Eric Bakovic wrote earlier today on the Apple iPod Hi-Fi, a gadget he might like to buy ([Between this and the title, that's two awful rhymes. Stop now. -- ed.]). In the course of his post, he mentioned some language in a review he read which left him bemused. SC was so determined to give a useful reply (and also had admittedly been curious about the product himself) that he ran out to an Apple store within hours of reading Prof. Bakovic's post, just so he could give a useful reply. But first, let's address the text in question:
So what do you need to spend all that money for? Sound is one thing: The IPod Hi-Fi does sound, well, like a high-fidelity unit. The sound can fill a room or even overfill it, if you crank up the volume sufficiently. It is rich, the bass is deep and the treble trills quite nicely. Some who've heard my evaluation unit complained about a lack of "midrange" sound; I didn't notice any.
Prof. B's follow-up:
Did the reviewer not notice any "midrange" sound, or did he not notice any lack of "midrange" sound? This is a critical matter about which we're left guessing, though presumably it's the latter, or else he would have presumably noted that he agreed with the "[s]ome who've heard [his] evaluation unit".
(But really, can we trust this reviewer to really hear anything? Why the scare-quotes around "midrange", but not around "bass" or "treble" -- are the latter somehow more discrete? Also, describing the bass as "deep" is hardly informative, and I don't know that I've ever thought of treble in terms of "trills". But anyway.)
While SC has lately been starving for material -- and more to the point, time -- this is a subject about which he's reasonably well-informed, and so while Mark Liberman ably handled his other linguistic concerns with the article, your host will tackle this one.
About Prof. Bakovic's first question, regarding the ambiguity over whether the reviewer was commenting on a "lack of midrange", or the lack of a lack of same, the answer is that the reviewer meant that he did not consider the device to suffer from a lack of midrange. A standard audio writing trope in praising a product is to offer some criticism alleged by anonymous friends or neighbors, and then to dismiss it, or at least use it as a foil.
Don't believe me? Here's the relevant passage from a Bob Reina review of a Sonic Frontiers power amplifier:
A reviewer from another magazine gave me an idea. Said journalist was visiting my summer place for the weekend, and we were hanging out listening to obscure alternative music. Of course, I am bound by the Stereophile Prime Directive not to reveal to anyone my views of equipment under review. (JA installs this little chip under the scalp when you join up. It doesn't really hurt, and, hell, Uncle Larry pays for the surgical procedure.) But my friend was free to say what he pleased; he wasn't reviewing the amplifier.
My friend was not impressed. "Yeah, it sounds like a Sonic Frontiers amp. It's boring!"
That's the word I was searching for. I love the Power 2 because it's...boring!
And a John Marks review of a Brinkmann amp:
A music-savvy friend who stopped by just after the Brinkmann arrived was taken aback at how different it sounded from the Unison Research, yet was reluctant to declare either "the better." "They're just different," he mused.
Back to our apples and oranges of low-powered tubes vs mid-powered solid-state. The Brinkmann has greater clarity and gives a more vibrant sense of immediacy than the Unison S2K—the music has more solidity—but also costs about twice as much. Sigh.
Occasionally, this works in reverse, where the friend is the one whose big change of opinion is the news, as evidenced in the first few paragraphs of this recent Tom Gillette piece for Stereophile. What, you notice that it's signed "Sam Tellig"? Mr. Gillette thinks his most-of-his-last-name-backwards pseudonym adds character to his writing; SC strenuously disagrees. He also digresses. ([And laughs his evil laugh, in homage to Mr. Gillette's favorite cliche? -- ed.])
Having established what the reviewer meant, let's decode the parts that led to Prof. B's parenthetical comment, starting with "can we trust this reviewer to really hear anything"? SC has never read a review by the author in question before, but the general answer is: yes, but not overly so. Audio writers are generally just well-heeled hobbyists; the reviewers linked above have made no secret of their personal wealth in past writings, and while many readers may recognize the name Anthony Cordesman from his national security commentary on CNN, they may not be aware that he also has passed as an expert reviewer for many years. (SC is not wholly unbiased here -- he blames Mr. Cordesman for an overly enthusiastic review that led him to the one truly regrettable audio purchase of his life.) There is rarely any special reason to believe the reviewer has better hearing than you do -- although this does not mean that they haven't acquired some meaningful experience from years of listening to better equipment. Certain comments correlate fairly well with measurements, and we'll discuss that in a minute.
But before we do, let's get to the last of Prof. B's questions, about the scare quotes around the word "midrange". The only reason they are there, but not around bass or treble is to again set off the anonymous foil's comments for disimissal. They are in no way "less discrete" (Prof. B's charitable hypothesis), and the stuff about "deep bass" and "treble trills" is just more stock jargon which means nothing more than "I didn't hear anything grossly unacceptable in those regions". Prof. Bakovic has probably never thought of midrange sounds as "lush", especially when more or less flat frequency response is being described, but that's another example of the sort of descriptive language involved. SC has written about this sort of thing before, so go click on the link if you want more such verbiage.
With such contempt for the audiophile press, why the heck does SC subscribe to any of it? (Specifically: Stereophile, Home Theater, and Robb Report Home Entertainment.) The answer, alas, is almost as pathetic as the timeless excuse for embarrassed Playboy subscribers: I read Stereophile for the measurements. (And the others for the product announcements and gorgeous photography.)
