Dice Electronics has recently announced that they’re entering into the plentiful market of iPod-dock speaker systems. Their new product, the iTPA-220, is a vacuum tube enhanced iPod speaker system that offers two 20 watt channels of sound. With a stylish retro design, the Dice iTPA-220 sets itself apart from other iPod speakers, however looks aren’t everything. We subjected the iTPA-220 to a through and unbiased study. Read our review to see how it fared and whether or not it’s a worthy way to part with $299.99 USD.
Features and Design:
The overall design of the iTPA-220 amp/speaker system is pretty sexy – two vacuum tubes proudly standing front and center on the iPod base/amp. The black and white plastic housing looks excellent in photos and gives the impression of a high quality, techie toy ideal for iPod owners who want a to show a little class. The 8″x6″x3.75″ size of the base makes it perfect for placement on a desk, table, shelf or atop an a/v system.
Sadly, the design excellence peaks at the marketing photos. The physical amp is less than excellent. Made of lightweight plastic molding, the body of the iTPA-220 base feels like something from Hasbro or Fisher-Price. The body is a two-part mold (top and bottom halves). When holding the iTPA-220 base in one’s hands, the slightest amount of pressure – even a gentle squeeze – separates the top mold from the bottom. Straight out of the box, the inside of the base was visible though an unintentional gap in the housing. The vacuum tubes are protected by thin, easily marred tube-shaped plastic shields. The clear plastic used had visible die-marks where they had been popped from what must have been a massive sheet of molded parts, and the plastic is so soft that even a 3M microfiber cloth left hairline scratches.
Tweeters and Woofers
According to the manufacturer’s specs, the 1″ tweeters are made of silk and the 4″ woofers are composite. This is pretty standard fare for speakers. Frequency response is 40Hz to 18kHz, which is pretty impressive for a 2.0 system like this. No stats on total harmonic distortion or signal to noise ratio, though.
The speakers deliver 20watts per channel, so 40watts overall. This is much better than the average 2.0 iPod speaker set, however at $299 USD, a little more would have been expected and appreciated. Again, the iTPA-220 speakers push out more sound than one would expect from 20 watt channels.
The remote itself looks like the type of iPod speaker remotes you’d find with products by XtremeMac, Griffin, Logitech, etc. It has six buttons – mute, play/pause, volume down, volume up, reverse (previous song, not rewind within a song), and forward (next song, not farther ahead in current song). That’s it – simple and easy to use. Like most 3rd party iPod remotes, the Dice iTPA-220’s remote does not navigate menus on the iPod. Sad but true. (Should you need a fresh battery at some point, the remote uses a flat 3V Lithium battery.)
Video iPod Support
The iTPA-220 has an RCA video output on the back of the base. This will allow 5G and 6G iPod users to use the amp system to play music videos, TV shows and movies directly from the iTPA-220 and display the video on a TV.
Thanks to the 1/8″ auxiliary input, the iTPA-220 can be connected to more audio sources than just an iPod. Connect any other MP3 player, a laptop, computer, etc., so long as the source uses a 1/8″ (3.5mm) stereo audio cable.
The back of the iTPA-220
Ramping and EQ
One of the nice features of the iTPA-220 is the gradual increase in volume when playing a track from a paused/off position. Instead of an instant, full-volume blast erupting from the speakers, the iTPA-220 gives you a momentary upsurge in amplitude – a courtesy shot over the bow – allowing you just enough time to correct levels if necessary.
Because the iTPA-220 does not have any sort of external EQ, you’ll have to rely on the digital EQ built into your iPod. While the iPod is a great device, its EQ has very few useful settings. Thankfully, the iTPA-220 does a very good job of delivering relatively accurate audio.
There’s a round volume knob on the front of the iTPA-220. On our review unit, the knob felt a little stubborn. When using the volume knob, there were a few instances when the volume would turn down one notch while I was actively turning it up, and vice versa. This could have been a fluke, but it seemed that the contacts might have been lose, causing a somewhat jittery response.
