Top positive review
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Works good on iPod nano, with a few quirks
on February 7, 2010
I finally broke down and bought an iPod... Besides the gadget factor it seemed like a good method of moving music between the Onkyo TX-SR576 AV Receiver in the living room and the Sony STR-DH500 AV Receiver upstairs in the den, rather than hand-fulls of CDs, and, though I've set up my LG BD players for movie file sharing from a server, I've not done this with music with much success. A lot of the information in this review is provided because I have the ability to compare behavior between this Onkyo DS-A3 dock and the Sony TDM-IP50 Dock. Any references I make to "iPod" or "nano" are to the iPod nano 5th generation that I recently acquired, I have no experience with any other Apple product or other manufacture's MP3 players.
The DS-A3 dock is plastic and has a flat-black appearance and a moderate amount of heft (weight) to it. I'll come to that later when I talk about connecting/disconnecting the iPod with the dock. It comes with a remote control, though most features can be handled via the Ri interface (Onkyo's inter-device protocol) and the receiver's remote. The device came shipped with all cables needed. There is a red-white-yellow bundle of RCA cables (about 3') to carry L-R audio and composite video. As an alternate video output, there's a headphone-type jack and a cable that plugs in to it that at the other end spreads out to 3 RCA component video connectors (I'm using the single, yellow composite). Also in the back is a power input for the included 5v DC power adapter, as well as a male-male cable similar to headphone cable used for the Onkyo Ri interface.
The bottom of the dock area is flat and roomy, with the exception of the iPod-compatible male electrical/mechanical connector. The back of the dock is elevated and, to handle the different sizes of devices, Onkyo has incorporated a padded plastic disk, about the size of a quarter, attached to a bolt that can be screwed in or out of the dock so that the back of the iPod or phone can rest securely against the pad. As I said earlier, it's a little roomy around the base, so if you have a case or sleeve around the iPod it may accommodate it well. I did try a clear, hard-plastic case that protruded too far beyond the base of the nano for me to get a good connection with either dock (I may pull out a grinder for the $4 plastic case, but that's a different story).
The iPod sits in the dock canted back about ten or fifteen degrees, which makes for easy viewing and access if you place the base above waist level. Even with the back-rest in the DS-A3, the nano seems to sit in a rather vulnerable position, with only the base dock connector and gravity physically holding it to the dock. With children around, placing the dock at adult shoulder-level would be highly recommended (there are similar warnings in the documentation). To remove the player from the dock, one hand must be placed on the dock and the other hand used to carefully and straightly remove the iPod from the dock. If the dock were a bit heavier, it might be easier to remove the nano one-handed in a safe manner. I also had one instance where the nano appeared to hang, I could not navigate via OSD or the display. I had to use Apple's version of the "three finger salute" (hold switch-then-menu-while-center) to get the devices attention again. This happened when I touched the plastic base and I could feel a small static discharge between my fingers and the dock. The separate power supply might have been part of the issue, Sony's dock receives power from it's DMPORT interface, so that dock is grounded directly to the receiver.
If you opt for no video, you can connect the audio left and right, the power from the DC adapter, and the Ri interface cable to the Onkyo receiver and you're good to go (you'll need to check the receiver's manual on how to re-program the DOCK button to switch to TAPE or whichever audio input). I selected the TAPE IN input on my Onkyo receiver for audio, as I had no tape player. You can turn on the receiver, select DOCK, plug in the iPod and use it to select an album or a playlist or whatever. You can also be docked without video and use the receiver's remote to navigate the iPod menu (point remote at the receiver and view the nano's display), rather than pushing on the nano's buttons while in the docked position. Any time you're docked and the DS-A3 is powered on, the iPod will charge.
If you have video stored on the iPod and/or you want to use the On Screen Display (OSD) you'll need to hook up the video. Connect the video cable(s) to a composite or component input on your AV receiver or TV (I doubt the component output will be much better than composite tested). The top-center button on the enclosed remote is labeled "Mode" and is used to toggle the dock in and out of OSD mode. At that point, a rather crude menu will apear, in a (kinda cool) "retro-80's" look referred to by other reviewers and you can use your receiver's remote control to navigate. This is the same menu that you would see on your iPod (music, video, etc) and under music: artists, albums, songs, genres, etc. From comparison with the Sony dock upstairs, I feel comfortable saying that this is from the Apple player, not Sony or Onkyo. Fairly basic information and no album art. Also, toggling between the OSD and the iPod display resets whatever was going on at the time. If you were playing a song while in OSD mode, if you turn off OSD mode the music will cease and the iPod interface will show the main menu. I've also had problems getting the display up, you may need to toggle the play/pause button on the nano a couple of times to get the display on the screen.
From the docked interface besides, obviously, the stereo sound, it appears that the only information provided by the nano is the artist, the album, the song, length of song and time currently played in song. So the DS-A3 video output provides a black screen with this information and a series of ">" characters to show how far into the song you are. The Sony TDM-IP50's output looks a bit better, a multi-tone blue screen with screensaver... But both of these video outputs seem based on the limited amount of information that is provided via the iPod's docking interface. The only way to see the album art is to disable the OSD and use the iPod to navigate (which isn't too bad a choice). The Onkyo TX-SR576 documentation says that its remote's "guide/top menu" button works as the mode button to toggle the OSD on the DS-A2, but it does not seem to work on the DS-A3, so the included remote must be used to enable OSD (the receiver remote's buttons work fine from there). The receiver's documentation also talks about using its remote to power the iPod on and off, though I've not got that feature to work consistently either. It may be a miss-match with the remote code, I'm still investigating.
Playing video from iPod nano (5th gen): If you have video output connecting your dock to TV, you can use the OSD menu selections to go to videos or movies and pick a saved video. To test this, I downloaded an MP4 copy of a video I'd made in 720p HD from youtube to iTunes and hence to the iPod. Playback, as expected, is pretty basic, picture quality-wise (i.e., like you'd get from basic cable stations). Unless you were using this video to keep up with your latest soaps or low-res podcasts, I would not rely too heavily on this feature, due to the video quality limitations, though it may be the best option vs. watching on the nano's display.
Overall impressions: Pretty Satisfied. I went with the Onkyo docking product rather than a generic so that I could use the DOCK and navigation features on the remote. Setup is quite straightforward if using no video or if connecting the composite video to a open input on your TV or alternate monitor or whatever. I've not tried routing the composite video through the AV system, as it's the only composite video I have in this AV stack. I'm not real pleased with the sturdiness of the physical mating between the iPod and the dock, but I have similar concerns with the other dock I'm reviewing separately. At least this dock has a "backrest" that supports the device while pressing the buttons on the nano. I would recommend this product to a friend with a compatible Onkyo receiver.