It’s been well over a year since we
Klipsch’s $400 iFi speaker system for the iPod. The iFi was the first full-size, sub/sat audio system specifically designed for the iPod, and although it didn’t quite produce audiophile-quality sound, at the time it offered the best sound of any iPod-specific speaker system we’d tested.
The iFi has proven to be a very popular iPod speaker system, even showing up at Costco warehouses (at a significant discount, of course). So it’s surprising how few “full-size” iPod speaker systems we’ve seen in the 15 months since that review. Ironically, the most recent such product we received comes from
Jamo, a company that just so happens to be owned by…Klipsch Audio Group. The
, which also sells for $400, is significantly smaller than the iFi and quite a bit more attractive. Does it sacrifice sound quality for size and looks? That’s what I aimed to find out.
Small and sleek—relatively speaking
When we first unpacked the iFi last year, our first reaction was to marvel at its size and appearance. The massive 14.5” x 10.5” x 11.5” subwoofer/amplifier unit and 8.5” x 4.75” x 5.5” satellite speakers comprised the largest iPod speaker system we’d seen, and the system’s silver/metallic design made it look more like a home audio system than a set of iPod or computer speakers. The i300, on the other hand, will appeal to those who prefer a bit more subtlety—and iPod chic—in their speakers. The system includes a small subwoofer cube, less than 10 inches on a side; two tiny, two-way satellite speakers, each just over 3.5 inches on a side; and an iPod Control Dock. And Jamo has embraced the iPod design wave by offering the i300 in white/gray and black/silver.
The i300’s handsome, ported subwoofer unit contains a 6.5-inch driver, along with a 150-Watt Class D amplifier for the sub and a second 150-Watt amplifier (75 Watts per channel) for the satellites. The sub’s top, bottom, and sides are finished in a beautiful, high-gloss white (or black); rubber feet on the bottom protect both the sub and the surface on which it’s placed. The front of the sub is covered in a non-removable mesh screen—gray on the white version, black on the black version. Finally, the back of the sub hosts left/right speaker terminals, a 1/8-inch auxiliary input jack, a jack for connecting the Control Dock, and a jack for the power cable. (The i300’s power supply is incorporated into the sub unit, so there’s no bulky “wall wart” or inline converter.) I like the fact that the sub’s auxiliary input is mixed with audio from your iPod—you can listen to a second audio source, such as a gaming console or computer, and your iPod simultaneously.
As mentioned above, each satellite speaker is just over 3.5 inches on a side. However, instead of a square shape, the top, bottom, and sides are flat, while the front and back are curved. The face of each is slightly concave and covered in non-removable matching mesh; this mesh protects the satellite’s 3-inch and .75-inch coaxial drivers. The back of each satellite is semicircular and hosts spring-loaded speaker terminals. The satellites are finished in the same gloss-white (or black) as the sub, and optional rubber feet are included for placing the speakers on a flat surface. In addition, each satellite includes a built-in wall-mount bracket that swivels approximately 45 degrees to each side; the bracket can be removed by unscrewing a screw on the bottom of the speaker. I’ve seen few satellite speakers as attractive—or as easy to hide in your listening room—as these.
Despite their small sizes, both the subwoofer and satellites feel exceptionally solid; for example, each magnetically-shielded satellite weighs nearly 2 pounds and uses a single-piece enclosure (apart from the front face, of course). My only criticism here is that the mesh used for the satellite speaker grills is fairly thin and, if pressed accidentally when handling a satellite, can become “embossed” with the outline of the speaker-driver assembly underneath.
I mentioned above that Jamo and Klipsch are divisions of the same parent company. That explains why the i300’s Control Dock is so similar to that of the Klipsch iFi—also named Control Dock. In fact, when I asked a Jamo representative about the similarities between the two Control Docks, I was told that although the Jamo and Klipsch brands and products are distinct, some components are shared between the brands in the interest of keeping prices down. The Control Dock is clearly one of these components, although, as I’ll explain, Jamo’s version incorporates some welcome improvements.
Slightly longer than the iFi’s Control Dock, the i300 version is just over 6 inches deep and 4 inches wide with a solid rubber base to keep it from sliding around a desk or shelf. A cradle using Apple’s Universal Dock design holds your dock-connector iPod; 7 dock inserts are included for compatibility with older iPods. (Newer iPod models include their own adapters.) When in the Control Dock, your iPod is charged and the i300 grabs your iPod’s line-level audio signal via the dock connector. However, since this is a home speaker system, rather than a desktop/computer system, the Control Dock does not provide a data connection for syncing your iPod with your computer.
Like the iFi’s Control Dock, the i300 version includes a Volume dial, Subwoofer button, Mute/Standby button, and a bar of LED indicators. However, the i300’s Volume dial is a major improvement over the iFi’s. Whereas the iFi dial was recessed into the Dock and required you to rotate the dial along its edge to make adjustments, the i300 Control Dock’s dial is a mechanical scroll wheel—much like the one on early iPod models—that you turn by moving your finger in circles. The latter is
easier to use. As you adjust volume, the LED bar indicates the volume level. When you press the Subwoofer button (labeled “sub”), turning the dial adjusts the subwoofer’s output level; the LED bar then reflects sub level instead of volume. The LED bar is bright enough that, unless the Control Dock is placed on a surface above your field of view, you can easily view the volume level from across a room.
