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iPad and iPhone Audio/Video Dock Roundup
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Contact Info Overall Rating—Product Summary
But one of the biggest drawbacks to the iPad/iPhone is its sound quality. Let's face it — that little headphone jack on the top of the unit just isn’t going to cut it for professional applications. Even setting aside the infamously poor sound quality of eighth-inch cables, they aren't very rugged, and also, where is your iPad going to hang out? Do you use the iKlip? Do you rest the iPad on your keyboard? On top of your amp? And what about video? Wouldn’t it be cool to stream video from your tablet through a display/projection system at your concert?
These are important questions and issues, and now hardware companies are starting to address them, led by Sescom and Alesis, who have each developed innovative solutions that bring real connectivity to the iPad for your music and video applications. Although the Alesis iO Dock is more well known to musicians thanks to the company’s presence in the music product space, Sescom is better known to the audio/video crowd, and it was actually Dream Theater’s keyboard player, Jordan Rudess, who alerted us to the company’s products when we happened to ask him how he attaches his iPad or iPhone for live use while touring (an eighth-inch cable dangling from the headphone jack just didn’t seem likely).
Although the feature sets of each device differ appreciably, we found all of them to be of good quality for professional use, and we would have no qualms recommending any one of them. Mainly, what it all boils down to right now is this: what do you want to use your iDevice for?
The main feature for all three units is the same: quality sound output from the iPad. Other than that, they all travel along different paths, and this is where you'll want to focus your attentiOn when making a purchasing decisiOn.
Editor’s Note: If all you require is a basic MIDI interface for your iDevice, check out the IK Multimedia iRig MIDI.
With balanced XLR outputs on the front and the back of the rugged, metal case, this unit sounds great and is easily accessible. It's rack-mountable (1U), so it’s a breeze to install in your existing rig. Of the products tested, the iAV also strives to deliver the highest quality video output, sporting high-definition component video out (HD720p: Y, Pb, Pr, sometimes referred to as YUV video) so people can see what's going on in your iPad as well as hear it.
The iPad connects via a dedicated Apple-specific docking cable (included), so this makes the iAV more than just an iPad audiO device. It supports all iPhones and virtually all iPod devices ranging from iPod Touch (all generatiOns) to iPod Classic to later-model Nanos and more.
Aside from being the most rugged of the group in terms of constructiOn and premium connectiOn jacks, the brushed steel faceplate looks quite good in a rack, yet the device doesn’t add any appreciable weight to your rig, either.
Sescom iAV LT
This is a compact unit that can easily be thrown into a backpack or bag. It has RCA outputs on the back, so most DJs will be ready to go immediately. This is a great companion piece to a DJ set, for example if you want to get those sound effects out of your iPad in style.
Just like with its bigger brother, the LT version of the iAV is also cable-connected to the iPad, so it works just as well with other iDevices.
Like the iAV, this machine also sports a sturdy metal housing, but HD video output is delivered via a single 720p HD component video output.
Alesis iO Dock
Alesis loaded up their iO dock with just about everything they could think of, which makes it the most versatile device of the bunch.
First off, it's a dock, which means the iPad slides into it and stays locked at a roughly 20-degree angle, which is great for visibility. On one hand, the iPad slides into it, which means that any major changes to future iPad designs may require having to purchase a new iO Dock. Fortunately the iPad 2 was not a major redesign from the first one, so Alesis was able to handle the change with just a slide-in plastic shim that works very well. But this docking feature means that it is strictly iPad only, which renders it useless if you want to gig with your iPhone or iPod.
For an iPad device, the iO Dock is loaded with outputs: a headphone jack and two quarter-inch jacks. Unfortunately, these are not separable, so all of you who had dreams of DJ-ing with this and being able to use the headphone jack as a monitor, cast those dreams aside for now. That feature will have to wait for the future, if such an update is even possible. Instead, this is a great interface if your iPad lives in the iO Dock at your studio and you want to play some piano with your MIDI keyboard.
Next, there are two combo XLR/quarter-inch inputs (the Sescom products are output-only devices). One of them has 48V phantom power, so you can plug in a condenser mic. This is a nice touch, and one that we appreciate immensely. The other side has a monitor switch, which lets you monitor the input signal from the mic, a big plus but not without its drawbacks, as you will see in the Usability section below.
There are also MIDI In and Out jacks on the side — and a USB MIDI port, too. These are a welcome addition, as more and more companies are making great soft synths for the iPad. The biggest drawback for most of these synths has been the lack of a good keyboard interface on the touchscreen surface. With MIDI on the iO Dock however, this is factored out of the equation. There is also an RGB video output.
Our biggest concern with the Alesis iO Dock is that it's made of plastic, and feels a bit flimsy. This didn't present any problems in testing, but all the same, we do love metal. There is something disturbing about sliding the beautifully designed, metal and glass iPad into what almost feels like a plastic toy.
In general, all three units are very similar to use. You basically plug the iPad (or iPhone as applicable) in, and most apps recognize the hardware as providing the audio/video output. The main culprit with all three is the software. Because hardware for any of the iDevices is so new, a lot of companies aren't supporting anything fully. This means that the hardware has to use the most basic of audio in/out configurations, which hurts the iO Dock the most, as it would be cool to actually be able to separate the headphone out from the main outs for DJ gigs.
Using your iDevices live also requires some physical planning — where to put the device! If you’re planning to use the iO Dock in a live performance setting, you might not have a large surface available, as it’s a bit too large to rest on top of most keyboard controllers. However, if the top of an equipment rack case isn’t easily accessible, a snare drum stand can be used to hold the iO Dock securely.
