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.
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.
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.