Review: Geneva Lab Model L
At a Glance
Most “iPod stereos” are based on the theory that, since all your favorite music is on your iPod, you don’t need any other audio sources—just a way to play your iPod’s music in high fidelity. Swiss audio manufacturer Geneva Lab, on the other hand, realizes that many of us still have CDs, and that some of us still like to listen to the radio—at least once in a while. The company’s Model L and Model XL stereo systems are designed with such versatility in mind; each system includes the expected iPod dock cradle, but also a CD player, an FM radio, a built-in amplifier, and stereo speakers—all in a single, attractive enclosure. After testing the Model L, I may not be ready to dump my big rig, but I’m definitely convinced that one-box audio can sound great.
What’s in the box?
The main differences between the the $599 Model L and the $1075 Model XL are the number of speaker drivers and the size of each system’s amplifier—and thus the overall size of each system. The 38-pound Model L, which we tested, is approximately 17.5" wide by 11.5" tall by 15" deep and features a 100 Watt (50 Watts into two channels) digital amplifier, two 1-inch tweeters, and two 5.25-inch woofers. The 84-pound Model XL is significantly larger at 21.5" wide x 24" tall by 15.7" deep—nearly three times as large in terms of volume—and features a 600 Watt (100 Watts into six channels) amplifier, two 1-inch tweeters, two 5.25-inch woofers, and two 8-inch subwoofers. Each Model’s cabinet is solid and sturdy, made of real wood with a glossy, piano-lacquer finish available in red, white, or black. Overall, the systems are fairly bulky—especially the Model XL—but the attractive designs and finishes go a long way towards making you overlook that bulk. (Although owners should be careful around the glossy finish, which scratches fairly easily.)
Apart from power and size differences, the Model L and Model XL are identical. The top of each cabinet hosts a slot-loading CD player that handles standard audio CDs (both full-size and 8-centimeter “mini” versions) as well as MP3 discs. Hidden behind a flip-up door (which is also quite solid and has the same glossy finish as the rest of the cabinet), is an iPod dock cradle, control buttons, and an input jack. The dock uses Apple’s new Universal Dock design, which means it will fit any dockable iPod with the correct adapter; seven adapters are included for older iPods, and newer iPods, such as the nano and 5G iPod (with video), include their own. The Model L/XL grabs the iPod’s superior line-level audio signal via the dock connecter, and your iPod is charged while docked. The buttons under the door are basic: power, volume up and down, and CD eject; you control the majority of the system’s functions using the included remote. The 1/8" minijack lets you connect an alternative audio source, such as an iPod shuffle, older iPod, or other portable media player. (You can also connect such sources to the Model’s standard input jacks, noted below.)
The front is covered in a matching-color metal grill that protects the system’s speaker drivers. However, also hidden behind the grill, in the upper-right corner, is an LED display that indicates the playback mode (CD, iPod, FM frequency, or line-in) or system status (on). Although this display is difficult to capture in a photo, it’s bright and easy to read, even from across the room.
Finally, the bottom rear of each system hosts various connectors and switches. Left and right RCA jacks allow you to connect an additional audio source and an FM radio antenna jack lets you connect an external antenna; the AC jack is also located here. There’s also a main power switch; however, if you want to be able to turn the system on from the remote, you should keep the power switch in “standby/on” mode.
That Geneva has chosen to place the connector panel on the bottom of the system instead of the back makes the system quite attractive from all sides. However, one drawback is that you need to use audio cables with L-connector RCA plugs to hook up another audio source, as standard RCA plugs protrude too much. (Unless you use the system on a stand, as described below, in which case you can use standard cables, but they’ll hang down under the cabinet.) Geneva includes 9-foot L-connector cables with each system, but if you want to place your external source farther from the main unit than those cables allow, or if you want to use higher-quality cables, L-connector cables aren’t as easy to find as standard audio interconnects.
