I first saw the Vita Audio range of one-box iPod speakers in a very trendy design shop, and dismissed it as just a pricey looker before I did some research and read some of the product’s great reviews from serious hi-fi magazines and websites.
The Vita Audio R4i is the modern day equivalent of the old music centre, offering radio (DAB and FM), CD and the now ubiquitous iPod dock. Oh, and it also has auxiliary inputs for other audio devices and a USB port for memory sticks loaded with music. And you can program it as an alarm clock.
It doesn’t have a record player, cassette deck or graphics equaliser but otherwise has it all in one compact system.
The Vita Audio R4i’s slot-loading multi-format CD plays standard CD-Audio, MP3 and WMA music discs. Its radio offers DAB, DAB+ and FM Tuner with RDS. Its auto scan works well at quickly locating and tuning, and you can pre-set up to ten stations (five DAB and five FM).
The integrated iPod dock is universal (supporting and charging all Apple iPod and iPhone models released from 2004 onwards), although iPod shuffles connect via the auxiliary inputs rather than the top dock.
On the front there’s a USB port for playback of MP3 and WMA music files, so you can quickly plug in a flash drive loaded with tracks. This slightly spoils the front-on looks of the R4i, but I guess there might be space issues if it had been positioned at the back. There’s a stereo headphone output on the front, as well.
Also on the front is an LCD display to show off the clock, mode or radio details, as well as the volume.
Vita Audio’s real point of uniqueness is the UFO-like RotoDial control that docks at the top of the unit but also pops out as a remote. It can control all the unit’s functions and a good deal of the iPod’s.
Its unique look means you won’t lose it among the mound of TV, DVD, Blu-ray and Sky+ remotes cluttering up your living room, and because it snaps into the R4i you shouldn’t mislay it either.
The R4i is much more compact than a system with separate speakers or one of the many long black iPod speaker blocks on the market.
That said it’s no slip of a thing, measuring a chunky 450mm wide and 255mm deep, although is reasonably low level at 145mm high. Sat next to its little brother, the non-CD Vita Audio R2i, it looks a bit of a hulk, and its footprint demands a sizable bench.
Some of the R4i’s sonic superiority is down to its increased cabinet size that helps it create a much larger soundstage than the more diminutive R2i, much in the same way that larger speakers sound bigger than smaller ones. So size does matter in this case.
Bulky it may be but the R4i (and dinky R2i for that matter) looks like an instant design classic with its clean good looks and slight 70s styling. And it’s available in four gorgeous colours: a £549 Walnut veneer plus £599 Dream White and Midnight Black lacquers, and an even pricier £629 Sparkling Graphite piano lacquer.
One great design feature is the use of a telescopic radio aerial rather than the trailing aerial cable that comes with many radio hi-fis. Its removable so you don’t have to have it attached at all if you don’t need it, and you can also connect an external antenna if you prefer. Indeed the only cable present is the power lead.
Radio reception was more than acceptable in our tests.
R4i sound quality
With home hi-fi the design looks are nearly as important as the sound quality, but there’s little point having a wonderful-looking unit with lousy audio.
From a technical hi-fi point of view the R4i boasts its own impressive 80W Class AB amplifier and an integrated, down-firing active subwoofer (with back-mounted bass-level control if you’re a real audio tweaker).
The R4i differs from the older R4 with revised audio circuitry optimisation that Vita claims gives 25 percent greater audio clarity, and a new CD suspension arrangement for improved tracking and shock resistance. Vita Audio added a “new and superior” FM/DAB/DAB+ receiver with greater sensitivity on all bands, together with the ability to receive higher definition DAB+ transmissions. The R4i's power supply is also upgraded to “meet and exceed” forthcoming EU standby regulations.
I didn’t test the R4i against the R4 but I can confirm that the sound is stunning, filling a room (and nearly my whole small house) with rich, clear, precise full-bodied sound. Its 80W amp has neighbour-frightening possibilities. I’d had my doubts that a one-box solution could sound as good as this, but the audio output belies its compact design.
While most users won’t modify their audio settings either on the iPod or the speaker system the R4i boasts selectable tone settings so you can tweak audio output depending on your type of music and audio tastes.
The R4i also boasts something called “3D enhanced stereo sound”, which sounds suspiciously like marketing bunkum. Actually it really does lift the sound quality a couple of notches, and I’m not sure why it isn’t set as the default.
Vita Audio describes this “3D” effect as a digital sound processing technology “that uses algorithms to create an enhanced sense of clarity for voices and instruments, as well as a larger soundscape that belies the R4's compact dimensions”. Whatever you make of that, it works a treat. In fact, if you then turn it off the sound appears quite flat in comparison.
All this sound quality comes at a price, however. And many will be tempted by the R4i’s half-the-price little brother – the smaller R2i, which has great sound quality, but not that of the classier R4i.
Aside from the R4i’s 80W vs the R2i’s 20W output difference the quality of the R4i’s audio components is superior, giving greater levels of detail; and the subwoofer adds another dimension of low-frequency reproduction, giving the sound greater depth and scale. Obviously you pay handsomely for this difference – although you also get a CD player thrown in, as well.
The only drawback of the Vita R4i is its price. Its entry level cost of £549 puts it at the top end of the iPod speaker price range, although to be fair its audio and design qualities are high-end, too. If all your music is on an iPod and you can drop a few degrees on audio depth and volume the R2i looks a bargain in comparison, and takes up a lot less space. But the Vita Audio R4i is a serious investment in beautiful sound for beautiful homes, and doesn’t trade design points for audio excellence. To see one and hear one is to desire one.