Listen to an acoustic track like Beth Orton's Central Reservation and the Hi-Fi shines. Orton's voice sounded like struck crystal floating in the mid-range, while the low strings on her guitar were rounded and commanding. For such a small cabinet, the Hi-Fi plays acoustic music with more fidelity than some full-blown mini-systems we've tested at the same range. That you can't space the drivers any further apart than the cabinet enclosure allows will always be a compromise, yet our listening tests were surprisingly positive.
The iPod Hi-Fi's minimalist styling may not be for everyone. The Hi-Fi doesn't so much replace your existing stereo as strip it down to a bare minimum (amplifier and speakers) and place the iPod at the centre of this universe. Although the Hi-Fi does offer an integrated analogue/optical line-in, you are committing yourself to using the iPod as your main source of music for the home.
For many people this makes perfect sense. If the majority of your music listening is done via the iPod, then the loss of a CD player and tuner won't bother you. But if you hope to integrate more than just an iPod into your living room listening environment, the addition of a CD player or radio tuner via the line-in socket makes the Hi-Fi much less elegant. If you're anything like us, you're addicted to podcasts anyway, so the loss of a radio tuner may not bring you to tears.
The second thing to bear in mind is the sheer weight of the cabinet. As we mentioned earlier, one of the most important components of a good speaker enclosure is a high-density shell. The iPod Hi-Fi uses a dense polymer and the most obvious downside of this is the weight of the unit. It's perfectly luggable, but expect to develop pretty well toned forearms in no time at all.
One last quibble: it becomes obvious after a few minutes of use that the Hi-Fi shares much in common with the iPod Shuffle. From across the room there's very little way of telling which track you're listening to, other than to use your memory. Apple would have scored better here if it'd integrated a small screen into the remote, displaying basic track information, like a simpler version of the Sonos Digital Music System.
Apple's Web site is keen to emphasise the iPod Hi-Fi's "room-filling sound", but can something this size really fill a room? Our auditions seemed to bear out the manufacturer's claims. The Hi-Fi gives a very solid performance at high volumes. Auditioning the Hi-Fi in a variety of different sized rooms demonstrated that it can deliver a much more audacious punch than other stereo systems of a similar size. Volume-wise, we'd place it on a par with a full mini system like the PURE Digital DMX-50.
The iPod Hi-Fi doesn't strain the speaker cones, even at high volumes. This makes it an enduring choice for a rambunctious teenager who would otherwise get through a pair of speakers in a year -- yes, we've seen this happen. Because of careful limiting, you can't damage the speakers in the Hi-Fi.
Speaker-matched volume limiting is surprisingly rare -- in fact, we can't remember another system where the amp and speakers have been matched and limited to avoid distortion at top volume. In the long term, this means you can expect more out of the Hi-Fi than a comparable, non-limited system.
Turn the Hi-Fi all the way up and you'll have to lunge for the ornaments on the mantlepiece before they tumble off. We've heard louder systems, but none this small and crisp. For iPod owners looking to replace their stereo, the good sound output and design of the Hi-Fi makes it an easy choice. On the flipside, owners of non-Apple MP3 players, or the incompatible iPod Shuffle, will find that using the line-in socket is too much of a style compromise to make the Hi-Fi worthwhile.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide