capsule review

Review: Klipsch iFi

At a Glance
  • Klipsch iFi

    Macworld Rating

Many of the portable and “desktop” speaker systems we’ve reviewed at Playlist provide a special dock-connector base that lets you dock your iPod to sync with your computer, charge your iPod, and obtain higher-quality audio (via the dock connector’s line-level audio circuitry). However, as we’ve noted in these reviews, portable/desktop systems rarely sound as good as full-size speaker systems such as the various subwoofer/satellite packages we’ve tested. On the other hand, because these latter systems are generally “computer” speaker systems—made to be compatible with any audio source—they don’t provide the same dock-connector port benefits. If you want to use your iPod with one of these systems and get these benefits, you need to use Apple’s $39 dock base, which provides a dock connector port and a line-level audio output.

At least, that was the case until now. Klipsch’s new iFi speaker system is the first full-size, sub/sat audio system specifically designed for the iPod, complete with a dock cradle. But it’s also the first in a few other areas, as well. It’s the first iPod-specific home speaker system from a traditional loudspeaker company—Klipsch has been in the business for nearly 60 years and has a reputation for producing quality home audio speakers. And at $400, it’s also the first iPod-specific speaker system to break the $300 barrier set by Bose’s $300 SoundDock.

Klipsch iFi image

As a result of all these “firsts,” the iFi has received a good amount of attention, and been the object of much speculation, since its announcement in January of this year. Does it live up to the hype (and the price)? We got one of the first units off the production line; read on for our impressions.

Note: Playlist has a policy of reviewing only the version of a product that consumers will be able to buy. The iFi unit we received was part of a pilot production run of 25 units; Klipsch has assured us that the pilot production run is identical to the mass production run in every way—sonically, electronically, and cosmetically—except for one cosmetic marking on the included speaker cables. (Specifically, a black mark indicating which wire is for the left channel and which is for the right.) Nonetheless, we’ve requested a final shipping version, as well, and if it differs in any way from our current sample, we’ll update this review accordingly.

Follow-up (July 2005): Klipsch sent Playlist an official “shipping” unit and we can confirm that it is identical to the “pilot production” unit we previously reviewed.

Big Package

The first thing that struck me when I received the iFi package was the size—apart from the Logitech Z-5500 Digital, a 5.1-channel, THX-certified home theater system, the iFi comes in the largest shipping box of any “computer” speaker system I’ve seen. Granted, the iFi came triple-packed, but the actual iFi box is still a monster. The reason for this is, of course, that the iFi system itself is larger than most iPod/computer speakers.

The iFi is comprised of four main pieces, all silver/gray in color: a subwoofer, two satellite speakers, and a Control Dock. The largest piece, the 14.5" x 10.5" x 11.5" subwoofer, houses an 8" speaker driver (protected by a silver-colored metal grill) and a 200-Watt class-D amplifier that powers the sub and the two satellite speakers. The back of the subwoofer includes left/right speaker terminals, an AC cable jack, a 1/8" auxiliary audio line-in port, and the port to which you connect the cable for the iFi’s Control Dock. It also includes a vertical port for the vented sub enclosure.

The iFi’s two satellite speakers (left and right) are silver versions of the company’s new Reference Series RSX-3 satellites. At 8.5"H x 4.75"W x 5.5"D, they’re larger than the satellites found on most iPod/computer sub/sat systems, but even more significant is their weight—at over 4 pounds each (not including the speaker grills), they’re much heftier than you would expect. Just over 10 ounces of that is due to the weighted base, but the rest is the plastic and metal speaker itself, which includes a 3.5" midrange woofer (made of Klipsch’s “Cerametallic” material) and a .75" titanium dome/horn tweeter. I was surprised by how solid the satellites are—certainly more so than other “computer” speakers I’ve seen.

iFi satellite image

I also like the integrated stand found on each speaker. The 5.75" x 4" oval base is connected to the speaker via a metal ball-and-socket joint that allows the base to be rotated to virtually any orientation—the base even has slots for wall mounting. And unlike most removable speaker grills, which connect to the speaker via plastic posts, the RSX-3’s wraparound grills connect via seven small magnets. Finally, unlike the inexpensive spring-loaded clips most computer speakers provide for connecting speaker cables, the iFi’s satellites use quality five-way binding posts (although the subwoofer’s speaker terminals are spring-loaded clips).

