Today, as our two most expensive units battle, marks the close of our first round of iPod Dock Battlemodo. First, we have the $349 Apple Hi-Fi. It's the Chosen System, blessed by the hands of Steve Jobs himself. And while it's late on the scene, that allowed Apple a chance to learn from the mistakes of other manufacturers. But the Hi-Fi has some tough competition in the $349 Altec Lansing IMV712. It's a dock with a secret weapon...an 8.5" screen. Who will win the battle?
The Hi-Fi's design is as minimal as anything we've come to expect from Apple. The volume buttons directly control the iPod, as opposed to most players that adjust the amplification within the unit. Handles allow for easy carrying, but that's a feature you forget about once you take it out of the box. But where are the extras? The second clickwheel? The video out? Anything? You can take the Hi-Fi on the road with D batteries, which is worth something, I guess.
The IMV712 is a dock in a class of its own. Not only does it feature video out—it has a 8.5-inch screen. How does it look? While not the best LCD we've ever seen, it's bright, sharp and colorful enough for us. What we don't like, however, is that the screen stretches the image wider than it was intended...and it's not fixable when playing with the iPod's video out. Why would Altec Lansing engineer the product this way when iTunes doesn't support widescreen programming?
For sound testing we listened to Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations: Nimrod as directed by Sir Georg Solti. Because we were feeling pretentious.
Right off the bat we enjoy the sound of the Hi-Fi. It's not a bargain bin dock, and you can hear it. The balance is superb, with no real quality falloff high or low. And the bass gets really deep.
The IMV712 sounds remarkably similar to the HiFi, as if they are long lost cousins, or even brothers. And of all our side-by-sides thus far, they are most similar in sound style. But all is not equal.
The IMV712 does have a small speaker hiss that the Hi-Fi does not. Otherwise the IMV712 has more presence, which you notice in the high ranges. Trumpets sound like they are made of metal, and strings have that extra scrape to them. Texture is the difference here, allowing listeners to point out when during a phrase, a warm piccolo becomes a flute, for example.
The Hi-Fi sounds nice, but it sterilizes the sound into something less real and more speakerlike, and that effect is especially noticeable when instrumentation is layered during Nimrod's most dramatic moments. Still, the phonic experience is an admittedly close matchup, and we're exaggerating the differences here for review purposes. Most ears will agree that the IMV712 isn't light years ahead of the Hi-Fi, if ahead at all.
WINNER: Altec Lansing IMV712
The IMV712 has some real problems with aspect ratio, and the screen is wasted with the Altec Lansing logo when music is being played (visualization would have been nice). But considering that its sound quality is on par with Apple's Hi-fi, and maybe even a little better, we can't justify the purchase of a Hi-Fi over the IMV712...even if buying the Hi-Fi would further annoy our PC-using brethren.