iDesign: On the Elegance and Consistency of XtremeMac | iLounge Article

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iDesign: On the Elegance and Consistency of XtremeMac

If the obvious goal of great industrial design is to make an immediate, positive sensory impression, the secondary goal is to etch that impression in your mind as an iconic memory, and hopefully set a standard that future experiences must surpass. Apple’s full-sized iPod, with its soft curves, simple shapes, and balanced proportions, accomplished this much and more, defining a generation’s understanding of what portable music players should look like. Then hundreds of brand new companies appeared, releasing complementary accessories designed to capture the interest of iPod owners. Sadly, few of these companies have created products that would still be worth buying even if there wasn’t an iPod connector attached.

Over the past two years in particular, Weston, Florida-based XtremeMac has established itself as an exception to this rule. After early years of trial and error, XtremeMac evolved from generic product names (“XtremeMac Deluxe”) and designs to more attractively repackaging other companies’ electronics, and most recently into engineering its own. The results haven’t always been perfect or properly priced, but since 2006, they’ve almost invariably been memorable, with consistently superb designs, fantastic packaging, and occasionally ingenious features, as well.

Rather than walking through XtremeMac’s entire history of iPod accessories, our third edition of iDesign focuses primarily on a handful of the company’s most noteworthy product designs—specifically, three 2006-2007 products that it no longer sells, with brief looks at several that were recently introduced. The goal of this edition is to highlight how elegance, contrast, and consistency in design can make a small, relatively young company look as impressive as one that’s been creating products for half a century or longer. Enjoy.

Luna: With Design Like This, Who Needs an iPod?

Would you ever consider buying an iPod-ready speaker system if you didn’t own an iPod? Is there an iPod accessory you’ve purchased that would continue to be worthwhile if your iPod stopped working? Our guess is that your answer to both questions is “probably not,” since very few iPod-ready products stand on their own both aesthetically and functionally. A major exception is XtremeMac’s Luna, an elegant clock radio design that looks as good on a nightstand as it does in a crowded showroom, featuring a sharp black-and-white body and a matching high-contrast LCD screen.

When XtremeMac released Luna in December, 2006, the iPod clock radio market was already well-established: iHome had impressively established the category with its original, affordable iH5, and more than a year later, competitors were still struggling to offer equivalent or better products around the same $100 price point.

Luna (left) was designed as a mid-range alternative to lower-priced iHome clock radios (right)

Others, most notably JBL, were testing the appeal of high-tech, high-design alternatives that also carried high price tags. On Time, a shrine-like speaker and advanced clock radio, stunned people with a mini-globe shape and a $300 price tag.

Half the price on JBL’s On Time, Luna was a decidedly more practical—if not ambitious—clock

Despite its great looks, however, On Time wasn’t completely practical; like iHome’s products, screen visibility concerns dogged an otherwise great design, and despite JBL’s reputation for superb sound, the price tag and lack of a remote control were enough to make people think twice about the purchase.

On Time’s nice clock radio screen was at its most viewable on this angle; Luna’s could be seen from almost any angle

Luna was smarter, mostly because it did exactly what you’d hope it would do. Besides offering superior sound quality to iHome’s clocks, it included two critical aesthetic choices that radically enhanced its appeal: XtremeMac designed it to ooze with class, and use a screen that any user could adjust to her liking. XtremeMac’s $149 price tag was a little on the high side, but not crazy given what Luna offered.

When iHome and others were using bubbly plastic buttons with glowing colored lights, XtremeMac took a minimalist approach. Matching chrome buttons and dials were placed on the top of a white plastic surface that was otherwise almost bare—a strong contrast with confusing competing options. The front two chrome circles could be used as dials for volume and screen dimmer settings, or pressed inwards to activate various system options. They were like the iPod’s controls, only a little different.

In back were two more chrome circles, but they were solely buttons: each activated one of Luna’s two alarms, which were completely user-programmable.

Hinting at the designer’s senses of humor and consistency—as well as the company’s willingness to indulge them—the unit’s invisible bottom paralleled its top, with rubber feet to match the shapes and positions of Luna’s chrome dials.

Speaker drivers, so conspicuous in many iPod audio systems, were hidden behind a wrap-around black metal grille that stopped only for the unit’s clock and rear connection panels. Only in the right light—or, the wrong light, depending on your perspective—were the drivers even slightly visible: our Warhol image above shows the grille at varying degrees of artificial photo overexposure.

