First Look: Tivoli Audio iSongBook

EDITOR’S NOTE—11/10/2005: The original review unit Tivoli Audio sent Playlist was a pre-production unit, not a final production unit as we had understood. Since Playlist reviews only final shipping units, we removed our rating of the iSongBook from this story and awaited a such a sample. We published our follow-up review , based on that final shipping unit, on November 23, 2005.

One of our favorite portable speaker systems for the iPod has long been Tivoli Audio’s iPAL, an iPod-matching version of the company’s acclaimed PAL portable radio. This chunky (3.7" x 6.3" x 3.9"), weather-resistant box provides excellent sound quality (despite its single-speaker design) along with one of the best portable AM/FM tuners on the market. If you like listening to radio in addition to your iPod, the iPAL is tough to beat for $150.

However, Tivoli also has another portable radio option, the $160 SongBook, which has garnered nearly as much praise as the PAL. Using a thinner but wider design that’s a better fit for most suitcases, the SongBook also features a digital tuner and clock radio, along with the same single-speaker approach. It’s become the portable radio of choice for many travelers picky about sound, and many of us in the iPod press assumed Tivoli would eventually release an “i” version of the SongBook as they did with the PAL. But most also assumed that, like the iPAL, the “iSongBook” would simply be a white-and-silver version of the original.

Assumption #1 turned out to be correct. Assumption #2? Well...not so much. Tivoli recently released the $330 iSongBook and although it’s clearly from the same bloodline as the original SongBook—and white and silver, as predicted—it’s also a significantly better product than its i-less sibling in terms of sound quality, features, and iPod-specific functionality. (Its price is also $170 higher.)

Tivoli Audio iSongBook

Ah, stereo...

The main body of the iSongBook is 7.3" x 6.2" x 2.2" and looks almost exactly like a white-and-silver SongBook. At the top is a backlit LCD that displays the time as well as the current playback source—AM or FM frequency, auxiliary input, or iPod. (When the unit is turned off, the time takes up the entire display; when in use, the time is displayed at a much smaller size at the top of the display.) Surrounding the LCD are buttons for the iSongBook’s clock functions: setting the alarm and time and activating sleep mode. There’s also a button for turning on the LCD’s backlight; once activated, the backlight stays on for approximately 30 seconds. (If your iPod is connected, as described below, the backlight button also activates the iPod screen’s backlight, which remains lit based on your iPod’s preferences.)

To the right of the LCD section are the radio’s controls—up/down tuning buttons and 5 preset buttons—as well as the source selection and volume knobs. Just below the LCD is a 2.5” speaker driver, similar to the one found on the iPAL, and an infrared receiver for the included remote (see below). The iSongBook also has a stereo headphone minijack on the left side and a stereo auxiliary-input minijack and AC adapter jack on the back. Like the SongBook, PAL, and iPAL, the iSongBook is weather-resistant thanks to sealed seams and rubber covers over the various jacks. (The source knob has four settings: OFF, FM, AM, and iPod/AUX—in order to use the auxiliary input jack you must switch the source knob to iPod/Aux and then disconnect any iPod.)

The most obvious difference between the SongBook and iSongBook (besides the iPod dock, which I’ll get to in a moment) is the latter’s second speaker—Tivoli’s answer to requests for a stereo portable radio. However, instead of simply making the body of the iSongBook bigger to accommodate an additional speaker, Tivoli has housed the speaker in a separate enclosure. Measuring 3.6" wide and the same height and depth as the rest of the iSongBook, this matching 2.5" speaker has four metal pegs on its left side that connect securely to four rubber-lined holes on the right side of the iSongBook’s main body—it takes a good amount of force to separate the two, so there’s little danger of the speaker falling off accidentally. When the second speaker is connected to the iSongBook via its attached miniplug—both the speaker’s plug and iSongBook’s speaker jack are positioned along the common edge, so nothing sticks out—the entire system is approximately 11" wide and provides true stereo sound. When disconnected (for example, to make the system smaller for travel), the iSongBook reverts to mono mode. With the speaker attached, the iSongBook weighs approximately 3 pounds; without the speaker, it’s about 13 ounces lighter.

But there’s more to this design approach than being able to fit the iSongBook in your carry-on. As frequent readers of Playlist’s reviews know, we’re rarely enthusiastic about the overall sound quality of small “stereo” speaker systems: The left and right speakers are often so close together that you don’t get much stereo imaging. In fact, Tivoli’s iPAL, which uses a single, high-quality speaker, sounds better than many “stereo” portable systems that use inexpensive speaker components. Tivoli has addressed this issue with the iSongBook by allowing you to place the right speaker up to 6 feet away from the main unit: The speaker’s miniplug has a 6-foot cable that retracts into the speaker itself via a wind-up dial on the back of the speaker. When you want to increase the cable length, you pull on it gently (a red mark on the cable lets you know when you’re nearing its limit); to retract the cable, you simply turn the dial. This clever design means that the cable is only as long as you need it to be while giving you true stereo sound.

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