The best iPod dock is the one that matches your own particular needs and your wallet! There are probably over a hundred different designs of iPod dock, but only a few will be of interest to you if you're looking for reasonable sound quality.
So, I'm going to ignore all the iPod docks under $100. They all sound about the same, and are great if you want a cheap and simple place to dump your iPod and hear the music without having to wear headphones.
But they can't give you high quality sound. You have to get over the $100 mark to start to get a good sound. But even then, only the very best iPod docks have a chance of rivaling a high-quality dedicated audio system (although there IS a way to do this, which I'll explain in a minute!).
The answer is:
Let me explain the reasoning a little more...
You have some great music stored on your iPod, and you want to be able to hear it without wearing headphones, or else you want to share your listening experience with a friend. You need to get that music off your iPod and through an amplifier and speakers.
Assuming your main music library is stored on your computer, you could always start up the computer, launch your music player application, find the music you want, select "play", and listen through your computer speakers.
But there's a faster, more convenient way - an iPod dock! All you have to do is slot your iPod into the dock, scroll to the playlist you want and off you go! But there is another advantage compared to a computer-based system.
Typically, if you are plying music files straight from your PC or Mac, you'll be using the Digital to Audio Converter in your computer. Simply, these are quite low quality. The DAC in your iPod is likely to be better, and so your sound quality will be better than the computer-based system.
You can even go a step further, and by-pass the DAC in your iPod too, but I'm getting ahead of myself - more on that in a minute!
So, the best iPod docks (ie. those over $100) will give you fast, convenient access to good quality sound that can fill a room.
Which ones are worth looking at? Because there are so many, I've decided to limit my recommendations to the ones I have actually heard. Let's start with the most cost-effective (that means the least expensive!):
Around $100: Klipsch iGroove SXT. This is listed at close to $200, but is available from Amazon for nearer $130. At that price, it has to be worth looking at!
Klipsch made their name with top-end home audio speakers, and have expanded their range over the years. They have a good reputation for in-ear headphones, and the iGroove continues that reputation.
If you had to pay full price for this, you might want to compare it to a few others, but this is easily the best iPod dock at the $130 price level.
Best iPod dock Around $200: The Bose SoundDock Series 2 is the next up, at $230. This is a small step up from the Klipsch iGroove, and the one you prefer will most likely depend on the price you can get either of them at!
The Bose SoundDock sounds slightly smoother than the Klipsch iGroove in my opinion, and can deal with loud passages of classical music in a more controlled manner. But the differences are small. The final choice between these two will boil down to personal preference and pricing at the time you are searching. I think they're both great value.
Around $300: Next step up is the the B&W Zeppelin Mini, from British loudspeaker manufacturers Bowers and Wilkins. The Mini version costs around $300, and so is a significant step up in price from the first two iPod docks above. What do you get for the higher price?
When I compared the docks, I got the impression that the B&W is more "solid", with a higher quality feel to it. It's not just about the sound here, it's the way the thing is put together, and the quality of the components.
The B&W feels like it's going to last longer! And of course there's the way it looks - simply unique!
It's also up a notch in sound quality from the lower price levels. It doesn't play much louder then the cheaper iPod docks, but sounds distinctly clearer. You can hear more of what's going on, particularly with classical music - you can pick out individual instruments in an orchestra, for example.
For a few dollars more, there's a vacuum tube based dock, the Roth Audio MC4, at $350. This adds to the visual appearance of an iPod dock by displaying the vacuum tubes. It's a good-looking, compact unit, and sounds very smooth compared to the docks discussed so far.
But it's only the docking station and amplifier - no speakers included! You need to buy the speakers separately - (additional cost). Once you add the cost of good speakers, the Roth is probably the equivalent of the next 2 docks from B&W and Bose.
Best iPod dock Around $600: The B&W Zeppelin Mini's big brother is, of course, the standard Zeppelin. This dock has been around for a few years now, and I well remember hearing one for the first time.
At $600, the full-sized version is double the price of the Mini, but delivers sound with a thumping authority that demands your attention.
This iPod dock is getting into the "good quality home audio system" territory! It has attracted very good reviews from nearly all audio critics, and has become something of a benchmark for sound quality in iPod docks.
The Bose SoundDock 10 Digital Music System is in the same price and quality bracket as the Zeppelin.
To be honest, I couldn't hear much difference between them when I auditioned them back-to-back. Both docks revealed good detail within the music, reproducing single instruments like piano and violin with a clarity that I wouldn't have thought possible from such small systems.
Mind you, I WAS using studio-quality FLAC audio files on my iPod! As I've discussed on the music file formats page, the quality of the recording is the first and most important step on the journey to great music reproduction.
With both the Zeppelin and the SoundDock 10, you can clearly hear the difference a studio-quality file makes. When it comes to the loud bits, both units can cope with full orchestra, although you need to remember that we are using relatively small speakers here compared to a full-sized home audio system.
The systems listed so far (except the Roth MC4) are self-contained and complete - they have amplifier and speakers built-in. The systems listed below do not have built-in speakers - they are separated from the iPod dock, and you have to pay extra. You can use speakers either from the same manufacturer as the dock, or you can use speakers from some other company.
