First Look: Tivoli Audio iSongBook

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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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