The indicator light coupled with the bundled iPod Remote creates a unique sense of feedback, making the Apple iPod Hi-Fi the most responsive and even pleasurable iPod speaker system we've used. The simple and supertactile remote is one of the best IR models we've used. In fact, we constantly had the soft Apple Remote in hand, which helped create an organic, interactive relationship with the Hi-Fi. In contrast, the Altec Lansing iM7's remote often needs two or more presses to register.
That said, we were very disappointed that the remote's menu button is all but useless. Although it switches between an iPod and a line-in source, it should have been used to navigate the iPod. Instead, owners will find that they are constantly and awkwardly reaching over to the iPod to switch playlists or adjust tone control. This is the type of feature that Apple normally would have wowed us with, but perhaps the company will build it in soon. The current firmware update gives the 5G iPod and iPod Nanos a new Speakers menu item, which offers a not-so-effective tone control (treble boost, normal, and bass boost), a backlight option, and the cool full-screen album-art option.
We also wondered why a rechargeable battery wasn't used instead of the six D cells. We installed some and played the Apple iPod Hi-Fi at high volumes at an outdoor photo shoot, getting about 6 hours of juice. Apple claims the batteries will last well more than 10 hours at low-to-medium volume levels. Finally, because we think the $350 price tag is a bit high, a built-in AirPort Express, which enables seamless streaming audio from any iTunes computer, would have been brilliant.
The bottom line is sound quality, and the Apple iPod Hi-Fi, given Steve Jobs's hyping of its audiophile quality, disappointed us mildly. But maybe we were expecting too much. We listened to a variety of genres in MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, and CD (via line-in) in a desktop environment, a kitchen, a big living room, and outdoors. Audio quality was good and clean, though some material sounded tinny. The bass isn't overpowering, but it's tight and true. The Hi-Fi is at its best at higher volumes and less apt to vibrate and distort at the highest volumes, like the SoundDock or iM7; at low decibels, it doesn't sound like a set of $350 speakers. We were able to really test the Hi-Fi's volume outdoors--it gets loud, and audio quality is excellent. Overall, the Hi-Fi sounded better than the Bose SoundDock (which doesn't have battery or line-in options) but only marginally better than the Altec Lansing iM7, which was bassier--and lighter, with video-out, as well as $100 less.
Stereo separation is obviously limited, but we felt obliged to compare the Apple iPod Hi-Fi to a home stereo system to see if we'd replace it, and the quick answer was no. Yet, there is decent channel separation, and given the right music (Nouvelle Vague, that is) and correct positioning in a room, the sound stage expands well beyond the 17-inch Hi-Fi façade (which, by the way, looks much better without the grille). The mids can get muddled at times, while the bass benefits from louder volumes. Techno and electronica fared very well, and classical, acoustic, and jazz shined only at higher bit rates. Bob Dylan's live "4th Time Around" (Apple Lossless) was alive and poignant, but a familiar Mozart piano piece, Sonata No. 3 in B-flat, lost some of its character (AAC). For a shelf system, the Hi-Fi lives up to its name, but this product will not replace a decent amp and speaker system. It's far more suited for the dorm room or the kitchen than an audiophile's living room. But remember that you can lug this "music box" pretty much anywhere.
In conclusion, the Apple iPod Hi-Fi is a well-constructed, attractive, and fine-sounding system with excellent controller responsiveness, but it fails to stand out from the pack because it lacks some features, such as additional ports and a menu control, that would have justified its steep price.