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.

Dock debut

The other unique feature of the iSongBook is its built-in iPod dock. Unlike most iPod speaker systems, which have a dock cradle placed in a prominent location—right smack in the middle of the unit, for example—Tivoli has taken a more subtle approach. If you look at the left side of the main unit, you’ll se a small door that looks almost as if it could be a battery compartment. But if you flip that door open, you discover that it’s actually an iPod dock base that—via the appropriate dock adapter (see below)—accommodates any dockable iPod. When extended, the base of the dock rests solidly on a small rubber foot on its bottom. Like most “dockable” iPod speaker systems, the iSongBook grabs audio from your iPod’s dock connector and charges your iPod when the system is powered by the included AC adapter.

However, the iSongBook’s dock is also noteworthy in that it’s the first third-party iPod dock accessory to use Apple’s new Universal Dock system. As we revealed when this concept debuted with the iPod nano, the idea behind the Universal Dock is that instead of having to create new dock cradle inserts to accommodate new iPod models as they’re released, vendors can provide a single dock that uses Apple’s Universal design and then Apple will supply the appropriate adapter with each new iPod. The iPod nano and iPod with video are the first two iPods to include these adapters; however, if you’ve got an older dockable iPod, Tivoli includes Apple’s standard Universal Dock adapter set—the same one included if you purchase the $39 Apple iPod Universal Dock —to accommodate the following iPod models: 10GB, 15GB, 20GB, 30GB, and 40GB “Horizontal Buttons” (3G); 20GB and 40GB “Click Wheel” (4G); 20GB, 30GB, 40GB and 60GB “with color display” (a.k.a., “photo”); and mini. Non-dockable iPods can connect to the iSongBook via the system’s auxiliary-input jack, but lose the functionality—charging, remote control, and so on—provided by the dock.

Overall, the iSongBook’s flip-down dock cradle is a clever feature that works very well. In fact, the iSongBook even pauses and plays your iPod automatically as you switch from and to it via the system’s audio source knob. I have only two minor criticisms of this dock design. The first is that because of its Murphy-bed-like approach, the dock base isn’t as sturdy as that of some other iPod speaker systems. For example, unlike the secure and protective “cassette door” dock of Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7, you can’t really carry the iSongBook around with your iPod in the dock cradle—this is more of a system that you take somewhere, set up, and then listen to. (The iM7 and DLO’s iBoom take a “boom box” approach.) The second minor issue is that although both the included dock adapters and the ones that ship with the iPod nano and iPod with video work well with the iSongBook’s dock base when an iPod is actually in the dock, sometimes they pop out when the dock is empty. Since the iSongBook is the first Universal Dock accessory on the market apart from Apple’s own iPod Universal Dock—which doesn’t exhibit this issue—we don’t yet know if this is a common issue with third-party accessories. However, to be fair, this issue doesn’t affect functionality; it’s more of a minor annoyance.

Power on

In terms of power, the iSongBook runs off either the included AC adapter or 6 AA batteries. In addition, if you use NiMH or NiCAD rechargeable batteries, a switch inside the battery compartment allows the iSongBook to recharge those batteries when using the AC adapter. (A battery indicator on the LCD displays the battery level and, when plugged in, the charging level.) Although Tivoli estimates battery life at 10-15 hours, my testing found that the iSongBook can play for much longer. I purchased a set of 6 Sanyo 2500mAh NiMH rechargeable batteries from Costco and let the iSongBook charge them fully; I got over 20 hours of battery life at low to moderate volume levels while playing an iPod through the iSongBook’s dock. Granted, louder volumes will shorten battery life, as might using the radio instead of an iPod as the audio source, but I was still pleased with the results.

