Review: Monitor Audio i-deck
At a Glance
For the most part, the high-end audio industry has had one of two reactions to the iPod: either to stick its collective head in the stand and hope the popular player goes away, or to actively scorn the iPod as “unworthy.” (Never mind that according to Stereophile magazine, when loaded with uncompressed or Apple-Lossless-encoded music files, the iPod’s dock connector port provides higher-quality audio output than many CD players.) The obvious exception here is the high-end headphone industry, which has seen booming business since the iPod became a phenomenon, but when it comes to speaker systems, iPod offerings have come mainly from traditional computer accessory vendors such as Altec Lansing and Logitech, with a few “consumer” audio companies, such as Bose and Klipsch, joining the fray. To be fair, some of these products have been excellent and are among our most recommended iPod accessories. But given the iPod’s ability to transport gobs of high-quality audio in a tiny package, and the propensity for many iPod owners to drop wads of money on accessories without so much as a second thought, we’ve been surprised that so few high-end audio manufacturers have jumped into what is currently a wide-open market.
That may be changing. Last July, we reviewed one of the first iPod-focused products from an “audiophile” company, Focal-JMlab’s $750 iCub. However, the iCub is as much a system for Apple’s AirPort Express as it is for an iPod. For the first iPod-specific speaker system from a traditional high-end audio manufacturer, look no further than Monitor Audio. Monitor has long been a well-known name in British Hi-Fi, and the company has embraced the iPod generation—as well as stuffy ol’ audiophiles looking for a “respectable second system” for their iPods—with the $249 i-deck , a minisystem for dockable iPods. We tell you how it holds up, both as a higher-end iPod speaker system and in comparison with some of the other worthy systems on the market. (For the record, I mean “stuffy ol’ audiophiles” in the best way.)
Not your parents’ “deck”
Although a “bookshelf” system, the i-deck is actually fairly large compared to most of the compact iPod systems on the market. Each of the system’s three sections—two speakers and the main dock/amplifier component—is approximately 7.5 inches high by 5.75 inches wide by 8.25 inches deep; the system is over 17 inches wide when all three components are placed together. (Although Monitor lists the depth of the system as 5.6 inches, its pieces are slanted; our measurement is one of the actual space needed for the system—the depth from the rear top edge to the front bottom edge.)
Each section of the i-deck has the same basic appearance: A sturdy plastic, silver enclosure with a white-and-gray front. (Although the front edges look gray in the image above, they’re actually bright white.) On each speaker, the middle gray section is a plastic and mesh grill that covers a 3.5-inch “woofer” and a .75-inch tweeter. (In Europe, Monitor offers replacement grills in black, pink, or blue; I suspect that these accessories will eventually find their way to the U.S.) The third component hosts the system’s 18-Watt-per-channel amplifier and iPod cradle; the latter charges your iPod while docked. Five included adapters provide compatibility with all dockable iPods except the iPod nano; an adapter for the nano is available directly from Monitor.
The design of the i-deck matches the iPod fairly well, although I personally find the overall appearance of the system to be a bit too plasticky. Visually, I actually preferred removing the system’s speaker grills, leaving the glossy-white surfaces behind the grills exposed. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do the same with the main amplifier section. On the other hand, Monitor has told Playlist that an all-black version of the i-deck will be available May 1. Judging by the picture the company provided (below), the black version looks less plasticky overall.
The rear of the amplifier/dock section includes the system’s AC jack, a power on/off switch, speaker outputs—the speakers connect to the amp using standard speaker cables—a 1/8-inch stereo input jack, and a dock connector port for syncing your iPod with your computer via Apple’s dock connector cable. A blue light on the front of the i-deck glows whenever the system is turned on or in standby mode. Unlike Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, which includes an internal power supply, the i-deck uses an external power “brick” with just over 5.5 feet of cable on each side (from the wall outlet to the brick, and from the brick to the i-deck).
