Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

Pros: A fully-featured combination of universal iPod dock, truly portable, user-positionable stereo speakers, digital clock, and a strong AM/FM radio in one package, with one of the best Infrared remote controls we’ve seen to date. Runs off of AA batteries or wall power. Very good sound quality and full physical and charging compatibility with even the most recent iPod models. A major improvement on the company’s earlier iPAL speaker in almost all ways when used with an iPod.

Cons: Other than offering wider stereo separation – a legitimately important feature – audio performance isn’t quite as strong in key areas as less expensive leading competitors in same premium price category. Remote cannot toggle between system’s radio and iPod modes; a switch on the unit’s front must toggle between them. Unlike company’s previous iPAL, does not include rechargeable battery pack. Some users may not like side orientation of dock, or unit’s limited stability on uneven surfaces.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

The following review is based upon our earlier First Look at Tivoli’s iSongBook Portable Music System ($329), a stereo speaker system that is currently shipping to stores in the United States. iSongBook is similar but not identical to an previously-released single-speaker unit from Tivoli called SongBook, which initially looks almost identical and sells for only $159, but does not include two of the critical features found in iSongBook: the second speaker, or an iPod dock. As noted below, these turn out to be very important distinctions between the products, so despite their names, the two systems should not be confused with one another.

Introduction: The Current State of iPod-Docking Speaker Systems

Premium iPod-specific speaker systems have become a substantially bigger deal over the last year, and there’s little doubt in our minds that there are two benchmark systems that mainstream readers care most about: Bose’s SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+) and Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-). Both systems have the same general feature set: an integrated iPod dock, an Infrared remote control, and a single speaker enclosure with multiple drivers for true stereo sound. iM7 offers user-adjustable controls over bass and treble, as well as the ability to run off of battery power. The SoundDock lacks both of these features, and is less powerful in the audio department, as well.

Yet thanks to far more aggressive promotion, the $299 SoundDock appears to be the bigger seller of the two, despite the superior audio horsepower, pricing, and customizability of the $250 iM7. And their collective success in the $250-$300 premium price range has inspired many other speaker makers – some released, some unreleased – to take stabs at developing remote-controlled docking systems with similar features.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

That’s where iSongBook comes in. At $329, it’s the second most expensive speaker system yet released for the iPod, $30 more than the SoundDock, around $80 more than the iM7, and $70 less than Klipsch’s fundamentally different $399 iFi speakers. But it also brings new features to the table that distinguish it from each of these systems – ones that will enable it to compete effectively despite certain audio limitations it has versus its competitors.

First, it is the only system in this price range to include any sort of radio, and actually includes both FM and AM digital tuning. It is also the only one of these speakers to support – and support properly – Apple’s new Universal Dock standard. Third, it is the only portable docking speaker system for the iPod that allows you to separate its speakers to your desired width – six feet away from each other. Fourth, it has the best Infrared remote control of any of these options. We’ll discuss each of these features and more in the sections below.

Physical Design and Radio Performance (Versus iPAL)

Visually, iSongBook has a lot in common with Tivoli’s earlier iPAL speaker (iLounge rating: B+) for the iPod: both units have glossy white plastic front shells with metallic gray speaker grilles*, gray text and logos, chrome external antennas, and prominent silver rear casings with rubber-plugged audio and power ports, to make both units suitable for use outdoors in moist or sandy environments. The enclosures are almost equally attractive, though they differ from there: iSongBook is around 2 1/8” thick, while iPAL is around 3 3/4” thick, a substantial difference that makes the newer device capable of fitting in a briefcase, unlike the milk carton-esque iPAL.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

(* = Tivoli has announced that it may release a limited edition black version of iSongBook to match recent black iPods and iPod nanos, but has not made a final decision or suggested a date of availability. The company has a history of releasing attractive shell color alternatives for its PAL speakers.)

Then there’s the second speaker, an omission from iPAL that distinguished it from almost every other iPod speaker system released before and since, and one that Tivoli has gone out of its way to properly remedy.

Unlike all of its portable speaker competitors, iSongBook’s second speaker is detachable – a holy grail of sorts for dedicated iPod speaker design, and one we sincerely appreciated here. The two speakers are connected to one another through a retractable cable on the right speaker’s back. Winding and unwinding the cable is a manual process – better, in our view, than a cheap spring-loaded mechanism – and provides roughly 6 feet of separation between the right speaker and the iSongBook enclosure. Attaching the speaker to the system relies on metal nubs and rubberized ports, a good choice for a sturdy fit.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

You’ll also notice an iPod dock on the left, which turns out to be not just any iPod dock, but a true “universal dock,” as Apple is now calling and beginning to standardize it. Universal Docks are supposed to be capable of resizing via detachable plastic plates to fit any size of iPod that has a bottom Dock Connector port – 3G, 4G, 5G, mini, nano, and beyond – and providing charging capabilities, at a bare minimum. While iSongBook’s was the first Universal Dock we’ve seen on a third-party accessory, it’s also the best of the two we’ve now tested. Tivoli includes seven Dock Adapters (1-7, for those keeping count since our review of the Apple Universal Dock), which is enough to cover every size of iPod from 3G to 4G and mini – iPod nano and 5G owners get Dock Adapters (8-10) with their iPods. All of Tivoli’s included adapters, and the new iPod adapters, fit into its Universal Dock. By comparison, Kensington’s new SX2000 system includes only 2 adapters, and the two 5G iPod adapters didn’t fit properly. Tivoli’s design just works better.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

The dock flips down from iSongBook’s side, and like Apple’s Universal Dock, inserting or removing different-sized Dock Adapters is a snap. If you don’t want the dock down, just fold it back up into the speaker enclosure. Some readers view this as a less than optimal location for the dock aesthetically, but in practice, it works just fine, and aids tremendously in the unit’s portability.

