CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Tivoli Audio iSongBook review: Tivoli Audio iSongBook

Tivoli Audio iSongBook

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, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
4 min read
Last year, Tivoli Audio had the ingenious idea of turning its great-sounding, single-speaker PAL into a portable iPod speaker simply by adding an "i" to the beginning of its name, changing its color to white, throwing in a connecting cable and--voilà--the iPAL was born. The company is now using a similar formula to iPod-ify its SongBook line of portable clock radios, adding a slick hideaway dock and a second, detachable speaker that turns the little guy into a ministereo system that becomes portable when you stick six AA batteries in it.
Like the SongBook, the more expensive iSongBook ($329) looks a little like an old-style world radio. Measuring 6.19 by 11 by 2.19 inches (HWD) and weighing 3.2 pounds with batteries, it's boxy but slim, so it can fit on thinner shelves than can the deeper iPAL. As noted, the biggest differences between the SongBook ($159), which comes in several colors, and the white-only iSongBook are the dock and the detachable second speaker. With a little tug, you pull the speaker away from the main unit to extend the sound stage and get better stereo separation, which, in theory, should yield better sound. The speaker attaches to the main unit via a retractable cable with a miniplug just like the one you'd find at the end of a pair of headphones. The cable is six feet long, and on the back of the speaker, there's a nifty rewind mechanism that allows you to easily adjust the cord's length. That said, you'll want to figure out a way to hide the cord once you separate the speakers because it looks pretty kludgy hanging out the side of the main unit.
Aside from the detachable speaker, the Tivoli Audio iSongBook's main selling point is--of course--the built-in iPod dock, which can be folded back into the unit when an iPod isn't present. Seven inserts are included to match most dockable iPods, and you should be able to use the respective adapter sleeves included with the iPod Nano and the video-enabled fifth-generation iPod in order to properly seat those models--though it's worth noting that the tiny Nano worked fine sans adapter. As with the Bose SoundDock or the iHome iH5 clock radio, whenever the included AC adapter is powering the unit, your iPod will be recharged as it sits in the dock. Other notable features include a built-in AM/FM clock radio with an alarm--you can wake to your iPod--and a dedicated sleep/snooze button along with five assignable presets to quickly jump to your favorite radio stations. There's also a headphone jack, plus an input for connecting other audio devices such as a portable CD or DVD player or--heaven forfend--a non-iPod MP3 player. A blue backlight on the LCD can be turned on and off with a press of a button. And lastly, Tivoli throws in a credit-card-style remote that allows you not only to skip forward and rewind songs but to jump ahead and back through albums and playlists, as well as tune into radio stations and adjust volume levels.
Unlike the iPAL, the Tivoli Audio iSongBook has a digital AM/FM tuner rather than an analog one. That tuner does a decent job of pulling in stations--we didn't have a problem there. However, we weren't entirely thrilled with the iSongBook's sound. Not that it sounds bad, but we expected more from a system that costs more than $300. While the iPAL sounds big for its small dimensions, the iSongBook plays down to its size. It doesn't measure up to the larger yet less feature-rich Bose SoundDock or the Klipsch iGroove, although it does sound significantly better than the $99 iHome iH5. And when we played songs such as an acoustic version of 2Pac's "Thugz Mansion," which stayed within the speakers' range, we thought, OK, that sounds pretty good. But other songs, especially bass-heavy material, elicited more of a wince than a smile. Also, it isn't clear how much of an improvement is made by adding the extra speaker.
The long and short of it is that we wouldn't have any problem recommending the iSongBook at $200 or even $250 if Tivoli Audio had been willing to throw in a good rechargeable battery as it does with the iPAL (after all, if you buy your own rechargeable AAs, they will recharge in the unit when the power adapter's plugged in). Overall, the iSongBook is nicely styled, has a decent feature set, and makes for a pretty ideal bedside clock radio/stereo that also travels pretty well. However, if you don't need the clock/alarm functions and can deal with the untidy method of connecting your iPod via a cable instead of a dock, the iPAL is a much better deal. And for that matter, so, too, is the single-speaker SongBook.