For $349, the Hi-Fi is something of a hybrid iPod dock not quite a "bookshelf" stereo, but not quite a home-theater system either. It's more expensive than the Bose SoundDock and Klipsch iGroove, but those are meant for small spaces. The bigger, heavier Hi-Fi is meant to fill a room. Still, though it has an auxiliary input for stereo sources, it's not necessarily something you'd think to connect to your cable set-top box. And because it's all one piece, it wouldn't make a good speaker system for a computer.
To add to the confusion, unlike the Bose and the Klipsch, the Hi-Fi can run on six D-cell batteries. In what locations without a power plug would a 14.5-lb. sound system come in handy? Up in a tree fort, perhaps? Surely even Bart Simpson would rig up an extension cord.
Whereever one chooses to put the thing, it will certainly sound terrific. Hi-Fi can get a lot louder than the Bose and still maintain the clarity of its sound. (I didn't test it against the Klipsch.) And even though the left and right channels share a central 4.5-in. woofer for rich mid-range, I didn't hear a problem with stereo separation. Things were as spread as they can be in a single unit. The only thing buyers needs to be wary of is that the files on their iPods not necessarily iTunes purchases, but perhaps songs downloaded elsewhere or ripped from CDs might sound worse, because the imperfections of their compression will be revealed.
The Hi-Fi might have been the star last week, but the introduction of an Intel-based Mini and the updated Bonjour networking software have made Apple's home-theater aspirations a little clearer. Apple has two desktop lines and one laptop line that can be operated with remote controls, and that according to my tests are able to effortlessly access each other's music and video files. Now the company is hinting that perhaps one of these remote-controlled Macs should live next to your TV.
It's a little early who will spend $600 on a Mini that only serves up movies and music stored on other Macs in the home? As it is, it takes home-theater enthusiasm and, possibly, a $19 DVI-to-video adapter, to get the thing hooked up to the sound system and TV. But if Apple were to sell a $300 version with no hard drive and built-in TV connectivity and maybe some higher-definition video at the iTunes store Microsoft and Sony will surely snap to attention.