Just before Christmas, Polk Audio sent me one of their new I-Sonic all-in-one entertainment system to review, and it has been in my office ever since, giving me a chance to experience XM Radio and HD Radio, among other things. Does it sound nice? Most definitely. Is it worth $599? Well… let’s talk about the pro’s and con’s of the unit before I answer that question.
I should note that I already have a Bose Wave Radio and have always enjoyed it, thinking that it had very good sound for such a small device. That was my reference device against which I compared the I-Sonic.
First off, a list of features: The I-Sonic includes XM satellite radio, AM/FM and HD Radio (for those broadcast channels that support the new format), a music and MP3 CD player that can also play DVDs (there’s both S-Video and Composite Video out on the back of the unit) and a remote control.
Don’t let the “I” name fool you, though, there’s no iPod docking station, no real capability to work with the iPod or display iPod data on the I-Sonic display, just an AUX in jack so you can plug your iPod into the unit. That was probably my greatest disappointment: even the photo above suggests that it includes a simple dock, but it doesn’t. That’s a third-party add-on.
Now, let me sing its praises for a moment. The I-Sonic has amazing sound. Really, it’s far superior to the Bose Wave radio and at decent volumes, it will give a standard stereo system quite a run for its money. Not bad for a compact device you can easily leave on your bookshelf, a corner of your desk or your bedside table! I hate to sound like an advert, but you really do need to hear this device to appreciate it.
XM Radio: Nice, but Not Worth The Money
The I-Sonic put me in the middle of the broadcast wars, however, and it was very interesting to see what it could and couldn’t do, and what did and didn’t work. For example, they comp’d me a 30 day XM Radio subscription and I will candidly admit that I really enjoyed XM Radio, particularly the jazz stations. But to my great surprise, I found that reception was spotty. Even in my fixed location there were times that the external XM antenna was insufficient to pull in a signal. So as if I were listening to regular FM radio, I’d randomly lose my XM music every so often, having the unit go silent. Fiddling with the rather bulky antenna helped a little bit, but it was clear why it had such a long wire attaching it to the unit: you need to move it around quite a bit before you can get reliable reception.
After the 30 day XM Radio evaluation was up, I asked myself whether I’d actually pay the $9.99/month to have a subscription to the service and the answer was a resounding no. $29.99/annually I’d consider, but $120/year? That’s a lot of money when I can listen to so many different high-quality radio stations via the Internet for free.
Except on the I-Sonic. One of the greatest limitations I believe that the I-Sonic has in today’s wired household is that it doesn’t have any support for anything on the Internet at all. No access to your iTunes or Windows Media Player library (like the Sonos) and no ability to access Internet radio stations or audio streams. Big problem, in my eyes.
I actually asked Polk Audio about this and Paul DiComo, their marketing manager, responded that “We have no plans to add WiFi capability to the I-Sonic. It would be an extremely cool feature but it would add cost and complexity to a premium priced and complex product.” Too darn bad.
Worse, XM Radio is a per device subscription fee, so if I also got an XM Radio system for my car, it’d be another $7.99/month for that subscription (yes, there’s a slight discount). If I were pricing things, I’d at least have $9.99/month cover all devices you cared to buy as a way to encourage widespread adoption of the XM technology.
HD Radio: Not Ready for Prime Time
The other big feature of the I-Sonic is its support for HD Radio, the latest attempt by broadcast radio stations to remain relevant. According to the HD folk, AM sounds like FM and FM sounds like a CD with HD Radio. My experiences were rather different. In fact, I couldn’t tell any difference between a regular FM broadcast and an HD Radio FM broadcast, only found three channels that even had HD support, and couldn’t find any AM HD stations at all in my local listening area (greater metro Denver, Colorado).
In fact, the FM reception was pretty darn similar to the Bose Wave radio and frankly the lack of good stations and the pervasiveness of interrupt advertising makes me appreciate iTunes shuffle mode and Internet radio stations more and more.
Lovely Sound, But Is That Enough?
That’s the key question with this unit after all, whether radio is even relevant any more in this age of streaming Internet audio, widespread broadband connectivity, massive iTunes and Windows Media Player libraries and more. Sure, it sounds nice, but does anyone care?
I can’t deny that the I-Sonic has beautiful sound. They’ve done a splendid job with the design. But what they haven’t done is think through the necessary capabilities in a $599 device. Do I want to hook it up to a TV so I can watch DVDs? No, I already have a nice DVD player and can get a quite capable new unit for under $100. Do I want XM Radio? Not if it’s going to cost me over $100 per year for a subscription. Do I want HD Radio? No, and I didn’t find that it’s all it’s cracked up to be anyway…
What I want is a small device that lets me tap into all the music I have elsewhere in my home and office, select playlists, streaming channels and individual artists, and listen to them on a small, high quality device that fills any room with music.
Unfortunately, that’s not what Polk Audio is offering with the I-Sonic.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a capable XM-compatible and DVD-capable device, perhaps for a dorm room or office, then I recommend you take a very close look at the Polk Audio I-Sonic player. It might just be the best system on the market with this set of capabilities.
With any luck, the next audio gear I received for review will be some DJ equipment, and I’ll be able to get my rap-loving son to help me learn the ins and outs.
Needless to say, Polk did send me this device to review and while they offered me a hefty discount if I wanted to buy it from the loaner pool, I’m going to be returning it. I need a ‘net device to meet my needs, not a fancy radio, however wonderful the sound.