The iPod has spawned more gear and gadgets than any other device I can think of. With 43 million of them on the streets, an iPod case manufacturer needs only a fraction of a percentage of market share to hit the big time. But the release of Apple’s own branded iPod Hi-Fi must have speaker manufacturers crestfallen and despondent, because being an Apple product hanger-on is dangerous enough, going head to head with a product might be considered reckless.
In the price range that the iPod Hi-Fi sits in there aren’t that many competitors. There’s the Bose SoundDock, Monitor Audio’s i-Deck and just a handful of others.
Before Apple got in on the act I considered the i-Deck to be the best-sounding system. Other speakers tend to be tuned to the American ear, where a lot of emphasis is put on a bright high end, and booming bass. European ears tend to be less concerned with giant bass and more emphasis is put on the midrange. That’s why the i-Deck does so well here – it’s designed by British audiophiles.
The iPod Hi-Fi does sound excellent, but there is a slight weakness in the midrange. It doesn’t show up on all songs, The Dark Side of the Moon sounded amazing, for example. But other tracks sounded odd sometimes, as if there was a big sound with a hole in the middle.
To the casual listener the performance will sound pretty darned good, and these speakers can be cranked to fill a pretty big space – no problem for a house party, for example. Loud doesn’t necessarily mean good, though, but at top volume there was no discernable distortion.
Sound quality aside there are other aspects of the iPod Hi-Fi to consider. Aesthetically few will find fault with the clean lines and compact size. It will fit nicely on a bookshelf, though the top mounted iPod might be a tight fit. While the white case screams Apple, it doesn’t really say hi-fi – although that perception may change now Apple has made this move. I once told Jonathan Ive that his new Snow iMac looked like a kitchen appliance – look how wrong I was. White is now the default colour of everything Apple, and it doesn’t seem at all weird.
The Hi-Fi will work with any iPod on some level, but it really works best with fifth-generation and iPod nano models. These have software to control the speakers, once you update your iPod software.
The connections mean you can plug in any optical or analogue source of music, but there’s no USB for syncing your iPod. Neither is there a video output to plug into your TV, which would have been nice.
Even if the iPod Hi-Fi was simply average the Apple brand is enough to sell boatloads of them. It’s certainly much better than average, but not necessarily the best of the bunch. If you narrow the field to portable iPod speakers (the iPod Hi-Fi can be powered by six DD batteries) then it definitely is the best in its class alongside Altec Lansing’s iM7.