Using the included 5-foot mini-to-mini cable (or any similar cable) you can connect an audio source other than an iPod (as well as 1st- and 2nd-generation iPods or an iPod shuffle) to the i-deck's stereo input jack to listen to it through the i-deck. Unfortunately, this mutes iPod playback—you can’t listen to both sources at once. This means you can’t listen to audio from your computer and from your iPod at the same time. Given that the i-deck is, like Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, designed to be listened to from across the room rather than at a desk, I wouldn’t normally consider this a drawback. However, to use the dock connector port on the back of the i-deck to sync your iPod with your computer, it has to be within reach of that computer, so it would have been nice to have this ability.
The rear of each speaker includes its speaker terminals as well as a standard (1/4-inch UNC) threaded connector for hanging the speaker on a wall. Speakers can be placed up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) from the amp/dock unit using the included speaker cable. Although longer cable can be substituted, Monitor recommends against it; according to the company, by placing the speakers further away than this, you’ll actually lose stereo imaging.
Finally, the i-deck includes the now-common credit-card-sized remote, which provides Play/Pause, Forward, Back, Volume Up, Volume Down, and Power buttons. (The power button simply puts the i-deck in standby mode; to turn the system off completely, you use the power button on the rear of the amp/dock unit, although doing so prevents the system from charging your iPod, as well. Oddly enough, you don’t press the power button to “wake” the system up again; you instead press the Play button.) A welcome feature is that the remote uses radio-frequency (RF) instead of infrared (IR) technology, which means you don’t need unobstructed line-of-sight to control the system—you can even control it through walls. RF also provides longer range than most IR remotes. In my testing, I was able to control the system consistently from over 20 feet away, or over 10 feet away through two interior walls.
The only downside to the i-deck’s remote is that its bubble-style buttons aren’t as easy to press as those on some of the other remotes we’ve tested. Coupled with the i-deck’s relatively slow response time when using the remote to switch tracks, on several occasions I thought I hadn’t pressed the Forward button hard enough, leading me to press it again, only to skip forward two tracks instead of one.
But how does it sound ?
Given the i-deck’s high-end roots, the biggest question in readers’ minds is likely to be, “Well, how does it sound?” To let the i-deck demonstrate its potential, I set it up in my living room—a room approximately 21 feet long by 13 feet wide—with the i-deck’s speakers about six and a half feet apart. I listened to music from a variety of genres and ranging from 128kbps iTunes Music Store files to tracks I ripped in Apple Lossless format from CDs.
Overall, the i-deck’s sound quality is nothing short of stunning given the system’s price. The i-deck’s treble detail is among the best I’ve heard in an iPod system—clear and precise, revealing subtleties of performances that many other systems hide. (I initially thought the i-deck might be a bit bright, but the more I listened, the more I concluded that this was both because I was comparing it to systems I’d previously criticized for lacking treble and because the i-deck doesn’t have booming bass to counteract its excellent detail; I’ll get to the latter in a moment.) The i-deck also provides excellent midrange, with vocals again sounding as good as they’ve sounded on any other iPod-specific system we’ve tested.
Because the i-deck allows you to separate its speakers, the system is also able to offer far better soundstage and imaging than other small systems in this price range, such as the $300 Bose SoundDock or even the $349 Apple iPod Hi-Fi. When properly set up, instruments take their proper places across the listening plane (provided the original recording is good enough, of course). Even when compared to other separate-speaker systems, including a few that are more expensive, the i-deck stands out. In fact, with its excellent detail and imaging, the i-deck is likely the best iPod-specific system for listening to classical and jazz that I’ve heard. (Note that if you set the i-deck up with its speakers right next to the amp/dock section, you won’t benefit from such excellent imaging and soundstage; the system is designed to be used as a true hi-fi, with the speakers separated.)
