Build your own iPod stereo system

iPod owners have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing a speaker system for their music player. I should know—over the past few years, I’ve reviewed many of these accessories, which typically combine an iPod dock, an amplifier, speakers, and a remote control. And while many iPod speaker systems make considerable compromises between sound quality, size, and convenience, some are quite impressive. When I’ve reviewed the best of these products—take Klipsch’s $400 iFi or Jamo’s $400 i300 as examples—I've often noted that users would be hard-pressed to put together a system on their own that sounds better for the same amount of money.

But that got me thinking: how difficult would doing so be? With some smart shopping, could you create a system—an amplifier, an iPod dock with remote, and speakers—that competes on both price and performance with the best systems specifically made for the iPod?

I decided to find out. I searched for components to make my own iPod speaker system, with the ultimate goal being a noticeable upgrade in sound quality over good iPod speaker systems in the same price range (which means connecting an iPod dock to a $300 “bookshelf stereo” with mediocre sound quality wouldn’t cut it).

Why go through the trouble? After all, if there are already good systems out there for $300 to $400, why not just plunk down your money and start listening instead of going to the trouble of rounding up the parts yourself? For starters, a system with separate speakers has the potential to sound better than an all-in-one box. Second, by buying the components separately, you’re future-proofing your system: you can later upgrade to a better amplifier, or a nice receiver, and even use the system for listening to CDs or radio. Apple could also make changes to future iPod models that render current iPod speaker systems obsolete; with a custom stereo, you can just buy a new dock instead of having to replace the whole thing. Finally, as an audio guy who also reviews iPod speakers, I simply wanted to see what was possible.

The ground rules

To truly replace a dedicated iPod speaker system, my build-it-yourself stereo had to meet several requirements:

• iPod dock: A cradle that connects to an iPod’s dock-connector port is necessary for high-quality sound and the ability to control playback using a wireless remote. (See the next item.)

• Remote control: A wireless remote for controlling basic iPod playback (play/pause/back/forward) is a must. The capability to control volume level is a bonus.

• Good sound quality: If my DIY system wasn’t going to sound as good as, or better than, what’s already out there, there was no point in pursuing this exercise. Thankfully, there are many inexpensive speakers on the market that sound great. And, as I noted above, separate left/right speakers have some clear advantages over one-box systems: separate speakers can provide much better stereo separation and imaging than speakers confined to a one-piece box; you often get better-quality components; and you can place components where you want them or where they sound the best—you don’t need a single, large “footprint” on your desk or dresser.

It’s also worth noting that a quality pair of standalone speakers will likely be with you long after an iPod speaker system has found its way onto CraigsList or the electronics-recycling pile.

• Relatively-compact size and decent appearance: With separate speakers, a DIY stereo is going to take up more room than a desktop system, but I wanted to keep it small enough to fit on a desk, dresser, or counter.

In terms of appearance, while there are some inexpensive amplifiers that perform surprisingly well, including ones you can solder together yourself, many are bulky and ugly. I didn’t expect to be able to put something together that looked like B&W’s $600 Zeppelin, but I hoped to create a system that wouldn’t look like something I built using parts from Radio Shack.

• Reasonable price: Although there are iPod speaker systems out there that cost $4,000 (or more), many of our favorites—ones that offer excellent sound quality and a good feature set—are in the $300 to $400 range. So “around $400” was my rough target price.

The dock

The number of different iPod docks—cradles for charging your iPod and connecting it to your stereo—available gives the number of iPod speaker systems a run for its money, and that's saying something. I’ve seen the most basic, off-brand models for as little as $5, with designer-audiophile models going for well over $2,000. For this experiment, I wanted a solidly-built dock that would charge my iPod, offer quality audio output (taken from the iPod’s dock-connector port), and include a wireless remote control for a reasonable price.

Apple Universal Dock
Apple's Universal Dock

As it turns out, it’s getting tougher to find products fitting those requirements; these days, many vendors are opting for more-advanced models (which are also more expensive) that integrate with your home-entertainment center to let you browse your iPod’s content via your TV.

