Editors' note: The rating on this product has been lowered due to changes in the competitive marketplace. Those interested in this product should compare it to the Sonos ZonePlayer S5.
One of the major drawbacks of most home iPod speaker systems is that the remote control that comes with the unit offers only limited control of your iPod. You stick the iPod in the speaker's dock and you can do little more than skip forward and back through tracks (and possibly playlists), raise and lower the volume, and pause and play audio. If you're lucky, the speaker has a display that's big enough for you to be able see what track is playing from more than a few feet away. Most don't, as they rely on the iPod's screen to display the relevant track and navigation info. Which brings us to George, the high-end iPod music system from start-up Chestnut Hill Sound. The George solves the interface problem in much the same way that Sonos does for media-streaming devices: it builds a remote into the system that essentially mirrors the display of the iPod. But the smart usability solution will cost you a pretty penny--the George retails for $500. That's a lot, to be sure, but--when you consider that it now includes the once optional external remote charger--it represents $100 savings off the George's original list price.
The Apple interface isn't the only thing that Chestnut Hill emulates. Like Sonos, the company's packaging is very iPod-like, so you feel as if you could be opening an Apple product--or at least a close cousin of one (the Apple iPod Hi-Fi comes to mind). Cosmetically speaking, George's appearance is pretty polished. Weighing 10 pounds and measuring 4.5x14.1x8.6 inches (HWD), it's slightly bigger than your average table-top radio and features removable speaker grilles, as well as interchangeable side panels that allow you to customize the look of your unit. The company says it will begin offering different "skins" (in cherry, walnut, or black oak) in October for around $99 each. Colorful speaker grilles will also be available for $29.
Like many iPod music systems, there's a dock built into the top of the unit that recharges your iPod when it's inserted (and George is plugged in). The system comes with the typical assortment of plastic sleeves or universal adapters that are designed to make your particular iPod model fit snugly in the dock. But what's unusual about the George is that the dock module itself is removable, and Chestnut Hill has said that it will eventually offer an optional HD Radio module that includes a new iPod dock and a small accessory that will clip onto the back of the unit. It's unclear how much the new module will cost, but it appears it'll be easy enough to install. And the modular design also opens the way to other expansion possibilities in the future.
George has a few additional features that set it apart from other iPod speaker systems. The standout feature, of course, is the detachable front panel that doubles as the aforementioned advanced iPod remote. The screen isn't color and a rubberized knob substitutes for a touch pad scroll-wheel. But in most other respects, the remote does a fine job of emulating the iPod experience, even if the remote does feel a little big in your hand in comparison to an iPod.
Initially, the only trouble we had was raising and lowering the volume while navigating through the remote's menu system. Since the knob controls both navigation and volume just like an iPod's scroll-wheel, you have to either wait for the menu to toggle back to the track that's playing or remember to press and hold the menu button to get to back to the home screen (the clock). After consulting the company's Web site, we also discovered you can shorten the time it takes for the system to "time-out" to the play screen if no buttons are pressed.
The remote uses the Zigbee communications standard to communicate with the main unit from as far as 25 feet away. Because Zigbee is RF-based (radio frequency), there's no line of sight required as there would be with a standard infrared remote. We didn't experience any problems with the remote--it uses the same crowded 2.4GHz frequency range shared by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices as well as many cordless phones--but you can change "channels" if you find that something is interfering with the remote's signal. The remote's removable lithium-ion battery recharges when you have the remote docked in the main unit, or in the included outboard recharging stand. (The system comes with an extra grill piece that covers the space where the remote normally sits when docked.) When updating the system's firmware, you do, however, have to dock the remote in the main unit because the firmware needs to be applied to both the main unit and the remote. It's also worth noting that, depending on the number of songs you have stored in your iPod, it can take more than a minute for your iPod to initially sync with the remote. The good news is that the system remembers or caches your iPod's contents, so it doesn't have to completely resync everything each time you dock your iPod. However, if you dock a friend's iPod, you'll have to resync your iPod the next time you place it in the dock.
The George is also an AM/FM radio, as well as an advanced alarm clock that allows you to wake either to tracks on your iPod or to radio, and it comes with a full set of snooze/sleep options. What makes the radio functionality unique is the number of presets you can store, as well as the "bandless" tuning, which blends AM and FM stations (there's no separate button for AM and FM, you simply roll from FM into AM). You can store as many as 24 presets, with 6 presets per "page" on the remote's screen. What takes a little getting used is that the "4" and "8" buttons also serve as "previous" and "next" navigational controls, which isn't entirely intuitive and can cause you to accidentally scroll from one page to the next rather than change the station.