Totally Tubular, Brah
The use of vacuum tubes in stereo equipment is generally believed to enhance audio quality. Some of the most expensive niche audio devices use vacuum tubes in an effort to preserve the analog beauty of music. These tubes are often credited with delivering a “warm” tone to audio – velvety bass, amazing mids and well-rounded highs – as opposed to a sharper, colder digital reproduction. No matter one’s stance on this analog/digital topic, the use of vacuum tubes in an otherwise all-digital environment borders on illogical. Anything on an iPod is digital, whether ripped from CD, downloaded from iTunes or converted from an LP to MP3 or other format. Converting analog (voice, instruments) to digital, compressing it with lossy format, then running it through a vacuum tube to get a “warm” tone is kinda goofy. It seems like more of a gimmick than a technological marvel.
The Dice Electronics iTPA-220
Setup and Use:
Setting up the Dice iTPA-220 iPod Tube Amp is not difficult at all. Remove the amp and speakers from the packaging and set them on a table. Plug the electrical cord from the left speaker into a wall outlet and run the auxiliary power cord from the left speaker to the amp. Connect the left speaker to the right speaker by using the red and black stereo cable built into the right speaker box. Then connect the green-tipped audio cable between the amp and the left powered speaker (audio output to audio input, respectively). Finally, pop one of your iPod dock adapters onto the iTPA-220 and connect your iPod to the top of the amp.
Turn the power switches on the amp and left speaker to “on” and you’re ready to listen to music. You can manually select music on your iPod or you can use the remote. If you use the remote, you’ll at least need to select a playlist, artist or prep your iPod to play in shuffle mode.
That’s it for setup – press “play” and start listening to your music.
When playing music through the iTPA-220 speakers, audio seems to be delivered in an omnidirectional manner, more shotgun than laser-precise. Varying the angle and tilt of the speakers has positive effects, but unlike the ultra-precise Audioengine A2 and A5 speakers that can place sounds inside your skull (jokingly), the iTPA-220 just seems to send audio everywhere. Granted, the quality of that broad sound is quite nice – good bass, enjoyable mids and clean highs.
Testing the iTPA-220 with 128kbps and 256kbps songs from a 5G iPod, we felt that the resultant output was quite nice – better than some systems, not quite as good as others. The bass from the iTPA-220 was healthy and low with little to no audible distortion, even when cranked up loud. The 40Hz low is certainly impressive, especially when you consider that other 2.0 speakers sets bottom out around 65Hz. The mids and highs (upwards of 18kHz) were more outstanding than the lows, making for a healthy top range. We tested the iTPA-220 speakers with quite a variety of music, from Carlos Vives and Cake to Offspring and Rammstein. Each genre sounded equally good. Even at high volume levels that made other speakers buzz with distortion, the iTPA-220 seemed to hold solid and produce good audio.
Very Unpleasant Smells
The iTPA-220 that arrived at our offices had a perceptible smell of spray paint. After listening to the sound system for a couple hours, the harsh smell from the back of the left speaker and from the amp itself began to permeate the room. Specific to the amp, the smell seemed to be coming from the Chinese markings painted/stamped onto the tubes. The somewhat acidic odor reminded me of the paint used in old Soviet buildings under “PEMOHT”. Folks who have lived in Eastern Europe will know what I mean. It’s a very distinct and unpleasant smell (like iodine, sulfur and paste), not something you want in a closed room.
The Dice iTPA-220 iPod tube amp system is a sexy looking system – from 5-6 feet away. While the sound is very good, the poor physical construction and malodorous fumes made for a disappointing experience. The use of vacuum tubes to gain an analogish sound for your digital music will undoubtedly appeal to some, but audiophiles would certainly decline.
If you don’t mind dropping nearly $300 USD on a good sounding product vexed by a terribly cheap plastic housing, the iTPA-220 could be for you. If you want a truly exciting audio experience from high-quality hardware, take your three Benjamins on a trip to the Audioengine website.
• Sounds very nice, even at high volumes
• Tubes give hip, retro style
• Cheap plastic construction, feels like a toy
• Smells of burning paint
• Tubes have little-to-no noticeable effect on compressed digital audio