George, by Chestnut Hill Sound

At some point during my time with George ($499), I lost a neighbor. The IT guy who sat in the cubicle immediately outside my office suddenly wasn't around anymore. Weeks later, I learned that the music had been bothering him. It had been too loud, I suppose. Or there had been too much of it. I'm not sure. I started apologizing to people: "Sorry about the music. It's just that I've got this new radio in my office. It's a lot of fun. His name is George."

"George?"

As it turned out, most people really liked George once they got to know him. Co-workers who'd never spoken more than a passing "Excuse me" or dropped a casual "Good morning," were now stopping me at the water cooler to ask, "So, how's George doing?" George had become popular around here. Was it his clean-cut good looks? Was it his sweet, unassuming name?

George?

The wheel has turned one full circle

When Steve Krampf visited our office, he assured me that there were no political connections. Thank goodness, because it really is time for change. I don't know how well sales would do, however, if Chestnut Hill had gone with "Barack." Krampf has a long and varied history in the audio/video industry, having made stops at TEAC, Otari, Ampex, and Lexicon on his way to co-founding Chestnut Hill Sound and bringing George to life, but he started his career in the recording booth. "I was a bad recording engineer, but a good mixer," he says with just a hint of a smile. It was George Martin's work as producer of the Beatles that motivated Krampf to jump into the music industry. Krampf deeply admired Martin's ability to balance the Beatles' four disparate personalities while "turning technology into an art form." With the George iPod stereo system, Krampf seems intent to do the same.

Experience in the recording studio led Krampf to the idea that 2.1-channel systems (two speakers and a subwoofer—a configuration I've grown to love) offer superb sound quality, inducing the lowest level of listening fatigue and providing the greatest overall tonal balance. George uses two 3-inch woofers with coaxially mounted tweeters, and has a 4-inch downward-firing subwoofer. That's a lot of technology for such a small box, and all of it is very discreet. You'd never know any of it was even there. George is a handy 14.25" W x 5" H x 8.6" D. His face is covered in a sort of satiny, silver mesh with the slightest bit of shine. Tasteful. George stands on four small rubber feet. His top panel is dimpled and made of shiny plastic. If you remove this top panel, you'll find imprinted upon the chassis a list of George's creators. George was created by Steve Krampf, Evan Ross, Trung Phung, Jon Sanserino, Rob Friedman, Joe Genovese, C.F. Lin, K.S. Young, C.Y. Chan, Tom Flaherty, and Ed Moxon. Krampf and the others are obviously very proud of their work. George is designed in the US and made in China—like some of my other friends.

But the real story is George's remote.

I can tell you about the river, or we could just get in

George was a snap to setup. He comes with a "Quick Start Guide." If you're like me, you're already skeptical. All too often, fancy new products will come with clever-looking quick start guides that prove to be entirely insufficient, leaving me confused and frustrated. Or their so-called quick start guide will be strangely accompanied by a complicated 25-page manual, written in a foreign language. Not so with George. George's "Quick Start Guide" is colorful, easy to read, and is really all you'll need. It's very fine. Inside the box, you'll also find:

1. George
2. AM and FM antennae
3. a USB cable
4. five iPod universal dock adaptors
5. a beefy power adaptor
6. the battery for George's cool-ass remote
7. a nifty plastic screwdriver

I followed the pictures: Install the power adaptor (Simple.); connect the AM and FM antennae (Pieces of cake!); remove remote from George (This took a second to figure out. It's not that it was difficult. It just wasn't as intuitive as the rest of George. You don't need to press any buttons or unsnap anything—the remote sits in the center of George's faceplate and simply pulls out. You'll make fun of yourself for not realizing it sooner.); remove battery door (That's where the nifty screwdriver comes in—you'll love it!); insert the battery, re-install the battery door, and you're pretty much ready to go. Adjusting the time and setting the alarm were almost uncomfortably easy ("Jeez, that's all? Did I do that right? Yeah, I did.")

