i300 full review
The i300’s handsome, ported subwoofer unit contains a 6.5in driver, along with a 150W amplifier for the sub and a second 150W amplifier (75W per channel) for the satellites. The sub’s top, bottom, and sides are finished in a beautiful, high-gloss white (or black); rubber feet on the bottom protect both the sub and the surface upon which it’s placed. The front of the sub is covered in a non-removable mesh screen – grey on the white version, black on the black version. The back of the sub hosts left/right speaker terminals, a 1/8in auxiliary input jack, a jack for connecting the Control Dock, and a jack for the power cable. The i300’s power supply is incorporated into the sub unit, so there’s no bulky inline converter.
We like the fact that the sub’s auxiliary input is mixed with audio from your iPod – you can listen to a second audio source, such as a gaming console or computer, and your iPod simultaneously.
Each satellite speaker has a flat top, bottom and sides, while the front and back are curved. The face of each is slightly concave and covered in non-removable matching mesh; this mesh protects the satellite’s 3in and .75in coaxial drivers. The back of each satellite is semicircular and hosts spring-loaded speaker terminals. The satellites are finished in the same gloss-white (or black) as the sub, and optional rubber feet are included for placing the speakers on a flat surface.
In addition, each satellite includes a built-in wall-mount bracket that swivels 45º to each side. The bracket can be removed by unscrewing a screw on the bottom of the speaker. We’ve seen few satellite speakers as attractive – or as easy to hide – as these.
Despite their small size, the subwoofer and satellites feel exceptionally solid. For example, each magnetically-shielded satellite weighs nearly 2lbs and uses a single-piece enclosure. Our only criticism here is that the mesh used for the satellite speaker grills is thin and, if pressed accidentally when handling a satellite, can become embossed with the outline of the speaker-driver assembly underneath.
What’s up, dock?
Slightly longer than the iFi’s Control Dock, the i300 version is just over 6 x 4in, with a solid-rubber base to keep it from sliding around a desk or shelf. A cradle using Apple’s Universal Dock design holds your dock-connector iPod; seven dock inserts are included for compatibility with older iPods. (Newer iPod models include their own adaptors.)
When in the Control Dock, your iPod is charged. However, since this is a home speaker system, rather than a desktop/computer system, the Control Dock does not provide a data connection for syncing your iPod with your computer.
The i300’s dock includes a Volume dial, Subwoofer button, Mute/Standby button, and a bar of LED indicators. The i300’s Volume dial is a major improvement over the iFi’s. Whereas the iFi dial was recessed into the Dock and required you to rotate the dial along its edge to make adjustments, the i300 Control Dock’s dial is a mechanical scroll wheel – much like the one on early iPod models – that you turn by moving your finger in circles. The latter is much easier to use.
As you adjust volume, the LED bar indicates the volume level. When you press the Subwoofer button (labelled ‘sub’), turning the dial adjusts the subwoofer’s output level; the LED bar then reflects sub level instead of volume. The LED bar is bright enough that, unless the Control Dock is placed on a surface above your field of view, you can easily view the volume level from across a room.
The Mute/Standby button is a handy feature. If you press it during playback, the system will mute and, conveniently, the iPod will be paused. Press it again and the system is unmated, and your iPod resumes playback. If you press and hold the Mute/Standby button, the system goes into standby mode – the iPod is paused and turned off, and the i300 shuts down. Pressing Standby again wakes up your system and iPod. (Pressing and holding the Play/Pause button on the remote performs the same function.)
The back of the Control Dock also provides a 1/8in auxiliary-input jack. However, unlike the aux-in on the subwoofer, connecting another audio source to this input mutes iPod playback. To listen to the iPod again, you’ll have to unplug the auxiliary input cable from the Control Dock.
The thin, oval-shaped remote is exactly the same size and shape as its iFi counterpart. The i300’s has thin, horizontal buttons: Play/Pause, Forward, Back, and Volume Up and Down.
The remote uses radio-frequency (RF) technology, which means it doesn’t require a clear line of sight to the Control Dock – you get very good range and can even control playback and volume through walls.
However, it suffers from a poor user interface. Since the remote is completely symmetrical, when you pick it up, there’s no tactile indication of which end is the top. It does come with a lanyard attachment, though, which when connected makes the bottom end easy to identify –but this assumes you want a lanyard dangling from your remote. In addition, since the remote’s buttons are in a straight line, if you don’t memorise the button layout, it’s difficult to figure out which pair is Volume Up/Down and which is Forward/Back – and where the Play/Pause button falls in relation to them – without looking at the remote. In other words, you’ll need to either memorise the button layout or look directly at the buttons each time you use the remote.
The size of it
It’s tough not to compare the i300 and iFi. After all, they come from divisions of the same parent company, and share components. Considering that the iFi has been one of the more favourably reviewed iPod speaker systems out there – and how much smaller the i300 is than the iFi – many people are likely to be curious if the i300 sacrifices sound quality and volume for the sake of a (much) more appealing design.
Overall, the answer to that question is no. As you might expect, the smaller i300 can’t put out quite as much volume as the iFi, and it can’t produce frequencies quite as low, due to a smaller woofer in a smaller enclosure. In fact, because the i300’s 6.5in driver is relatively small for a subwoofer, it emphasises certain higher bass frequencies over lower ones, resulting in bass that’s a bit more ‘one-notey’ than that of the iFi.
However, compared with most other speaker systems for the iPod, the i300’s bass response is quite impressive, reaching lower and putting out much more oomph than you’d expect.
The i300 really can generate impressive volume levels without breaking a sweat. Unlike many large speaker systems we’ve tested, when cranking the i300 up to ear-splitting levels, there wasn’t a hint of distortion or harshness.
Thanks to the i300’s tiny satellites, at the other end of the audio spectrum the i300 provides very good detail and upper midrange – better than that of the iFi, which lacked upper-treble detail. (One technical difference between the two systems is that the i300 uses traditional drivers in its satellites, whereas the iFi uses horn tweeters.) The i300 still doesn’t match the treble clarity of Monitor’s stellar i-Deck, but few iPod speaker systems do.
The i300 will still easily reveal the flaws of low bit-rate music, and will reward you for feeding it higher-quality tracks. The i300 also sounds much richer and fuller than expected, given its tiny satellites. Its biggest flaws are a minor emphasis on the upper midrange and a slight dip in frequency response around the lower midrange; assuming the latter occurs where the audio crosses over from the satellites to the sub. This is a common flaw with systems that use tiny satellites: there’s a range of frequencies too high for the subwoofer and too low for the satellites, so you get a dip in response.
Finally, soundstage – the stereo separation and left-to-right placement of instruments that helps make reproduced music sound more realistic – is also good, as you’d expect from a system that lets you position its speakers like those of a true home stereo. In this respect, there’s no comparison between the i300 and single-box speaker systems such as Apple’s £229 iPod Hi-Fi. (It’s worth noting here that, like the i-Deck and iFi, the i300 is designed as a home speaker system – it sounds much better from across the room than if you set it up on your computer desk and listen at close range.)
In short, like the iFi, the i300 doesn’t provide flawless audio, but it’s easily among the best iPod speaker systems on the market.