January 25, 2006

iPod sound systems

Apple’s iPod is the leading digital audio player on the market – not just because of its near perfect interface and operability with iTunes but also because of the huge support of third party manufacturers in creating new and innovative solutions for iPod owners. Arguably the biggest ‘solutions’ area for iPod owners is powered sound systems. You just know that a product is serious seller when Bose (a leading sound system manufacturer) creates and markets a unique sound system just for iPod.

So, being the iPod junkie that I am (I have owned eight iPod’s and counting) I set out to discover which sound system sounds and works best. In my view, sound quality is the most important criteria, followed by the way iPod interacts with the unit, how the remote works, if you run other devices off the unit, and most importantly, can my wife Lindy use it?

The first unit I tested was the Bose SoundDock ($499). Set-up was a breeze, however I ran into a slight complication when trying to find the right attachment for my iPod Photo. Bose include about eight different size adaptors in the box but they are not labelled. When I eventually found the correct size my iPod inserted perfectly.

Controlling the volume needs to be done via the two buttons on on the SoundDock; scrolling the wheel on the iPod has no effect because SoundDock gets its output from the iPod line-out rather then the headphone jack. Bose also supply a credit-card size remote that controls basic functions like volume, start/stop and track forward and back.

Sound quality was truly remarkable. Bose traditionally have very rich bass sounds and the SoundDock continues this tradition. Distortion was never a problem, even when cracking out Powderfinger. Mozart and Sibelius sounded equally as good. Plus, the unit charges your iPod while docked.

Downsides to the SoundDock are lack of an extra input for other devices, and no ability to add a USB cradle http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.giffor syncing to a computer. This device is best used as a standalone product away from the computer desk.

In direct competition to the SoundDock is Altec Lansing’s ($449). It is hard to call a winner in terms of sound quality between iM7 and SoundDock, to my ears each sounded equally good. iM7’s sound can be customised to suit your particular taste in music via its remote control that has standard functions as well as individual treble and bass control. This feature alone probably makes it a better choice then the SoundDock.

Loading any iPod into the iM7 is easy, just click on the foldout panel, drop in your iPod and adjust the holder in the back to the correct width (this way your iPod will be held securely). iM7 has 3 buttons on the unit, two for volume and one for power. It comes with a power adaptor for most countries and also has room for batteries should you wish to make it portable.

Additionally iM7 has a dock connector, auxiliary input, headphone jack and composite and s-video outputs. Video output lets you transmit video and photos from an iPod or iPod photo to any modern TV or Plasma.

Next up was the mm50 by Logitech ($229). Logitech traditionally makes really good computer peripherals (like mice and keyboards) so I was interested to test their iPod speakers. Unlike the Bose, this unit has been designed with portability in mind, and is considerably cheaper than the Bose. Unpacking and setup was easy, and the unit comes with its own travel case. Similar to the SoundDock, it comes with a own remote that controls basic iPod functions although the remote was not very responsive and often required multiple presses to enact a command.

The mm50 only comes with one docking attachment – you’ll need this when using the iPod Mini, otherwise regular iPods and the Nano with dock connectors just fit in. There are only four buttons on the top of the unit – two for volume, ‘3D’ sound and power. The mm50 comes with a rechargeable battery that charges while plugged in. This unit is great if you want a really portable sound system that can easily be moved around the house or taken on trips with you. Logitech quote ten hours playback on a single charge. In my tests I got nearly ten-and-half hours of playback before recharging.

Sound quality was good, particularly for a small portable device. Bass response was good but not as good as the Bose. At times it sounded a bit tinny which can be outweighted by the advantage of portability. Other features I liked were the dock input on the back that allows you to sync your iPod while it is in the dock and the auxiliary input that allows you to plug in other devices like portable CD players or MP3 units.

In a similar vein to the Logitech mm50 is the InMotion 5 (iM5) by Altec Lansing ($249). It’s footprint is actually smaller then the mm50 and in my opinion sound is better, partiocularily in the low (bass) range. Plus, like its big brother the IM7 it has lots of output options (Composite video and sub-woofer output) and come plug (via USB) directly into the computer. Unlike the mm50 the IM5 comes without a rechargeable battery however you can add your own D-sized batteries if required. If you do, Altrec Lansing claim 24 hours playback time. The iM5 also ships without a remote control, however in a unit this size I’m not sure that it’s a big disadvantage. What really stands out with the iM5 is that way the dock cradle slides out – you’d think it was designed by Apple it’s so slick.

If you prefer a sound system that also includes a radio you might like to consider the iPal by Tivoli Audio (http://www.tivoliaudio.com/home.php) ($349). This unit is a mono speaker that includes an auxiliary jack at the back where you can plug in an iPod or any other device. It has a built in radio tuner that delivers superb sound for its diminutive size. The iPod also sounds good plugged in however the lack of remote control and a dedicated dock/stand makes it a little clumsy to use soley for this purpose. Like the mm50, iPal comes with a rechargeable battery good for about 3 hours of listening. At $349 it is dear for a mono unit particularily in light of the mm50’s $249 price tag, which to my ears sounded just as good. If however you’d like a high-quality portable radio that you can plug an iPod into it might be for you.

At the other end of the iPod accessories universe you may prefer to listen to your music in private sans cables. In that case I suggest you check out the Wireless Headphones for iPod by Logitech ($249). The headphones connect to your iPod (with the remote connector) wirelessly with bluetooth technology. They don’t have a built-in mic like similar products on the market so they won’t pair with your bluetooth mobile phone.

In my testing sound quality was adequate but not exceptional due in part to the lack of resizing options on the headset – they just didn’t feel comfortable on. However, on a positive note there are iPod controls on headset itself that worked well meaning you can control your iPod (volume, play/pause, forward/backward) without taking it from your pocket or bag.

Apart from the size (the iM7 is slightly bigger and bulkier then the SoundDock) I think iM7 is the clear winner in terms of value for money, sound quality and features. If you’d like to spend a little less go for the iM5, and if you need a radio as well as portability the iPal is for you.