Funny little story: I never use an alarm. I just don't need one; I'm almost invariably early and I don't know how to sleep. However, during his visit, Steve Krampf took a few moments to demonstrate George's ability to provide many different types of alarms—alarms going off at different times, at different volumes, and coming from different sources. You can, for instance, set George to wake you with Dinosaur Jr's "Beyond," played back at headbanging levels, even if you've been listening to very smooth jazz, at office-appropriate levels, in the meantime. I was impressed. It seemed simple enough to configure, but I wasn't really paying attention—like I said, I have no need for alarms. However, when I walked into my office the next day, I was greeted by a loud, high-pitched beep. It took me a moment to realize that George was saying hello. Krampf had set one of the alarms, but hadn't deactivated it. Though I certainly hadn't memorized Krampf's button sequences, dismissing the alarm was a complete breeze. Intuitive! Indeed, Krampf tells me he expects many George systems to be sold to hotels, where guests may be using George only once, where ease-of-use is of the utmost importance. I feel fairly certain that such users will be pleased. Upon leaving the hotel, they may even want to take George home with them. Which is probably the idea.

On George's back panel, you'll find a preamp out. You can use this to plug George into your main system, and listen to your entire collection from your iPod and through your Wilson MAXXs or your KEF Muons. I never tried this, however. I kept George in my office.

Did I mention the Bass Level control? George has a bass level control. When I unpacked him, the control was set to the midway position. During his visit, Krampf turned it up a bit. I kept it there for all of my listening. All the way up was a bit too thick and amorphous, all the way down a bit too lean. The USB port is for software updates. Connect the USB cable to your computer, and you can easily download software updates and new features. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Chestnut Hill wants George to grow with you—their catch is "Products with a future"—and that USB port is the ticket. Hardware modules can be added, as well. Plans to support an HD radio module have been suspended—probably a good idea with HD's future up in the air. I'm laughing Sam Tellig's evil laugh over here.

Krampf hinted at other upcoming capabilities, but didn't want to spill the beans. My George wears white, but optional grill covers and wood panels are also now available. If I had my choice, I'd dress George in cherry. Simply use a screwdriver to undress him, and replace the white with wood.

We stand under it, but we don't understand it

There's a small, hinged door on George's top panel. You open it up and insert one of the five dock adaptors provided within George's neatly-packaged accessories box.

And then,
you insert
your iPod.

What happens next is kind of magical. The normal iPod display will be replaced by George's load progress. It's cute. I would tell you exactly what George had to say, but I forgot. It all happened so quickly, I didn't have time to write it down. It was, seriously, a matter of seconds. A matter of seconds and George was intimately familiar with all of the music data in my iPod—playlists, artists, albums, songs were all present and easily accessible from George's intelligent remote. Video and photo libraries, however, are not recognized by George. He's a music-only type of dude. The knob and navigation buttons on George's remote work just like your iPod's scroll wheel. If you know how to use an iPod, you know how to work George's remote. And the people at Chestnut Hill Sound wanted to improve upon the iPod's navigation. Pretty ambitious folks, eh? George has eight jump buttons. Like warp zones, these buttons'll quickly take you where you want to go. When George is displaying an alphabetical list, the jump buttons provide small alphabetical ranges ("abc," "def," "ghi," and on), allowing you to "jump" to your destination. Want to listen to "Diamond Dancer"? Press "def," and you're there.

The remote is great—smart, fun, and easy to use. It's kind of big, though. It's about an inch deep, 3.75 inches wide, and 4.25 inches long. It doesn't feel especially good in my hands. I wonder if Chillsound can make the remote any smaller, and get its display a bit larger.

When listening to the radio—something I did little of before George came into my life—the jump buttons allow you to select your preset stations. You can save up to 24 presets. I saved every Spanish-language station I could find, as well as all of the cheesy Top 40 stations from my childhood. George's Bandless Tuning allowed me to go from AM to FM at the press of a button, and I saved my presets so that WFAN 660AM came right before WBLS 107.5FM and right after WKCR 89.9. Because I wanted to. You should feel free to organize your radio stations by frequency, call letters, genre, or whatever. Like everything else about George, setting the presets was a cinch. Listening to the radio became fun all over again.

The bass guitar in Archie Bell & the Drells' "Tighten Up" was solid and appropriately tight. Sara Bareilles' voice was pleasantly breathy. The rock drums in Live's "All Over You" had serious slam and impact. The blues came in loud and clear from Newark's excellent WBGO. AM reception was what I'd expected—fair to middlin'. I almost had a heart attack and nearly set off the office's fire alarms while trying to get a decent signal out of 1010 WINS—I think my heart is still racing after the sudden catapult in volume I experienced while tinkering with the FM antenna in an attempt to get better AM reception. Stupid me. For about an hour afterward, every time I opened my mouth all that came out was static and the traffic report.

Michael Jackson, by the way, is in the air, everywhere.

