If you’re one of those types that considers themselves an audiophile’, it would be easy to turn up your nose at the thought of any kind of iPod dock being worth listening to. But the fact that esteemed British audio company Arcam has released just such a device should be enough to make the purists sit up and listen.
Measuring a perfectly symmetrical and relatively compact 200x200x200mm (wdh), there are no prizes for guessing where Arcam rCube gets it name from. Its top is finished in a smooth shiny plastic to match the iPhone 4, which looks smart but attracts dust and fingerprints – so it’s fortunate that a cleaning cloth is supplied. A white version of the dock is also available, should the fabled white iPhone 4 ever arrive…
The rCube is designed primarily for Apple devices, and the dock at the top accepts all recent iPod and iPhone devices – the iPhones 4, 3GS, and 3; third-generation iPod Touch; fifth-gen Nano, and the iPod classic. It will also charge your Apple device while it’s playing back.
What’s up, dock?
The rCube’s dock itself is housed under a rotating flap, enabling you to maintain the smooth lines of the device even when there’s no iPod sitting on top.
And even without an iPhone or iPod sitting in the dock, the rCube can still be in full song – courtesy of wireless playback. It uses ‘Kleer’ technology to play directly, either from an Apple iOS device, or from your PC.
The former is achieve via a dongle, dubbed an rWand, that attaches to the bottom of your iPhone or iPod. PC playback is achieved via a separate USB dongle called an rWave. Both are very easy to set up – plug them in, press and hold a button on the dongle, and press a button on the rCube for each to be paired. This is a one-time operation – after that, the system will work again simply via plug and play.
Our only gripe with the rCube’s streaming system was that we had to remove our iPhone 4 from its case to get the rWand to fit – though we were at least able to fit the same iPhone into the rCube’s dock connector without having to do so. Other than that, the rWand worked flawlessly, streaming even lossless audio files with no discernible loss of sound quality.
The rWave worked similarly, although we did experience some occasional interruptions in the audio flow when the PC was multitasking – though we suspect this might have been down to the limitations of our ageing laptop, rather than the rWave. One thing to note is that the rWave takes over your PC’s sound controller while it’s plugged in, so your Windows bleeps and bells will also come out of the rCube rather than say, your laptop speakers.
Sound around the house
Another bonus of the Kleer wireless tech is that if you have another – or, indeed, several – rCubes, they can be linked together so that you can send music wirelessly from one to another, thus creating a wireless home network of up to eight cubes.
If you do want your music to follow you around your home, but you don’t have the cash for a second rCube, you can easily pick it up and carry it using the handle that sits behind the dock itself. Arcam claims the rCube’s built-in battery offers up to eight hours of playback – though you can cut that in half if you’re playing at party volumes.
The downside is that you can’t carry it if there’s an iPod/iPhone in the dock, but if you’re streaming music to it wirelessly you’re good to go – as long as you don’t mind lugging 5kg of speaker around with you.
At the top of the device are a number of touch-sensitive controls. The Source button enables you to switch between inputs, with a standard line-level connection on the rear. A small, slimline remote is also supplied, but its unresponsive buttons feel a little cheap compared to those of the rCube.
The device also has video output capabilities, with composite and component connections at the rear – though you’ll need to splash out on Arcam’s proprietary cable for the latter.
The front of the rCube are covered by a mesh grille, but the speakers are actually located on either side of the device. This means that the dock needs a little space to the sides to ensure audio isn’t muffled, tempting though it might be to slot it into a confined space on a bookshelf.
Unlike Baby, however, it doesn’t mind however being placed in a corner. Bass frequencies in particular bounce off the walls to great effect.
And speaking of bass, there’s plenty of it on offer with the rCube. The specs quote an output of 90 watts RMS – whic,h for an object this compact, might raise some eyebrows. When you turn on, tune in and blast out, those eyebrows will remain raised – this thing packs a punch.
What’s quickly apparent, though, is that this is no thuggish boom box. The sound is well controlled too, so that as you turn it up, the bass remains tight. Mid-range frequencies don’t get swamped, and you’ll also be able to pick out plenty of detail at the top end. If you still feel the bass is a little heavy, there’s even a bass reduction button at the rear to reduce lower frequencies.
Put simply, this is a fantastic-sounding music dock for all types of music. We tried a variety of genres, from rock and pop to classical, in both compressed and lossless formats, and we were left smiling after each. The reserves of power meant that it doesn’t sound too strained, ensuring you won’t tire of listening to it for prolonged periods.
The rCube’s only real downside sonically is inherent in its shape – inevitably, you don’t get a wide stereo sound stage from a little box. But even so, the rCube’s quality makes it suitable for much more than just casual listening.
This will come as a relief for anyone who has spotted the price – just shy of £500 is a lot of money, especially when you have to add on the price of the rWand and rWave dongles at around £70 each. The rCube’s main rival is the Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin, which costs a little less, at around £400 – but doesn’t offer the option of wireless playback.
However, there’s one potential fly in the ointment – docks and amps are starting to appear that use Apple’s Airplay technology, which allows wireless playback without the need to bother with any dongles.
While there’s a USB port on the rear of the rCube for firmware updates, it won’t be possible to upgrade it to Airplay as this requires different hardware. On the plus side, Airplay requires a Wi-Fi network, whereas teh rCube doesn’t, which could be useful in many situations.