Finally, we come to the feature of the iFi generating the most buzz in iPod circles: the Control Dock. Approximately 5.25" deep and just over 4" wide, with a solid rubber base to keep it from sliding around a desk or shelf, the plastic Control Dock provides a dock connector slot towards the rear that holds your iPod. Five inserts are provided to accommodate 10GB and 15GB; 20GB; 30GB; and 40GB models, as well as any iPod mini. (The Control Dock fits the 60GB iPod photo without an insert.) When your iPod is in the Control Dock, it provides a line-level audio signal to the iFi, and the iFi returns the favor by charging the iPod. Unfortunately, unlike some of the other “dockable” systems we’ve reviewed, the iFi doesn’t connect to your computer via USB or FireWire, so your iPod isn’t synchronized with iTunes; you need to sync your iPod with your computer separately. (Since the iFi is designed to be a full-size home speaker system, rather than a computer accessory, this isn’t a major shortcoming, in my opinion—the iFi isn’t likely to be near your computer.)

iFi Control Dock image

The front of the Control Dock provides a Volume dial, Subwoofer button, Mute/Standby button, and what Klipsch calls the “Light Bar”—a Knight Rider-like row of indicator lights. (If you didn’t watch TV in the 80s, this means the lights are arranged in a horizontal line.) The Volume dial is silver, just like the Control Dock, and is recessed inside the Dock so that only a smile-shaped section of the edge is showing, which you turn with a finger or thumb. As you increase the volume, the Light Bar’s illumination shifts to the right to indicate the current volume level. The Volume dial is also used to adjust the subwoofer level: You press the Subwoofer button and then turn the dial; the Light Bar displays the current sub setting. The Light Bar is clearly visible from across the room when using the remote (described below), so it’s easy to keep track of the volume level—and avoid accidental volume blasts.

Side note: Until I became familiar with the Control Dock, I had a tendency to turn the Volume dial the wrong way. I think it’s fair to say that many people have been conditioned to think that you turn a volume dial clockwise to increase the volume and counterclockwise to decrease the volume. Yet the Control Dock’s Volume dial works in the opposite manner: You turn it clockwise to decrease the volume. This actually makes sense when you stop to think about it, as the dial is oriented horizontally, so “clockwise” is also “left,” meaning “volume down.” However, it still took me—and several other people—a bit of time to adjust. Just goes to show you how powerful visual and motor memory can be.

If you press and release the Mute/Standby button, the iFi is muted until you press the button again; your iPod continues to play while the system is muted, just as a CD continues to play if you mute your home stereo. However, if you hold the button for more than three seconds, the iFi turns off (or, more correctly, is put into standby mode—which means it can be woken by the remote, described below) and your iPod is put into sleep mode (but continues to charge).

The Control Dock also provides a 1/8" auxiliary line-in jack. If you’re wondering about the difference between the line-in jack on the Control Dock and the one on the iFi’s subwoofer, it’s that the sub’s jack is a “mix” input—audio from a source (such as a computer) connected to that input will play simultaneously with your iPod—whereas the jack on the Control Dock mutes your iPod when a source is plugged in.

The iFi also includes a thin, oval-shaped remote control that provides Play/Pause, Forward, Back, and Volume Up and Down buttons. (The receiver is located on the Control Dock.) As an RF (radio frequency)-based remote, it does not require that you have a clear line of sight to the Dock Base—you can even control your iPod and the system’s volume level through walls. I had no problem controlling the iFi/iPod from 15-20 feet away, through an interior wall. (You can also purchase multiple remotes for use with a single iFi, if desired.)

Side note: Although the iFi’s remote functions perfectly, I’m not a fan of its design and layout. Since the remote is completely symmetrical and its five buttons buttons are arranged in a straight line, when you pick the remote up there’s no tactile indication of which end is the front. The Play/Pause button is slightly bigger, but not enough to make it obvious by touch. (Even if you have a good enough sense of touch to figure out which button is bigger, you may still get it backwards—the Play/Pause button is at the bottom of the remote, not the top, which is where I assumed it would be.) In addition, since the buttons are in a straight line, if you don’t memorize the button layout, it’s difficult to figure out which “pair” is Volume Up/Down and which is Forward/Back without looking at them. In other words, the remote is not intuitive—you’ll need to either memorize the button layout or look directly at the buttons each time you use it. A good remote should, in my opinion, require neither. But that’s a topic for another article.

On a related note, Klipsch revealed to Playlist that they’re currently working on a two-way remote for the iFi that includes a screen to let you view playlists, albums, and other track information for easier navigation. This would be a unique and welcome product, as the biggest limitation to the current crop of iPod remotes is their lack of any interaction with the iPod itself. This new remote should be available later this year as an optional accessory.

HiFi?

At $400, the iFi is significantly more expensive than other iPod speaker systems on the market; but then none of these other systems are billed as an “audiophile-quality” home audio system, as Klipsch is doing with the iFi. Given these lofty claims, I tested the iFi as I would speakers for a home stereo. The iFi’s subwoofer unit was placed in the corner of a 22' x 13' listening room, approximately 1 foot from each wall—a placement that, after some testing, provided optimal bass response. The satellites were placed on 28" speaker stands approximately 7.5 feet apart and 8 feet from the primary listening location. Finally, I used high-bitrate and lossless audio files, played primarily via an iPod, but also via an AirPort Express connected to the iFi’s auxiliary input jacks. (If you generally listen to 128kbps MP3 files, you don’t need a system with this level of performance, so I didn’t test with such low-quality sources—that is, other than to verify that, yes, lower-bitrate files sound inferior to higher-bitrate ones on a good system.)