You’ll also notice that iPAL has three silver knobs and a dual-colored power light on its front, while iSongBook uses a large collection of gray rubber buttons and knobs, plus a prominent blue-backlit LCD display on its front left side. The reason for all of the buttons and the display is this: Tivoli has switched from iPAL’s widely respected analog radio tuner dial to a digital system with now-standard tuning and five preset buttons, plus several others, minus seek buttons, which are integrated into the tuning buttons. iSongBook includes a digital clock – on at all times – and an alarm clock, plus a sleep timer and a button to turn its blue backlight on and off. The light is bright and attractive, and the screen is easy to read from any left or right angle.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

The switch to digital has had a couple of other consequences: Tivoli now uses a digital volume tuner that runs from 0 to 30 in on-screen volume, nicely ratcheting through each position, rather than the smooth analog knob on iPAL. iSongBook’s display provides battery status, plus numbers indicating the current radio station, which preset you’re on, and the time – all at once. If you’re tuned into an FM stereo channel, a pair of headphones with ST appears on screen to tell you as much.

Will all of these changes freak out the Tivoli fans who so passionately supported every design touch found in the prior iPAL? Probably not. Despite the changes, iSongBook remains a very capable radio – arguably better in some ways than iPAL. In our tests of both AM and FM stations in a challenging indoor environment, iSongBook consistently sounded at least as clear as iPAL on stations we tuned, sometimes better, with less high-end squeal on certain AM stations. But on FM stations, iPAL tended to sound a little crisper because of slightly better high-end than iSongBook, which we found to be true in iPod playback as well (below).

That aside, we’d class both systems as very good radios, and think that most people will be equally happy with either one. They both feature headphone ports for wired listening, auxiliary inputs for other devices, and a power port for wall power – plus a wall charger.

Both have battery compartments locked closed with screws.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

In the only negative difference between the units that’s decidedly in iPAL’s favor, iSongBook uses but does not include 6 AA batteries, rather than iPAL’s single included rechargeable pack. (Run time is close to 16 hours on a set of Energizer AA’s at average volume, similar to iPAL’s battery.) We really wish Tivoli had included rechargeable batteries, given iSongBook’s price – the system anticipates them by including a recharging mechanism and the LCD screen’s level indicator, which shows 3 bars of status or an E for empty as an estimate of how the batteries inside are doing. You can put in your own alkalines, NiMHs or NiCads, and set a switch for the unit to recharge them.

iPod Performance: iSongBook versus iPAL

iSongBook’s strongest feature is its audio performance with an attached iPod, which is markedly better in most ways than was iPAL’s. Tivoli appears to have tuned iSongBook to properly complement the iPod’s line-out audio capabilities, with resulting sound that does not distort nearly as easily in the bass at high volumes, and achieves substantially higher volume levels, besides. The key to this is the second speaker, which adds the most oomph to iSongBook’s amplitude; if it’s detached, the two systems are otherwise similar to each other on volume, with iSongBook taking the slight edge on apparent power and distortion. Both systems did well on base level of amplifier noise – iSongBook naturally exhibits a very low level.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

This isn’t to say that iSongBook is universally better than iPAL in the audio department, though. We had expected that iPAL’s thicker chassis would deliver decidedly superior bass, and that iSongBook might be tuned to excel in treble. This wasn’t exactly the case. At normal listening levels – not the top of its range, where it distorts – iPAL’s low-end is a bit more pronounced than iSongBook’s, but not by nearly as much as we’d expected. Similarly, iPAL’s treble is slightly more evident than iSongBook’s at the same volume level. iSongBook appears to have been intentionally tuned to smooth out its sound curve for a more natural, SoundDock-like balance than iPAL, which has bigger peaks at both ends of the spectrum. We found both systems almost equally pleasant to listen to, but if cost wasn’t a factor, would pick the iSongBook for one reason: its stereo separation.

iPod Performance: iSongBook versus iM7 and SoundDock

No matter what we listened to, iSongBook’s two speakers did a better job of creating a wide, compelling soundstage for our music than iPAL – in fact, pulling them several feet apart created an environment that neither the SoundDock nor iM7 could fully duplicate. This is perhaps the single biggest advantage of iSongBook over all of its competitors: if you really prize stereo separation, but still want a speaker system that fits in carry-on luggage, iSongBook’s the best speaker for you.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

However, other comparisons to the SoundDock and iM7 are not as slanted in iSongBook’s favor. We know that the Tivoli name inspires a lot of passion amongst the audiophile crowd, and that even putting Bose, Altec, and Tivoli in the same sentence is enough to get some people riled up. But the simple fact about iSongBook is that its small chassis and driver design has trouble stacking up to the richness of either the SoundDock or the iM7. In direct cross-comparisons, iSongBook was third-best on bass and second-best on treble: good low-end, but comparatively not deep or strong. The SoundDock came in second on bass, third in treble: it sounded a bit richer than iSongBook, but its modest lack of treble actually made its audio sound smoother and more “natural,” as iSongBook sounded by comparison with iPAL.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

But the 600-pound gorilla is the iM7 system, which absolutely rocked all of these competitors in bass, and also had the edge in high-frequency output. It helped that Altec included independent bass and treble controls – plus, of course, its integrated 4-inch subwoofer – within iM7, giving the user the ability to create sound that is pretty much exactly how he or she likes it. The standard and unadjustable bass settings on iSongBook and SoundDock cannot compare with the richness and power we heard from iM7 in this department, or on volume, for that matter. Altec really nailed it, and the difference here is really noticeable.

Review: Tivoli iSongBook Portable iPod Music System

The obvious trade-off, of course, is physical size. iM7 is much larger – deeper and longer, though about the same height unless iSongBook’s antenna is raised.