April 4, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• How Fi the Hi-Fi? by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

How Fi the Hi-Fi? by Wes Phillips

It's almost as if Apple wanted to enrage audiophiles. Why else name a product the iPod Hi-Fi? After all, if there's one thing guaranteed to provoke audiophiles more than hearing iPod, it's linking the i-word to hi-fi.

I know this because Apple did a "gotcha" on me. When the Cupertino-based computer company announced the $349 iPod Hi-Fi on February 28, I linked to the product announcement with a snarky "I Do Not Think You Know What That Word Means" blog mention stating that the Hi-Fi's specified frequency range (53Hz–16kHz) is un-high-endish.

Regular reader Anton Dotson (aka Buddha) took me to task, opining that many revered single-ended tube amplifiers and horn-loaded loudspeakers have response specs that are similar or worse. "The iPod," he wrote, "is just getting started down our road. I don't think the first four years of the CD era were hi-fi either."

The Hi-Fi is Apple's own attempt to produce a one-piece iPod music-delivery system comprising a dock, battery charger, and speaker. Weighing just over 15 lbs, the Hi-Fi contains four class-D amplifiers, two 3.14" (80mm) full-range drivers in separate sealed internal enclosures, and a 5.1" (130mm) woofer in a dual-ported internal enclosure. The box has built-in handles on its rounded corners and is made of shiny white polycarbonate acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (PC ABS)—very iPod-like and, like all Apple products, the brainchild of industrial designer Jonathan Ive, CBE. On top are a docking cradle (the Hi-Fi comes with more than 10 cradle inserts, to accommodate any model or generation of iPod) and, in front of it, touch-sensitive volume-control tabs. The detachable grille is black, acoustically transparent, and pretty much visually transparent—you can see a baffle-mounted LED through it.

In addition to accepting iPod inputs, the Hi-Fi has a single auxiliary input that uses Apple's tricky 3.5mm analog stereo/S/PDIF optical digital connector. Did you catch that? That means it has an internal DAC.

The Hi-Fi's power supply is internal (no wall warts) and universal—just get the appropriate power cord and you can use whatever variety of AC your country offers. No AC? No problem. The Hi-Fi can run on six D cells for up to 14 hours (about 10 hours in my room at my volumes). A nice touch: the power cord is 9.5' long, which facilitates all sorts of placements.

There are a few details that aren't readily apparent. The outer cabinet conceals the multiple chambers of inner PC ABS plastic enclosures—the interior walls are glass-fiber-reinforced for rigidity and low resonance. The entire bottom of the Hi-Fi's enclosure is damped with a gummy rubber foot for further vibration control, and the grille is clamped to the enclosure so it won't rattle.

You also get Apple's standard remote: a stick the size of a Pez dispenser that controls the iPod docked in the Hi-Fi and allows you to switch between sources.

If you find me in a gloom, or catch me in a dream
Inside my lonely room, there is no in between

So the Hi-Fi is essentially a boombox designed to accommodate the world's trendiest fashion accessory, right? That would be as cynical a way of looking at it as calling the iPod a fashion accessory. It's true that the iPod and the Hi-Fi place a premium on industrial design, but the two things that have always impressed me most about the iPod are its user interface, which beats anything else hands down, and the way it allows the consumer to dictate his or her preference of sound quality.

Before we look at the Hi-Fi's hi-fi-ness, let's examine how it lives up to the iPod part of its name. There are a lot of other desktop music systems out there, including the Bose SoundDock ($300) and the Tivoli iSongBook ($330), both of which I've had experience with. The Hi-Fi feels like a high-quality piece of kit, something neither the Bose nor the Tivoli can boast. They seem chintzy in comparison. Neither of the Hi-Fi's rivals projects appreciable bass response, although their corresponding lightness might make them more portable. I say might because the Bose doesn't offer battery operation the way that the Tivoli and Hi-Fi do, and the rock-solid Hi-Fi, while heavy, does have handles for schlepping it around.

The Tivoli and Bose both offer remote control, but neither has a digital input. Heck, the Bose doesn't even have an auxiliary input. The Tivoli does include AM/FM radio, however. Used with recent models of the iPod, the Hi-Fi also gives you small amounts of Hi-Fi-specific EQ capability (Normal, Bass Boost, Treble Boost), something both competitors lacked. I don't need this, but it's there if you do.

Solidity aside, the biggest extra the Hi-Fi has going for it is that optical S/PDIF input, because that's how you integrate it into your home's WiFi network using Apple's Airport Express. Ah-ha! I hear you say. Why didn't Apple incorporate an Airport Express into the Hi-Fi?

I wondered about that, too. Apple's Bob Borchers told me it would have taken the Hi-Fi over Apple's target price of $349 and that many users wouldn't need it. That made sense. Also, as I discovered when I used the Hi-Fi in conjunction with an Airport Express, it isn't necessarily a bad thing to separate the two, since the best place for the Hi-Fi may not be the same place where WiFi reception is optimal.

The Hi-Fi's extra-long power cable, internal power supply, and battery compartment all freed it from petty placement concerns; the Tivoli and the Bose were both tethered to wall warts and short leashes.

Jemima surrender, I'm gonna give it to you,
I'll bring over my Fender
And I'll play all night for you

According to Apple's vice-president of iPod products, Greg Joswiak, the Hi-Fi was developed because so many aftermarket speaker systems feature more style than substance. The iPod, Joswiak observed, had become the de facto music-transportation device, and most boombox-dock-cradle systems limited the quality of musical experience the iPod was capable of delivering.

