capsule review

Review: Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0

At a Glance
  • Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0

    Macworld Rating

It appears that when a set of powered, bookshelf speakers—approximately 10 by 7 by 7.75 inches, with 5-inch woofers and 20mm silk-dome tweeters—is dropped at our doorstep, I’m the guy to review them. How else can you explain last year’s review of Audioengine USA’s Audioengine 5 speakers and this evaluation of the boy-do-they-look-similar-at-first-glance Sierra Sound iN Studio 5.0 speakers?

And as it turns out, I’m glad I had the chance to test the iN Studio 5.0, it’s hardly identical to the 5. Although both sets of bookshelf speakers are designed for a mid-sized room environment rather than the desktop, they differ in the inputs they offer (most importantly, the existence of a dock connector on the iN Studio 5s) and the character of their sound.

But because these two systems use such similar designs—and because we’ve received questions from readers asking for a detailed comparison—I’m going to forego our usual review style in favor of one that addresses such questions more directly. For starters, here’s what the iN Studio 5.0 has in common with the Audioengine 5:

iN Studio 5 front

  • Internal amplifier The left speaker hosts a built-in amplifier.
  • Auxiliary power port The left speaker provides an auxiliary power jack. This is useful, for example, for plugging in an AirPort Express Base Station, allowing you to wirelessly broadcast music from iTunes on your computer to the speakers.
  • International power The speakers can be switched between 115VAC and 230VAC.
  • Robustness Both sets of speakers can be cranked to the point where they’re louder than a moderate-sized room can comfortably accommodate, and both can play impressively loud without distorting. (I didn’t have a dB meter to gauge which speaker set is absolutely louder, but from casual listening tests I believe the Audioengine speakers have the edge.)
  • On the other hand, despite their visual and functional similarities, the iN Studio 5.0 system has quite a few differences from the Audioengine 5:

  • Dock Unlike the Audioengine offering, the iN Studio speakers have an iPod dock cradle, using Apple’s Universal design, on the top of the left speaker. Included are dock inserts for most older iPods; newer iPods include their own Universal adapter. When your dock-connector iPod is placed in the dock, the iPod charges, regardless of whether or not the speakers are turned on.
  • Much as I like the Audioengine 5 speakers, I missed the convenience of a built-in dock, even though I could use one of my own docks with Apple’s iPod cable strung between the Audioengine’s USB port and the dock’s dock-connector port to power the iPod. A built-in dock is a definite plus here.

  • USB port Although both speaker systems sport a USB port, they behave differently. The USB port on the Audioengine 5 only charges the iPod. The USB port on the iN Studio speakers doesn’t charge the iPod, but instead acts as a pass-through port for the iN Studio’s dock connector, allowing you connect the speaker to your computer to sync your iPod when it’s in the speaker’s dock. The Audioengine 5 provides no computer connectivity.
  • Three audio inputs Audioengine’s speakers give you two audio inputs—both miniplug inputs, one on the top of the left speaker and the other on the back of that speaker. The iN Studio speakers give you the aforementioned iPod dock, RCA connectors on the back of the left speaker, and, finally, a miniplug input on the back of that same speaker. You select the desired input by repeatedly pressing a small button on the back of the left speaker or by choosing one of three buttons on the remote control (below).
  • Infrared remote control Unlike the Audioengine speakers, you can control playback volume and your iPod with an included remote control. Most of the remote’s buttons control iPod functions such as Play/Pause, Next, Previous, Shuffle, Repeat, and Menu, but you can also choose one of the system’s three inputs (iPod, RCA, or miniplug).
  • S-Video output The inclusion of an S-Video output port lets you dock your 5G iPod in the speaker and display the iPod’s video on a TV connected to the speaker via an S-Video cable. Convenient.
  • Unfortunately, the current iN Studio 5 does not support video output with the new iPod classic and 3G iPod nano, thanks to changes Apple made in the video circuitry of these iPods. Sierra Sound will be incorporating the necessary component in an updated version of the iN Studio 5s, which the company says will be released before the holidays.

  • Three-way power switch The iN Studio system includes a three-way power switch on the back of the left speaker. Flipped all the way up, the power is on for good and all. In the middle “auto” position, the amplifier will power up when it detects a signal and will shut down automatically after 15 minutes of no signal. Off is, well, off .
  • Paint The Audioengine speakers come in glossy black or white. The iN Studio speakers come in the same glossy black or white as well as a fiery red.
  • iN Studio 5 back

    And, of course, the other difference is...

    Tone and sound quality While I appreciate the many extras offered by the iN Studio speakers, when I compared the two systems directly, I preferred the sound of the Audioengine 5. As similar as the two sets of speakers appear in design, the Audioengine 5 reaches a little deeper to produce a bass that’s richer to my ears. With the iN Studio speakers I hear more lower-mids that, with certain tones (a high-pitched bass drum, for example), I found distracting in A/B listening tests.

    That said, I also put the Audioengines aside, set up the iN Studios about 10 feet away and six feet apart, and just lived with them for awhile, listening in my usual, non-critical way. Playing a variety of music from my iPod and from my iTunes library via an AirPort Express, I found the sound to be enjoyable. The lower-mids didn’t leap out at me, lows weren’t conspicuously absent, and, like the Audioengine 5s, the top end was crisp and well-defined.

    The Lowdown

    As should be pretty clear, for critical listening the Audioengine 5 speakers rock my boat a little harder than the iN Studio 5. But outside the confines of my A/B listening tests, I found the iN Studio speakers to be musical and plenty loud. I also appreciate the many configuration and control options offered by Sierra Sound’s speakers. And, like Audioengine, Sierra Sound is happy to give you 30 days to audition the speakers. If you don’t care for them, you’re welcome to return the speakers for a refund.

    At a Glance
    • Macworld Rating

      Pros

      • S-Video output
      • Many input options, including built-in iPod dock
      • Loud without distortion
      • Remote control
      • Power outlet on back convenient for connecting AirPort Express

      Cons

      • Lower-mid frequencies a little pronounced
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