Key to Luna’s appeal was the adjustable clock display, which provided sophisticated brightness and contrast adjustments, as well as the ability to invert the screen’s colors for those who preferred black on white to white on black.

This screen was a brilliant differentiator. According to comments from the company at the time, it was expensive to include, but between its ability to satisfy light-sensitive sleepers and its tie to a smart, easy to use menuing system, Luna did things that On Time couldn’t, yet sold for half the price.

As with several of the company’s best products, Luna shipped with a remote control that was “just right.” Instead of using confusing iconic labels packed into too small of a space, XtremeMac went with a candybar form factor and full words wherever possible. The remote paralleled the look of the system itself, with white top and bottom surfaces, ringed by black along all the sides.

This wasn’t just a cheap toss-in; someone had actually spent time and money designing something cool. At a time when most options were trying to find ways to cheapen and simplify all of their parts, everything about Luna felt a little more deluxe, and better-considered than might have been expected.

Despite its superb design, excellent reviews, and even a Best of the Year award, Luna wasn’t without its issues. Radio reception was an early concern, leading XtremeMac to quietly release a firmware and hardware updated version to satisfy later customers. Users couldn’t tell the difference between new and old Lunas unless they opened the boxes and plugged them in. Later, with the release of iPhone, other issues surfaced: even though you could put an iPhone in Airplane Mode and dock it in Luna, leaving the phone in full wireless mode generated interference that messed with the clock’s screen and settings. For these reasons and others, XtremeMac quietly discontinued the clock only a year after it hit the market, opting to replace it with the as-yet-unreleased Luna X2, discussed below.

Will It Take X2 to Tango?

Though iPod portable and clock radio speakers grabbed a lot of attention during 2005 and 2006, an increasing number of all-in-one desktop and bookshelf systems were competing to knock Bose’s $300 SoundDock off of its throne. Correctly assuming that superior bass performance was the key to winning over listeners, companies such as Altec Lansing, Klipsch, and Griffin pushed out speakers with dedicated subwoofers and bass drivers, testing different shapes and price points in an attempt to see what customers wanted.

In concept, XtremeMac had just the right idea. Tango had been introduced at the beginning of January, 2006, featuring a large, top-loading white plastic body with a neutral black speaker grille and a powerful dedicated subwoofer at the center. Pricing would be a markedly-better-than-SoundDock number: $200.

Tango was at the vanguard of a new iPod speaker design movement, crafted to look sleek and simple while offering plenty of audio horsepower. Sparing use of chrome provided power and volume controls in front of an iPod dock—nothing else cluttered the system visually. Originally, the design didn’t make a huge visual first impression, but it looked thoroughly modern, clean, and unique, highly consistent with the design of Luna, with tweaks to accommodate the lack of a screen and the presence of more audio hardware inside. XtremeMac had an understated standout on its hands.

Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi was announced after Tango, but shipped much earlier in 2006

For two months. In late February, Apple unexpectedly debuted iPod Hi-Fi, which would most certainly have been understood as a Tango clone if not for Apple’s reputation for extended development schedules. Just like Tango, iPod Hi-Fi used a white plastic, bass-heavy speaker theme with simplified controls, a black front grille, and a big footprint. But there were a few major differences between XtremeMac’s and Apple’s designs: the iPod Hi-Fi cost $349, packed even bigger speakers, and—to Tango’s serious disadvantage—was available right away. Tango had been promised for March, but wouldn’t be ready to ship until November.

Like Luna’s remote control, Tango’s looked and felt surprisingly solid and well-designed

XtremeMac didn’t give up on Tango when iPod Hi-Fi—or the derivative, shoddy Saffire iWoogie Blaster beat it to market. Instead, it finished the design, got Tango into stores, and hoped that it would take off anyway. Unfortunately, a serious sound engineering issue—a table-shaking, overaggressive down-firing subwoofer—detracted from the unit’s audio performance, transforming what otherwise could have been a great right-priced alternative to the overly expensive iPod Hi-Fi into yet another iPod speaker also-ran. Like Luna, Tango was discontinued after a year on the market; the company decided to replace it with the physically smaller, less expensive Tango X2.

