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.