As we noted in
of Kensington’s Stereo Dock back in July, hooking your iPod up to your home stereo requires a number of accessories: First, if you want the best audio quality, you’ll want a dock base or accessory that grabs the higher-quality audio provided by your iPod’s dock connector port. You’ll also likely want a remote so you can control playback from the couch. Finally, you’ll want to be able to power your iPod while it’s connected to your stereo so you don’t run the battery down. The Stereo Dock provides all of these features in a compact and attractive accessory that until now was the only product of its type on the market.
But iPod owners now have two choices for such “home stereo docking” solutions thanks to Digital Lifestyle Outfitter’s
. Like the Stereo Dock, the HomeDock provides audio output, iPod charging, and a remote control. But the HomeDock adds a few more features as well as some nifty design touches.
The HomeDock is fairly large as iPod docks go; at 5.75″ x 4″ x 1″, it dwarfs Apple’s own dock base. In addition, instead of having a white and chrome finish, the HomeDock is black and silver. Together, the larger size and stereo-matching colors make the HomeDock look more like a dedicated “component” in a home A/V system than a simple dock base. (That said, I think an all-black design would have been a bit more attractive.)
After its appearance, the first thing you notice about the HomeDock is its unusual iPod-docking design. Instead of a recessed slot that holds a particular size iPod—or a set of dock slot adapters designed to fit different iPod models—the HomeDock features a dock connector that
from the base on a small platform. This means that any size dockable iPod will fit, but it also means—why did it take so long for someone to do this?—that the HomeDock can accommodate most iPods
in their cases
. That’s right—you no longer have to take your iPod out of its case just to dock it. I hope other accessory vendors adopt this type of docking base for their products.
Another nice touch is the HomeDock’s support stand. Because Apple’s dock connector is not designed to support the weight of an iPod, DLO has included an adjustable stand. This clear plastic piece is attached to the base via a finger-turnable screw: You loosen the screw, move the stand forward or back until it’s positioned at the appropriate depth for your iPod, and then tighten the screw. A soft rubber “bumper” keeps your iPod from actually resting on the stand’s plastic surface. In my testing, this connector/stand combination provided very good support for all mini and full-size iPods. iPod nano models fit a bit less well—a thicker bumper is necessary to provide full support.
Also on the top of the HomeDock is a small slot that holds the system’s remote control. Although the slot does its job, it’s not the most stable design; a slight bump of the remote knocks it over. The front of the HomeDock includes a small, backlit DLO logo that shines green when your iPod has a solid dock connection, blue when no iPod is detected.
The back of the HomeDock hosts its plethora of ports and jacks—another place the HomeDock out-features the Stereo Dock and a big reason the HomeDock is so wide. A USB port lets you connect the HomeDock to your computer, which then powers the HomeDock and charges your iPod via USB; it also allows your docked iPod to sync with iTunes. If the HomeDock isn’t within reach of your computer, you instead use the included AC adapter; your iPod is charged while docked. (The HomeDock requires that you use either USB or AC power; the system’s remote control won’t work without a power source.) Finally, the HomeDock features a full complement of A/V jacks: left/right RCA audio outputs, an RCA composite video output, and an S-Video output. The audio outputs let you connect the HomeDock to your stereo via standard RCA audio cables; the video outputs are for sending video from full-size photo/color iPods to your television. (The HomeDock includes left/right/video RCA connection cables, as well as an adapter for connecting a stereo miniplug cable to the HomeDock’s left/right RCA jacks. It does not include S-Video or USB cables.)
In my testing, all of the system’s connections worked well. The HomeDock charged docked iPods and, when connected via USB to my computer, synced them with iTunes. The HomeDock’s video output ports—composite video and S-Video—both displayed a clear picture on several different televisions. (Audio output is covered below.)
Earlier this year, we
all of the iPod remote controls on the market at the time. In that review, we praised Ten Technology’s
for having the most functionality of any remote; the HomeDock’s remote is the first we’ve seen that approaches the naviPro in terms of features. Like the naviPro, the HomeDock remote lets you play/pause; skip/scan tracks forward and back; skip to the next or previous playlist; toggle shuffle and repeat modes; and adjust playback volume (which actually adjust’s the HomeDock’s audio output level). And like most iPod remotes, when used with a photo/color iPod connected to your TV, the HomeDock allows you to pause/play, advance, and rewind photo slideshows, as well as adjust slideshow music volume. On the other hand, although the HomeDock doesn’t provide the album and audiobook chapter navigation features of the naviPro eX, it adds a few unique buttons of its own: one to mute/unmute the volume, one to turn the HomeDock on and off, and one to turn on the iPod’s screen backlight.
