A “less is more” approach just might be the perfect antidote for the current wave of featurebloated, but underperforming, iPod speakers. Case in point: Tannoy’s new i30 iPod speaker, which is a minimalist design that offers one thing and one thing only—a genuinely high-quality music player for your iPod tunes. At $400, it’s somewhat pricey as iPod systems go, but let’s see what that extra coin buys you.
Just for kicks, here are a few of the things the i30 doesn’t have: radio, alarm clock, display, buttons. No, what you’re dealing with here is a dual-drive speaker with a simple infrared remote offering basic controls—Skip, Pause, Play, and Mute. If you insist on getting geeky, there is a video out, a USB port (for syncing with iTunes), and a 3.5mm input around back. The speaker’s tube-shaped design and black gloss finish sport a sharp, retromodern style, and it’s compact enough to fit on a shallow bookshelf or mantle. It also has metal screw holes for mounting on a wall. In my view, it’s the most stylish iPod speaker since another British creation floated across the pond, B&W’s Zeppelin wunderkind.
Beneath its steel mesh grilles, the i30 employs two four-inch drivers, a 50-watt amplifier, and a digital signal processor (DSP) to improve signal-to-noise ratio and overall sound quality. OK, but how does it sound? The first thing I noticed is that it takes its work on the low-end seriously: the bass is tight and clean and has surprising depth and punch for a speaker this size. Only at very high volumes did I notice any distortion or muddiness. Vocals and mid-to-high range detail are also convincing, and its tonal balance helps produce a somewhat bright, natural sound. I placed it on a shelf in our 15x20 foot living room, and gave it an extensive, rollercoaster ride through my rock, jazz, hip hop, and classical collection.
First up was Orlando López’s Cachaito [Nonesuch], which features a madly-creative blend of Latin rhythms and modern DJ/electronic influences (López was the bassist in Buena Vista Social Club). “Cachaito in Laboratory” opens up with horns, synth, turntable scratches, congas, and other percussion colliding in a mix that demands clear articulation and balance. The i30 really shined here, and highlighted the subtle conga drum work, even as horns wail away and thick, powerful bass lines storm through the piece. On more subtle jazz arrangements, like Bill Frisell’s “Sundust” [Unspeakable, Nonesuch], the interplay between the guitar and horns reveals impressive dynamics and imaging, as each precisely plucked note on the guitar soars and fades under Frisell’s masterful vibrato.
“Police on My Back” is one of the Clash’s rowdiest tracks on Sandinista [Sony], with a wash of cymbals, crunchy and high-pitched guitars, train-engine sounds, and Strummer and Jones going full tilt on the mike—in essence, a perfect opportunity for a muddled, shrill sound. Here again, though, the i30 found solid footing in the mix, articulating each instrument and producing a lively sound that was never too brittle nor distorted.
The i30 is a versatile speaker with the chutzpah to contend with anything from Green Day to OutKast to Mahler. I do, however, wish there were bass, treble and/or EQ controls, because the audio quality of most MP3 and AAC (compressed audio) files is uneven at best. But the i30 does a nice job of filling a void in the iPod speaker scene: while it can’t punch it out with the more costly B&W Zeppelin and some of the other “high-end” ($500 and up) systems, it clearly outshines the growing cluster of so-so iPod speakers in the $200–300 range.