Just a Thought - iPod Hi-Fi: Huh?


- March 13th, 2006

Someone help me out here: I think I'm missing the point of Apple's newest iPod accessory, the iPod Hi-Fi, and it's bugging the bejeezus out of me.

If we stroll into any Apple Store, Store-in-a-Store (CompUSA), or one of the increasing number of iPod vendors, like Target, Wal-Mart, or BJ's, we are apt to find at least 2 third party speaker peripherals designed specifically for the iPod.

I'm not talking about the speaker systems that uses a mini-headphone jack for connectivity; the makers of those products were trying to address what they perceived as being the widest possible audience, and often, the products aren't so great (with the notable exception of Tivoli's iPAL).

No, I'm talking about products like the Bose SoundDock, or Altec Lansing's inMotion iM3c Speakers, the humble iHome iH5, or iSongBook from Tivoli Audio. Each of these products, and dozens more like them, includes a docking port that only an iPod can use.

What this means, boys and girls, is that these companies have spent a good amount of time, effort, and money bringing products to the market aimed at iPod owners ONLY.

Remember, they don't do for altruistic reasons; they do it because they can make money at it.

So, we've got stores overflowing with iPod speaker products, some fabulous, some not so, and Apple decides it should come out with a speaker system as well.


iPod Hi-Fi sounds great, but so does the SoundDock System from Bose (or maybe not if you take into account our recent review). iPod Hi-Fi looks cool if you are into breadboxes, but JBL's OnStage II or XtremeMac's MicroBlast speakers for iPod nano also look pretty good. At $350, the iPod Hi-Fi ain't the cheapest suit on the rack, and while it may be luggable and battery capable, it's probably not something you will want to toss in the trunk for a day at the beach.

So, who is this thing aimed at? Audiophiles? Please! Anyone serious about his or her music will invest in a system where the discreet speakers can cost more than 10x the cost of the Hi-Fi, and the iPod might no even rate as a good component.

How about the guy who wants music in his office or den? Such systems tend to be used to play background music, and almost any setup will do for that. If you must have hi-fi quality moozac wafting through your office, Bose, Infinity, and Tivoli offer systems that sound as good, I think, or better and cost less.

There's no WiFi on Hi-Fi (you have to buy Airport Express for that), and no wireless connectivity (Bluetooth or other), but there is analog and digital input. WiFi integrates well with the iPod, but then, so do other non-Apple made systems.

I did take a listen to the iPod Hi-Fi, the local Best Buy has one on display along side a Bose SoundDock; hardly a place to really get to know a speaker system. Still, the Hi-Fi sounded nice, it does have a better bass response than the Bose, but I would argue that the Bose sounds better. Of course, what sounds good to me may remind you of a midnight cat-call; it's very subjective.

This leaves me still scratching my 2-day old scalp stubble as to why Jobs and crew felt that this particular device was something Apple needed to make. It's gotta have the other speaker vendors wondering what Apple is up to. Could Apple be attempting to completely corner the iPod accessory market?

To be blunt, such a move would be beyond stupid. One of the biggest reasons people think the iPod is cool is the long list of peripherals available. No other digital music player has more accessories. While other MP3 player makers look to build features in, Apple wisely gave the iPod the docking port and opened up a world of possibilities for its device.

But, if vendors don't feel they can create and grab a sliver of iPod peripheral pie without the 600 pound Apple gorilla snatching it back with me-too products, then they will likely not bother, and that would be a very bad thing.

Apple has the best seat in the house when it comes to the technology that supports the iPod. To get the "Made for iPod" seal of approval, vendors must let Apple review the product to see whether it meets Apple's high standards. This, of course, is a good thing because it keeps the junk out, which, in turn, keeps the iPod image of high quality untarnished.

In such a position, however, Apple can see what's hot, what's not, and what has potential. Of course, no one would believe that Apple would take advantage of this position to take an insider's peek at the competition, then use that data to create an accessory that is juuust a bit better than its competitors.

I wouldn't believe that Apple would stoop to such dirty tricks, of course, but some might, and it's the appearance of being tricksy and false that might send would-be iPod accessory makers running.

I'm still wondering why Apple came out with the Hi-Fi, and other accessories as well, when other companies seem to be doing such a good job of supporting the iPod. I've pondered this behavior for a bit, and I've realized that there actually could be a method behind Apple's apparent madness.

Other me-too products that Apple have come out with don't improve greatly on existing products, they tend to be good quality products, but not the best in a particular niche. Take the iPod cases, for example; Apple's neoprene cases are OK, but cases from vendors like XtremeMac are better in many respects. The same can be said for earplugs/headphones and other iPod peripherals; Apple's iPod peripherals are good, but you can always find something better from someone else.

It could be that Apple maintains a presence in each niche to keep other vendors thinking, to keep the creative pot stirred. Also, if it happens that vendors drop out of a niche then Apple has a product to cover it.

Maybe I've answered my own question. Maybe Apple is just protecting its ass-sets. Perhaps Apple merely wants to earn an extra buck or two in the market it created when it introduced the iPod; it is a business after all, and there's nothing that says that Apple can't go head to head with accessory makers.

So, I guess I'm willing to give The Cupertino Crew the benefit of a doubt: The question is, will peripheral vendors be so understanding?