The i-deck’s most significant audio weaknesses are found at the low end and at at very loud volumes. The i-deck certainly doesn’t have the bass presence or low-end extension of Klipsch’s $400, subwoofer/satellite-based iFi, or even Apple’s smaller iPod Hi-Fi. (On the other hand, it does produce accurate, non-boomy bass within its physical limits; you won’t shake the walls, but you’ll enjoy quality low-end detail to around 80 Hz.) And although the i-deck is able to play quite loud, easily filling my listening room at levels louder than I could listen to comfortably, once you approach its upper limit, the system loses some of its clarity. In other words, this isn’t a bass-pumping party system; if you’re looking for the “biggest” sound money can buy, check out the iFi or iPod Hi-Fi.
I should also note that the i-deck doesn’t provide tone controls for tailoring the sound to your liking or your listening room. However, the iPod’s own EQ settings do affect the i-deck’s output, so if you find yourself needing a minor tweak, that option is available.
How does the i-deck compare to other good iPod speaker systems? As I mentioned in my review of the iPod Hi-Fi a few weeks ago, when compared to the Hi-Fi, the i-deck doesn’t have the same bass impact, but provides superior clarity, soundstage, and imaging. If you don’t need the Hi-Fi’s “transportability” or its room-saturating bass and volume levels, I think the i-deck is a better-sounding system overall. The i-Deck also makes quick work of Bose’s $300 SoundDock, bettering it in pretty much every category, including detail; granted, the i-deck isn’t as compact, but it also costs $50 less. (I should note that the SoundDock is optimized for desktop/nearfield listening, whereas the i-deck is intended for “room” listening, so I don’t recommend the i-deck for your desk.) And as I already mentioned, Klipsch’s iFi, with its massive subwoofer, produces much deeper bass, and can also play louder; however, like the Hi-Fi, it loses out to the i-deck when it comes to detail. (Both systems offer good imaging, although I give the edge to the i-deck.)
Another system we’ve really liked here at Playlist is Audioengine’s $349 Audioengine 5, a set of powered bookshelf speakers that include a USB port and audio input jack for connecting an iPod, as well as a rear-mounted AC outlet for connecting Apple’s AirPort Express. In terms of overall sound quality, the Audioengine 5 is probably the closest of these systems to the i-deck, offering a good balance from top to bottom and excellent soundstage and imaging thanks to separate speakers. In a direct comparison, the Audioengine 5 provides better bass response and can reach louder volume levels, but the i-deck wins out in treble detail; the two system offer similar stereo imaging. (The Audioengine 5 has one other advantage: It’s likely the most attractive iPod speaker system we’ve seen thanks its gloss white, painted MDF surfaces.) The two also differ quite a bit in their design: If you’re looking for an iPod-specific system and bass isn’t a priority, the i-deck’s size, dock cradle, and remote—as well as its lower price—likely make it the better option; on the other hand, the Audioengine 5 is more appropriate for a traditional stereo setup—it looks like a good set of home stereo speakers and can better fill a large listening room—and is also a much better fit for use with an AirPort Express.
When originally introduced a few months ago, the i-deck was priced at $349, which would have put it in the same price range as Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi and Audioengine’s Audioengine 5—and only $50 less than Klipsch’s iFi, which, when we originally reviewed it back in May 2005, we called “the best sounding iPod speaker system we’ve heard, by a significant margin.” In that company, the i-deck would have more than held its own. At its current price of only $249, few systems can even approach the i-deck in terms of sound quality for the money. Despite its lack of low-end extension, the i-deck is one of the most balanced and natural-sounding iPod speaker systems I’ve heard; it should more than satisfy those looking for detail and articulation over thump, and I especially recommend it for jazz and classical music.
If you need “transportability,” the iPod Hi-Fi and Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 are each better alternatives; and several systems, such as the iFi, the iPod Hi-Fi, and the Audioengine 5, have more room-filling presence. But given its size, design, and price tag, the i-deck is, like the iFi a year ago, in a class of its own. For $249, you simply won’t find another iPod-specific speaker system that sounds this good. And depending on your tastes, you may not be able to find one that sounds this good at any price.