Tune in

Tivoli’s AM/FM radios have receved raves from the audio press, and the tuner in the SongBook, which the iSongBook adopts, is no exception. Unlike the iPAL’s rotary, analog tuning dial, the iSongBook offers a digital tuner with 5 AM and 5 FM presets, making the iSongBook a good deal more convenient. The tuner’s range is 87.5 to 108 MHz for FM, 520 to 1629 kHz for AM, with variable AM steps (10k or 9k) for use both in and outside of North America. In my testing, the iSongBook, like the iPAL before it, was able to receive more FM stations, more clearly, than even my (much more expensive) NAD home stereo receiver, which itself has been reviewed favorably for its FM reception. I was also able to receive FM channels from all over the radio-crowded San Francisco Bay Area with little cross-channel interference—and all of this was without even raising the iSongBook’s 3-foot telescoping antenna. With the antenna extended, FM reception improved enough that I was able to receive a couple channels that my home receiver couldn’t get even with an external antenna. I would have appreciated the ability to connect such an antenna to the iSongBook for even better reception, as well as a “DX” (mono) mode for distant/weak stations, but for a portable radio it’s tough to complain about the iSongBook’s FM performance.

AM reception was also quite good, considering that many radios these days include AM as an afterthought. Although I wouldn’t classify the iSongBook’s AM section as one of the best I’ve used—there was a noticeable amount of background noise on some AM stations—it was more than adequate for my personal AM radio needs: news and sports broadcasts. (When listening to AM radio, the iSongBook reverts to mono mode, regardless of whether or not the second speaker is connected.)

The iSongBook’s tuning buttons are easy to use and have an excellent feel. (I admit to having a soft spot for well-designed buttons, and the iSongBook’s are quite nice.) By pressing and releasing the up or down buttons, the radio frequency is changed one step at a time; holding down one of the tuning buttons quickly scans through frequencies. Alternatively, holding the up or down tuning button for longer than half a second and then releasing it causes the iSongBook to automatically search for the next “strong” station. In FM mode, an icon of a pair of headphones appears when the iSongBook has tuned in to a stereo radio signal. Finally, by holding down one of the 5 preset buttons for a few seconds, the current station is assigned to that button; you get 5 presets for each band (AM and FM).

Despite its excellent radio performance, my biggest complaints about the iSongBook relate to the LCD’s blue backlight (which affects both radio and clock mode, but the former more than the latter). First, when the backlight is on, there isn’t enough contrast between the characters on the screen and the background, making the display difficult to read if you’re more than a couple feet away. (This becomes an issue mainly when using the remote, described below.) Second, the iSongBook’s display light turns on only when you manually press the backlight button on the main unit or remote, and then stays on for only 30 seconds. I would have preferred that the light turn on temporarily whenever a button is pressed or a setting changed; similarly, I would have appreciated the ability to keep the backlight on continuously by pressing the backlight button once, turning off only when I press the button again.

Take control

The iSongBook’s included infrared remote, approximately the size of few credit cards stacked together, provides access to most of the system’s functions. Regardless of the audio source, you can adjust the volume up or down (including one-button mute/unmute) and temporarily enable the LCD backlight. During iPod playback, you can play/pause, skip or scan forward or back, and switch to the next or previous album or playlist; when listening to the radio, you can manually tune the station or, via the Preset button, cycle through the presets for the current radio band.

Unfortunately, you can’t change the input source from the remote, which means you can’t switch from AM to FM (or vice versa), nor can you switch between radio, iPod, and AUX modes. And in an odd quirk, the remote’s “Off” button is functional only during iPod playback. (Pressing it turns off both the iSongBook and your iPod; you can turn the system back on and resume iPod playback by pressing the Play button.) If you’re listening to the radio, your only options are to mute the system or walk over to it to turn it off.

Those limitations aside, the range of the iSongBook’s remote is excellent—much better than that of the infrared remotes of other portable iPod speakers we’ve tested—and its playlist and album features make it quite functional, as well.

