It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a big part of the iPod’s popularity hinges on the fact that it let’s you take all—or nearly all— of your music along with you, whenever and wherever you wish. This is great for those times when you want to listen in private and on the go, but what about those moments when you’re at home and want to share your music with others? When those occasions arise, Monitor Audio’s gorgeous little $349 i-deck should be just what the doctor ordered.
If you’re familiar with the many, tiny, toy-like iPod-compatible powered speaker systems available in big retail chains, then you need to understand from the outset the ideck is really not very much like any of them—and that’s a good thing. The i-deck may be playful, but it is certainly no toy; instead, it’s more accurate to think of the i-deck as a miniature high-end audio system that’s been built on the compact scale of the iPod, itself. I realize it probably seems wacky to suggest that a $349 audio system has any “high-end” qualities at all, but the i-deck actually does. Permit me to explain.
Where most iPod systems provide speakers that are extremely modest— often ones that started life as add-on units intended for use with PCs, the i-deck comes with what are essentially a pair of two-way, high-performance (but low cost) mini-monitors. This isn’t too surprising, really, when you consider that Monitor Audio is a veteran British speaker manufacturer with a proud history of innovative design. Accordingly the i-deck speakers feature drive units that borrow exotic materials technologies originally developed for Monitor Audio’s much more costly high-end speakers. For example, the i-deck speakers feature 3/4" gold-coated polymer ring dome tweeters reminiscent of those used in Monitor’s big floorstanders, and 4” MMP2 mid-bass drivers. One reason the i-deck sounds better than other iPod systems is that it starts out with an inherently more sophisticated set of speakers than most competitors offer.
But the i-deck system’s speakers aren’t the only differentiator; its dock/amplifier module is very special, too. Most builders of iPod-compatible systems take the simplistic approach of amplifying the analog audio signals the iPod puts out, but Monitor Audio takes an entirely different and better approach. Recognizing that the iPod’s DACs and analog audio circuits are arguably the player’s weakest features, Monitor takes the much more radical approach of pulling digital audio data from the iPod, and routing it through the i-deck’s built-in, audiophile-grade DACs, yielding a big, readily noticeable jump in sound quality. You may, for example, have found you couldn’t always clearly discern the quality differences between various forms of compression when listening to your iPod through its stock earbuds. But, try listening to that same iPod through the i-deck, and those quality differences will be easy to hear, and the sonic benefits of Apple’s lossless compression scheme, in particular, will become crystal clear. We know of no other system-level products that route digital data extracted from the iPod through separate, high-quality DACs, and we applaud Monitor Audio’s pioneering efforts in this area; this is the way to get really superior sound from the iPod. Finally, the i-deck dock/amplifier provides a low-distortion digital amplifier whose specifications read more like those of a serious audio component (18Wpc @ 0.05% THD, both channels driven). Throw in an RF-controller remote that runs both the dock and the iPod, and you’ve got everything you need to make music.
And man does this little system make music! The i-deck’s sound seems an order of magnitude more subtle and sophisticated than that of comparably priced iPod-compatible systems. You’ll hear crystalline highs (always a signature characteristic of Monitor’s speaker designs), smooth yet articulate midrange frequencies, and a decent measure of bass (though ultimate low frequency extension is of course limited by the speakers’ compact dimensions). The thing that takes many listeners by surprise is that the i-deck sounds more like a real hi-fi system (albeit a small one), and less like a glorified clock radio or boom box, which is how many iPod systems sound. This means you’ll hear details such as the shimmer of percussion, the attack of guitars and keyboards, the inflections of voices, and the punchy snap of basses and kick drums, which simply get lost in other systems. Better still, because the i-deck speakers are separate from the main dock/amplifier module, you have the option of spreading them far enough apart to enjoy a pleasingly wide and fairly deep stereo soundstage. Frankly, most other systems of this type can’t even do stereo “imaging” or “soundstaging” as audiophiles would understand those terms, but the i-deck can and does (this system may be a small, but it’s for real). The i-deck can play surprisingly loudly, too—up to 102 dBA, though I found it sounded best when played at moderate levels. In any event, the i-deck offers more than enough output to fill moderately-sized rooms with sound.