When digital audio took over from analogue, and the CD (and later the download) took precedence over the traditional vinyl or tape-based formats of the time, a new generation was born. The digital generation. It brought with it convenience – finally, music could be carried on tiny portable devices – some of which allowing the listener to carry their entire music library in their pocket.
However; sound quality suffered. A combination of low resolution audio files and cheap, badly designed hardware were to blame – and hence the swarm of digital devices entering the market weren’t renowned for their audiophile sound quality, audiophiles instead choosing to stick with traditional formats (vinyl, cassette, and CD) for their music consumption.
These days, though, things have changed. High res files are easy to obtain, and advancements in technology allow even lower resolution files to sound very respectable. Internet streaming has taken the world by storm, with services such as Spotify and internet radio becoming more popular than ever.
For many people, portable devices such as smartphones contain their music library – and many people wish to make these devices the centre of their traditional hi-fi system. However, these are multi-function devices; meaning their audio processing hardware, such as their internal DACs and headphone amps aren’t of a particularly high standard.
That’s where products such as Arcam’s rDock-uni come in. The rDock-uni is a universal apple dock that connects to a traditional hi-fi system. It supports any iPod, iPad and iPhone model – and is made especially for those with the latest lightning connector.
The rDock-uni is designed with 1 goal in mind – to get the best possible sound quality from music stored in your iDevice. To that end, Arcam have chosen a Burr Brown PCM5102 24-bit DAC – the same used in the MiniBlink, as well as many other hi-fi components.
The dock itself supports devices with the new lightning connector. A USB port is provided around back, allowing you to connect older devices with your standard Apple 30-pin docking cable (one isn’t included).
Stereo analogue outputs are provided, as well as an S/PDIF coaxial connector to send the output to an external DAC. All connectors are high quality; there’s no flex when manipulating plugs on the back of the rDock-uni.
And, finally; a multi-voltage power supply means you’ll be able to use your rDock-uni anywhere in the world – so if you don’t’ mind the weight, it’s a great travel companion, too.
Supplied in a large, sturdy box, the rDock-uni along with its accessories are contained in a plastic tray. The packaging is neatly layed out; with the power supply and its adapters on the right, the remote and the dock in the middle, and the provided interconnects on the left.
It’s easy to replace things in the packaging, if necessary; meaning you can box it up if you’re taking it on the road.
In the pursuit of honesty, at this point I must point out out that this is the second review sample – the first displayed issues with distorted sound. This was a known fault, which Arcam have assured me has been resolved – so it’s a problem you’re unlikely to encounter. And indeed, a second rDock-uni was better in this regard.
The unit itself is extremely well made – fashioned from a solid block of aluminium, it feels substantial and weighty. Only the rubber base feels a little flimsy; it’s not adhered to the underside in the corners. That said; it’s not going to be an issue when the dock is situated on a flat surface, and keeps the dock in place.
Docking a device
The main feature, situated in a groove on the top of the rDock-uni, is the lightning connector – situated on a small sprung plastic holder, allowing it to move to accommodate your device. The aluminium block includes a back rest for your device to lean on, so you’re not going to put strain on that tiny connector when using the device. A rubber strip, affixed to the rest, prevents scratching the device – a nice touch.
Devices, even larger ones such as the iPad Mini, are easy to insert and remote – unlike some docks which offer a tiny gap for the device to slot into, the Arcam provides some room to maneuver the device; so, once lined up, it simply drops into place.
It’s worth noting that if you have a case on your device, it’s probably not going to fit; you’ll need to remove the case to dock your device. This is the ‘case’ with most docks, however.
The Power Supply
The power supply includes adapters for almost every power outlet you’re ever likely to come across; UK, US, and EU sockets are all covered. The adapters clip onto the bottom of the transformer, forming a solid power brick.
They’re not particularly easy to remove; there’s a tiny clip which must be pressed inwards, which is recessed in a hole. You’ll need the end of a tool, such as a pair of scissors (or just something thin) to press the clip in – at which point you can slide the adapter off. It would be nice if these were easier to remove.
The cable is also a little on the short side; I was unable to get it to reach from my socket to a spare shelf on my rack (a distance of roughly 1M); so I’d like to see a longer cable.
The rDock-uni includes a credit-card style remote, which can be used to select and navigate tracks and control power to the unit. Being a credit-card remote, it takes a coin cell battery. Rather than the usual battery tray as as usually found on similar remotes, Arcam mercifully designed this remote with a proper battery tray – with a plastic door that can be removed simply by sliding it out of its rest. While the battery is still somewhat tricky to insert and remove – this is a step in the right direction.
The remote itself, while certainly solid and well made, can at times be difficult to use. The buttons aren’t raised above the surface, making locating them difficult; and they’re not the easiest buttons to press.
Throughout this review, I used the iDevice as the main controller; reaching only for the remote when I wanted to skip tracks from my listening position.
Setup and Usage
Setup couldn’t be simpler; after assembling the power supply and connecting everything up, docking a device will cause the unit to begin playing a random selection of music immediately.
Docking your device with music playing will pick up where it left off – just as if you’d plugged in headphones. You can change tracks by navigating the device itself as normal; or use the provided remote.
The rDock-uni shares it’s DAC with the Arcam MiniBlink Bluetooth streamer – both devices employ a Burr Brown PCM-5102 24-bit chip. As a result, they share the same warm, luscious, almost tube-like sound.
There are a few notable differences though – the rDock-uni offers far better sound staging, with a broad, 3-dimensional sound stage that is simply beautiful. It’s silky smooth – listening to the likes of Norah Jones’ is a joy through the rDock-uni. Her soft voice washes over you as you quickly become lost in the music.
Timing is spot-on – play Bon Jovi’s ‘Keep The Faith’ and the opening bass line is delivered with power and precision, the rDock-uni displaying the kind of rhythmic precision matched only by higher end CD players and turntables, much less iPod docks.
There’s plenty of detail to get stuck into – even in low-quality recordings. Play a low bitrate MP3 of Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’, and her voice sounds smooth and natural – the powerful kick drum slamming into the listener’s chest.
Feed the rDock-uni a better recording, such as a WAV rip of ‘simple man’ taken from Shinedown’s ‘Somewhere In The Stratosphere’, and the rDock-uni really comes into its own. The atmospheric sound of a live audience, and some of the world’s best musicians is beautifully portrayed – you’ll soon become amerced in the simple guitar/vocal arrangement.
Despite a few issues, I’d still recommend the rDock-uni. Finally, a product that bridges the gap between convenience and audio quality – finally, an iPod dock done right.
I’m impressed with the finishing touches, such as the device backrest, and handy USB port on the back for those of us who still use older devices. The portability is a great idea – even though you’ll need a hi-fi system to plug it into, it’s still a nice thought.
As for the negatives… the plastic wrapping on the dock itself doesn’t create a great first impression, and the remote is simply a pain to use. You’ll need a pointy object (or a long-nailed companion) to remove the adapters from the power supply, and you’ll be forever cleaning the bass – especially if the dock is situated on a dirt-prone glass rack.
However; if you can forgive these shortcomings, the rDock-uni is a great way to integrate your iDevices with your hi-fi system. Great job, Arcam.