Build your own iPod stereo system

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.)

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