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Monday, January 5, 2009

The iPOD — Even Audiophiles Can't Ignore It


 

  Over the last half dozen years, the ubiquitous iPod and all its imitators have dominated the audio world. To those of us looking for the next step in improved audio vs. the CD — we  got sidelined by this phenomenon that took portability, custom music tastes and the Internet, rolling them all into one convenient way to deliver music. The high road to better music — DVD-Audio, high-resolution audio on DVD-V, SACD, etc. no longer mattered. The iPod and its world of MP3 convenience commanded total attention.
  At first, I moaned about the iPod dominating the audio landscape, complaining about its sound quality being dumbed down via the MP3 format and the substantial economic pressure it put on my beloved brick and mortar music stores. After all, I liked to spend hours at the local Tower Records, physically browsing the covers of CDs, SACDs and DVD-As before I made my purchase. In contrast, the online iTunes music store model was cold and impersonal.
  However, I have seen the light of the iPod/iTunes model. Because I refuse to listen to clearly inferior  sounding (vs. linear PCM) MP3s no matter what the data rate, I discovered that the iPod is a great portable CD player substitute. Its ability to take 44.1 kHz CD transfers means that you can have good quality audio output from the white mini-marvel without resorting to the “convenience” formats. My fourth-generation iPod with internal Wolfson DAC sounds better than my late 1990s high-end CD portable. Also, the iTunes model of downloading music from the Internet is finally swinging the high-resolution audio way.
"As technology has advanced bandwidth and data capacities on the Internet, high resolution download services, akin to iTunes, are starting to take hold. So I must give the Apple and iPod/iTunes. a better-late-than-never Thank You."

EAN Review!
A Little iKICK
For Your iPod 
  Like CD boom boxes, numerous portable iPod-dockable playback systems have hit the market, but many of them are rather poor sounding. Recently, I received a portable iPod dock that sounds quite good and can play loud without sounding like a pair of late 1960s transistors radios.

The details
  The iKICK iK500 iPod speaker dock, designed by Stiilwater Designs and made in China, is a quality portable playback system that is simple to use and has good power. The iKICK has enough features to make it work with almost any iPod or other portable source, including CD players, DVD player, or computer. Heck, I even fed the output of a SACD player to it.
  Priced at $349 retail, but steeply discounted to as low as $249 on the street, the iKick is a compact, portable dock system. The iKICK supports all generation of iPods (even the Shuffle via the Aux input jack). Most iPods are docked to the front iKICK's front panel unit through their bottom combo connector. Because of different sizes of iPods, the iKICK includes various-sized plastic holders to make sure each iPod fits snugly into the dock.
  The iKICK contains a pair of non-detachable two-way speakers, each with a 5-inch woofer/mid driver and a 3/4-inch soft dome tweeter. The key to its outstanding bass performance is a rear panel-mounted 6-inch x 6-inch passive radiator bass enhancement system. Passive radiators are similar to a woofer, but do not contain active  voice coils. Their movement is forced by the cabinet pressure of the active woofers. Like a bass port, the passive radiator augments bass in whatever, frequency range, the designer tunes it. Unlike a port, however, a well-designed passive radiator maintains better control without port noise.
  The iKICK digital amplifier section is spec'd at 20 watt RMS per channel. The rated bandwidth of the speaker/amp system is 50 Hz-20 kHz with no tolerance listed. The iKICK gets its line-level analog signal from the docked iPod audio output connector. The analog is then converted to digital via the iKICK’s internal A/D converter en route to the digital preamp/amp module. A DSP chip provides EQ function.
  Control is provided by just one knob for volume, bass, and treble modes, as well as activating the Auxiliary 1/8th-inch analog input. (I  connected a CD player, computer audio output, DVD player and a SACD player). The iKICK can also be used as a preamp for another amplifier via a set of RCA jack outputs — useful for outdoor parties or bigger rooms where you have a bigger amp and speakers.
  An LED display indicates volume, bass, treble, and Aux input mode. The bass and treble can be adjusted from plus or minus 12 dB. One thing I have noted about these iPod playback systems is the fact that once you mount the iPod into the dock, it is hard to see the display from a distance. Since control of the music is the responsibility of the iPod, seeing its screen is paramount. But the iPod’s small screen is designed for handheld viewing and cannot be seen from a distance; you have got to get close. I suggest mounting the iPod docks on a shelf at eye level so you can get close enough to see the various music display functions of the iPod (tracks, playlists, adjustments, etc.).
  The  iKICK includes a remote control that duplicates all front panel functions. Power is supplied by an external 22V-DC power supply. It does not have any internal battery. The unit constantly charges the iPod via the dock, even when the iKICK is off. The iK500’s dimensions are quite compact, indeed, at 19-inches wide by 9-inches tall and 8.5 inches deep. The weight, minus iPod, is just over 9 pounds. 

The audition
   I set up the iKICK on a shelf in my living room, and docked my fourth-generation iPod loaded with various kinds of music from CDs at the CD 16-bit, 44.1 kHz sample rate. I downloaded numerous rock albums to see how the iKICK fared in distortion-free listening of high-energy music. Many compact dock systems sound awful when cranked up.
  On the The Cars first album CD reissue, the iKICK was quite impressive. The soft dome tweeter delivered a smooth high-end transient and detail without strain or harshness. As expected the two-woofers and passive radiator delivered plenty of sub 100 Hz bass for such a small package. I played many other types music including classical and jazz, as well as a separate DVD player-delivered, PCM two-channel soundtrack from a Deep Purple concert from the early 1970s. The iKICK handled all music types without significant coloration.
  
"The iKICK even relayed the output of a SACD player quite well, revealing a generous portion of a jazz disc’s high-res dimensionality; the self-noise was quite low via the 1/8th inch input jack."

  With the design and placement of drivers, I did notice a bit of off-axis high end roll-off when you got above or below and left or right of the center “sweet spot.” The iKICK‘s placement also is crucial for the flattest bass response. On a shelf near the wall with the bass setting at 0 db (flat), there was a bit too much mid bass for my taste. I rolled off the bass -5 dB and got a much-cleaner midbass with a small sacrifice in low bass.

The verdict
  If you are interested in a compact dock for your iPod that actually sounds like real music, the iKICK iK500 is an incredible performer that KICKs out (pun intended) real hi-fi. None of that sonic mush when cranked up like many of its competitors — just good, loud rock and roll, jazz, classical, etc. Combine the sonics with its bargain street price and ease-of-use, and the choice is a no-brainer. Highly recommended by the EAN. The mass audio market needs more products like this.
 
FLASH Points:
iKICK iK500 iPod Speaker Dock
Smooth treble when cranked
Bass delivery 
Aux in and PRE out
Works with any iPod
   Stillwater Designs is located in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Visit their web site at www.kicker.com

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