Playlist magazine (which I think is part of the MacWorld family) have an excellent review of Apple’s new ‘audiophile quality’ (sic) iPod HiFi speaker set. It’s an interesting read, in part because it explicitly avoids the rabid audiophile rantings – ’53Hz! That’s not a bass floor!’ etc – but does a proper listening test against similar products from Bose, Monitor Audio, Tivoli et al. There are several features noted that are classic Apple, like the volume ramping up smoothly when you drop an already-playing iPod in the HiFi’s dock, and the comparative test is useful. The HiFi is said to offer excellent bass and volume, but to lack a smidge of treble detail. Which to my mind is probably the correct compromise for people who listen to more rock/pop/hip-hop/etc than piano concertos. Plus, let’s face it, smoothing the high end should help disguise compression artifacts a little – better to blur it all a bit than reveal the flaws?

What I find really interesting is comparing today’s ‘iPod + HiFi’ model to the ‘cheap separates from Richer Sounds‘ approach we all took back when we were students. You can’t beat the convenience of the iPod set-up, and while I’m sure you can beat the sound quality for similar money – particularly if you factor in the iPod itself – the real question is whether the HiFi and similar products are ‘good enough.’ My guess: absolutely. Which would explain why the audio shop in which Matt and I were listening to amps costing more than a Mac also sells iPod-specific Tivoli and Bose kit.

If I was doing it all again, I’m not quite certain I’d bother with separates. Lugging them around between all the places I’ve lived has been a pain, and I’m now stuck with a stack of aging kit that sounds only ‘OK.’ Swapping out the speakers would help enormously, but I’ve not done that partly because my amp will only drive two of the things… and of course I’d really like to do surround-sound for movies. Which is an entirely different kettle of fish.

And that, I think, is the only real weakness of the Apple ecosystem. In picking their targets and tailoring their products oh-so-smoothly, they rather prevent the mix-and-match approach that works for people like me. It’s a conscious decision on their part, of course – hit 85% of the market with something that’s utterly wonderful for them, the remainder aren’t worth the hassle of chasing – and I rather applaud them for it.

I’ve a nagging doubt, however, which is this: to get the most out of the Apple way, one really needs to fit their profiles and market segments. Doesn’t that rather clash with the whole ‘think different’, pirate flag, renegade Mac users spirit? As the iPod dominates all, can Apple maintain their customers’ joyous free-spirit ‘alternative’ atmosphere? If Apple’s new niche is ‘all of us’, what sets them apart from everybody else?

It’s simplistic to say ‘nothing – they’re just another business.’ Of course they are, but they’re more clever than most in choosing what not to do (tablet PCs spring to mind…). They leave features out – even features their customers claim to want – if including them compromises the product in other ways, like ease of use, which is an unusually bold/principled/enlightened/stupid approach (delete as you see fit).

What interests me is that we, their customers, have given them a license to be quirky because we fitted that profile of ‘different.’ That’s fine, but it doesn’t transfer to a situation where everybody is wearing white earbuds.

(for completeness: I’d probably plump for a Tivoli iSongBook over Apple’s HiFi. Bass is less important to me than Radio 4. On the other hand, I already have a Tivoli PAL, and apart from the entire lack of stereo imaging – it’s a single speaker – I absolutely love it).