The Sescom products use a dock cable connection to your iDevice, so you can easily make use of products like the IK Multimedia iKlip to hold your iPhone/iPad solidly in place.
Sescom iAV & Sescom iAV LT
As these machines are basically just a big and little brother of one another, they operate in exactly the same manner. A cable attaches to the unit’s dock port on the bottom, and the other end plugs into your iPad. As mentioned in the features section, this is great because so many different iDevices can be used. For those of you (like us) who own several iPods and iPhones and iPads and may want to use different ones at different times, this choice is most honorable. If the included 36” i/o cable isn’t long enough for your needs, you can actually extend the cable length with a standard computer VGA video extension cable (male-to-female configuration) for up to 15’ in total length. Sescom has approved six foot male-to-female cables in their product line as well.
The fact that the iAV has two sets of XLR outputs (front and back) is pretty awesome, especially for the gigging musicians. This enables you to have two sets of the exact same output going to two different places – front of house and the monitor mix, and saves the trouble of using a DI box to split the signal. It also means that if you want to quickly hook up the audio to some random output device, you can without having to dig around in the back of the rack. Those front XLR ports definitely show that Sescom was thinking ahead when they added them.
Now, at first you may think that because the iAV-LT is smaller, that it is automatically better for gigging. While this is true for laptop musicians who want to throw everything in a bag and run to the gigs, the LT doesn’t have universal appeal for all players. If you're a guitar or keyboard player on tour and you want to add something special to your show via one of the iPad's great music apps, then what better way to travel than just installing a lightweight, 1U device in your equipment rack with the standard IAV? But if you want a grab-and-go solution, you can’t beat the LT’s portability. And as we mentioned earlier, the RCA audio jacks are great for DJ applications, though this interface is less useful to other musicians who rely on quarter-inch and XLR connections.
The Alesis iO Dock is an iPad-only affair. If you need to use an iPhone as well as your iPad, then don't even bother with the iO Dock. It's just not intended for that use.
The inputs on the iO Dock are great in theory, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, the direct monitor switch is useful, but there are no effects, so you will be monitoring dry, which can be a real problem for singers. On our first-generation iPad, we had trouble testing the mic inputs because we couldn't get various audio apps to work correctly without experiencing major latency and CPU issues. GarageBand for iPad, for example, wouldn't record audio without major hiccups, and was pretty much unusable. Some apps are clearly better served by the performance improvements made to the iPad 2.
Alesis has released a firmware update for the iO Dock to make it more compatible with iOS 5, but we didn't have a chance to try it yet. Look out for an update here once we do.
Using the iPad as an outboard synth worked very well once we hooked up a keyboard, experiencing little to no latency or lag. The MIDI In/Out on the iO Dock were a breeze to use. All we had to do was plug in a controller keyboard and load just about any soft synth app. A few synths required some small amount of setup, but for the most part MIDI control was just plug and play.
We recorded the same audio from all three units into a Pro Tools session to see how they varied as far as sonic quality was concerned, and they all came up with very similar results. Given the similar high-quality results, the reasons for buying one unit vs. the others will mostly depend on usability and features, and not strictly the quality of the audio output. The Sescom iAV LT only sports RCA outs, but they sound good, so DJs will be especially happy with this solution.
We were surprised by how good the Alesis iO Dock sounds, as the mostly plastic case left us with an underwhelmed first impression. But we would definitely use it on stage if its feature set met our needs.If you're really concerned about getting the absolute finest audio quality, though, the best unit is the Sescom iAV. No doubt thanks to its balanced XLR outputs, the body of the sound really comes through the fullest compared with the other units.
Documentation and Product Support
The two Sescom units hardly need any documentation. Just plug in the iPad/iPhone, connect the audio cables, adjust the output levels, and play. Easy.
The IO Dock does have more to it, but thankfully it is all plug-and-play stuff. Any documentation will be primarily on the end of the app you're using.
Sescom iAV: $425 (MSRP), $380 (street)
As you can see, all three units list a bit on the high side, especially since the iPad itself only costs $499 for the base model. While we feel that maybe the price is a bit justified, you'd have to really demand pro-level audio quality out of your iDevice to justify spending almost as much on the audio interface as on the device itself. In the nothing-matters-but-price department, the IO Dock certainly wins, especially when you consider bang for the buck. It really is an all-in-one music production station, and the price is reasonable given the utility.
Even though the Sescom units sound fantastic, we feel they are priced a bit high if audio is your primary concern. Of course if you are equally concerned with video output, then the Sescom IAV offers a better value proposition.
Now the big question: Which one is right for you? Well, here is what we think:
Want to use your iPhone? The iO Dock is out.
Are you a guitarist or keyboard player who already has a rack and one more thing would look quite awesome in there? Then you'll want to seriously look at the Sescom iAV.
Do you need MIDI and audio recording capabilities? The Alesis iO Dock will be your friend.
Need HD video out?Get the iAV or iAV-LT.
Do you want an all-in-one solution that also provides a home for your iPad? The Alesis is the perfect solution for this.
Are you a DJ and want something to add sound fx to your set? Grab the iAV-LT or the iO Dock, depending on if you want to use an iPhone (iAV-LT), or you want to lock your iPad in at an angle (iO Dock).
As you can see, there are many questions you have to ask yourself when making decisions about these devices. It's not really a one-shoe-fits-all situation (although Alesis definitely tried to accomplish that with their IO Dock). Each unit excels at different things.
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