A related effect of the connector panel being on the bottom is that the bottom of the Model L/XL must be raised up off whatever surface it’s sitting on so that the cables can escape. (Also, the system’s cooling vents are located on the bottom.) When using the system on a table or other flat surface, this is accomplished via large, sturdy, rubber-soled feet that keep the system elevated just over an inch, allowing the cables to exit the rear. However, I strongly recommend using the Model L on Geneva’s custom-made stand. Treble response and imaging are generally optimized when speaker drivers are at roughly the same height as the listener’s ears, and although the Model L doesn’t suffer as much from this limitation as some of the other speakers I’ve tested, the system does sound much better when elevated. And Geneva’s Model L stand is impressive: Made of attractive, brushed-finish metal and weighing quite a bit itself, the stand attaches firmly to threaded holes on the bottom of the Model L and elevates the system approximately 20 inches off the floor. A nice bonus is that the stand’s main post is hollow; you can run the power cable, interconnects, and even an FM antenna cable down through the post and out the rear of the base—great for reducing cable clutter and further enhancing the Model L’s sleek design. My only complaints about the stand are that its brushed finish scratches fairly easily and that you have to pay $99 for it over and above the cost of the Model L itself.
Overall, the Model L is one of the most attractive and well-designed stereo systems—iPod-compatible or not—that I’ve seen. In fact, it looks and feels like it could have been designed by Apple, and I mean that in the very best way. It looks more like modern furniture than an audio system, and it combines that appealing appearance with solid build quality and a number of thoughtful functional touches that would likely have been overlooked by many manufacturers.
(Included with the Model L is a fabric bag—soft enough to polish the system’s glossy surfaces—holding the power cable, L-connector RCA interconnects, remote control with batteries, mini-to-mini cable [for connecting an MP3 player, such as an iPod shuffle, to the top-mounted input jack], FM wire antenna, 7 iPod dock adapters, and a dedicated polishing cloth.)
Swiss audio knife
The Model L’s various modes, which should cover most of the ways you’ll want to enjoy your audio, are accessed via the system’s infrared remote control. Surprisingly large and heavy (6" by 2" by .75", 7 ounces), the chunky, much-less-elegant-than-the-rest-of-the-system remote is made of silver plastic with buttons that match your system—white, black, or red. You get the standard CD and iPod playback controls (play/pause, forward, back, shuffle, as well as CD stop and eject); source selector buttons (iPod, CD, FM, and line-in); volume, treble, and bass up and down; 6 FM station presets; and a power button. Overall, the buttons are arranged fairly intuitively—I was quickly able to use many of the functions by feel—but the remote’s performance was inferior to some of the other infrared remotes we’ve tested: You have to point the remote directly at the Model L, and even then the remote occasionally misinterpreted commands during my testing—for example, skipping tracks when I pressed the Volume Up button. This was a relatively rare occurrence, but it happened enough for me to notice.
Once the system is set up, it’s very simple to use: Simply press the desired input (iPod, CD, FM, or Line In) and then use the appropriate buttons to control playback (or, in the case of the radio, tuning). That may sound obvious, but I’ve used plenty of “minisystems"—even ones without an iPod section—that proved to be a hassle to use. The only playback complaint I had with the Model L was that if you’re listening to an iPod and switch to another source, the iPod doesn’t pause automatically; when you switch back, you’ll find that your iPod has been playing the entire time. You need to manually pause your iPod before switching to the radio, CD player, or line-in, because once you switch to a different mode, the remote’s controls are used for that mode. (In other words, the pause button no longer pauses the iPod when in a non-iPod mode.)
When using the radio mode, the same forward/back buttons used for iPod and CD navigation are used to navigate FM frequencies, which appear on the Model L’s LED display. A short press changes the frequency by one step; holding the up or down button for a few seconds automatically finds the next strong station. You also get 6 station presets; you set a preset by navigating to a desired station and then holding down the desired preset button until “store” appears on the LED display. To switch to a preset, you press it quickly. I liked that this works even if you’re currently listening to the CD player, an iPod, or the line-in input—the Model L automatically switches to FM mode and the preset station. (One thing I found interesting is that the preset buttons on the remote are labeled P, R, E, S, E, and T. Although such a labeling system is different from the numbered radio-preset buttons found on most radios, the PRESET labels do make it clear exactly what those buttons are for.)
