Chestnut Hill Sound -- George
I'm looking for a lead. Let's see, famous people named George. OK, my pick is George Harrison. Asked what he called his then-unusual Beatle moptop, he replied in a magnificently deadpan manner: "I call it Arthur." In similar spirit, Chestnut Hill Sound calls its iPod-centric compact audio system George.
George is not for penny pinchers. At $549, he costs a good couple hundred bucks more than Apple's own estimable iPod Hi-Fi and nearly twice as much as the Logitech AudioStation. What does he (somehow I can't say "it") do to earn this considerable differential?
The answer can be summed up in two words: cool factor. Sure, all of these products are good looking, good sounding, and have iPod docks for easy playing and charging. But George is the only one whose control panel detaches to become a remote control. And a fairly good one at that, using stronger RF signals in lieu of standard infrared. I set up George in my home office, carried the remote into an adjacent bedroom, and shot commands through thick plaster walls. Twisting the remote's rubber volume knob, I could hear the system getting louder and softer. If I'd wanted, I could have operated the system from my bathroom.
A certain amount of bravado came through in the packaging. There was a quick setup guide but no manual. I need no manual, I could almost hear George say, because I'm so simple and pleasurable to use. A full manual is available online. You will have to read it eventually to pick up a few non-intuitive functions, especially the radio-related ones.
The snap-in iPod dock adapters were helpfully labeled according to model in their cardboard bedding (how I wish other manufacturers would do the same). Unfortunately there wasn't one that fitted my first-generation iPod nano. I got along without it. The manufacturer points out that the remote does all the work, so your fingers won't be pressing against the player after it's docked. When you plug in your iPod, George syncs so that it can navigate the player's contents.
I set up George across the room from my desk. The power brick in the middle of his AC cord was impressively large, more than four inches long, suggesting that the speakers get a good amount of current. At two feet from the wall, he was far enough away not to turn bass-heavy, and I turned up his back-panel bass knob all the way. The back panel also included three mini-jacks: headphone, line-level preamp-out, and auxiliary-in. There were also AM and FM antenna inputs. FM required an external wire antenna because the unit did not have an internal FM antenna as some other products do. A USB jack was provided for future software upgrades. Hardware upgrades are also in the works. The first will be HD Radio (digital over-the-air broadcasting).
Of course the fun stuff was on the front where the docking connector lived and the detachable remote snapped into its berth. The dock had a lid, commendably enough, to prevent dust contamination--other manufacturers should take this as a hint. I was a little confused by the grey strip atop the remote, assuming that it must release the remote. After it muted the system a couple of times, I realized it was a combination mute and snooze bar. Removing the remote required me to press down on the half-inch of top remote surface on either side of the bar. This was the closest thing George had to an ergonomic tic. When the remote was removed, the system revealed a brightly backlit green button that muted the system when the remote wasn't at hand.
The remote was a beauty. It measured 4.4 inches high by 3.75 wide by 1 deep and had a backlit liquid crystal display measuring 1.2 inches high by 2.25 wide. The time was told in large numerals that I could just about make out across the room. These changed to tuning numerals when I operated the radio. When the iPod played, the names of song, artist, and album appeared below the time. Four tabs on the bottom of the LCD allowed me to use four of the eight corresponding hard blue backlit buttons below to select iPod, radio, alarm, or aux. The alarm tab included two fixed-time alarms plus nap timer, sleep timer, and one-event timer. The large volume knob at bottom was flanked by two buttons on each side, including a menu button and three transport controls. The remote runs four to six hours on a charge. When it runs out, you can still reattach it to the player and continue operating the system that way.
Pulling off the grilles revealed the coaxial driver array with a one-inch tweeter mounted in the center of a three-inch woofer. Coaxial drivers generally provide better imaging because the output of both drivers seems to emerge from a single point-source. As the picture tells you, stereo separation is limited by the unit's size. The manufacturer says the drivers are biamplified (with each one getting a separate source of juice) but refused to provide power specs when asked. The four-inch "subwoofer" was mounted in the bottom of the enclosure. The manufacturer pointed out that it does not use any "resonant ducts," unlike most systems of similar size, which usually have ports (and often rather aggressive ones at that).
I plied George with a few of my favorite recordings (he would not accept a martini). Pressing the button beneath the iPod LCD tab took me to a menu familiar to any music-player addict: playlists, artists, albums, songs, genres, settings, shuffle songs. A quick investigation of the settings revealed only shuffle and repeat functions. One of George's improvements over the iPod interface (shock!) was an alphabetical jump command using eight tabs and all eight of the hard buttons.
The deep Rhodes piano that first attracted me to Radiohead's Kid A was suitably menacing. Following the electric-piano train of thought took me to Deodato 2 and "Nights in White Satin," a great cover of a dopey song. The close-miked and flatly recorded string section of Deodato's Ravel cover, "Pavane for a Dead Princess," was lush and pleasing. Moving on to Led Zeppelin's Coda, George gave a decent amount of weight to John Bonham's mighty bass drum on "Poor Tom." While a good component system might have the advantage in transparency and dynamics, I will say George has a pleasing tonal balance, is musically complete, and one of the best of its breed.
As someone who listens to a lot of radio, I appreciated George's advanced radio features as much as its iPod savvy. Here there was more of a learning curve. I had to resort to the manual to learn a few things. For instance: That the "bandless" radio tuning did not require an AM/FM switch--I could scan continuously from one to the other. That choosing a radio preset required holding down the preset buttons. And that there were four "pages" of four presets each, which could be used to set up separate page groupings for news, sports, musical genres, shock jocks, or whatever genres you like. There was no satellite radio--this was a pure AM/FM machine. Both tuners worked well, making middling signals sound like good ones.
It was fun to have the remote on my desk as George played behind me. Occasionally I'd reach out a hand to adjust the volume. Subtle rubber pads on the bottom gave it traction on the wooden surface. I liked George from the start. After a few hours I liked it--uh, him!--even better.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.