Monday, May 29, 2006

home theater speaker: Speaker systems let iPod sound off

By Justin Bachman
Associated Press

NEW YORK – In subways, at the gym and on sidewalks worldwide, millions of people seal themselves in an iPod cocoon.

No longer. Several recently released audio systems, including one from Apple Computer Inc., are now lifting the cloud of iPod isolation, making it easy to fill a room with sound that was once mostly limited to earbuds or headphones.

As a longtime audio geek, I auditioned the iPod Hi-Fi, Apple’s own entry for its market-leading portable music player, and two of its more competent rivals, the SoundDock from Bose Corp. and a new two-speaker system, the Audioengine 5.

A Bose versus Apple comparison was probably inevitable in this field, as the SoundDock has been around since October 2004, and Apple has just recently offered its own product. Audioengine, a California company with a history in the studio-monitor business, began shipping its system in January, less than two months before the Hi-Fi’s debut.

All three systems amplify the sound from their own power sources – and recharge iPod batteries. But the similarities fade there.

This is a fully competent trio, and each is priced reasonably for what it delivers. But all three are unique in what they aim to achieve and how they go about it.

Apple iPod Hi-Fi ($349)

Apple’s design team turned its sights to sound with a trim, compact box that packs a truly competent punch. The sealed, injected-plastic case has a sturdy finish, with two handles and an internal power supply that avoids the need for a clunky power adapter.

At 17 inches wide and just under 7 inches deep, the Hi-Fi won’t consume much space on a table, dresser or entertainment center.

It emits an almost exquisite sound – Apple executives say they sought to avoid processing it with digital signal circuitry. Don’t let its modest size fool you, this is a “boom” box that is sturdy and up to serious business.

The Hi-Fi houses three drivers – a woofer and two wide-range cones – along with two bass ports that help boost the system’s bass reproduction. There’s also a combo audio-optical digital input jack in the back, which allows for connections to other devices.

The only buttons are a volume touchpad on the top, near the dock.

The Hi-Fi dock doesn’t offer video output, so you won’t be able to port photos or video to a TV display – a decision sure to raise eyebrows for many spending nearly $700 for the box and latest, video-capable iPod.

The unit comes with a petite remote control that works well for volume, pause and skip functions, even at extreme angles from the box’s front. But you can’t switch playlists with it.

What truly sets the Hi-Fi apart is its ability to operate on six D batteries, making it a fine choice to haul to a family picnic, party or pool-side grill. That alone will make it the choice for many.

Apple says the batteries will run for five hours at regular to loud volumes, but I got more than six at regular listening levels.

The Hi-Fi sports a frequency response of 53 hertz to 16 kilohertz, compared to the Audioengine’s 60Hz-22kHz. (Bose won’t discuss its speaker performance stats, contending that mere numbers can’t describe its products.)

Ignore the lower numbers here – both do bass well. The critical differences in these very fine systems come at the highest end of the sound range. Apple clearly chose to nail the bass response, which most of us tend to emphasize on first listen. One suspects that in future iterations of the Hi-Fi – just as with the iPod itself – we’ll see modest revisions to the high frequencies.

Audioengine 5 ($349)

The Audioengine 5, which doesn’t have a dock or a remote control, is clearly the leader of the pack when it comes to producing a rich, full sound.

With dual speakers and the commensurate speaker wire, this is a home-based iPod system for discerning listeners, not the more portable docks offered by Apple and Bose.

Close your eyes and the Audioengine – an all-analog beast internally – will make you think those cymbals are right in your living room. The company has been building professional studio monitors for several years, and that lineage is immediately apparent.

Audioengine’s speakers come in a high-gloss white finish; the company plans a black version this summer. At 10 inches high and less than 8 inches deep, the square cubes provide a useful addition to the home-entertainment gear. I also paired them with a DVD player and was pleased with how they handled movie soundtracks.

Now to the Audioengine’s sole deficiency: The left speaker, peculiarly, has the charging port and audio jack on the top. Both seemingly could have gone in the back with the speaker cable mounts, auxiliary AC plug and second audio jack, which would have offered the system a cleaner look.

As it is now, you’ll have the audio and USB cables sprouting from the top.

Bose SoundDock ($299)

And then there was Amar Bose, the Massachusetts acoustical engineering wizard. I’ve listened to Bose home theater systems in showrooms for years, marveling at their enormous sound from such small speakers.

But make no mistake, it’s also a highly processed sound.

Bose deftly sidesteps this issue with the SoundDock. It’s a neutral, balanced and clean sound with none of the processed qualities you find in some other products.

The Bose SoundDock is the smallest of the three systems I tested, and it delivered a large sound with competent bass and tight high-end response with the tiniest footprint – no larger than a toaster. It’s an iPod player for a specific setting: an office, a bedroom or living quarters where space is at a premium. It does not work with first-generation iPods, however.

The SoundDock will not fill your house with soaring sound or rattle the neighbors’ poodle, if that’s what you’re after. But it will make a fine choice if you’re looking to liberate the audio on your iPod for the enjoyment of everyone in a room.

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