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Chestnut Hill Sound George iPod Speakers review: Chestnut Hill Sound George iPod Speakers

Chestnut Hill Sound George iPod Speakers

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
9 min read

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.

7.0

Chestnut Hill Sound George iPod Speakers

The Good

High-end iPod speaker system/radio; detachable front panel that doubles as an advanced iPod remote; remote has a range of 25 feet; RF Zigbee transmission eliminates line-of-sight limitations; rich, detailed sound; relatively sleek design; upgradeable firmware; AM/FM clock radio with dual alarms and 24 presets; interchangeable side panels and speaker grilles; includes separate remote charger.

The Bad

It's expensive, there's no video output, and it doesn't handle heavy bass all that well.

The Bottom Line

In addition to its upgradeablility and customizable colors, the George sets itself apart from other upscale iPod tabletop radios with a unique and useful visual wireless remote.

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.

The remote
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.


The George's remote, shown here in the included standalone charger, does a great job of duplicating the iPod's functionality.

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.


Chestnut Hill includes a front-panel cover that matches the speaker grilles.

Radio
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.

While in some ways it's nice that you get so many presets, those who listen to only a few stations might find 24 to be too many--and, unfortunately, you really do need to set all 24 slots or you risk getting static if you hit on one of the default presets that doesn't correspond to a station in your area. We also noticed that there doesn't seem to be an internal antenna, which means you have to attach the supplied AM and FM antennas (like most FM antennae that are included with iPod systems, the George's is just a wire). We had no complaints about the unit's ability to pull in stations with the included antennas, but you can upgrade them if you want.

Connectivity and firmware
Around back, you'll also find a headphone jack, an auxiliary input for connecting other audio devices, and a preamp output that allows you to hook the George to your living room stereo system. In terms of connectivity, the one big omission is an S-Video output, which would enable you to watch videos stored on your iPod on a TV and use the George as a speaker system. Yes, Chestnut Hill is more focused on the audio side of the iPod equation, but at this price--and with the proliferation of video iPods--a little video connectivity seems warranted.

As we said, the system's firmware is upgradeable, and we've already seen several patches come down the pike that provide small fixes, improve navigation options, and add functionality, including support for podcast menus. To upgrade the unit, you have to download the George Assistant software to your Windows PC or Mac, then connect the device to your PC via an included USB cable (it looks like a standard printer cable). We had some trouble with the initial software, but subsequent versions have smoothed out the upgrade process considerably, so it's much more of a plug-and-play affair.

Performance and sound quality
Because the George is relatively feature packed, we've spent a lot of time going over its functionality. But the other half of the equation when it comes to putting together an iPod speaker system in an increasingly competitive market is sound quality. Before we get into the system's strengths, the first thing you should understand about any system this small with little in the way of speaker separation is that it has its sound limitations. So, if you're expecting audiophile quality, you need to set the bar a little lower. That said, George definitely sounds good compared to other iPod speaker systems, though it doesn't handle heavy bass all that well, and you need to be sitting directly in front of it to get the best sound.

Chestnut Hill was trying to achieve tonal balance in putting together the system, and that certainly comes across if you don't try to amp the bass up--there's a knob on the back that sets the bass level for the internal subwoofer. We stuck to a setting midway on the dial and made some little tweaks in a separate onscreen equalizer menu that allows you to adjust bass and treble levels, as well as their frequencies. Unfortunately, some folks will have no idea what those frequencies equate to in terms of sound, so it would probably be a good idea for Chestnut Hill Sound to also give users the option of choosing from a more standard set of English-language preset EQ settings based on what music the user is listening to (pop, rock, jazz, and so forth). We expect these settings to turn up in a future firmware upgrade.

Like a lot of these systems, the George is strongest in the high and midrange frequencies. Anything with an "unplugged" vibe-- the Pretenders' Isle of View, for example--is going to sound really good, with rich, detailed vocals and instruments that are very present and easy to pick out. Turn to something a little more strenuous, such as the Chemical Brothers' Galvanize, and you start to hear some buzzing and breaking up in the lower frequencies. We played with the bass EQ and the subwoofer crossover frequency but still couldn't balance the sonics to the point where we eliminated that crunchiness while still retaining some bass. On a more positive note, the little system is capable of playing pretty loudly and should have no trouble filling a small to medium-size room with sound. However, crank the volume all the way to the top and you will experience heavy distortion.

Conclusion
In the end, the George is a nicely designed, slick product that should only get better with time. But there are plenty of more affordable alternatives out there. The Belkin Tunestage 2 turns the iPod into a streaming remote control, while the Keyspan TuneView for iPod uses so-called screen-scraping technology to emulate the iPod interface on a separate wireless remote; both can be had for under $170. Likewise, the sub-$150 DLO HomeDock Deluxedisplays the iPod menu on a TV screen, and even Apple's own Apple TV (with onscreen TV navigation and audio playback to any attached stereo or home theater system) is more affordable than the George.

On the other hand, when you compare the George with the tony tabletop radio crowd--the Bose, Tivoli Audio, Cambridge SoundWorks, and Boston Acoustics crowd--it comes off looking like a much better deal. That's doubly true now that Chestnut Hill has cut the price to $500, and thrown in the formerly optional standalone charger. It's still expensive, to be sure, but now that we've seen Chestnut Hill follow through with several worthwhile firmware updates, the George is an easier recommendation for anyone who's looking for an upscale iPod speaker system.

7.0

Chestnut Hill Sound George iPod Speakers

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7