I settled on Apple’s own Universal Dock ($49), which includes the infrared Apple Remote, and Apple’s USB Power Adapter ($29), which can be used with the Universal Dock to charge your iPod. Apple’s dock also lets you connect any video-capable iPod—including the latest models and the iPhone—to a TV for viewing photos and video, although without on-TV navigation. Other options include Xitel’s $80 Hi-Fi Link for iPod, and Griffin Technology’s AirDock. (The latter has been discontinued, though you can still find it for a considerable discount.) If you’re putting together your own system, pretty much any dock will work.

Keyspan TuneView
Keyspan's TuneView

If you’re not on the same budget as I set for myself, you can easily splurge on this component. For example, several vendors offer docks that include LCD-screen remotes which let you browse your iPod’s contents on the remote itself from across the room. However, you pay for this privilege; for example, Bexy’s iMirror costs $130 and Keyspan’s TuneView sports a price tag of $179.

There’s also one other impressive dock; I’ll get to that a little later.

As an aside, a frequent point of debate among audio geeks is an iPod dock’s audio output, which can be variable or line-level. A variable output lets you control volume using the dock’s remote; the actual level of the signal sent to your amplifier changes accordingly. A line-level signal is set at a standard level, requiring you to adjust the listening volume using your amplifier or receiver. Audio purists argue—rightly—that a line-level signal offers the best audio quality. However, given my budget, there’s not a huge difference in sound quality between the two approaches, and a variable-level dock offers more convenience by letting you use your iPod-dock remote to control volume. The main drawback is that you’ll have to experiment a bit with both volumes—the iPod dock’s and the amplifier’s—to get the right match of levels. (Note that for older iPods, this discussion is moot; they provide only a line-level output through the dock-connector port. Models since the original fifth-generation iPod can provide both types of output, letting you use an iPod dock with either a set or variable audio level.)

Get amped

Next up: find an amplifier—or to be more accurate, an integrated amplifier, which means it includes both the amplifier stage and a pre-amp. The latter is the component that passes the input signal—your iPod’s audio, in this case—to the amp and controls output volume. There aren’t too many inexpensive models out there, and even fewer of those are small and sound good.

Sonic Impact Gen2
Sonic Impact's Gen 2 amplifier

I decided to go with a Class T amplifier; these amps offer good performance in small, low-power packages. Specifically, I chose Sonic Impact’s $79 Class T Digital Amplifier Gen 2 . This tiny component, just 5.9-by-5.1-by-1.3 inches in size and weighing just under 9 ounces, provides 10 to 15 Watts per channel via standard speaker terminals (10 Watts to 8-Ohm speakers, 15 Watts to 4-Ohm speakers); it also sports a headphone jack. The Gen 2 costs so little because it’s inexpensively built—the case is plastic, the speaker terminals are simple spring clips, the audio-input is a basic stereo minijack, and the volume dial doubles as a power-toggle switch. But the Gen 2 offers good sound quality for the price and size. Although it runs on 8 AA batteries, AC power was more appropriate for my purposes. (The amplifier includes an AC power adapter as well as an audio cable).

Now, 10 to 15 Watts may not seem like much power, especially when many iPod-speaker vendors advertise products with 50 or more Watts. And the truth is that the Gen 2 isn’t a good match for large speakers, nor is it the best approach to take for very large rooms or outdoor use. But as I found during my testing, when paired with a set of efficient bookshelf speakers in a normal-size room, 10 Watts is more than enough for filling that room with good sound. (However, one warning is in order: contrary to popular belief, speaker damage at loud volume levels generally results not from too much power, but from not having enough power. So if you’re pairing a tiny amp with power-hungry speakers, you don’t want to crank the volume too loud for extended periods.)

Combo platter

Scandyna Dock
Scandyna's The Dock

An attractive alternative to a separate iPod dock and an amplifier is Scandyna’s $219 The Dock . Available in gloss-white or -black, The Dock is a beautiful and compact combination of a Universal iPod dock and a Class T amplifier. The back of The Dock features high-quality, multi-way speaker binding posts, as well as a subwoofer output if you want to connect a self-powered subwoofer. The Dock’s infrared remote also offers more features than Apple’s model—a mute button, a button to toggle repeat mode, and a dedicated power button.

