Kicker brings super-sound indoors

The Baltimore Sun

Kicker has been in the boom-chukka-chukka car stereo business for 35 years. So what happens when a company with a two-word mission statement, Livin' Loud, designs its first iPod speaker dock?

Stand back. The iKick iK500 Stereo System for iPod plays louder, and lower than just about anything in its class - the $250-and-under division. Its design, however, looks like something from the late-century, frat-house boombox handbook.

This is a utilitarian speaker dock, nothing more. The iK500 has no clock, no alarm, no AM/FM radio. It simply kicks back, livin' the loud life. Yet if I were to close my eyes and judge 100 iPod speaker docks solely on sound, I have no doubt this 9-pound bruiser would make the Final Four.

It's no contest. Where most speaker docks have two full-frequency drivers, maybe 3 inches each, Kicker endowed the iK500 with the equivalent of two bookshelf speakers and a passive subwoofer in a 19-inch-wide plastic chassis.

Each speaker pairs a 5-inch driver for lower frequencies and a silk-dome tweeter for the highs. The kick comes from a 6-by-6 passive radiator on the backside. All of the energy produced by the front-side speakers - the drivers pulsating with the music - forces its way to this flexible square that absorbs the blow, reducing distortion, and releases it with the thud of a mini-subwoofer.

What's that? Can't hear you. Oh, yes, it doesn't have to sound as if you're locked in the trunk of a tricked-out lowrider. The iK500 has a calming, full-bloom sound at lower volume levels. The iPod's cradled between the two speakers, just below a single push-button selector and a tiny display screen.

The push button controls volume, bass-treble adjustments, selects an auxiliary input and turns the iK500 on and off.

It's the iK500's only onboard control. The undersize remote is far more useful than most iPod dock remotes because it actually navigates your iPod's menu directory. So you can select playlists, artists or individual songs without contorting your fingers in the dock's cradle to reach the iPod's clickwheel.

I played all sorts of music on the iK500 - Albert Ayler's "Down by the Riverside," Los Straitjackets' "Prelude to a Twist," R.L. Burnside's ".44 Pistol" and Willem Breuker Kollektief's "Distant Thunder" - and never thought it liked only the loud stuff.

But how low can the iK500 go? Well, I measured it with a test disc. The iK500 plays as low (50 hertz) as an excellent bookshelf speaker and kept sputtering out sound all the way down to 35 hertz, where full-size home-theater subwoofers begin to make their money.

For those who don't own a home theater, the iK500 has enough punch that it could multitask as a sound partner for your favorite movies or TV shows.

The iK500, strangely, has RCA outputs, as if you'd want to connect it to another stereo system, or even a standalone subwoofer. It would be better off with RCA inputs to play audio from a television, cable box or DVD player. Fortunately, it has a minijack auxiliary input, which allowed me to attach an adapter so that I could run two RCA cables to, first, a DVD player and then my cable box.

Even if it couldn't duplicate a home-theater's special effects on, say, Terminator 3, it was a significant upgrade from a television's speakers. It also added vibrancy to cable offerings like U2's Rattle and Hum concert documentary and The Godfather.

Kicker is no iPod snob, either. For Zune owners, it offers the same system with the appropriate dock in the ZK500 (also $250).

Either way, it's an impressive debut - at least sonically. Kicker has spent 35 years rocking people's skulls inside cars. Now that it's coming into the house, it just has to remember it should dress accordingly.

I have a feeling the next round of Kickers might make a little noise with a fashion statement.

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