Microlab MD332-2.1 iPod Audio Docking Station Review
You have to give it to Apple. They were once pretty much non-existent with the general public but now a strong force in both computing and portable audio market segments. I think it was the introduction of the Apple iPod that resurrected the company as a whole; it gave Apple an identity and gave them a huge stake of the MP3 player market making other companies churn up different ways to match the iPod’s innovation and creativity. I think the popularity of the iPod changed consumer’s perception of Apple resulting in the acceptance of OSX as a viable option to the PC. Now it’s not unusual to see tons of iPods and Macbooks in one room.
I have to give major props to Apple’s marketing department as they continue to flood the airwaves with innovative commercials and ads. This type of marketing certainly has assisted in their favor. The introduction of the Apple iPhone/iPod Touch are just examples of what I’m talking about. Teenagers just run to the stores to upgrade.
The emergence of the iPod being the most popular MP3 player out there means there are tons of third-party companies not wanting to be left out in the still glowing market. Literally there are tons of iPod accessories and iPod speaker systems out there that it’s sometimes really hard to gauge how good a certain product really is. Well we’re here to let you in on a high-end iPod speaker system coming from Microlab.
Microlab is a name ModSynergy knows personally since I had reviewed their wonderful SOLO-6 speaker system in the past. Not wanting to be left out in the growing iPod market, Microlab has introduced that they will be releasing their iPod speaker system in North America, specifically made for the iPod (with support for the new iPhone) dubbed the Microlab MD332. Microlab will be present at this year’s Macworld Expo 2009 (January 5-9).
About Microlab Technology Co. LTD (from their website)
“Microlab Technology Co., Ltd. is an ISO 9001 certified manufacturer. It was established in Jan, 1998 as a Sino-America Joint Venture invested by Shenzhen Microlab Technology Inc. and International Microlab in USA. It specializes in the R&D, Production and Marketing of AV products and computer peripherals. Through years of development, Microlab has set up over 40 production lines to produce Speaker, Case & Power Supply, Keyboard, DVD Player, MP3, USB Flash Drive and Card Readers.
Features and Specifications
The Microlab MD332 iPod Audio Docking Station is a 54W RMS two-speaker bass reflex system with subwoofer constructed out of MDF. It consists of two different driver systems involved in handling low, mid and high frequencies of the sound spectrum. The Microlab MD332 is powered by an integrated amplifier that changes the amplitude (height and power) of the sound waves accordingly between the ranges of 40Hz to 20 KHz. Each speaker/woofer in the MD332 is magnetically shielded to prevent interference to any other electronic devices it may come in contact with.
How it looks
The Microlab MD332 iPod Audio Docking Station I am reviewing today is one of the first North American pre-production units thus was not in retail box form nor had a final retail manual.
First time I carried the box, it was heavy. I weighed the unit at around 14lbs. Being touted as a high-end offering, the attribute of weight is a good thing insuring that it is well made. The last thing you want from a high-end product is one that feels light, cheap and could break easily.
The MD332 comes wrapped in protective cloth to protect the finish. My eyes opened larger once the cloth was removed. I had to take time to appreciate the elegance of the MD332. It had a really wide stance and looked fantastic. First impressions were very positive. The MD332 fits perfectly with the design philosophy and finish of the iPod. It sports an elegant piano finish with white accent within the paint finish. Some iPod audio systems on the market just feel uninspiring and make no effort hiding the matte plastic surfaces they are made of. The Microlab MD332 definitely exudes an upscale look.
Taking a look now at the front portion of the docking station, we can see a minimalist design approach. The company name along with the description “Digital Clock Radio System MD332” is located on the upper half. Looking lower, we come across a big chrome control knob in the center of the speaker system. At first glance it looks aluminum but upon closer inspection reveals just plated plastic chrome. It would have been a nice touch if the knob and buttons were aluminum, but they still look and function perfectly.
Six buttons lay across the MD332’s fascia (standby, clock, alarm, input and up/down tuning functions).
Coming across now to the LCD display, there’s not much I can say. It performs as expected relaying functions and volume status. The LCD is clear, bright and can be seen just about in any direction. About the only downside I can give to the LCD is that it isn’t what it could have been. Microlab could have elected to have placed a more complex LCD solution which could display animated graphics, equalizer and volume effects, much of that like car stereo head units. But it is what it is and there’s not really much that is wrong. Sometimes being simple is best.
Through the protective grille we can see the two 2.5-inch speakers located at the front of the unit, controlling the mid-high ranges. This grille cannot be removed. No tweeters are present on this iPod speaker system and we’ll see if this makes a difference for those “highs”.
The rear of the unit contains only a single standard left/right RCA line input for use on other devices utilizing the standard such as DVD players, game consoles, PC. Additionally you can use the RCA input for other MP3 players as the MD332 comes with an RCA to 3.5mm audio cable supplied in the bundle. Two other connectors beside the RCA are for AM and FM antenna leads. The amplifier heat sink is located at the middle and looking to the left is the power on/off switch, fuse and AC cord. To the very right lays the subwoofer exhaust port which completes the bass reflex system. Again positioning plays a big part of how much bass you can expect to feel, especially since the subwoofer is facing downward. Placing the system on a wood cabinet compared to a carpet will give you different results.