Around $1800: For vacuum-tube aficionados, there are some iPod docks with tubes! I have already mentioned the Roth MC4, at a lower price level.
My personal favorite here is the Fatman iTube from TL Audio. They have a range of docks with vacuum tubes, and I think they all look great! I love the mystique and romance of those softly glowing tubes, the velvet-smooth sound, and the bizarre marriage of 100 year-old technology with a modern icon, the iPod.
Personally, I own the basic model, the iTube Carbon, which combines the iPod dock in one unit with the tube amplifier. It's a lot cheaper than the one I'm going to recommend in a second, but it's an older model and has been discontinued in some markets.
It came with TL Audio's own bookshelf speakers, but in retrospect I would have been better to buy the version without speakers, and put the savings plus a bit extra towards better speakers. The Tannoy Mercury bookshelf speakers are particularly well matched to the iTube dock.
Here it is!
Back to my recommendation for the best iPod dock at this price level: the Fatman iTube 302/FatDock, which at around $1800 should knock your socks off! And it does. Costing 3 times the Zeppelin or SoundDock10, (and minus any speakers - bring your own!), you'd want 3 times the sound quality.
Well, like most things in life, there is a law of diminishing returns, and just because you spend 3 times as much on something doesn't mean you get 3 times as much, or 3 times the quality. Not at these price levels, anyway.
BUT you DO get a massive step up from the docks with built-in speakers. You are now firmly onto the "great-sounding home audio system" platform.
The iTube 302 has the power to drive significantly larger speakers than the other docks so far, and the vacuum tube amplifier can be driven hard without getting harsh distortion. Yes, there is some distortion, but the way vacuum tubes behave at their limits is much smoother than solid-state circuit based amplifiers. Great for Wagner!
Krell amplifiers are among the best in the world, and look like they are engineered to survive a nuclear war. So it was something of a surprise to find out that Krell had decided to build an iPod dock. At first, I thought they must be moving downmarket!
But then I thought, "no, if Krell has built a dock, it'll be because they think they can do something special". And of course they have.
They have also had some fun with naming their devices. The Krell KID is the docking port for your iPod, and is basically a preamplifier with all the usual controls for volume, bass and treble. It takes the analogue music output from the iPod, and then seems to work some magic.
If you get the KID on its own, you'll need to plug it into an amplifier and speakers. But Krell offer their own solution here. They have another, bigger dock that the KID slots into - a "dock for your dock" - but this one is actually a 150W amplifier!
Someone at Krell has an interesting sense of humor, because they called this unit the PAPA Dock. Obviously, the PAPA dock cradles the KID, but of course there is also that oblique reference to the infamous former president of Haiti, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier !
At $1500 for the KID and another $2500 for the Papa Dock, this is obviously a set-up for wealthier audiophiles.
You have to add speakers to that price, too.
Very strangely, Krell decided to accept the output from the iPod's own Digital-to-Audio Converter (the DAC), which probably costs less than $10, rather then by-passing it and using a higher-quality external DAC. Somehow, they have made this work. And how.
After listening to a demonstration, I can say that the KID/Papa Dock combo is the best iPod dock I have ever heard, by a huge margin. You could say that in the race for the best iPod dock, first place was Krell, and second place was daylight. There is that much of a gap to the next contender.
Like all the high-end audio products, it's hard to describe the sheer exuberance that the KID brings to the music. It's like it has a life of its own, without any signs of brashness. The music just plays, and your mind is captivated and mesmerized.
I found it very hard to concentrate on the technical issues while listening to the KID - I was just enjoying the music too much!
The Best iPod Dock? YES, if price is no object!
But there might be a way to get a similar performance more cheaply. Here is the explanation I promised you - but please note, all the possible "best iPod dock" candidates discussed so far have an amplifier. This last option does not. You will need a full audio system to plug it into. Let me explain:
Probably the best way to use your iPod for audiophile quality sound is to use studio-quality audio files, and then get a docking station that by-passes the digital to analogue converter in the iPod, giving you the digital output.
One example is the american-made Wadia 171 iTransport. This device has no other function - it just holds the iPod and allows you to get the pure digital signal from the audio file.
What happens to that signal next will depend on the type of home audio system you have.
It could be fed into a high-quality external DAC or to a digital preamplifier, and then to power amplifiers and speakers. Or you might have a system from, say, Meridian that can process the digital signal all the way to the speakers, placing the DAC near the end of the component chain.
Whatever, it's going to be expensive!
But ultimately this approach will give fantastic sound quality. The Wadia iTransport 171 retails for around $400 (Amazon), which seems very reasonable for a top-end dock, but remember that you need a whole home audio system to add it to.
Interestingly, if you get a great DAC and a decent amplifier and speakers, you could possibly rival the sound of the Krell KID for less money. I haven't heard the Wadia 171, so I can't be any more specific on this point. But the possibility exists to get Krell-level sound for less.
So, the best iPod dock? It depends on how much you want to pay!
I think the docks I have listed here are among the best iPod docks at each price level. Where there are 2 options at a particular level, I recommend going to a dealer where you can audition both. You have to compare them back-to-back to make a fair comparison. Then you can select the best iPod dock for your requirements!
Decided on a dock? Explore my guide to bookshelf speakers to make the most of it!
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