Assuming your iPod is set to turn the backlight off after a period of inactivity, pressing the backlight button is a bit like touching one of the iPod’s own controls: The backlight is turned on and will remain on until the specified time of inactivity causes it to turn off again. Although this feature can be useful if you’re close enough to your iPod’s screen to read it, in a way it illustrates one “drawback” of a remote with so much functionality: Some of the features practically require you to be close enough to read the screen, in which case some people would rather just use the iPod’s own controls. For example, if you’ve got a good number of playlists, switching between them from across the room is a bit like Forest Gump’s famous box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get. The same issue affects the repeat and shuffle modes; without being able to see the screen—so you can determine which mode you’re currently in—you have to wait to see what happens after a song or album/playlist completes to see if you really switched to the desired mode. But this isn’t really a criticism of the HomeDock; rather, it’s on observation on the usefulness of such features in general.
As we noted in our review of remotes, we generally prefer the performance of radio frequency (RF) remotes, which have significantly better range than infrared (IR) remotes and can transmit through walls. Unfortunately, like Kensington’s Stereo Dock, the HomeDock uses an IR remote, which means it requires line-of-sight transmission—you won’t be able to control your iPod from the next room. That said, we were able to control our iPod from 20 feet away in the same room—performance similar to that of other IR remotes we’ve tested—which should suffice for most people using the HomeDock in a home entertainment system. And if your entertainment system includes a “learning” remote, it should be able to learn the HomeDock’s remote functions, which generally isn’t possible with an RF remote.
Overall, the HomeDock’s remote is easy to use, with a logical button layout—something that can’t be said about all iPod remotes we’ve tested. It doesn’t feel quite as solid as Kensington’s Stereo Dock remote, which is my personal favorite in terms of design and feel, but to be fair, the HomeDock remote offers significantly more functionality.
Listen to the music
Like Kensington, DLO made the decision to go with a variable-level audio output on the HomeDock rather than a standard line-level output. The downside to this approach is that a line-level output generally provides a higher quality audio signal, so audiophiles will likely be disappointed. The upside is that you can control playback volume from the HomeDock’s own remote. (A line-level signal requires that you use your home stereo’s volume control.) Although I generally consider myself among the ranks of the audio-snobby, there’s something to be said for convenience: You set your home stereo’s volume to a particular level and then use a single remote—the Home Dock’s—to control both playback and volume. And in practice, you’ll likely only notice a difference in sound quality on a higher-end stereo system listening to uncompressed music files.
With that caveat in mind, the HomeDock provides good sound quality. In my testing, the only issue I had was that cranking the HomeDock’s volume to the max resulted in a bit of distortion on certain tracks—the same phenomenon that occurs when you connect an iPod to a home stereo via the iPod’s headphone jack and then turn the iPod’s volume all the way up. Dialing the volume down slightly avoided such issues. Unfortunately, the HomeDock doesn’t include a way to determine the current volume level, and the iPod’s own volume display isn’t shown, so you need to experiment to find the best level for your system.
At $99, the HomeDock isn’t inexpensive. But as we pointed out in our review of the Kensington Stereo Dock, in order to get similar functionality via separate accessories, you’d pay anywhere from $55 (for a
Nyko Stereo Link
and a remote control, a setup that doesn’t charge or sync your iPod, display photos on your TV, or keep your iPod upright) to $130 (Apple’s photo dock base and AC adapter, a dock connector cable, and a remote control). And you’d still need to buy the necessary cables. If you don’t already have some of these accessories, an all-in-one docking solution is likely less expensive, not to mention more attractive.
How does the HomeDock compare to Kensington’s Stereo Dock, which can be had for around $30 less at street prices? Both products give you a good deal of functionality in a single, convenient package. The Stereo Dock feels a bit more solid and is more compact, but the HomeDock provides video output and lets you sync your iPod while docked (provided you’re close enough to your computer to connect the two via USB). The HomeDock also offers the same RCA audio jacks used by most home stereos, which means you can use standard stereo cables rather than the special minijack-to-RCA cable required by the Stereo Dock and Apple’s dock base. If you’ll use the HomeDock’s additional features, it’s worth the extra money.