Speaking of the radio, I found the Model L’s FM reception to be mediocre using the included wire antenna, and certainly nowhere near as good that of a good table radio such as Tivoli’s iPAL or iSongBook. However, connecting a better antenna—I used a powered Terk model, although a good passive indoor or outdoor model can also be used—improves reception dramatically, to a point that would likely be good enough for most users.
Finally, when listening to an external source via one of the Model L’s auxiliary inputs, the remote controls only volume and power.
Big sound, one box
Geneva is careful not to make the claim that the Model L is an “audiophile” system. (Apple made such a claim with the iPod Hi-Fi and got much grief for it—mainly because the Hi-Fi clearly isn’t a high-end system.) Rather, Geneva told Playlist that the Model L and XL are both “lifestyle” systems—aimed at combining good sound with style and simplicity. Yet despite this caveat (or perhaps because of it), I was quite impressed with the Model L’s overall sound quality. Treble is detailed and precise, midrange is clear, and bass, though not extended, is tight and punchy. And the system can play incredibly loud, given its size, with little distortion. (The Model XL, with its two subwoofers and much more powerful amplifier, allegedly improves significantly on the Model L’s bass response and can play much louder.) You can also tailor the system’s sound to your taste and listening room via individual bass and treble levels.
One of the challenges traditionally faced by one-piece stereo systems, as well as small multi-piece systems with the speakers close together, is that it’s difficult to get any true stereo imaging. Geneva’s solution it to this problem is to use speaker design and signal processing technology from Embracing Sound. This technology is designed to accurately reproduce true left and right channels from a single speaker location. On most types of audio, it works quite well with the Model L, producing a surprisingly wide soundstage and good stereo imaging despite the single enclosure. (Poorly recorded pop and rock doesn’t benefit as much from the technology as better recordings do.) Geneva includes a Sound Check CD with the Model L that demonstrates the system’s capabilities, and with some tracks on that disc, the results are truly impressive: You’re able to hear sound effects at the left and right (90-degree) extremes, and objects are placed at distinct locations in between. But the technology works with “real” music, as well; listening to well-recording music—most noticeably jazz and classical—you get a sense of depth and left-to-right soundstage not found with other one-piece systems, such as Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi. The Model L isn’t able to fully replicate a quality multi-speaker setup, but it’s still quite impressive—it even works well for watching movies via the Model L’s auxiliary inputs. (Unfortunately, the Model L’s bulky, one-piece design makes doing so difficult: Unless you have a flat-panel display hanging on a wall, you’ll likely be unable to place the Model L under your TV where it would belong.) And one other advantage of the Model L’s design is that the “sweet spot"—the location at which the system sounds the best—is larger than that of a traditional left/right speaker system; there’s less of a drop-off in sound quality at the sides of the room.
Overall, the Model L lacks a bit of richness and warmth compared to better stereo systems, but it would be tough to find a $599 system that sounds better while looking this good and including the Model L’s extensive feature list.
Judged on size alone, the $599 Model L might seem expensive. However, consider that Apple’s iPod-only iPod Hi-Fi is $349; for $250 more, the Model L gives you a CD player, FM radio, and significantly better overall sound quality—not as much bass but better detail, clearer midrange, and much better soundstage and stereo imaging. Add to that a sleek and stylish design that will inspire conversation but won’t dominate your listening room. Finally, I haven’t seen a full-featured stereo that’s as easy to use as the Model L—plug in the power cable and antenna and you’ve got a system that handles today’s most popular listening options: iPod, CD, and FM radio. Audiophiles will want to stick with their separate-speaker systems, but if you’re in the market for an audio system that’s easy, elegant, and attractive, the Model L should be at the top of your shopping list.