Yes, Joswiak admitted, a lot of that music being toted around on iPods is stored as 128kbps files, which also limit that quality of experience, but many iPods (mine, for instance) are packed with uncompressed music. "We wanted to give people a system that allowed them to hear the difference between a compressed MP3 file and one that was done with Apple Lossless Compression (ALC)—or between a good-sounding record and an okay one."

The problems with the iPod systems developed by outside vendors, as Apple saw it, were twofold: 1) Most did not answer the needs of the (overwhelmingly) young consumers who had embraced the iPod, and 2) Most were cobbled together out of existing drivers and parts and didn't synergistically interact with the iPod. So Apple began to design the Hi-Fi from the ground up.

Apple's Team Hi-Fi didn't see the Hi-Fi as a desktop system, so they didn't design it for nearfield listening—its purpose was to deliver good sound to the room, not the individual. Team Hi-Fi also determined that a one-box system was preferable to a mini-system, and that they couldn't justify the sonic compromise of incorporating the iPod into the speaker baffle.

Joswiak says the drivers were designed in-house, as was the DSP-corrected crossover. The dual-wall, multichambered, ABS-cast housing was designed for rigidity and inertness—even down to the slot-locking battery compartment. Then there were the hours and hours of subjective listening sessions to voice the speakers.

Wait a minute, I said to Bob Borchers, "senior director of the iPod ecosystem." You guys did listening tests?

"We went through a listening process and an education process that helped us define for ourselves what the natural voicing should be. That included a lot of A/B comparisons in order to create a natural sound. We have some really good ears on the development team."

Sounds like hi-fi to me.

Oh it's dog eat dog and cat eat mouse,
You can rag mama rag all over my house

The Apple Hi-Fi, too, sounds like hi-fi to me. I chose the appropriate cradle insert for my 30GB iPod Video and seated the unit in its slot up top. The iPod's screen immediately lit up, signifying that it was good to go. (Docking an iPod, by the way, activates the cradle input on the Hi-Fi—to use the auxiliary input, you need to press the Menu button on the remote for about 10 seconds.)

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I tried the Hi-Fi in several rooms, including my regular 13' by 25' by 8' listening room, stashing it off to one side, near my wife's and my preferred chairs. Two things immediately became apparent: The Hi-Fi is capable of filling even big rooms with music, and Apple's decision to go the one-box route makes off-axis listening as sweet as on-axis.

Because I put the Hi-Fi on a credenza that also supported a Musical Fidelity X-RayV3 CD player, I fed that into the Aux input, giving me CD as well as iPod as a source. I even alternated between the X-Ray's analog output and its TosLink optical digital feed. Just for fun, I also used an Airport Express's digital output occasionally, just to listen to playlists off my computer.

The only glitch I discovered in using the Hi-Fi was that it interfered with the radio reception of both my Tivoli iPal and Tivoli Model One table radio when I placed them too close to its cabinet. Moving them a few feet away solved this.

I wouldn't replace any of the actual stereo rigs in my house with the Hi-Fi. (With the possible exception of my Linn Classik kitchen rig, whose speakers are built into the soffit over the sink. There's something to be said for being able to tote the Hi-Fi into the area you're actually in.) However, the Hi-Fi sounded robust and detailed, it was capable of playing really loud, and it did reveal the differences between so-so recordings and good ones. Like any high-end rig, it sounded fantastic with really well-recorded source material. And, like many he-man hi-fi rigs I've auditioned, when I found myself getting irritated by it, it frequently turned out that it was the recording that was ticking me off. Changing the disc changed my attitude.

One morning, while listening to David Russell's Renaissance Favorites for Guitar (CD, Telarc CD-80659), I decided it was time to update my blog. I wandered into the kitchen to peck away at my laptop, where I kept getting distracted by the Hi-Fi playing one room over—it sounded uncannily as if David Russell were playing in the living room. There used to be a lot of hoopla over the "next room" test, but I hadn't given it a thought in years; now I'm thinking there just might be something to it.

Sonically, there's no comparison between either the Bose SoundDock or Tivoli iSongBook. The Hi-Fi has deeper bass, a far more articulate midrange, and nonscreechy highs. I've seen comments that the Hi-Fi favors bass over high-frequency detail, and I suppose that's true, in the sense that if you lack bass, the highs do seem more prominent. But I can't imagine listening to the Bose or the Tivoli for extended periods. Could the SoundDock or iSongBook enable me to determine the difference between a 128kbps file and one that was uncompressed? Maybe, but I'm not sure either could make me care.

So is the Apple iPod Hi-Fi, in fact, hi-fi? Well, it does enable iPod users to differentiate between good, better, and best. Will it satisfy someone with a hankering for a "real" hi-fi? Define real. The key, as Greg Joswiak observed when I interviewed him, is that most iPod users don't even list a "real" hi-fi in the top 10 of their "to own" lists. The Hi-Fi could change that. It's good enough to make 'em want it—and to be a gateway to the better stuff.

If everything sounds the same, why want something that's better? The iPod Hi-Fi demonstrates that differences do exist. As we audiophiles can attest, once you hear differences between components, it's hard to be satisfied with the merely good enough.

Me and my mate
Were back at the shack
We had [Gombert] on the box

One evening, as my wife and I sat in the living room listening to the Hilliard Ensemble's recording of Nicolas Gombert's Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus (CD, ECM New Series 1884), she turned to me and asked, "Is that the radio?"

"No," I said. "It's Gombert played through the iPod Hi-Fi."

"I thought it sounded too good to be the radio. Is that the whole thing?" She gestured at the compact white box.

"Yup. As you can see, you can plug your iPod into it, too."

"It sounds good. How much does it cost?"


Then she said something I thought I'd never hear.

"I'd buy it!"

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From Wes Phillips

Awesome Audio Chamber of Marvels


For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at http://blog.stereophile.com/wesphillips

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