An iPod is a wonderful way to carry your music library around with you… but sometimes, you just don’t want to mess around with using headphones. I travel a lot, and want an external sound option I can carry with me. The portable FM transmitters I reviewed a while back can also be used to broadcast to any FM radio, but you can run into the same signal issues you do in a car, and often there isn’t even an FM radio to use.
Hence, portable speakers. You can buy cheap unpowered/unamplified speakers for $10-15 at just about any consumer electronics store like Best Buy, but even the best ones I’ve heard sound pretty lousy. You can also acquire a set of regular powered computer speakers and travel with them, but they’re a mess to travel with and set up, and they need a wall outlet.
Or you can go somewhere in between by purchasing a set of battery-powered portable speakers. These are easy to carry around (smaller than some of the unpowered sets I’ve seen), but the batteries allow amplification, giving a much louder, richer sound than unpowered speakers can manage. I’ve used two of them: the Sony SRS-T55 and the Monster Cable iSpeaker Portable.
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Sony SRS-T55 — I found these speakers at an Apple Store in Indianapolis about a year ago (they have apparently been superseded by the SRS-T57), and they’ve been faithful performers since then. These are traditional magnet-cone speakers, mounted in "wings" on a folding case, with the batteries in the central box. The whole thing folds to a block about as long as an iPod, half an inch (12.7 mm) taller, and about twice as thick.
Overall, I’ve been very happy with these speakers; they seem well-designed and solidly built, and are a major improvement over unpowered speakers. A nice touch is that you can use them unpowered if the batteries run out, though it highlights the advantage amplification adds! I have only a few minor complaints:
After a year of use, the hinges have loosened some – not enough to cause problems, but enough to make me wonder how well they’ll last another few years.
Although the shape is convenient for packing in a suitcase, it doesn’t fit well in a laptop bag.
The battery compartment latch is problematic; for a couple of months, it kept popping open unexpectedly, although it is now working again, for no particular reason I can see.
The audio patch cord is permanently attached, only about two feet long, and can’t be stored in the case; this limits how far apart you can put the iPod and the speakers, and makes carrying the whole unit around messier than it could be.
Minor nits aside, I like these speakers and would recommend them.
Monster Cable iSpeaker Portable — These speakers appear to be identical to the Wharfedale LoudMan Portable Flat-Panel Speakers; I’m not sure who originally manufactures them, but Monster Cable seems to have a much broader distribution network.
The iSpeaker Portable is a flat-panel speaker set built into a case that looks and works like a double-CD jewel case. Although I’ve been happy with the SRS-T55, I bought an iSpeaker Portable a month ago for a couple of reasons: I hoped the touted NXT flat-panel technology might give better sound, and it fits into a pocket on my laptop bag. The results were mixed; it fits my bag beautifully, but the sound is only about equal to, though notably different from, the Sony (read on for sound comparisons).
While I’d still recommend these speakers, I’m overall less satisfied with them than I am with the SRS-T55. The main problem I have is that the design seems unaccountably poor/cheap in spots: the swing-out panels stick in the closed position, the battery compartment door doesn’t fit solidly and has to be fiddled with to latch properly, and the wires leading to the speaker elements are bare and exposed. I expect to see things like this when I disassemble a speaker, not when I flip it open to use.
Other minor nits:
The speaker/iPod cable is a separate piece, and is solidly made with what appear to be gold-plated connectors – appropriate for a company that made its fame from high-quality audio cables. However, there’s no place to store the cable inside the speaker case, so you must carry it separately.
It needs more room to set up than the SRS-T55, and the panels must be spread fully open for best sound.
It’s more fragile than the Sony; I feel like I need to treat it with special care to make sure it lasts.
The iSpeaker Portable’s defining characteristic is the way it packs decent sound into a slim package; I just wish it had better attention to detail, both in design and construction.
Overall Performance and Notes — I’m not an audiophile. That said, neither of these speakers will win any audio awards, except in their own narrow category. Both have decent highs and midrange, but are seriously lacking in bass. The iSpeaker Portable’s flat-panel technology has a crisp, clean sound to it, but feels somewhat flat and hollow compared with the Sony; the SRS-T55 has a deeper, richer sound, but it’s not as clear or well-defined. Overall, I’d rate them about equal in sound quality, with my preference flip-flopping between them depending on my mood. Both are capable of filling a 30-foot by 40-foot (9.1-meters by 12.2-meters) room and being heard another 50 feet (15.2 m) down the hallway, which is reasonably impressive for something this size running off batteries.
Both speakers use 4 AA batteries, and they both have a level of battery drain that’s low enough to last several hours with NiMH rechargeable batteries. I like to sleep to music, and they usually last about two nights before needing to change batteries. (As with most power-hungry devices, I highly recommend NiMH rechargeable batteries, which sell for extremely reasonable prices these days.) Both can also be used with optional AC adapters, sold separately.
If I had to pick between them, it would be tough; in the end, I’d probably decide on the iSpeaker Portable, just because it fits in my laptop bag and operates well enough otherwise, though I wish it were more solidly built.
Both of these speakers are designed for general use and work with any device sporting a headphone jack (such as a PowerBook). One other choice designed specifically for the iPod is the Altec Lansing inMotion. For third generation iPods, it acts as a dock as well as a speaker set, allowing you to sync and even charge your iPod. However, with a list price of $150, it’s three times the $50 list price of the SRS-T57 and the $60 list price of the iSpeaker Portable; even at usual discounted prices, it’s still double the price of the others. Dan Frakes thought highly of it in his iPod Gift Guide, and it’s gotten some good buzz elsewhere, but it’s a little too rich for my blood right now.
[Travis Butler is the computer geek for a small distribution company located in Kansas City. He has dreamed of computer-based jukeboxes since the late 1980s, but is still boggled sometimes at how far things have come in the last few years.]`
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