Review: 'George' iPod Docking Station Well Worth Steep Price

The George, Chestnut Hill Sound's new, curiously named audio system for fourth-generation Apple iPods and later, costs $549 (direct), and that's if you choose not to accessorize it.

Sure, it's expensive, but this iPod dock is super-capable and puts out unbelievably good sound.

If you want to get the best possible sound from your iPod and are willing to pay for it, this high-end iPod dock delivers.

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The George doesn't come cheap, especially when you factor in its optional upgrades. If you go for wood paneling, say, instead of the stock drab white design, you'll spend $600. A charging stand for the wireless remote sets you back another $50.

The question that remains is whether $650 is a ridiculous price to pay for an iPod sound system, when roughly the same amount could buy a very nice stereo receiver and a set of great speakers.

Perhaps, especially when you consider that a receiver can act as a hub for your TV, games, CDs, DVDs, and your iPod.

Yet, for the audiophile, George is worth every penny. It sounds amazing and is incredibly easy to use.

The George's design is its only real drawback. Its speakers are neither upward-angled nor detachable, which is bad news for folks who wish to listen to the system at their desks. That's because the speakers will shoot sound at your chest rather than your ears, unless you like to slouch really low when you listen.

Another problem with this setup is that you won't have much separation between speakers for stereo imaging. The left and right speakers are roughly 6 inches apart, so unless you stand with your nose an inch from the display, you can forget about the concept of a sonic "sweet spot." (The sweet spot is the invisible third point of the equilateral triangle that two symmetrically placed speakers would make with your head.)

In an ideal world, the tweeters should sit at ear level — the ideal spot for balanced sound between the speakers and for optimal stereo separation. So, realistically, this is a bookshelf unit and should really be set at ear level.

One last flaw: It is very easy to mute — or un-mute — your music when removing the remote from the dock. The mute/snooze button is right where your fingers naturally land to grab the control.

As far as complaints go, though, that's all I can come up with.

The sound quality of the George is superior to that of any iPod audio system I've tested. To be fair, most docks cost less than half as much.

But if you want powerful speakers that won't distort at high volumes, subtle and clear detail in the mid-to-high frequencies, a tight subwoofer that'll rattle your innards before it rattles its own enclosure, and customizable EQ settings for specific frequencies in the low and high-end realms, it's all here.

The Apple Hi-Fi — an excellent choice for $200 less — performs similarly well at mid to high frequencies, but can't come close to producing as much tight, resonant low-end audio as the George.

The speakers sounded a bit tinny initially, but after messing with the EQ, I found a great setting for rock, pop, and rap music: a plus-two boost at 80 Hz and a plus-four boost at 8 kHz, with the subwoofer knob on the back panel at maximum.

An audiophile might say you shouldn't have to adjust EQ settings to get excellent sound, and that's true for extremely high-end gear, but this is an all-in-one product for discriminating audiophiles.

Once I made these changes, this system blew me away. Fine-tune it to your personal preferences, and I'm sure you'll find the speakers quite capable of impressing your friends.

Another major draw of the George is its advanced remote control. Basically, the system is the remote: the entire control panel just clicks into the front of the dock to recharge.

There is an optional ($50) remote charger if you wish to, say, keep the controller on a bedside table, as well as an optional cover for the vacant space left when the remote is off the dock.

All of the George's functions, excluding the subwoofer knob on the back panel, can be operated via the buttons on the remote. Its range is listed as up to 25 feet, but I had some luck using the control almost 40 feet away from the dock, though lag time seemed to increase the farther I got.

Anything you could possibly control — volume, EQ settings, surfing the radio, skipping songs, setting the alarm time, or hitting the snooze button — can be done from afar, without even pointing the remote in the direction of the speakers (though the manual recommends a same-room setup).

The wireless protocol used for this system is called Zigbee, and it operates on one of 26 channels. You may have to experiment to find the channel with the least amount of interference, but I had very few issues in our labs, where there's quite a bit of wireless competition. Four small circles, like the bars on a cell phone, indicate the strength of the signal at any given moment.

The remote's display alternately shows the song/artist that is playing on your iPod and the time of day down to the second, day, and date.

At the bottom of the screen are four software tabs: (left to right) iPod, Radio, Alarm, and Aux. The Aux source option exists for listening to non-iPod devices connected via a jack on the rear panel.

There are two rows of physical buttons, numbered one through eight, below the screen. They correspond to the tabs, and in different screen modes they perform different tasks.

For instance, in iPod mode, the screen replicates the iPod screen, but with more options. In this case, the tabs and buttons are linked to letter groupings to streamline an artist search. (To get to David Bowie fast, hit the DEF button.)

In Alarm mode, the tabs and buttons are used to help you quickly choose the song and volume level you wish to wake up to.

At the bottom of the remote, there's an easy-to-use click wheel configuration that more or less mimics the iPod array, and this is what you'll primarily use when navigating through your music library.

The intuitive design of the user interface makes performing any task extremely easy and nearly eliminates the need for a manual.

Another excellent facet of the George: Chestnut Hill plans to update the device's firmware constantly; this can be done via USB on either a Mac or PC.

Finally, the FM/AM tuner is seamless — meaning that when you reach the final frequency on the FM "dial," it immediately hops around to the first one on the AM band. Also, the buttons and tabs on the remote in this capacity serve as station presets.

Tech support, FAQs, and the manual can be found at Chestnut Hill's Web site, or call (617) 618-1800 (ext. 2) with questions. The company offers a 30-day money-back satisfaction guarantee on the George.

Though it's not the most beautiful system out there (it's a bit plain-looking), the Chestnut Hill Sound George is nonetheless the new king of the iPod dock mountain. Its fantastic sound would be enough to secure this title, but when you throw wireless operation and ease of use into the mix, it's quite simple: The George kicks butt ... and for $550, it had better!

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