Wake up

The iSongBook’s clock features will likely be a bonus for many people, rather than a primary reason for buying the iSongBook, but they do allow you to use the system as an alarm clock—a convenient feature. By setting the audio source to AM or FM and then activating the alarm, you’ll be awakened by the radio; choosing iPod mode and placing your iPod in the iSongBook’s dock will use your iPod as the alarm audio. In either case, you use the iSongBook’s volume knob to choose the alarm volume. By setting the audio source to Off (or to iPod/AUX mode with no iPod in the dock) the alarm will use a beeping sound that increases in volume automatically until you shut it off.

You also get a sleep timer that allows you to listen to the iSongBook as you go to sleep. You enable sleep mode by pressing and holding the Sleep button on the front of the system for approximately two seconds; the iSongBook will play the selected source—AM, FM, iPod, or AUX—for 20 minutes and then automatically turn off. (Unfortunately, unlike other clock radios, you can’t choose the sleep time; it’s 20 minutes or nothing.)

It’s unlikely that these alarm clock features will convince someone to choose the iSongBook over other portable speaker systems—those simply looking for an iPod-based alarm clock can save a good chunk of change by opting for iHome Audio’s $100 iH5. However, the inclusion of alarm clock functionality offers additional value for travel or for using the iSongBook as a high-quality bedroom system.

Listen closely

Given that Tivoli Audio’s products are known for their sound quality—and it’s that quality that usually justifies the higher price of Tivoli products over similar products from “mass market” brands—many readers are surely interested in how the iSongBook’s audio stacks up. Overall, the iSongBook sounds excellent. Detail and midrange are exceptionally clear—as good as or better than any other portable iPod speaker system on the market. And thanks to the capability to place the iSongBook’s speakers up to 6 feet apart, the iSongBook provides the best stereo separation and imaging of any portable system we’ve tested. There’s no portable speaker system I’d rather have in my hotel room on a trip.

In addition, despite its small speakers, the iSongBook is able to play at surprisingly loud levels—my ears reached their pain threshold long before the iSongBook demonstrated any distortion. It’s safe to say that the iSongBook will easily fill any room with crystal-clear sound. (Note that removing the right speaker significantly reduces the maximum volume level, although even in single-speaker mode the iSongBook can play quite loud.)

On the other hand, because of its small size, the iSongBook can’t compete with Altec Lansing’s $250 inMotion iM7 —the best sounding portable system we’d previously heard—in terms of bass response and body. Despite not being able to match the iSongBook’s treble detail and stereo separation, the iM7 provides a more well-rounded sound. Granted, the iM7 is much larger, at 16.75” wide by 6.25,” and was designed with bass in mind, with a 4” ported subwoofer and adjustable bass level—it’s more of a luggable boombox than a packable portable radio. But even the iSongBook’s “little” sibling, the iPAL, offers slightly more body—sound that’s a bit fuller in the midrange—thanks to a larger speaker enclosure (the iPAL is nearly twice as thick). However, these comparisons aren’t quite fair, as the iSongBook is much more portable, and limited in the bass department by its 2-inch-thick body. When compared to other smaller speaker systems, such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3, the iSongBook easily demonstrates its audio superiority. And if you’re the type of person who isn’t too concerned with bass, you’ll likely prefer the iSongBook to even the iM7.

The lowdown

At $330, the iSongBook is more expensive than every iPod except the top-of-the-line video model, and is the most expensive truly portable speaker system we’ve tested. But for those who demand superior sound quality in a compact system, and don’t mind a lack of bass, the iSongBook is the cream of the portable iPod speaker crop. It also bests other portable systems in the versatility department, with a stellar AM/FM radio and decent clock radio. Despite my minor complaints about its remote and LCD backlight, this is the speaker system I’d want to pack in my suitcase.

If you’re just looking for an iPod-based clock radio for home or office (or even the bathroom), a less expensive option is iHome’s iH5, which sells for $120 (including remote). However, apart from a more easily readable display and more control over the time of the sleep feature, the iH5 can’t compete with the iSongBook, which sounds much better, has a significantly better AM/FM tuner, and can be easily moved from room to room or taken with you on a trip. Is it worth the $200 price premium? That depends on your own tastes, but I’d pay it. In fact, I probably will.

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