capsule review

Review: Polk I-Sonic ES2

At a Glance
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iTunes Tagging

The I-Sonic ES2 is the first iPod audio system to include iTunes Tagging, a feature that works closely with the data provided by HD-Radio broadcasts. As I noted above, iTunes Tagging is designed to let you easily purchase, through the iTunes Store, songs you hear on the radio. When the feature works, it’s both fun and convenient; however, it does have several limitations.

The best-case-scenario, at least with the I-Sonic ES2, goes like this: When you hear a song you like on an HD Radio station, you press the large Tag button on the front of the I-Sonic, or the small Tag button on the wireless remote, before the song is over. This saves information about the song—its tag—to the I-Sonic’s memory (“Store Tag Data…” appears on the I-Sonic’s screen to indicate that the tagging was successful). If your iPod is currently docked in the I-Sonic, that tag is immediately transfered to the iPod; if your iPod is not currently docked, the I-Sonic stores up your tags and syncs them en masse the next time you place your iPod in the dock cradle. (You can store up to 50 tags in the I-Sonic, and these tags are preserved in the I-Sonic even if you unplug the system; once you transfer tags to an iPod, the tags are erased from the I-Sonic.)

iTunes Tagged playlist

The next time you sync your iPod with iTunes, tags are transferred to a Tagged playlist that appears in the Store area of iTunes’ sidebar. Click on this playlist, and you’ll see a list of all the songs you tagged, along with information such as track and album name, artist, a comment—usually the name of the station playing the track when you tagged it—and a Buy Song or View button. Click on a Buy Song button to buy the track immediately, or click on View to view the track on the Store, usually in the context of the song’s album. (It appears that you get the Buy Song button only if iTunes is able to make a definitive match for the track.) You can also “gift” your Tagged playlist to someone, or publish it as an iMix, by clicking the right-facing arrow next to the Tagged playlist in the iTunes sidebar.

iTunes Tagged listing

While the process worked for me each time I tested it, the results—in the form of the Tagged track listing—weren't always complete, as you can see in the screenshot above. Some tracks have no information at all, while others include only the name of the radio station; clicking View for these tracks takes you to the iTunes Store’s Power Search screen. And in this sampling of 13 tags, only one track included the album name. I’m assuming incomplete tags are a result of radio stations not including accurate information in their broadcasts; whatever the case may be, the upshot is that iTunes Tagging currently doesn’t work as reliably as you might expect.

Another issue is that when artist and song title information are present but album info is missing, iTunes apparently tries to find the “best” match for the track. This means that if several versions of a song are available, the version you get when you click on the Buy Song or View button may not be exactly the same as the version you heard on the radio. Even if the versions are the same, if you’re interested in buying the entire album, the View button may take you, for example, to a greatest-hits compilation rather than the original source album. And in some cases—for example, the Radiohead track in the screenshot above—you’re taken to a list of albums or EPs by the artist.

There are also a few general limitations to iTunes Tagging. It obviously works with only HD Radio stations, so if your favorite station doesn’t have an HD version, you’re out of luck. It also requires an iPod classic or third-generation iPod nano; older iPods, as well as the iPod touch and iPhone, won’t transfer tags to iTunes. (iTunes itself must be version 7.4 or later.)

In terms of the I-Sonic ES2’s hardware, I found the large Tag button on the front of the system to be difficult to press. In fact, if you press the bottom half of the button, nothing happens at all; you have to press the top half firmly. I much preferred using the easy-to-press Tag button on the wireless remote.

One final comment on iTunes Tagging: a few readers of my original coverage of this feature, back in January, expressed concerns that there were too many steps involved in the process: you have to tag a song; then, if your iPod isn’t already connected, dock it with the radio; then sync your iPod with your computer. As it turns out, this sequence of events tends to take care of itself. For example, I tend to sync my iPod with iTunes every few days, and I found that I put my iPod in the I-Sonic regularly enough that I rarely had to go out of my way to dock the iPod to transfer tags.

I-Sonic’s sonics

The I-Sonic offers a level of audio quality I’ve come to expect from a better desktop system: clear treble, good midrange, and—thanks to a large, internal enclosure and a bass port on the bottom of the system—solid upper-bass, although little lower bass. Stereo separation is typical for a one-piece system, which is to say that there’s not much, although thanks to the I-Sonic’s four speakers, you do get a sense of “fullness”—more sound in the room—that you don’t get with similar systems. On the other hand, the I-Sonic’s audio is not quite as good as that of some of our favorite desktop systems, such as JBL’s $300 Radial or Logitech’s $300 AudioStation; the latter is notably better than the I-Sonic when it comes to bass response. (The I-Sonic does offer treble and bass adjustments. However, these controls let you emphasize or attenuate existing frequencies; you can’t increase frequencies that are out of the I-Sonic’s range to begin with.)

I-Sonic ES2 back

One area in which the I-Sonic does have the upper hand over most other desktop systems is in directionality—or, as the case may be, a lack of directionality. As I mentioned previously, instead of using a pair of speaker drivers, the I-Sonic features two pairs: one left/right pair in front and another in back. This four-speaker array lets you enjoy the I-Sonic’s audio, albeit at slightly lower quality, even if you’re behind the system—a capability few, if any, other desktop audio systems offer. In addition, the orientation of the rear drivers is reversed so that the right channel is on the right-hand side when you’re facing the back of the system. This means you get accurate left/right channels even when listening from the rear. (It also means you can hear both channels—though reversed and, given that the drivers aren’t directly facing you, with lower quality—if listening from the left or right side.) Unfortunately, Polk didn't pretty up the back of the I-Sonic; it still looks like the back of an audio system, complete with cables and connectors.

A couple other audio-related features are worth noting. First, Polk’s Dynamic Loudness Contour automatically increases bass and treble levels at low volumes to account for the human ear’s reduced sensitivity to higher and lower frequencies. This feature works well, as even at the lowest volumes, the I-Sonic sounded good. Second, Polk includes a feature called Dynamic Compression that reduces distortion at loud volumes. Even with the volume cranked up on bass-heavy music, I didn’t hear any distortion at high volumes, although the audio quality still suffered, presumably because of this audio processing.

Macworld’s buying advice

At nearly $500, the I-Sonic ES2 is among the most expensive desktop audio systems for the iPod, and its features—which emphasize HD Radio reception and iTunes Tagging—place it in the company of premium table radios, such as those from Bose, Cambridge SoundWorks, and the like. If you aren’t a big radio listener or your favorite stations don’t have HD Radio versions—in other words, if you won’t take advantage of the unique iTunes Tagging feature—you can get similar audio quality for considerably less money.

On the other hand, if you're a fan of radio, the I-Sonic ES2 sounds better and includes many more features, including iPod compatibility, than a number of popular (and similarly-expensive) table radios. As someone who enjoys radio now and then, I was impressed with the quality and offerings of HD Radio, and I found myself using the I-Sonic’s iTunes Tagging feature frequently. However, Tagging depends on good information from radio stations, as well as reliable transfer of that information from the station to the radio, then to the iPod, and, finally to iTunes; based on my testing, that chain isn’t yet completely reliable. When iTunes Tagging worked, it worked well, but those times made me wish it worked flawlessly all the time.

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