Although pricier than buying the Sonic Impact amp and Apple’s Universal Dock and power adapter, the $62 difference in price ($219 versus $157) gets you some additional features, better build quality and components, a more-attractive design, and the advantage of fewer pieces and cables—it’s difficult to believe there’s a quality amplifier hidden inside. And because The Dock takes the line-level output from your iPod’s dock-connector port, changing volume levels via the amplifier stage, sound quality is potentially a bit better and you don’t have to fiddle with two different volume levels. (For $30 more than The Dock—$249—Scandyna’s The V Dock adds a line-out audio jack, an audio-input jack, and S-video output for older iPods, giving you more flexibility.)

Featured speakers

We now reach the critical stage of my experiment—finding the right speakers. My requirements included relatively small size, energy efficiency (our small amp can't handle speakers that need lots of power), sound quality that competes with the better $400 iPod speaker systems, and (based on the now-established cost of the other components) a price tag around $250.

I obviously couldn’t try every speaker system in this price range, so I sought out a number of inexpensive speakers that enjoy reputations for good sound, as well as a few speakers that were otherwise unique.

Boston Acoustics SoundWare
Boston Acoustics' SoundWare

In the latter category, I tried a number of truly compact speakers that wouldn’t take up much room on a desk, dresser, or counter; some of these had footprints as small 4 to 5 inches across. Unfortunately, the tiny size of these speakers prevented them from producing lower frequencies. In that respect, they just couldn’t compete with the better one-piece desktop systems, which use their larger enclosures to enhance bass response.

However, I did find some specialty speakers that I’d consider for specific uses. For example, Boston Acoustics’ SoundWare ($200/pair) uses a uniquely-shaped weatherproof enclosure, just 6-by-6-by-6.5 inches in size, that makes it great for use in bathrooms, around pools, and outdoors; it’s available in any of seven colors, including a paintable white model. Although the pair of SoundWare speakers I tested were clearly lacking at the low end, treble and midrange response were good and I found the combination to be quite enjoyable for music that doesn’t emphasize bass.

But for my DIY system, I wanted something with fuller-range sound. In the end, I narrowed the selection down to two speakers: Paradigm’s Atom v.5 ($250) and PSB’s Alpha B1 ($279). Both are traditional bookshelf speakers, which means they take up a bit more room than truly-compact models, but the improved sound quality over those tiny speakers is worth a few more inches of space, in my opinion. Both the Atom and Alpha are also efficient enough to work well with the low-power amps I was using.

Paradigm Atom
Paradigm's Atom v.5

The Atom v.5 is the latest version in Paradigm’s respected Atom line; the current model is just 6.5 inches wide but 10 inches deep and 10.8 inches tall, using a 5.5-inch cone woofer and a 1-inch voice-coil tweeter in a ported enclosure to enhance bass response. Available in Cherry, Rosenut, and Black Ash finishes, the Atom v.5’s black grill—rigid with a fabric covering—can be removed if you prefer the “naked” look. I wasn’t a fan of the grill’s magnetic-attachment design, as it allows the grill to be attached crookedly, but the speaker is quite attractive overall.

When paired with either amplifier—the Gen 2 or The Dock—a pair of Atom v.5 produces impressive audio quality across the frequency spectrum. Although bass response begins to decline fairly quickly below 80Hz, the Atom v.5 gives you rich, full sound that easily fills a normal-size room. At higher volumes, the Atom’s midrange and upper bass can sound a bit pronounced, but I had few complaints at normal listening levels.

PSB Alpha
PSB's Alpha B1

PSB has its own line of acclaimed bookshelf models, and the Alpha B1 is the best fit for my DIY system. At 7 inches wide by 9.5 inches deep by 11.8 inches tall, the Alpha is a bit larger than the Atom, and approaches the limit of “compact.” It also slightly exceeded my $250 budget. But if you’ve got the room, the Alpha B1 is a worthy investment. Available in Black Ash, Maple, or Sienna finishes, the Alpha has a rigid, metal grill protecting a 5.25-inch cone woofer and a 0.75-inch aluminum-dome tweeter; like the Atom, the Alpha uses a ported design. The back of the Alpha also provides two types of wall-mount connectors.

The Alpha provides excellent midrange and treble response, even at loud volume levels. As with the Atom, bass response rolls off starting at around 80Hz, but not quite as quickly; its usable bass extends a bit lower. The Alpha’s bass and upper-bass response are also a bit tighter, sounding a bit less boomy than the Atom at louder volumes. On the other hand, because of these traits, the Alpha doesn’t have quite as much bass impact. And the Alpha was a bit less efficient; I had to increase the amplifier volume slightly to reach a similar volume level as the Atom.

