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i-Steroid 2 valve amplifier and speakers

Old-style sound for your new-look iPod

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Review The i-Steroid promises the warm sound quality you only get with old-style valve amplification, and there, clear for all to see, plugged in and powered up is the speaker set's single valve, glowing with sheer thermionic joy. The question is, does it make a difference to the sound, or is it simply there for show?

Sonic Gear i-Steroid 2

The i-Steroid comprises a central unit which contains the amplifier, power transformer, controls and a sub-woofer. Round the back are RCA stereo input and output jacks. The latter go out to the two satellite speakers which, like the main unit, are done up in white with grey trim, or black with red trim, depending on which model you select. The bundled cables, for the speakers and to hook up the iPod's dock, are gold-plated.

The central unit has four buttons mounted beneath a single circle of plastic designed to ape the iPod's clickwheel. Top and bottom we have the bass adjusters - pressing left or right lowers or raises the volume. In the centre is a fifth button which mutes the system.

The unit's just under 30cm high, but the upper third is entirely empty space: if you think of the i-Steroid as an iPod, the space is where you'd expect the screen to be. In fact, it's where the single valve is mounted, tucked under a transparent tripod-mounted hood that's illuminated from underneath with a trio of white LEDs build into the casing. The hood lifts off to allow you to reach in and unplug the valve should you need to, or if your curiosity gets the better of you.

Up-end the unit, and between the four thick, long rubber feet is the reflex port that guides the woofer's output out of the box, boosting the system's bass response on the way.

The satellite speakers are small, passive units with a pair of cones, the larger of the two exposed and coloured to match the main unit's hues. The satellites can pump out 16W apiece, while the sub-woofer runs to 18W. That's the i-Steroid 2's specification - the i-Steroid 1, which is the white model, has a 16W sub-woofer and a pair of 6W satellites.

The i-Steroid comes bundled with Sonic Gear's U100 iPod universal dock, coloured to match the main unit. There are five different colour-coordinated slot adaptors but none to fit a Nano, the iPod I was using for the test. The U100 has solid, weighty feel but you still have to hold it down while you remove your iPod. The circular unit has a two volume up and down buttons just in front of the iPod. At the back you'll find an AC adaptor port, stereo RCA output jacks, an S-video port to hook up a TV, and an iPod dock pass-through port so you can dock an iPod and connect to to a host computer.

Sonic Gear i-Steroid 2

The U100 has its own remote control - one of two in the package. In addition to the expected play/pause, volume track-skip, shuffle and track-repeat control buttons, there's a handy button to quickly trigger the player's backlight. Track selection is idiosyncratic: a pair of buttons cycle through any playlists you've set up on the iPod, and a second pair of buttons can then be used to step through the albums in a given playlist. It doesn't work the other way round, and there's no way to access the player's Music menu directly.

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