning of video playback rather than starting. These issues may be caused or fixed by certain Apple firmware releases, but we’re finding the “does it work or doesn’t it work” question maddening, and the results from i-Station Concert hugely unsatisfactory.
As a final note, we feel obliged to mention that we were surprised by a couple of i-Station Concert’s remote control and power management issues: we had real trouble getting the remote to properly control the system from twenty-foot distances, and sometimes even two feet away; sometimes, the system just didn’t seem responsive. This is a shame, since the 17-button remote is otherwise well-equipped, and stows away nicely in the unit’s rear carring handle. We also found that i-Station’s on/off power status didn’t stop it from attempting to read the database of a newly connected iPod; oddly, during an attempt at database reading, the system’s LCD screen sometimes came on when the system was otherwise off, and the power button wouldn’t respond when the system was attempting to force iPod synchronization.
From our perspective, i-Station Concert is, like its predecessor, a system in need of additional fine-tuning: though it is capable of delivering a very good audio experience, its inconsistent song display, video-out, and remote control experiences detract a lot from the only major reasons people would consider paying more for this than systems such as the Altec Lansing iM600 and Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere, which included the added value of rechargeable batteries, and produce more consistent results. Because of similar issues, the i-Station 8 barely merited our flat B rating overall, and despite Concert’s attempts at improvements, the continued shakiness of its performance leads us to issue only a limited recommendation. Having gone through two iterations of this speaker without producing something great, our hope is that Logic3 will go back to the drawing board for a more consistently impressive high-end offering.
Company and Price
Model: i-Station Concert
Compatible: All iPods