Traditionally (if these devices can be described as ‘traditional’), iPod docks have offered four ways to connect: via a physical dock, a 3.5mm line input, and wirelessly via Bluetooth or Apple’s AirPlay tech. And you never saw the two wireless technologies together. That’s all changed now, though, with Sony’s RDP-XA900iP.
Even though the inclusion of Bluetooth brings Android devices into the wireless fold, Sony has clearly taken its design cues from Apple’s portable range.
We think the no-nonsense black speaker cloth and brushed stainless-steel features look really smart; even though this is a sizeable bit of kit, it won’t come across as overly imposing on your shelf or sideboard.
Or, for that matter, your TV stand – for the XA900iP has an optical connection, which can handle stereo PCM signals from your telly.
We’re a bit disappointed in the remote control, though. Sony has clearly gone to a lot of trouble with the rest of the design, so why we’re lumbered with a tiny, plasticky wand is a little baffling – especially when the competition (we’re thinking of the Monitor Audio iDeck range and the JBL OnBeat Xtreme here) can come up with bespoke zappers for their equally pricey offerings.
Sony RDP-XA900iP: AirPlay set-up
But that’s a minor gripe. And anyway, you can cheer yourself up by pressing on the docking station, which slides out smoothly in a way reminiscent of a classic 1980s soft-opening tape deck. It’s a nice touch – as is the indicator light, which changes colour according to the connection method you’re using.
Setting up AirPlay access is a relatively painless affair thanks to the free D-Sappli app. This guides you through the process, and only makes you type in your (very likely impenetrably long) wi-fi password once.
This done, it’s on with the show with an Apple Lossless file, Tortoise’s Cornprone Brunch streamed from an iPhone 4. This is a testing track at the best of times thanks to its fast-attacking snare drum work, deep bass and chiming vibes – so it really shows up any timing flaws or tonal holes.
Sony RDP-XA900iP: Sound quality
First impressions are pretty good, with the XA900iP serving up a creditably wide stereo field from its two 20mm tweeters, dual 7cm midrange drivers and single 13.5cm subwoofer.
Considering that its speakers aren’t all that far apart, it’s a pleasant surprise. The sonic wingspan isn’t quite up to the all-encompassing performance offered by the still-excellent B&W Zeppelin Air, but it definitely conveys a sense of space.
There’s a decent amount of detail here, too, with the subtle drum and keyboard nuances being allowed room to breathe.
Kick it up a notch to Medicine Man by Pantera, though, and here’s where the AirPlay connection starts to lose composure a little.
The production on this album isn’t the warmest you’ll ever hear, and the Sony does little to smooth out the extremes of the frequency range.
The treble is too zizzy for our tastes, and there’s little in the way of bass punch. Rhythms, likewise, are just too confused to make listening pleasurable.
Sony RDP-XA900iP: Bluetooth better than AirPlay
Over to Bluetooth. Melody Gardot’s Your Heart is as Black as Night, with its intimate vocals, is a great way to test out a set-up’s midrange, and here the Bluetooth connection fares far better than AirPlay.
There’s less overall sparkle to the sound, but what it loses in the upper frequencies, the XA900iP gains in warmth. It’s certainly an easier listen, even if the treble can get rather rough around the edges at higher volume levels.
A qualified success for the wireless side of things, then. Overall, we prefer the Bluetooth connection’s sound to AirPlay – but to be honest, neither is world-beating. JBL’s OnBeat Xtreme does the Bluetooth side better, while the B&W Zeppelin Air does a better job when it comes to Apple’s tech.
Sony RDP-XA900iP: Physical connection is best
So, it’s back to basics and the physical dock – and here we get the best aspects of both the wireless connections. It does a track like Kraftwerk’s Expo 2000 (Kling Klang Mix 2000) far more justice: there’s a lot more body to the performance, and it’s tighter in all other aspects too, from snappier rhythms to faster, punchier bass and less fizzy treble.
The best sound of all, though, was had through the old, faithful, low-tech 3.5mm line input, coming directly out of our iPhone’s headphone socket.
We suspect this is as much to do with Apple’s diligence in designing its hardware than anything inside the Sony’s chassis – but whatever the reason, the sound is a slight cut above the dock connector. It’s definitely an easy (if not as convenient) listen.
Sony RDP-XA900iP: Verdict
Whatever the connection, though, we can’t help feeling that the Sony sounds a little flat; a little ‘meh’. There’s nothing wrong with restraint, of course, but at times we found ourselves wanting more enthusiasm and pep. The company claims a 200W output – given the XA900iP’s presentation we just have to raise an eyebrow at that…
And that’s why the XA900iP gets four stars. We have nothing but good things to say about its design philosophy. It’s great to look at, easy to configure and its use of such a variety of connection technologies is commendable.
It’s just that the implementation of those wireless options isn’t quite as deft as we’d hoped it might be, and that elusive ‘fun-factor’ is a little too low in the mix.
Keep your player connected physically, though, and you’ll be met with a pleasant, detailed sound.
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