Apple is world famous for its iconic white MP3 player, but the company's experience in the acoustic design of speaker enclosures is not immediately obvious. Music has always been an integral part of Apple's products, however. From the early experiments with sound on the first Macintosh, through to the Harmon Kardon Soundsticks Apple was keen to pair with the iMac, Apple has dealt peripherally with the business of speaker cabinet design.
Nevertheless, it comes as a shock that the company has pulled what is ostensibly an extremely sophisticated cabinet design out of thin air. The precise origins of the iPod Hi-Fi remain a mystery, but Apple's new white box is an intriguing proposition.
Though our initial reaction was to balk at the price of what appears to be 'iPod speakers', the £249 Hi-Fi includes a relatively powerful integrated amplifier, two full-range speakers and a subwoofer.
The cabinet on the iPod Hi-Fi is a double-walled plastic shell designed to reduce vibration and resonance. Conventional acoustic theory states that the denser the material a speaker cabinet is made of, the better the cabinet will reproduce the recorded sound without unwanted colouration creeping in. Wooden cabinets are the preferred choice for this, but the plastic shell on the Hi-Fi works in a similar way.
The plastic of the chassis precisely matches the white of the iPod. We often find with iPod accessories that the manufacturer hasn't quite matched the tone of the player itself. You would expect Apple to nail this, and it has.
The front of the the unit houses three speakers: two mid-range and one subwoofer. There are also two bass-reflex ports, which redirect air from behind the sub back out to the front of the cabinet, enhancing bass.
The neat integration with the iPod is not unusual for iPod speaker systems, but the inclusion of an Apple remote control is. Though iMac owners will easily confuse the Hi-Fi's remote with their existing Front Row remote (they look identical), you can always do what Apple suggested to us and use a bit of coloured tape to differentiate them. Obviously, you may feel this detracts from the remote's ineffable cool, and choose vigilance over tainting its clean lines.
The remote control lets you change volume and skip tracks. As with Front Row, the control system is extremely basic, and this is one of its strengths. The remote is extremely small -- roughly the same size as a stick of chewing gum -- so you'll want to keep an eye on it.
Most users will choose to keep the iPod Hi-fi plugged into the wall. It is, after all, intended as a replacement for a home stereo. If you want to head to the beach with your tunes, there's a hatch in the rear of the Hi-fi that takes six D-cell batteries.
So, how does the iPod Hi-Fi sound in action? We auditioned several different styles of music on the system and found that the Hi-Fi deals well with a range of pop and rock songs, but excels with acoustic and classical music. Green Day tracks like Basket Case sounded punchy, but there did seem to be some soft-clipping -- which almost sounded like compression -- when we output at the maximum volume of 108dB. This type of distortion is usually caused by an amplifier not being able to deliver enough power to drive a speaker properly at high volume. However, the amplifer inside the Hi-Fi unit is power-limited to avoid clipping when the unit is pushed hard.
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