The George is also an AM/FM radio, as well as an advanced alarm clock that allows you to wake either to tracks on your iPod or to radio, and it comes with a full set of snooze/sleep options. What makes the radio functionality unique is the number of presets you can store, as well as the "bandless" tuning, which blends AM and FM stations (there's no separate button for AM and FM, you simply roll from FM into AM). You can store as many as 24 presets, with 6 presets per "page" on the remote's screen. What takes a little getting used is that the "4" and "8" buttons also serve as "previous" and "next" navigational controls, which isn't entirely intuitive and can cause you to accidentally scroll from one page to the next rather than change the station.
While in some ways it's nice that you get so many presets, those who listen to only a few stations might find 24 to be too many--and, unfortunately, you really do need to set all 24 slots or you risk getting static if you hit on one of the default presets that doesn't correspond to a station in your area. We also noticed that there doesn't seem to be an internal antenna, which means you have to attach the supplied AM and FM antennas (like most FM antennae that are included with iPod systems, the George's is just a wire). We had no complaints about the unit's ability to pull in stations with the included antennas, but you can upgrade them if you want.
Connectivity and firmware
Around back, you'll also find a headphone jack, an auxiliary input for connecting other audio devices, and a preamp output that allows you to hook the George to your living room stereo system. In terms of connectivity, the one big omission is an S-Video output, which would enable you to watch videos stored on your iPod on a TV and use the George as a speaker system. Yes, Chestnut Hill is more focused on the audio side of the iPod equation, but at this price--and with the proliferation of video iPods--a little video connectivity seems warranted.
As we said, the system's firmware is upgradeable, and we've already seen several patches come down the pike that provide small fixes, improve navigation options, and add functionality, including support for podcast menus. To upgrade the unit, you have to download the George Assistant software to your Windows PC or Mac, then connect the device to your PC via an included USB cable (it looks like a standard printer cable). We had some trouble with the initial software, but subsequent versions have smoothed out the upgrade process considerably, so it's much more of a plug-and-play affair.
Performance and sound quality
Because the George is relatively feature packed, we've spent a lot of time going over its functionality. But the other half of the equation when it comes to putting together an iPod speaker system in an increasingly competitive market is sound quality. Before we get into the system's strengths, the first thing you should understand about any system this small with little in the way of speaker separation is that it has its sound limitations. So, if you're expecting audiophile quality, you need to set the bar a little lower. That said, George definitely sounds good compared to other iPod speaker systems, though it doesn't handle heavy bass all that well, and you need to be sitting directly in front of it to get the best sound.
Chestnut Hill was trying to achieve tonal balance in putting together the system, and that certainly comes across if you don't try to amp the bass up--there's a knob on the back that sets the bass level for the internal subwoofer. We stuck to a setting midway on the dial and made some little tweaks in a separate onscreen equalizer menu that allows you to adjust bass and treble levels, as well as their frequencies. Unfortunately, some folks will have no idea what those frequencies equate to in terms of sound, so it would probably be a good idea for Chestnut Hill Sound to also give users the option of choosing from a more standard set of English-language preset EQ settings based on what music the user is listening to (pop, rock, jazz, and so forth). We expect these settings to turn up in a future firmware upgrade.
Like a lot of these systems, the George is strongest in the high and midrange frequencies. Anything with an "unplugged" vibe-- the Pretenders' Isle of View, for example--is going to sound really good, with rich, detailed vocals and instruments that are very present and easy to pick out. Turn to something a little more strenuous, such as the Chemical Brothers' Galvanize, and you start to hear some buzzing and breaking up in the lower frequencies. We played with the bass EQ and the subwoofer crossover frequency but still couldn't balance the sonics to the point where we eliminated that crunchiness while still retaining some bass. On a more positive note, the little system is capable of playing pretty loudly and should have no trouble filling a small to medium-size room with sound. However, crank the volume all the way to the top and you will experience heavy distortion.
In the end, the George is a nicely designed, slick product that should only get better with time. But there are plenty of more affordable alternatives out there. The Belkin Tunestage 2 turns the iPod into a streaming remote control, while the Keyspan TuneView for iPod uses so-called screen-scraping technology to emulate the iPod interface on a separate wireless remote; both can be had for under $170. Likewise, the sub-$150 DLO HomeDock Deluxedisplays the iPod menu on a TV screen, and even Apple's own Apple TV (with onscreen TV navigation and audio playback to any attached stereo or home theater system) is more affordable than the George.
On the other hand, when you compare the George with the tony tabletop radio crowd--the Bose, Tivoli Audio, Cambridge SoundWorks, and Boston Acoustics crowd--it comes off looking like a much better deal. That's doubly true now that Chestnut Hill has cut the price to $500, and thrown in the formerly optional standalone charger. It's still expensive, to be sure, but now that we've seen Chestnut Hill follow through with several worthwhile firmware updates, the George is an easier recommendation for anyone who's looking for an upscale iPod speaker system.