Similar design to, and all the features of, Bose’s popular SoundDock for significantly less money
Better low end and louder volume than similarly-priced portable systems
Sound quality lacking in treble and midrange
Poor remote range/angle
No dock connectivity
Apple’s white “Universal” dock inserts don’t match black version
Although the market for portable iPod speakers, like the overall iPod accessory market, has exploded over the past couple years, we’ve seen few true competitors to Bose’s popular—but pricey at $300—
SoundDock system ( ). Part of this is surely due to the fact that a portable system allows you to listen in the office, bedroom, or kitchen, while still giving you the option to take your speakers with you. But there are definite sonic advantages to an AC-powered “desktop” system: Because it can use a larger enclosure—and one optimized for sound quality rather than portability—it will usually feature larger speakers and speaker enclosures, as well as a larger amplifier to drive those speakers, giving you bigger, fuller sound.
In the year and a half since the SoundDock was released, only a handful of true desktop speaker systems for the iPod have appeared. The first to really emulate the SoundDock’s larger design approach was Klipsch’s $280
iGroove, released in late 2005. (Playlist’s iGroove review unit exhibited audio issues; we’ll be reviewing an updated version of the iGroove as soon as we receive it.) But if you’ve been looking for a larger desktop system but have been turned off by the $280 to $300 price tags of the Klipsch and Bose units, Cyber Acoustics’s new $180 iRhythms A-302 and A-303 speaker systems ( ) offer similar design and features for a significantly lower price. How much do you sacrifice for the smaller hit on your wallet? Read on.
Note: The only difference between the A-302 (white) and A-303 (black) is color. In this review, I’ll be using A-30 xwhen referring to the general system, and using the specific model numbers when discussing one color or the other.
Similar, but different
The A-30 x , available in black or white, uses a one-piece enclosure similar to the SoundDock but slightly smaller: 11.7” wide by 6.2” high by 5.6” deep (vs. the SoundDock’s 11.9 x 6.7 x 6.5), with an iPod dock in the middle and speaker grills on each side. However, the A-30 x looks quite a bit smaller than the Sounddock due to the former’s curved design—the above dimensions are maximums, with measurements of less than 10” by 5.5” at the corners. The black version, the A-303, has dark silver speaker grills and chrome-colored up/down volume buttons, one on each side of the iPod dock. The white version, the A-302, has white speaker grills and white plastic volume buttons. I personally prefer the black version; its case is made of solid black plastic, whereas the white version has an additional layer of clear plastic on the front, giving it a “crystal” appearance that I don’t happen to like.
The A-30 x ’s iPod dock—which gets line-level audio from your iPod’s dock connector while also charging your iPod—uses Apple’s Universal design, accommodating the dock inserts included with newer iPods (starting with last fall’s iPod nano). Also included in the box are three dock inserts—white with the A-302 and silver with the A-303—that fit all older dockable iPods, as well as a matching insert that holds an iPod shuffle (which can be connected, using the included mini-to-mini cable, to the system’s audio-input jack). Although the A-302’s white inserts match it well, the A-303’s silver inserts are slightly off—too light to match the system’s silver speaker grills, but too dull to match the chrome-colored volume buttons. And if you’ve got a newer iPod, the Universal dock insert that comes with your iPod is white, which stands out even more when used with the A-303. These color issues obviously don’t affect the A-303’s performance, but some users will dislike the aesthetic clash.
Each of the A-30 x ’s speaker grills protects a 4” woofer and a .75” tweeter, with a 20-watt (total) amplifier powering the speakers. Each woofer is ported—the port openings are located in the front, rather than the more traditional rear—which allows the system to produce more bass than you might expect. The system is also magnetically shielded, making it safe to place next to a TV or computer.
Both systems also include an infrared remote control that can be used to control your iPod (skip forward/back, scan forward/back, play, and pause); system volume (up/down); and system and iPod power. (When an iPod shuffle is connected to the A-30 x , the remote controls only the system volume and power.) The 4” by 1.3” remote is comfortable and easy to use, with a logical button layout, although reception was less than stellar when using the remote off-axis (too far to the side or too far above or below the unit’s remote sensor, located behind the right speaker grill). This is the case with many infrared remotes—infrared, unlike RF, requires “line of sight” to the receiver—but the A-30 x ’s off-axis range seemed smaller than some of the other products we’ve tested.
The back of the A-30 x includes the jack for the included AC adapter, the 1/8” stereo input jack mentioned above—something missing from Bose’s SoundDock—and a master On/Off switch. The latter can be used to turn the system off completely, but most people will leave it in the “On” position, using the power button on the system’s remote control instead. The back also includes a handy cradle for the remote, something else I’ve often wished the SoundDock provided. When using the audio input jack, both the external audio source and your iPod can play simultaneously, which means you can use the A-30 x to listen to audio on your computer without having to plug and unplug the cable; this is a much-preferred design, in my opinion, to the one used by many systems where connecting a source to the audio jack mutes your iPod. However, I noticed that a docked iPod’s volume is reduced slightly when an external audio source is plugged into the jack.
It’s got iRhythm
Features are nice, but most readers are likely wondering how the iRhythms A-30 x sounds. Immediately noticeable is the A-30 x ’s warm presence: solid lower midrange along with good bass for a system of this size give the iRhythms some “oomph”—significantly more than the SoundDock when the two are compared side-by-side. The A-30 x is also able to play quite loud without distortion. On the other hand, the overall balance of the A-30 x ’s audio is shifted towards the low end: The treble and upper midrange sound a bit muffled. The result is a system that can easily fill a small room with music and beats, but won’t reveal the finer details; it can also sound a bit boomy at times.
(For those trying to decide between a “desktop” speaker system and a portable model that can do double duty on your desktop, I also compared the A-30 x with our current favorite portable system, Logitech’s $150
mm50 —a winner of our
2005 Plays of the Year awards and a system that happens to be in the same general price range as the A-30 x . As you might expect, the iRhythms system was able to play much louder without distortion, thanks to it’s larger speakers and heftier amplifier; it’s also got even more of a low-end advantage over the mm50 than it has over the SoundDock, giving you a much warmer, room-filling sound. However, the mm50 clearly—no pun intended—bests the A-30 x when it comes to detail.)
As lower-priced alternatives to Bose’s SoundDock, the iRhythms A-302 and A-303 are sure to be of interest to many an iPod owner looking to enjoy their music on a desk, dresser, or kitchen counter. And if sound quality weren’t an issue, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the SoundDock over the A-30 x . After all, the systems are similar in size—though dramatically different in their blocky vs. curvy styles—and have similar feature sets. The main non-audible differences are that the A-30 x includes an audio input jack and a cradle for its remote, and the SoundDock has a remote with better range.
However, sound quality does matter, and it’s in this area where the systems differ noticeably: Whereas the A-30 x gives you slightly more presence at the low end, the SoundDock provides significantly better detail and clearer midrange while still sounding relatively smooth from top to bottom. Are the SoundDock’s sonic advantages worth $120? I think so, but for many people, price is more important than ultimate sound quality—they’ll be perfectly happy with the iRhythms system given the lower price tag. (Some may even prefer the A-30 x ’s emphasis on the low end.) And keep in mind that I’m noting these differences based on a side-to-side comparison; several people who passed my office and heard the A-30 x on its own commented favorably on its sound quality. And one other difference plays in the iRhythms’s favor: Unlike the SoundDock, which you’ll rarely, if ever, find for less than its $300 list price, I’ve already seen the A-30 x for as low as $100 after rebate, making it an impressive desktop speaker value.