i-Steroid 2 valve amplifier and speakers
Old-style sound for your new-look iPod
Having volume controls on the dock as well as the main speaker set means to have to adjust two sets of controls, even if it's only to apply a 'standard' setting to one of the two units. I would have preferred the dock to transmit at standard line-out level, leaving volume control to the amplifier. The first time I used the dock, I couldn't figure out why the sound was so quiet - both the iPod's volume and the speakers seemed to be set as high as they'd go. Then I realised the dock's output was set low.
Incidentally, the i-Steroid's own remote is coloured to match the speakers and replicates the main unit's five controls with five buttons of its own.
With the respective volume controls set correctly, the i-Steroid's sound quality isn't bad. The i-Steroid is able to pump out a big sound and I was able to push it up to max without any appreciable distortion - one of the other benefits of valve amplification. It's a room filler, certainly. The higher frequencies are present and correct, and the bass is solid, but I felt it was lacking a bit in the low to mid-range frequencies, above the sub-woofer but below the satellites' range. This was more noticeable the further I sat from the main unit.
Tastes vary, of course, and some listeners may prefer it. A lot depends too on the acoustics of the room the i-Steroid's going in, and its positioning in relation to walls and furniture.
Can I say the sound's better than I'd get off an equivalent solid-state amplifier? That's a tricky one. The sound is nicely rounded, but that could simply be down to good bass reproduction. I don't think it actually matters - what is important is that you like the sound a system produces, whatever technology it uses to generate that sound. By and large, I liked the sound the i-Steroid pumps out.
The downside of valve amplification, of course, is that you need to allow a short period for the valve to warm up to hear it. But since the i-Steroid works as soon as you turn it on - or if you take the valve out before turning on the power - I suspect there's a twin amplification system in there. The valve isn't simply for show - the sound is certainly better and beefier with the thing connected - but it's not the only contributor to the output. That suggests there are some transistors in there too, but as I say, so long as you like the sound, so what?
My big beef with the i-Steroid is its colour scheme. The white/grey look isn't so bad, but the black/red styling is one I don't like at all. Judging from the comments the unit received from other folk in the Reg Hardware office, not many other people do either.
I'll leave the debate over the pros and cons of valve amplification to the audio nerds. What you need to know is that the i-Steroid 2 pumps out a big, clear sound, even at high volumes. It packs a punch and you can pick it up for as little as £160 - rather less than Apple's £229 iPod Hi-Fi, for example, or than similar products from better-known brands. ®
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