Having said all that, your host also mentioned actually auditioning the thing. This is true, with the following caveats: 1) the store was not otherwise quiet (although nothing else was being played nearly as loudly in close proximity), 2) the recordings used for the demonstration were not familiar, and 3) while SC's test gear is reasonably portable, there is no way the store would have tolerated his setting up a calibrated microphone, stand, preamp, laptop with 1/24th-octave analyzer and other such equipment to do measurements, so all claims to measurements are based purely on your host's experience and knowledge of the field.
As your host commented on Prof. B's personal blog, he agrees with the "doesn't lack midrange" comment. Listening to both some generic pop and an unfamiliar "Concerto in D" boasting Yitzhak Perlman (according to the display of the iPod docked to the Hi-Fi unit), I didn't hear any obvious midrange anomalies. But that's where the good news ends.
Apple specs the device as having a frequency response of 53 Hz to 16 kHz, +/- 3 dB. That sounds pretty good, but there's a lot of room for mischief within that 6 dB variation (see this Floyd Toole presentation for details; as he puts it, that spec can mean anything "from junk to jewels"). It sounded to your host's ears like the speaker is tuned to have a fairly severe hump at its probable port-tuning frequency of about 60 Hz, a common trick to boost apparent bass response in small speakers. The wireframe drawing on Apple's site suggests that the two ports are actually part of a single folded duct, about the only way to get that low a tuning frequency with any kind of useful resonance in such a small box. Such systems tend to suffer from "organ-pipe resonance", a tendency to be loudest at or near their tuning frequency, and the Hi-Fi sounded to SC's ears like it is no more immune to the physics of these things than any other speaker. When a reviewer says something sounds "boomy", a sharp bass-region peak is almost always the culprit.
As Dr. Bose has known (and successfully traded on) for years, in addition to this pseudo-bass, peaky treble sounds exciting on first listen. While the company has prevented reviewers from printing response measurements for years, this graph reproduced from a rare exception in a 1999 Sound & Vision article illustrates the basic idea pretty well. A significant peak around 3-5 kHz generally results in people claiming that something sounds "brighter" or "sharper" compared to a flatter-measuring speaker at the same frequencies. This sells well, especially when the audition period isn't long enough for fatigue to set in, and the Apple Hi-Fi sounded to SC like it was tuned for similar response. This comment is restricted to the peaky treble issue, though -- the ugly midrange suckout in the graph, due to the poor matching between Bose woofers and cubes, is most definitely not present in the Hi-Fi, or in just about any other similar product (including the Bose SoundDock).
Regarding the purported "room-filling sound", SC estimates he listened to the device at about 90 dB from six feet away. It sounded like the amplifier was beginning to clip (generally defined as 1% total harmonic distortion), despite Apple's claims of a "maximum sound level" of 108 dB when running the device off of AC power. SC would guess that figure includes about 10% distortion for the amp -- which is less audible than it sounds like, albeit not good (but typical for the category). As for the speakers themselves, SC would guess that if you actually drove them to 108 dB, you'd be facing 20-30% distortion from them at the ~60 Hz bottom end, and about 5-10% wideband (also typical of the category), and would probably back off the volume pretty quickly. The claimed 108 dB figure is even more suspect in light of the fact that a good-quality pair of speakers producing 88 dB with one watt will hit 108 dB with a 100 watt input, assuming no amplifier clipping. SC doubts that more than 5 watts are going to those speakers before clipping sets in, and also doubts that Apple has produced breakthrough drivers with 100 dB sensitivity, which would have to be the case in order to manage that peak SPL with less than horrendous distortion. That said, the real application of devices like this -- or the Bose Wave radio, or the Boston Acoustics Recepter, or any other way-expensive table radio replacement -- is to provide background music at maybe 75 dB as much as 10-15 feet away, which any of them will do an adequate job of.
As for Apple's claims of an "enveloping soundstage", they're nonsense, but equally so far all speaker docks -- in order for the stereophonic imaging effect to work, there needs to be meaningful channel separation at your head, which simply cannot happen when said head's ears are spaced at just about the same distance as the left and right channels are from each other. Interference between the channels will occur starting at points in space roughly equal to the distance between the centers of the midrange drivers (assuming that each one is receiving just one channel, and not a summation of both), guaranteeing that at any likely real-world listening distance, you'll hear everything in the same glorious monaural fidelity that Thomas Edison achieved in the 1890s (albeit with better frequency response and lower noise). Physics is just disappointing like that.
Having said all that, SC's opinion is also "a pox on this product category", just as he is also dismissive of all but the very cheapest desktop PC speakers as a waste of money. While the integration features of speaker docks shouldn't be overlooked, as actual sound reproduction devices, the lot of them all suffer from the same basic acoustic flaws. For the same $350, a listener desiring to maximize sound quality could also buy a pair of Infinity Primus 160s, NHT SuperZeros, or Paradigm Atoms (any of which should run him about $200/pair), and pair them with a cheap receiver (with a little shopping, a bottom-end Sony, Sherwood or TEAC could be found for $100-120) and a $10 headphone-jack-to-RCA adapter cable, and get far better sound. The response would be much flatter (especially when not sitting in a straight line in front of the thing -- such large-diameter midrange cones will have awful off-axis behavior above about 4 kHz, a number calculable from their diameter), the sound would be far less distorted, portability isn't really an issue if you're considering a box of the Hi-Fi's size, and he'd get a tuner essentially for free, not to mention a remote (and also a huge upgrade for his TV sound). Get a long enough adapter cable for the iPod's headphone output and he could even have the iPod sit with him on his couch. That's SC's 2 cents, but ultimately, it's Prof. Bakovic's $350, and therefore his call.