Sierra Sound iN STUDIO 5.0 Smart Speakers
What size would you like your iPod-compatible speakers to be? Do you want Baby Bear, Mama Bear, or Papa Bear? Sierra Sound's iN STUDIO 5.0 fits into the middle category, as a monitor-sized pair of speakers with an iPod dock atop the left one. The review sample came in festive high-gloss Ferrari red, pleasing me no end, though you can have basic black or boring old traditional iPod white if you prefer.
The iN STUDIO (incidentally, people who want to abolish the CAPS LOCK key are clinically insane) is well-made. Its heavy 0.63-inch MDF enclosure rests on rubber feet to avoid cabinet buzzing. It's a self-amplified system, rated at 20 watts per channel, with the amps residing in the left speaker, and a cable connecting it to the right one. The cable is terminated in the same quarter-inch phone plugs used for high-end headphones and electric guitars.
As usual, the dock charges the iPod as well as accepting input from it. One of the three supplied snap-in docking pieces fit my first-gen nano, which was a relief--some products I've reviewed omit the one I need. Under the hood are a one-inch silk dome tweeter and five-inch paper cone woofer, both magnetically shielded and secluded behind child-proof metal grilles.
On the back of the master speaker are two auxiliary inputs, one RCA-type and one mini-jack; plus an input auto/on/off toggle, and a master volume knob. Provision of both kinds of input suggests that you may wish to hook up higher-res source components as well as non-iPod portables. Also included are a USB jack, an S-video output to convey your still pictures or iPod video, detachable heavy-duty power cord, and a power switch. On the front is an infrared sensor to accept commands from the 3.3 x 1.5 inch membrane-key remote--which does not duplicate the clickwheel but does represent the most often used iPod commands in button form.
The front panel includes a blue LED indicator but there are no further controls. And there needn't be. Simply docking the iPod and starting it, with the toggle in auto mode, is enough to start the system singing. If you use one of the aux-ins, you'll need to select it from the remote.
Even when reviewing an iPod-compatible system, I often listen to non-iPod players. In fact, I do this fairly often even with the iPod, because I like to cycle the battery. So the first thing I listened to was Nick Drake's Bryter Layter through a SanDisk Sansa e280. The aux input required a fairly high input voltage. Maxing the volume on both the Sierra and the Sansa got me 75-80dB at eight feet. The sound was full but not congested or boomy. Moving on to the Tokyo section from Keith Jarrett's Sun Bear Concerts, I was impressed by the piano sound, and the way the speakers kept the left and right hands in balance.
Docking the nano, I checked out "River of Orchids" from XTC's Apple Venus Volume 1. Pizzicato strings were pleasingly full, including the basses and cellos, though the system is rated only down to 55Hz. With the dock in operation, the system tipped over the 90dB mark at eight feet, though the sound was a little more hard and tizzy at the top end of its range.
The speakers were quite listenable anywhere in the room, but the recessed tweeter beamed the greatest amount of soundstage information when met head-on. Sitting in the sweet spot, I could clearly discern the studio environs where Richard Thompson recorded his moving cover of Lal Waterson's "Red Wine Promises," from the Shining Bright tribute CD. The recessed tweeter will make this product especially appropriate for near-field desktop use, as well as solitary sweet-spot listening in general.
When I moved the nano from the dock back to the aux-in, the soundstage collapsed, with all the spatial information and much of the textural finery vanishing. While this true of any iPod-docking product, it bears repeating: You'll get the best sound using the iPod in the dock. That's what makes docking products superior to non-docking ones--at least, if the system has this kind of resolution, and if you're using an iPod as your main signal source.
Having reviewed a whole gamut of iPod-docking products over the past year, I've developed a few favorites. This is one of them. The iN STUDIO 5.0 would be a superb-sounding addition to any desktop. And it's good enough to serve as a primary two-channel audio system. ¡Muy bien, Sierra Sound!
Price: $399 from Sierra Sound. Available in Ferrari red, black, white.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.