high-fidelity ipod systems?
The Arcam rCube
Portable and powerful
I had an opportunity to take home the Arcam rCube to try out for a while. But I was smart — I also insisted on taking an rWand iPod dongle and an rWave USB dongle, too (more on that later).
Looks count for something
The rCube is an iPod®/iPhone® portable powered speaker system. That statement may cover the facts, but it doesn't do the piece justice. It's got a sleek, minimalist design that can make you underestimate just what this system's capable of.
The rCube's a pretty substantial piece of electronics, weighing about 11 lbs. But there's a reason for all that weight — the casing is solidly built, and there's a fair amount of electronics inside, as well as a built-in rechargeable battery. Since it's only about 8" square, the rCube's not bulky. And the built-in handle underneath the flip-up dock cover makes it easy to tote around.
Quality sound counts for more
One of the things that make the rCube stand out is its sound. Hidden behind the featureless wraparound cloth are two speakers in the front panel, and one each in the adjoining side panels, angled forward. This results in a fairly wide soundfield. Here's a good illustration of just how wide the field sounded. I stood close to the rCube and spread out my arms. On some of the tracks I played, instruments seemed to be situated beyond my fingertips.
When I listened from across our large family room, the dispersal was even more noticeable. There wasn't a distinct separation of channels — rather, there just seemed to be this sphere about four times bigger than the rCube that the sound emanated from.
And the system did equally well with both acoustic and electronic tracks. At this point, all the sound files stored on my iPod are in Apple Lossless format, so a lot of the details of the original sources have been preserved, and I expect to hear them! I certainly did with the rCube.
I spent the day running through my library, playing all kinds of music. Here are some of the highlights:
One of the classical tracks I played was Debussy's "Syrinx" for solo flute. This can sometimes sound harsh and shrill on inferior speakers. On the rCube the flute sounded full and natural, only a hair on the bright side. It did better with the Emerson Quartet's recording of a Haydn string quartet. All four instruments had an appropriate amount of detail, and very good overall balance. Although the first violin soared into its upper register often, it never sounded edgy or metallic.
Bluegrass selections from the Gibson Brothers also sounded great on the rCube. The plucked strings of the mandolin and guitar had a softness to them that was perfectly in keeping with how they would sound live. I had no problem picking out the details in the Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" remaster, either. And the same was true for the close-knit harmonies of Rockapella.
The rCube can deliver plenty of bass, so Led Zeppelin sounded appropriately heavy. A sign (for me) of a good system is one that reveals new details in familiar music. I was surprised when I listened to the Irish rock band Horslip's "Sure the Boy Was Green" I had no idea that someone was playing bones deep in the mix. But I heard them clearly with the rCube.
There was even sufficient bass for Jay-Z's "99 Problems." Although I wouldn't characterize the bass as tubthumping or even chest-pounding, it still hit with sufficient gravity to keep things moving — especially after I pressed the bass boost button in the back. That really did the trick. It also helped with virtuoso drummer Lenny White's "Assault." The double bass drum kicks came in low and clean — and sounded great.
Going mobile with the rWand
One of the things that the rCube has going for it is portability. I could pick it up and easily move it from room to room. But the thing that really sets this system apart is its wireless capability. The rCube, and its companion transmitters the rWand and the rWave use Kleer® wireless technology to send an uncompressed signal. It's an elegant solution.
The rWand is a dongle that plugs into the iPod's docking port, so it needs to draw very little power. A Wi-Fi® transmitter could send an uncompressed signal, but it would draw too much power doing so. A Bluetooth® transmitter could do the job with very little power — but Bluetooth compresses the signal. The Kleer technology that the rWand uses sends an uncompressed signal while drawing little power.
How little? I plugged it into my fully charged iPod at about 9AM, and played it continuously before having to recharge my player at around 7PM.
In my opinion, the big story about the rCube is the rWand. I could keep my player next to me, and listen through the rCube. All of my iPod's controls worked, of course, including volume, which raised the volume of the rCube. And because I had my player with me, I always knew what track was playing — and I could quickly pick out a new one.
The signal's pretty powerful, too. I could wander around the house — even changing floors — and the rCube kept playing. Now that's what I want in a portable solution!
Setting up the system is fairly simple — if you follow the directions. I'm embarressed to admit that I didn't read the rCube's manual carefully, and so spent a lot more time on this than I should have. Basically, I had to do the same thing for both the rCube and the rWand. Press down the appropriate button and hold it down while the slowly pulsing light began blinking rapidly and then slowly again. I thought just selecting the wireless mode on the rCube was enough. It wasn't. The light never blinked, and remained red. When I did it properly, though, it blinked slow, then fast, then slow and turned green. Success!
One thing — although the connected light on the rCube stays on, the one on the rWand continues to blink slowly. I'm told this is done to save on the player's battery life. Also, the rWand's light is just one color — yellow. So don't do like I did and assume the connection failed because it never turned green! If I had only read the directions...
At least I didn't have to go through setup every time I turned the system back on. Once the two devices are associated with each other, they connect almost instantly. I first tried out the rWand at the office, using a friend's iPod touch®. When I brought the system home, I plugged the same rWand into my iPod classic. No problem. The connection was made and music started playing right away.
The rWave of the future
The rWave functions the same way as the rWand, execpt it's made for computer use. The rWave plugs into a computer's USB port. When I tried it on my PC, it automatically made the rWand the default audio output. You might have to manually select it on yours, though, depending on the operating system. Associating the rWave with the rCube was exactly the same process. There's a little button on the rWave to push in and hold while the light pulses slow, then fast, then slow.
With the rWand, I left the rCube plugged up to a power supply and moved around with my iPod/rWand. With the rWave, functions were reversed. My computer/rWave was the stationary unit, and I carried the rCube around from room to room.
The rWave transmits whatever your computer plays. So I not only could play my digital library through the rCube, but also Internet radio stations. Even though most Internet radio streams aren't the best quality audio, they still sounded pretty good coming through the rCube.
One thing — it's not a good idea to have both the rWand and rWave connected at the same time. Both sound sources will play simultaneously. Also, I found that when I associated the rWave while playing my iPod with the rWand, the sound would cut out momentarily. I think for normal usage, though, I would either have one device connected, or the other.
Instant whole-house audio
When the Arcam representative came to Crutchfield to demonstrate these products, he showed us the full potential of the rCube. The Kleer transmitter built into the Arcam devices can broadcast to up to four different rCubes simultaneously. So if I had four rCubes set up around my house (I only was allowed to borrow one, so this is hypothetical), I could carry my iPod with an rWand attached, and hear my music coming from every rCube. And since volume control is done with the iPod, I could always adjust the volume as necessary.
I could also broadcast to four rCubes from my computer with an rWave. I could control volume with an rCube remote. Still, though, I could see setting up a party music playlist on my PC, and filling the house with sound.
And there's a final wrinkle. The rCube itself has a USB port, primarily for firmware updates. But I could use the rWave to turn it into a transmitter. Which means I could play music from a docked iPod not just through the rCube it's sitting in, but through the rWave I could sent that signal to four other rCubes. That are portable. And I can place anywhere I want.
One more thing...
The rCube also has video output. So I could plug it into my TV, and show videos from my docked player on the screen. But if I had an iPad®, I know what I would do. I'd plug an rWand into it. Then I could watch movies on the iPad, and play the soundtrack through the rCube. Now that's a portable setup with real possibilities!