Cables and Chargers

As hard as this may be to believe, we actually are genuinely excited when we see that a company has taken the time to thoughtfully design an iPod-specific cable or charger. Yes, we’re almost always disappointed by the ridiculous prices that companies expect to fetch for these slightly better than commodity-class parts, but good design is always worth some premium, at least if the design’s something you can actually see and touch most of the time. XtremeMac has for several years taken the aesthetic of cable design more seriously than most of its competitors, and the results have been compelling, if not always affordable.

At around the same time as it was releasing Luna and Tango, XtremeMac came up with InCharge Traveler, a cool bundle of car, plane, and wall chargers for the iPod, tied together with a black fabric bag and packed with international wall blades ready for use in many foreign countries. Just like Luna and Tango, InCharge Traveler’s parts used high-contrast black and white plastics and sleek shapes, tipped with small amounts of metal where appropriate. The $70 set was too a little too steep in our view for what it offered, but the designs were undeniably nice.

XtremeMac’s work on cables attracted some attention from Apple, which had publicly announced the future release of a new HDTV-centered media player that would eventually be named Apple TV. Several companies competed to win a lucrative deal to produce audio and video cables Apple could sell for the Apple TV, and XtremeMac won out, designing attractive, sturdy gold-tipped HDMI, Component Video, optical TOSLINK audio, and other cables in white and gray colors that matched Apple TV’s body. The cables were branded XtremeHD—a rare tip of the hat back to the company’s earlier naming conventions.

Like earlier XtremeMac cables, the XtremeHD designs looked good, used quality materials, and had occasional smart twists. The TOSLINK cable, for instance, included a special plastic cap that—unlike other TOSLINK cables—wasn’t easy to lose. Thanks to an unusual Apple mandate, no doubt intended to mitigate obvious concerns that cables weren’t included with the Apple TV and would add considerable hidden expenses to the purchase, the cables were required to be reasonably priced at $20 or less. XtremeMac used this requirement to its advantage, wisely marketing its parts as alternatives to Monster Cables without monsterous prices. For a company that had too often aimed a little high on pricing relative to more popular alternatives, this was a good sign.

The Future: Cleaner, Cheaper, and Blacker

Something has changed at XtremeMac over the past six months—whether it’s the lessons learned from Luna, Tango and XtremeHD, or continued shockwaves from the release of the iPhone, the company has made some abrupt but smart recent shifts in both design and pricing. As a result, XtremeMac’s current lineup has some things in common with earlier ones, but the aesthetic changes are also noteworthy.

Following the release of the iPhone, XtremeMac went on a black and chrome product design kick that—to its credit—strongly matched the iPhone’s looks, and also does well with Apple’s first ever lineup of non-white iPods. The first major product was an iPhone-ready InCharge Auto car charger, which is in the process of being joined by other InCharge-branded charging accessories.

Released unexpectedly in late 2007, Tango Studio was the company’s first speaker product to discard white plastic in favor of an almost entirely black body. Budget priced at only $80, Studio stands on its own as a clean if somewhat inexpensive-looking audio slate, using a hidden blue LED panel and pop-out dock to transform into an iPod-ready unit and FM radio.

Like the original Luna and Tango, Tango Studio’s speaker grille stands out because of how effectively it hides what’s inside. Despite the fact that this is undeniably “yet another iPod speaker with a built-in radio,” it looks a lot nicer than the sub-$100 speakers people are accustomed to seeing in stores, trading off dozens of buttons and dials for a design that communicates elegance and minimalism.

Then there are Luna X2 and Tango X2. Like Tango Studio, they both toss aside the white plastic bodies of earlier XtremeMac designs in favor of black plastic, metal, and chrome accents. Each has been changed to match not only the looks of new iPods, but also appeal to more budget-conscious users: Luna X2 will sell for only $120, and Tango X2 for $150.

Just as with the company’s prior lineups, consistency of design ties all of these products together: once XtremeMac has established a look—which, interestingly, never steals from Apple so much as riffs on its design cues—everything from its products to its packages and web site are tied together with the same themes. The ability to carry themes through from concept to accessory to packaging and marketing, and from product to product, is highly unusual in the iPod accessory world, and seriously impressive. With some luck, the company will see even greater successes in the future; we hope that its next-generation Luna, Tango, and InCharge family designs will prove as worthy of the spotlight as its past ones.

See earlier editions of iDesign here: The Art of V-Moda’s Vibe Earphones, the V-Moda Interview, and the Art of JBL’s iPod Speakers.

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