Accessory Review: iLive 2.1 Channel Bar Speaker with Dock for iPod (Touch)

Category: Home Entertainment/Speaker Systems
Model: iT188B
Price: $129.99
TiP Rating: 4.3/5 stars
Seller: iLive (GPX)
Requirements: Compatible with all iPods, including iPod touch (not officially compatible with iPhone/3G/3GS, though iLive does offer other iPhone-compatible products in the range)

Summary: This iLive product is not as a full-featured home audio system, but for those looking for a mid-level upgrade for those ubiquitous little iPod audio docks (or even a TV’s small, tinny speakers), this performs admirably and offers decent sound with limited distortion. The only thing that would make it better as a medium-range sound system is a better designed remote control.

Review: While there is a plethora of iPod sound systems in the ‘verse, most are small, basic, mostly underwhelming choices that offer little bass and are nothing more than updated versions of older portable CD systems. However, if one were to go just a little bit further in an electronics store (or online), a discovery of sound bars made for iPods and iPhones would be found that offer a different skill set and an overall more pleasing experience. Enter iLive’s 2.1 Channel Bar Speaker.

While iLive makes many different varieties based on this form factor, I will be focusing on the most affordable version. Others offer a bit more power out of the box, but will lighten your wallet a little bit more. If you are not impressed with this version, check out the 3.1/5.1 systems. They are a bit bigger overall, but this will get you started on the right track.

For me, when the whole sound bar phenomenon started a few years ago, coinciding with the explosion of LCD and plasma television technology, I was not impressed. At the time, I had a small Yamaha surround sound, and for me, the idea of “simulated surround” (pick your terminology – there were a bunch) was just not appealing. Five or six separate speakers with a sub was and is good. My viewpoint has changed over the last few years.

The big change occurred a little over two years ago, when my first son was born. Home theatre systems are great, except when you have kids. Unless there is a dedicated room in the house for a great home theatre, 1000 watts is completely useless when the power can’t be fully realized. Add in the hassle of having to worry about keeping little ones away from speaker wire and speaker stands, and the sound bar starts to make sense.

The best way to look at this iLive is not as a full-on home theatre system (you will be disappointed), but rather as an upgraded replacement for your television’s small, tinny speakers, or a big upgrade over your small iPod docking speaker system. In either respect, the iLive performs admirably. When used with a television, the quality is dramatically improved for anything from football to “Heroes”. It is also light enough and thin enough to be mounted on the wall under a television. It also has a video out, so anything you have on your iPod (movie, music video, etc.) can be viewed on the television. Since it has both FM and AM radio (a greatly appreciated feature), it has an added bonus over other iPod-only systems.

One other application that can only be described as awesome is a computer speaker. The bar is small enough to be placed on the top shelf of most desk hutches, and it works extremely well. And there is one more thing one can do to make it truly great:

Add a subwoofer. Unlike many of the bars that are marketed and presented as all-in-one solutions, this one has a dedicated subwoofer output. And I’m not talking about a little speaker wire for which you would have to buy an iLive product. No, it’s a standard mono sub output. When the bar is used as a home theatre substitute, the sub is a must. What this bar does very well is put out incredibly clear mids and highs, but there is one area that will not satisfy even the most casual home theatre fans.

Bass isn’t great out of the box, but it can be tweaked. If you like your walls to rattle a little bit, this bar will disappoint out of the box. However, there are a couple tricks to get the best sound from your bar. First off, let me just say that the EQ on my iPhone is almost always set to Rock, so leaving that setting will give very good sound. I have found that turning the bass settings on the iLive up to the very odd max number of 14, and then turning the treble up to the equally odd number of 14, combined with an EQ of Bass Booster on the iPod/Phone will give the best sound quality. It sounds great whether listening to Miles Davis or Led Zeppelin. I could not get any distortion whatsoever (at reasonable listening volumes), and it brought out the true full sound capability of the bar.

Easy controls… except for that remote. Controls are simple enough to use, but the remote is another story. This thing is annoying. The first problem is the overall shape. The bottom is quite large compared to the top portion, and the edges are quite harsh. However, that is nothing compared to the location of the volume control. For some reason, they decided to give the volume control no extra importance relative to the album and chapter controls, but then gave about an acre of real estate (estimated) for the bass and treble controls. The remote is not backlit, so adjusting the volume at night is going to take some muscle memory practice.

However, if you can get over this oddity, you will be happy. The mid and treble performance is so good that this can be overlooked. The iLive does not try to do too much, like many sound bars do, and it realizes this by giving a dedicated sub out for added bass performance. As an upgrade from your small iPod system or just as upgraded sound from regular television, this is hard to pass up.

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