I had only one real difficulty during my time with George, but it was small and short-lived. After about a week into my time with George, he simply stopped communicating with my iPod, Jose Reyes. Instead of sweet music, I received a message on George's remote: George is syncing to your iPod catalog. Please wait. I waited. I waited until I couldn't wait any more. No music. What was going on? Had George and Jose gotten into an argument? I sent a quick e-mail to Krampf, who directed me to a Chestnut Hill support person. I was asked to reboot my iPod. It was a simple operation. I toggled the iPod's Hold switch and then held down the iPod's Menu and select buttons until the Apple logo reappeared. This took about five seconds. I reinserted my iPod into George's dock, and everything was back to normal. George and Jose were friends again. I never had another problem.

George works with all click wheel iPods, 4G and newer, including the radical iPod Touch and iPhone. Old-school models, however, aren't recognized. When John Atkinson's G3 was low on juice, for instance, he plugged it into George for a recharge. Nothing happened. No harm was done to the iPod, but no good either.

When Krampf visited, I had already inserted my iPod into George's dock. Krampf wanted to give a brief demo, but he wanted to use his own music. No problem. He simply pulled my iPod from the dock and inserted his own. Presto change-o: In a matter of seconds, the tens of thousands of songs from Krampf's iPod were accessible from George's remote. We were soon listening to Alison Krauss and Union Station.

It was right at the time that Krampf was telling me about how George had been designed specifically for music lovers that he had to stop himself, mid-sentence, and pay attention to the music.

There's sap in the trees if you tap ‘em

Bill Callahan's "Day" was playing. It's a bouncy, honky tonk kind of number, with a simple beat, a driving bass riff, and a happy-go-lucky piano line. JA walked into my office and looked at me. He opened his mouth and paused. He raised a finger.

"I forgot what I was going to say," he began.

"Oh?"

He looked down at George.

"How did all that music get into that little box?" he asked.

I shrugged.

JA started a slow bob. Up and down, up and down.

"What is this?" he asked.

"Bill Callahan."

"It makes you want to stomp your feet."

"Yup."

Eventually, JA's slow bob turned into an all-out hoedown.

And that's something I noticed about George—he has a way of making you want to dance. And, let me tell you, it's not always easy to get me on the dance floor. Ask the girls in my eighth grade gym class. It was impossible to pull me off of the slick brick walls of Hawkins Street School. But, with George playing the tunes, I found myself getting deep into the music, bobbing and stomping and swaying. I attribute this to George's rhythmic certainty. Maybe it's that downward firing subwoofer—I don't know—but George was consistently easy to listen to, and easy to move to. Voices were impressively detailed, too, with sibilants just as pronounced as I wanted them to be. And my Musical Spanish: Lessons for the Road was given a brand new life. I now better understand the similarity between the Spanish Z and the English S, but I still can't trill my Rs. Scrrrrrew it.

Dancin' all by herself, and not mindin'

Just about a week ago, I was at my desk, working on "Recommended Components" and listening to Bill Callahan's very lovely Woke On A Whaleheart. I don't know how many hours had gone by or how many times the album had played through. All I know is that I was enjoying the sound that came from George. My head was bobbing, my feet were tapping, and I was getting stuff done. In the middle of it, my attention was grabbed by the shadow of a man who was dancing outside of my office. Uh-oh, I thought. George was distracting people again. The man walked into my office. He happened to be another IT guy.

"Are you listening to the same thing over and over and over?" he asked me.

It hadn't occurred to me, but my co-worker was right—I had been listening to the same thing over and over and over again. It must have been annoying.

"Oh, gosh," I said. "I guess I have been. I'm sorry."

My hand automatically reached for George's remote. I adjusted the volume without looking away from my co-worker.

"I don't mean to sound rude, but it's kind of distracting."

People seem to have a hard time getting work done when George is around, which is a good thing. Steve Krampf was right, too: George offers an inviting sound with an excellent sense of rhythm, and, when playing well-recorded material, I was able to listen all day long, happily. Beyond all, George is friendly—I can't imagine it being easier to program or use. I'll leave that to the guys at Chestnut Hill Sound. They're working on it right now, I bet.

COMMENTS
John Atkinson's picture

"I'm laughing Sam Tellig's evil laugh over here." Oh no! Not more evil laughter. Seriously, I was very impressed with George. It is a very well-thought-out product. That it sounded good in Stephen's office is the icing on the cake!