capsule review

Review: Tivoli Audio iSongBook

At a Glance
  • Tivoli Audio iSongBook

    Macworld Rating

Two weeks ago, we published a First Look at Tivoli Audio’s $330 iSongBook , an iPod-compatible version of the company’s acclaimed SongBook AM/FM radio. That article was based on a preproduction version of the iSongBook; we’ve since received a shipping version for review and have been testing it to see how it compares to our first impressions. In this follow-up, I provide an overview of the system and focus mainly on ways in which my experience with the production unit differs from our First Look; I encourage you to check out the First Look if you want an in-depth look at the iSongBook.

First, a brief refresher: The 11" x 6.2" x 2.2" iSongBook combines a high-quality AM/FM radio, digital alarm clock, Universal iPod dock base, and stereo speakers in a weather-resistant, iPod-matching white and silver enclosure. A backlit LCD displays the time as well as the current playback source—AM or FM frequency, auxiliary input, or iPod—and the iSongBook features two 2.5-inch speaker drivers, one in the main body and another in a removable right speaker, which can be placed up to 6 feet away via its wind-up cable.

Tivoli Audio iSongBook

As we mentioned in our First Look, the iSongBook provides a unique, flip-down iPod dock base that is the first third-party iPod dock accessory to use Apple’s new Universal Dock system—a dock base that provides compatibility with various dockable iPods via standardized dock adapters. (Starting with the iPod nano and iPod with video, all iPods come with their own dock adapters; the iSongBook includes 7 adapters that accommodate all previous dockable iPods.) The iSongBook charges your iPod when plugged into AC power, and the included wireless remote control can be used to control iPod playback, radio tuning, and system volume.

One of our criticisms of the iSongBook in our First Look was that although the various iPod dock adapters worked well with the iSongBook’s dock base when an iPod was actually in the dock, the adapter sometimes popped out when the dock was empty. I was please to discover that the final production unit did not exhibit this issue; I was told by a Tivoli Audio representative that this was indeed a problem limited to preproduction units.

In terms of overall performance, the final version of the iSongBook performs similarly to the preproduction sample. Sound quality is excellent, especially in the treble and midrange, and thanks to the removable right speaker, you can actually get effective stereo separation—rare for portable speakers. The iSongBook’s only weak spot in terms of audio performance is a lack of bass, but this is to be expected given the iSongBook’s small size—when compared to other smaller speaker systems, such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3, the iSongBook easily demonstrates its audio superiority.

The iSongBook’s FM radio reception is excellent, with good AM reception, as well. The system’s alarm clock works well, although I don’t like the LCD’s “dark” blue backlight, which makes the display difficult to read when the backlight is on. The remote control is one of the better infrared remotes we’ve tested in terms of range and off-angle performance, and we like that it lets you browse iPods and albums on your iPod; however, as I mentioned in our First Look, I don’t like the fact that you can’t switch between input sources from the remote. Finally, the iSongBook properly charges NiMH batteries when plugged into AC power, and battery life is even better than Tivoli’s own estimates.

(Read our First Look for detailed impressions of these and other features.)

The lowdown

As I noted in our First Look, 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 best portable iPod speaker system we’ve tested. It also bests other portable systems in the versatility department, thanks to 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 better sleep timer, 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’ll probably be buying an iSongBook for myself.

UPDATE 3/16/2006:The iSongBook is now also available in black with silver trim.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Built-in “Universal Dock”
    • True stereo with up to 6-foot speaker separation
    • Excellent sound quality
    • Very good battery life
    • Maximum volume much louder than expected
    • Compact, packable design

    Cons

    • Poor LCD backlight
    • Can’t listen to iPod in transit
    • Expensive
    • Quirky remote control
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