My minor criticisms of both of these inexpensive speakers are considerably outweighed by their excellent sound quality. And remember, these positive impressions come from using the Atom and Alpha speakers with a measly 15-Watt amplifier. As I found by connecting each pair to a much more powerful system—specifically, an Outlaw RR2150 receiver—both these speaker models scale well. In other words, if you later upgrade your amplifier, or decide to use the speakers with a traditional audio system, you’ll get noticeably better sound quality. So the Atom and Alpha are sound investments.

Putting it all together

Given the components I chose, I ended up with two potential systems within reasonable range of my proposed budget:

  • Apple dock and AC adapter, Sonic Impact amp, Paradigm speakers: $407
  • Apple dock and AC adapter, Sonic Impact amp, PSB speakers: $436

For those who prefer the design and features of Scandyna’s The Dock, the system prices are a bit higher:

  • Scandyna Dock, Paradigm speakers: $469
  • Scandyna Dock, PSB speakers: $498

How do these systems, which offer similar levels of audio quality with respect to each other, compare with the better iPod-specific speaker systems out there? Quite favorably, in my testing.

With either set of speakers paired with either amp, tonal quality was comparable to, or better than, that of the best desktop iPod speaker systems. (The exception here would be that some of the best one-piece systems we’ve tested offered slightly more treble detail at louder volumes than the Atom/amp combos. Some listeners may like this, others may not.) At the same time, both the Atom and Alpha systems offered much better stereo separation and imaging, thanks to the physical separation between the left and right speakers.

The top “home” speaker systems for the iPod—those that use separate left and right speakers or a subwoofer/satellite design—were much closer in performance. The $400 Klipsch iFi, the $400 Jamo i300, and the $349 Audioengine A5, all of which have much-higher-powered amplifiers, are each capable of louder volume levels. In addition, the iFi and Jamo easily beat my custom systems in lower bass response thanks to dedicated subwoofers. (If volume and bass response are your only concerns, and you’d prefer to go the DIY route for future upgradeability, I’d opt for Scandyna’s Dock, as its subwoofer output lets you later add a quality powered subwoofer.)

On the other hand, my systems offered better tonal balance than the iFi—specifically in treble detail, the iFi’s weak spot. And while I no longer had the i300 on hand for direct comparisons, the i300’s weaknesses are in the midrange and upper bass, areas where my DIY systems excelled. As long as I didn’t need to crank up the volume or feel every bass note, I preferred the overall tonal balance of my DIY systems to that of the iFi and (to be fair, my memory of) the i300.

The Audioengine A5—a set of powered left and right speakers approximately the same size as the Paradigm and PSB speakers—is actually a closer match for my DIY systems, as the A5 gives you similarly-sized, separate left and right speakers with a built-in amplifier; you just need to add an iPod dock (which adds $50 to the A5’s price tag). The A5 also bests my systems in bass response (although the comparison is much closer than with the sub/sat systems) and can play louder, thanks to having quite a bit more power. On the other hand, I found my DIY systems to be a bit more accurate and balanced in the midrange and treble.

Final thoughts

If you don’t have much room, or you spend most of your time listening to your iPod at close range—say, on your office desk—a compact, desktop speaker system may be the way to go; you can get very good near-field (close-range) sound from the better desktop systems, and these systems also excel in terms of convenience and integration.

But if you’ve got room to spread out—especially if you’re listening from across a room—separate speakers can offer considerably better sound quality. To that end, the DIY systems I’ve covered here impressed me. These DIY systems also offer future expandability when compared to the larger dedicated iPod systems—you can use them with any audio source, and you can later upgrade to a better amplifier or add a subwoofer. (For example, add a compact audio system such as NAD’s $499 C715 Compact Music System to either of the speaker systems mentioned here and you’ve got a stereo system that fits on a desk or dresser but out-performs much-larger systems you’ll find in your local electronics superstore.) And, of course, if you’ve already got a good set of efficient speakers, you’re halfway there; you just need to add a dock and an amp.

So, to answer the question that got me started on this project—yes, it is possible to put together a quality iPod-based audio system for the price of the better iPod speakers out there. Just be aware of each approach’s advantages and disadvantages.

[Senior editor Dan Frakes reviews iPod speakers and accessories for Macworld.com.]

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