- Review Price: £549.99
The Holy Grail for any audiophile is a proper hi-end Hi-Fi system. The sheer quality of sound and sense of immersion that you get from a top quality setup is enough to send shivers down the spine. Unfortunately, having half a dozen separates, a pair of speakers, and all the other paraphernalia that goes with such a setup is just not practical for most of us, let alone kind to the wallet.
Also, with mp3 players now able to accommodate entire music collections the need for umpteen different playback devices has pretty much disappeared. The result is the popularity of high-end all-in-one audio systems, like the Meridian F80 has sky-rocketed and the Vita Audio R4, is the latest example.
Like most of these new all-in-one devices the R4 features an iPod dock, a CD player, (which, in addition to regular music CDs, plays MP3 and WMA discs), FM and DAB radio tuners, a 2.1 speaker setup, and of course an amp to power the whole lot. In fact, about the only thing that sets this apart from its competitors is the inclusion of a USB port on the front. This allows you to plug in a USB thumb drive and playback whatever mp3s you have thereon. It’s quite a useful feature but we’re not sure it’s really necessary and we’d prefer to have the port on the back to reduce clutter on the front.
Apart from this minor quibble though, the R4 is generally a nice looking device. It continues the same curved cubiod theme developed by the R1 and R2 and is available in the same gorgeous glossy white or walnut veneer (which only costs £499.99) finishes as its little siblings.
However, to fit in all those extra features, the R4 has had to seriously bulk up. Its foot print is a whopping 255 by 450mm, which crucially makes it too deep to fit on your average bookshelf or window sill. Obviously we wouldn’t recommend you actually put a device like this on a window sill but if space on your sideboard, say, is at a premium you’ll need to double check your measurements before opting for the R4.
Round the back, things are fairly barren with just an auxiliary input and output, the aerial socket, power switch, and a subwoofer level dial. As you’d imagine the latter adjusts the volume of the subwoofer enabling you to boost or reduce the R4’s bass response. However, as per usual we found it sounded best left at dead centre.
The R4’s screen is another feature inherited from the R1 and R2 but this is something we definitely don’t welcome. Viewed straight on it’s fine but, being an LCD display, it’s viewing angles are mediocre at best and there’s obvious backlight bleed which makes text slightly difficult to read. It’s not appalling by any means but we’ve seen better.
Another complaint I have is Vita’s use of a standard iPod dock. Now, I’ve talked at length before about the use of Apple’s plastic iPod dock inserts on high-end audio gear – the horrible little plastic inserts just ruin the aesthetic – so I won’t dwell on the subject here but I’ll just point out that it’s disappointing to see it being employed by the R4. I would’ve liked to see a more elegant and sophisticated designed being conjured up. On the positive side, the dock does at least charge the iPhone 3G properly and it positions the iPod in such a way that it’s easy to see and control when docked – a basic feature that not all similar devices can claim.
The radio can store 10 presets each for DAB and FM and it supports the usual RDS text for FM and programme information that you get from DAB. However there’s still no support for more sophisticated DAB functions like Electronic Programme Guides and programme recording. Reception was as good as we normally expect from our office, with a trip up to the top (third) floor required to pick up a truly steady signal on all stations. Aside from this the R4’s main functions all work pretty much as you’d expect and perform as well as any others we’ve encountered – the radio tunes, CDs play, you get the drift.
However, the only way to control all this lot is with the intriguing remote and although we love the design we’re not so sure about the functionality. Where the RotoDial system worked well for the more simplistic R1 and R2, it begins to struggle with the more complicated R4. Simple operations like setting an alarm or changing EQ settings are cumbersome and while the large dial in the middle looks like it might mimic an iPod’s scroll wheel functionality; all it actually does is control volume. Also, why the infra red LED couldn’t be hidden behind a window as seen on pretty much every other remote, we’re entirely clueless.
Ultimately, though, few of these complaints would put us off if the R4’s audio were up to scratch but here Vita Audio again seems to have fallen short. While volume and overall clarity are superb, especially considering the R4’s £500 asking price, bass lacks punchiness and the overall sound doesn’t feel optimised.
Specifically, while there is a ‘3D’ setting, which does the usual stereo enhancing trickery, turning it on seems to create an exaggerated effect that doesn’t feel altogether natural. Conversely, turning it off betrays the R4’s limited size, making the sound a bit flat. Don’t get us wrong, neither sounds bad us such, but considering the giant leap in terms of size over the R2 we really would’ve expected the R4’s sound to have more presence.
I suppose what it boils down to is we would have liked to see Vita Audio get rid of these extreme on/off options, along with the sub level dial on the back, and simply optimise the sound to best suit the size of the device. Either that or provide ”more” sophisticated fine tuning options in the menu so the sound can be truly tailored to your listening environment.
The Vita Audio R4 aims to be a Hif-Fi replacement but we feel it has fallen just a few centimetres short of the mark. It’s good but not as good as it could’ve been.
Score in detail