The top portion of the MD332 lays the 30-pin Apple connector that is present in most iPod players. However not all iPod players have this connection. Players such as the iPod Shuffle does not have this connector so you’ll need to use the supplied 3.5mm to RCA male cable to connect to the system. Obviously functionality of the remote will be limited in such case.
Finishing at the bottom, Microlab has placed a subwoofer that is 5.25-inch in size. This subwoofer is facing downwards and is protected by a speaker grille. The MD332 stands upright thanks to large feet and has rubber at the bottom to prevent slippage and they work great.
With the remote control (should be same color as the MD332 – black), some of the things you can do is switch input, change the clock, set the alarm (dual), tell it when to sleep, tune AM/FM stations and give them presets, change the volume, change the treble and bass functions and navigate through the iPod with the directional pad. The remote is powered by standard “AAA” batteries which can be found just about anywhere.
Now what are some of the things possible with the MD332? Well the Microlab MD332 lets you fall asleep and wake up to your iPod or radio. It also features an AM/FM tuner so you can listen to a variety of radio stations in your area. The MD332 includes a clock that has dual alarms (some iPod players have a clock but no alarm) which allows you to set two separate wake-up times, while the sleep timer lets you snooze listening to your favorite tunes or radio.
While your iPod is docked on the MD332, it will charge, so you never have to worry about running low on battery life. Lastly Microlab has made the MD332’s remote possible to control your iPod’s menu system while on the docking station.
How does it sound?
Sound is subjective but I try to place the speaker system under the best possible source possible that is available to me, so I can make a fair judgment. I have chosen two main sources to my disposal. The iAudio CW300 MP3 player and M-Audio Audiophile 2496 sound card (in my computer) which is capable of 24-bit/96kHz digital audio.
I have connected the iAudio CW300 MP3 player with the supplied 3.5mm to RCA male cable and connected the Microlab MD332 to my computer through the supplied RCA male to RCA male cable.
I listened to a variety of music but made sure to listen to only hi-bit rate media (320kbps MP3’s, FLACs, OGG) on the computer and in my MP3 player. I also have chosen to listen to different original CD soundtracks. Soundtracks I have chosen for testing includes Fosse Original Broadway Cast Recording, the Transformers soundtrack and American Gangster soundtrack. I ended up listening to Fosse much more than I had anticipated as it provided great testing materials including vocals and a variety of musical instruments.
Overall I found the Microlab MD332 to be a great performer and would rate it as very good. Although I can’t say it is the best out there, I can truthfully say that the Microlab MD332 is better than most iPod systems I have heard over the years and will meet the needs of most individuals out there.
First off, I like the subwoofer on the MD332. Out of the box settings is obviously set to zero which doesn’t showcase what it can do but once you turn up the bass to maximum (7), it provided great punch for such a unit. The 5.25-inch subwoofer really does a great job giving that low growl that is present in all types of music. Add the fact that if you change the equalizer in an MP3 player such as the CW300 to compensate for more bass, more still can achieved with the MD332 without distortion. Needless to say, I loved the bass and it performed large in sound as it is large in size.
Secondly, voices are reproduced very nicely. Voices sound natural and very precise.
In the Fosse soundtrack there was a song that utilized the generally low-sounding trumpet and other high-sounding instruments. While most instruments sounded very nice and melodious, I did notice the MD332 had some troubles with the really high pitched instruments at their peak. The exclusion of tweeter in the case of the MD332 probably hurt this aspect of the MD332’s sound quality.
While the MD332 generally does a great job at giving off vibrant sound, I noticed that on my pre-production unit, vibrancy sounded just a tad hollow. I’m not sure what is to blame for this (maybe the small 2.5-inch drivers?). The Microlab MD332 sounds totally different compared to the Microlab SOLO-6 (rightfully so as Peter Larson helped develop the SOLO-6). While not completely vibrant, I’d say it was 96% vibrant.
Radio performance was surprisingly positive. While the radio did present background noise (typical of radio), sound quality was high. It was really loud even at low volumes and combined great level of bass and treble. I thought the radio would limit the sound capabilities of the MD332 but it did not. It sounded like high-bit rate media.
As for sounding bigger than it really is, the Microlab MD332’s soundstage was very good. It can play very loud and penetrate most rooms with ease. I kind of expected this as the MD332 is a big and heavier unit weighing in at around 14lbs.
Update: The Microlab definitely does work with the iPod Touch. You simply put the iPod Touch on the dock, select iPod input and the Microlab plays a song automatically. Functionality wise it works with the remote in a limited fashion. The remote will control iPod volume and selecting which songs you would like to play by pressing the backward/forward buttons. While there is Menu, Enter, Up, Down buttons on the remote, selecting any of these just goes directly to the Video menu and you can view a video by pressing Enter. I haven't found a way to get out though...
Overall, I like what I see from the Microlab MD332-2.1 iPod Audio Docking Station. Its sound quality is without a doubt better than most systems on the market. Highs are crisp (the lack of tweeter does bring the level of crispness down) for the most part, mid ranges were produced very well and bass was excellent. The only downsides that I found were the lack of tweeter did hurt high-frequency performance and this pre-production unit felt 96% vibrant; to my ears this unit sounded a little hollow at times.
Pros and Cons