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.
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.