The Mute/Standby button is a handy feature: If you press it during playback, the system will mute and—conveniently—your iPod will be paused; press it again and the system is unmuted and your iPod resumes playback. (With the iFi, your iPod continued to play when the system was muted.) If you press and
the Mute/Standby button, the system goes into standby mode; your iPod is paused and turned off, and the i300 shuts down. Pressing Standby again wakes the system, and your iPod, up. (Pressing and holding the Play/Pause button on the remote, described below, performs the same function.)
The back of the Control Dock also provides a 1/8-inch auxiliary-input jack. However, unlike the aux-in on the subwoofer, connecting another audio source to
input mutes iPod playback; to listen to your iPod again, you’ll have to unplug the auxiliary input cable from the Control Dock.
That remote looks familiar, too
Another component of the i300 that’s nearly identical to that of the iFi is the remote control. The thin, oval-shaped remote is exactly the same size and shape as its iFi counterpart; the only real difference is that whereas the iFi’s remote uses round buttons, the i300’s remote has thin, horizontal buttons—Play/Pause, Forward, Back, and Volume Up and Down. (For what it’s worth, the round buttons of the iFi are easier to press.)
Using the same remote design as the iFi has both good and bad consequences. On the positive side, the remote uses radio-frequency (RF) technology, which means it does not require a clear line of sight to the Control Dock—you get very good range and can even control playback and volume through walls. On the other hand, the i300’s remote suffers from the same poor user interface as that of the iFi: Since the remote is completely symmetrical, when you pick it up, there’s no tactile indication of which end is the top. (In fact, the i300’s remote is even worse in this respect than the iFi’s. On the iFi remote, Play/Pause, the bottom-most button, is slightly larger than the others; the i300 remote’s buttons are perfectly symmetrical, top-to-bottom. The only consolation here is that the i300 remote comes with a lanyard attachment; if you connect that, you know that the bottom of the remote is the end with the lanyard. But that assumes you want a lanyard dangling from your remote.) In addition, since the remote’s buttons are in a straight line, if you don’t memorize the button layout, it’s difficult to figure out which “pair” is Volume Up/Down and which is Forward/Back—and where the Play/Pause button falls in relation to them—without looking at the remote. In other words, you’ll need to either memorize the button layout or look directly at the buttons each time you use the remote.
Size matters, but not as much as you think
By this point, you may be growing weary of comparisons between the i300 and iFi. But it’s tough to
compare them. After all, they have the same MSRP, come from divisions of the same parent company, and share components. Considering that the iFi has been one of the more favorably-reviewed iPod speaker systems out there, and how much smaller the i300 is than the iFi, many people are likely curious if the i300 sacrifices sound quality and volume for the sake of a (much) more appealing design.
Overall, the answer to that question is “no.” As you might expect, the smaller i300 can’t put out quite as much volume as the iFi, and it can’t produce frequencies quite as low, thanks to a smaller woofer in a smaller enclosure. In fact, because the i300’s 6.5-inch driver is relatively small for a subwoofer, it emphasizes certain higher bass frequencies over lower ones, resulting in bass that’s a bit more “one-notey” than that of the iFi. However, compared to most
speaker systems for the iPod, the i300’s bass response is quite impressive, reaching lower and putting out much more “oomph” than you’d expect. And the i300 can generate impressive volume levels without breaking a sweat; unlike many large speaker systems we’ve tested, when cranking the i300 up to ear-splitting levels, there wasn’t a hint of distortion or harshness.
At the other end of the audio spectrum, thanks to the i300’s tiny satellites, the i300 provides very good detail and upper midrange—better than that of the iFi, which to my ears lacked a bit of upper treble detail. (One technical difference between the two systems is that the i300 uses traditional drivers in its satellites, whereas the iFi uses horn tweeters.) The i300 still doesn’t match the treble clarity of Monitor’s stellar
i-Deck, but few systems do; the i300 will still easily reveal the flaws of low-bit-rate music, and will reward you for feeding it higher-quality tracks. The i300 also sounds much richer and fuller than I had expected given its tiny satellites. Its biggest flaws are a minor emphasis on the upper midrange and a slight dip in frequency response around the lower midrange; I’m assuming the latter occurs where the audio crosses over from the satellites to the sub. (This is a common flaw with systems that use tiny satellites: There’s a range of frequencies too high for the subwoofer and too low for the satellites, so you get a dip in response.)
Finally, soundstage—the stereo separation and left-to-right placement of instruments that helps make reproduced music sound more realistic—is also good, as you’d expect from a system that lets you position its speakers like those of a true home stereo. In this respect, there’s no comparison between the i300 and single-box speaker systems such as Apple’s $349
iPod Hi-Fi. (It’s worth noting here that, like the i-Deck and iFi, the i300 is designed as a
speaker system—it sounds much better from across the room than if you set it up on your computer desk and listen at close range.)
In short, like the iFi, the i300 doesn’t provide flawless audio, but it’s easily among the best iPod speaker systems on the market.
The Jamo i300 is unique among iPod speaker systems we’ve tested: It’s a sub-sat system that provides home-stereo-quality sound, but its components are small enough to be hidden away in most rooms. It’s iPod-matching shiny and white (the white version, at least), but rock-solid rather than cheap-plastic. Overall, despite a few minor sonic flaws, it’s a compelling combination of sound quality, iPod compatibility, and looks. At $400 (MSRP), it’s also among the most expensive iPod speakers on the market. However, unlike some of the other systems out there that claim to be able to take the place of a typical home stereo, the i300 actually
: Combine an iPod full of music with the i300 and you’ve got a system capable of outperforming many of the stereos you’ll find at the big electronic chain stores, while taking up a fraction of the space in your listening room.