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Review: Pioneer XW-NAS3 fills middle ground between elite and cheap iPod docks

Audio is one of those industries where, more often than not, you get what you pay for.

If you're willing to spend the price of a sports car on a stereo, you can probably get a team of stern-looking German engineers to come to your house, measure the resonant frequencies of your toilet bowl and design a sound system accordingly. If you're only willing to spend 20 bucks, you're getting a deck that makes everything sound like Urkel on a CB radio.

On the audio tech spectrum, the Pioneer XW-NAS3 is decidedly upper-middle-class.

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This oversized iPod dock landed on our desk late last year, and landed in Canadian stores shortly thereafter. It seems these days pretty much every tech company in the world is churning out iPod docks and part of the reason we waited this long to write up a review is because we wanted to see what kind of iPod docks were making the rounds at CES.

The verdict: there's nothing the Pioneer dock does better than everybody else, but it's a great all-rounder if you can afford it.

The delightfully named XW-NAS3 is out in stores right now, in white only, for $500. That's less than the highest-end Bose systems -- which deliver far better sound quality, as far as I'm concerned -- but more expensive than the vast majority of docks you can get at your average Best Buy. There's at least one reason for the steep price: besides audio, the dock also outputs video from your iPod. Pioneer makes a big deal of this capability, because it separates their product from a lot of competitors out there. And in truth, the XW-NAS3 does a very good job with video.

In March, a black version comes out that has one upgrade: it can receive calls while an iPhone is charging in the dock, which the current white version can't do. Other colours are due out later in the year.

First off, it's a no-brainer: if you have an iPhone and want one of these things, wait a month until the upgraded model comes out.

As far as looks go, the XW-NAS3 isn't ugly -- even though it looks a bit like a charcoal briquette stuffed inside a fat George Foreman Grill.

(In fact, the name XW-NAS3 is so jarring, I'm going to refer to this thing from now on as the Fat George Foreman Grill, or FGFG).

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But the FGFG is still much prettier than your average dock. The white overlay sandwiching the black mesh speakers curves round the back in a pretty sleek way, and there's a cover over the iPod connector you can flip down when not in use, giving the unit a smooth cohesive feel. The speakers bend around either side of the unit, and the overall look is modern without being tacky. It's about as wide as a desktop keyboard and as tall as a 710-millilitre bottle of Aquafina water (guess what two items are sitting on my desk as I type this).

But the FGFG isn't the prettiest dock out there. As far as I'm concerned, Vestalife makes far cooler-looking units, though from what I've heard of them, the sound quality isn't as good.

In the one area that counts the most -- audio -- the FGFG does pretty well. It has a downward-facing subwoofer on the dock's underside, but surprisingly, Pioneer doesn't try to do anything gimmicky with the bass. Instead, the audio reproduction of your average MP3 is flawless right up to the highest volume. The only time the FGFG started to lose it was when I had Pearl Jam cranked as high as it'd go, but by then the room was overflowing with noise. There's a bit of weakness is you play something very high-quality and heavy on strings, but you really have to be listening for it. Certainly, this thing will do just fine for your average condo or even a large living room in a house.

The video quality is equally good. I don't know too many people who don't already have a million different ways of getting their video onto their TV, but if you don't have Wifi or a big USB key or some such hack, you can just plug the FGFG to your TV and run video at near-flawless playback. It won't look as good as HD cable or DVDs, but the video will certainly be good enough to watch without wincing, and the capability doesn't feel like something Pioneer threw in at the last minute.

Where the FGFG started getting annoying was in all the little things. For example, it comes with a tiny remote that the folks at Pioneer have gone to great lengths to simplify. Unfortunately, they've oversimplified. All you get is a power button, a couple of play/skip/pause buttons and an input selector. Good luck switching playlists.

I also had trouble getting the dock to play music without leaving my iPod backlight running. This becomes an issue if, for example, you like falling asleep to the sound of music without a glaring beam of light in your bedroom.

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My only other complaint about the FGFG is the optional Bluetooth widget. Essentially, this is a device you plug into the back of the dock, and it'll receive Bluetooth signals. This is a great idea -- the only problem is, Pioneer expects you to pay $130 more for this thing. I'm not an expert on electronics manufacturing, so I can't tell you if this is highway robbery, but I can say I'd never shell out that kind of money for it. But if you really want to stream songs from your Touch or iPhone or something, at least the option's there.

If you want a cooler-looking dock that takes up less space and costs about a quarter as much, get something from Vestalife. If you're only interested in sound quality, don't care about video and haven't been affected by the recession, get something from Bose. Pioneer does a very good job staking its claim to the middle ground between those two extremes. The FGFG doesn't do anything important wrong, differentiates itself with video and doesn't look ugly as sin. That's not bad.

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