For little iPods that dream big, Apple Computer last week introduced a speaker system designed to pump out enough sound from the hand-held music player to fill a room.
The iPod Hi-Fi system, which costs $349, does just that.
And that's just about the only favorable thing I can say about this product -- maybe the weakest offering from Apple since the woeful Cube computer of 2000.
The sound quality coming from the Hi-Fi is quite disappointing, especially considering the price and its Apple pedigree. The Hi-Fi, basically an iPod dock atop a stark white box with a black front, doesn't even have the usual visual flair of an Apple creation.
"I expected to open it up and pull out a grilled cheese sandwich," said Los Angeles Times staffer Wanda Lau, who was on a panel of music experts at the paper who helped evaluate the sound of the Hi-Fi.
More on them in a moment. But first comes the basic question: What was Apple thinking?
According to company executive Greg Joswiak, the aim was to create a product that would "replace the home stereo."
But why? For just a few bucks you can buy a cable to connect an iPod to your home stereo system or home theater setup.
Joswiak countered that, "You can take [the Hi-Fi] to any room in the house."
Not easily -- it weighs about 15 pounds. But he does have a point, if not an original one.
Several audio companies -- some of which were making speakers long before Steve Jobs was making computers in a garage -- offer systems that include iPod docks.
To test the iPod Hi-Fi against these competitors, we gathered three of them: the cylindrical Altec Lansing inMotion iM7 ($249.95), the Bose SoundDock ($299) reminiscent of the company's popular Wave line of compact units and the JBL On Time ($299.95) that comes equipped with a clock radio.
Our testers were Times classical music critic Mark Swed, pop/rock critic Randy Lewis and copy editor Lau, a classical singer. There was no audio testing equipment; it was a real-world, subjective test.
All four speaker systems were equipped for the test with iPods, each of which were loaded with four music selections purchased and downloaded from Apple's online iTunes music store.
We started out with the soundtrack overture for the movie "Hero" (2002), composed by Tan Dun.
For that selection, Swed favored the Altec Lansing unit, although he said he would not be happy with any stereo system that is packed into a single enclosure.
"They all have the kind of phony stereo sound that tries to give the impression of being surround sound," he said. "They want to sound like a much bigger speaker."
Lewis mostly agreed, although he gave the nod to the JBL unit because he thought it had an "airier" quality that didn't so much confine the music to the speaker box.
Lau alone liked the Apple because she thought the unit did the best job of reproducing the stringed instruments.
On to hip-hop performer Kanye West, with guest star Jamie Foxx, performing "Gold Digger."
Swed was bothered by the heavy bass sound given off by the Altec Lansing but Lewis noted, "for hip hop, that's a good thing." The Apple also belted out bass, Lewis said, but overall its sound had a "canned feel."
Then came soprano Anna Moffo in a performance of "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's "La Rondine." This time around, Lau was down on the Apple, calling the sound "muffled." She said the JBL was like "a cool drink of water. It had a nice clarity."
The Bose took the hits on this selection, with Swed saying of Moffo, "I couldn't even recognize her voice. It was like she had cotton in her mouth."
It was becoming clear that favorites among the sound systems were emerging, but the comments differed greatly depending on what type of music was being played.
Finally, I played jazz master Miles Davis in a performance of "A Night in Tunisia." Although the JBL had been favored on other selections -- mostly because of relative clarity in its high range -- on this recording from the LP era it captured scratches and other imperfections all too clearly. "When the saxophones came in," Lewis said, "I thought at first they were electric guitars."
In overall ratings, everyone on the panel chose the JBL first, followed by the Altec Lansing. Lewis and Lau put the Bose last, while Swed named the Apple the worst.
I listened to the units myself for several hours and mostly agreed with the panelists. I thought the JBL, with its futuristic design that looks like a purse that Judy Jetson might carry, won out for its clarity. I liked the Bose least because the sound seemed thin, although Swed predicted over time it might be the easiest to live with as the others required a higher volume level to get a decent sound.