The results of my testing? Although you should take the “audiophile-quality” claims with a grain of salt—$400 simply isn’t going to get you sound that will satisfy a picky audiophile—when compared to other iPod/computer speaker systems, the iFi is impressive.

The first thing that stands out about the iFi is the presence the system exhibits in the the bass and midrange, which makes it easy to confuse the iFi with a full-sized home audio system. And by “presence” I don’t mean “boom”—although the iFi can produce ear-splitting volume levels, this isn’t a “gamer” system that simply adds a boomy subwoofer and bigger amp to jack up the maximum volume and room-shaking ability. Rather, the iFi’s bass is solid and powerful without being boomy and overbearing, and there’s a richness in the midrange and lower treble that’s seldom found in “computer” speakers. You certainly won’t hear tinny treble or recessed mids, hallmarks of many inexpensive speaker systems; instead, you’ll hear vocals that actually sound like vocals, bass guitars that sound like bass guitars, and saxophones that sound like saxophones. Everyone who heard our iFi review system was impressed, most commenting—unprompted—on how good it sounded.

If I have a criticism of the iFi’s audio reproduction, it’s with the treble detail, which is slightly recessed when compared to the midrange. In fact, this combination of rich midrange and slightly recessed upper-end detail can on certain recordings make the iFi sound a bit midrange heavy. For example, when listening to a violin concerto that included harpsichord accompaniment, the violin’s lower notes were quite prominent while the harpsichord’s attacks—frequencies found in the upper treble—were at times difficult to hear. The violin also didn’t quite have the sharp “edge” that is unmistakable in a live performance and also present in a good violin recording played back on a higher-end system. That being said, it’s only fair to point out that this flaw in the iFi’s reproduction was most apparent when comparing the iFi with two higher-end (and significantly more expensive) home speaker systems—my own and one that I’m testing for another review—and is more noticeable at very low volumes than at typical listening levels. (It’s also noticeable when comparing the iFi to cheap computer speakers that have nothing but treble, but I don’t consider that to be a very good comparison.) Overall, this flaw is quite minor compared to the sonic flaws you’ll find in most computer/iPod speakers

In fact, the previous paragraph is perhaps the biggest compliment you can give the iFi: It’s only when you compare it to home stereo systems that its shortcomings become significant. The only “computer” speaker system we’ve tested that provides the iFi with any serious competition is the Altec Lansing FX-6021, which earned our highest rating for its stellar treble detail and soundstage when used in a desktop (“near-field”) setting; at under $200 (street price), it’s still the king of desktop systems. However, when used in a home audio setting—a living room, family room, TV room, etc.—the FX-6021 can’t compete with the iFi in terms of midrange and bass presence, room-filling sound, and iPod integration and control, and the FX-6021’s near-field advantages in the higher frequencies are much less obvious.

Side note: The term “near-field” is used, in the context of “computer” speakers, to describe listening environments where the speakers are very close to the listener rather than across the room. Because the acoustics of near-field listening are very different from the acoustics of a typical living room or family room, a system that sounds better than another when used on a desk may sound inferior when used for standard home audio use, or vice versa. For example, the Altec Lansing FX-6021 is our favorite computer speaker system for near-field use but is much less impressive when used in a large room. Klipsch has designed the iFi for home audio use rather than near-field use, and the effects of this design approach become obvious when you compare the iFi’s performance in a desktop setting vs. a larger listening room.

In other words, although the iFi may at first glance appear to be a souped-up “computer” speaker system, it’s really a compact home stereo system—amp, sub, and satellites—that happens to work seamlessly with the iPod. This is really the context in which the iFi should be considered, and when you do so, the $400 price tag doesn’t seem so steep. I haven’t heard any “computer” speakers that sound this good away from a desktop, so you’re unlikely to get this level of sound quality without hooking your iPod up to good home stereo system—which is going to cost more than $400 when you consider the cost of the amplifier, speakers, and the requisite iPod dock base.

The Lowdown

Those shopping for speakers for their desktop should look elsewhere, but for a home stereo setting, the iFi is the best sounding iPod speaker system we’ve heard, by a significant margin. In fact, its full, rich sound is comparable to many home stereo systems—you could put together a home system that sounds better, but you’d be hard-pressed to do so for $400, including the convenience of the dock base and remote control. Treble fans probably won’t fall in love with the iFi, but everyone else should guard their pocketbooks. As the first iPod-dockable home speaker system on the market, and one that largely lives up to its advertising hype, the Klipsch iFi is in a class of its own.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Exceptional satellite build quality
    • Convenient iPod Control Dock
    • RF remote
    • Best sound of any iPod-specific speaker system we’ve tested, including excellent bass and midrange

    Cons

    • Poor remote layout
    • Dock base doesn’t sync iPod
    • Treble slightly recessed
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