Review: Vestalife Ladybug & Element Skateboards Limited Edition Ladybug
Pros: A beautifully designed, fun little all-in-one speaker system based on the body of a ladybug, with spread-open front speakers and a rear-firing subwoofer. Available in multiple colors, each with a metallic soft-touch finish and chrome accents, power supply, remote control, carrying bag, and ability to run off of AA battery power. Unusually warm, bass-rich sound for its price.
Cons: Bass distortion is present at higher volumes, with some unnecessary clipping; system’s sound is pleasant but mid- and low-frequency balanced. Uses Apple chip to unlock video-out on 2007 iPods, but doesn’t include video cable, and system pauses briefly on initial iPod sync, precluding volume controls.
Once hundreds of iPod speakers began to flood the market, we identified several factors that distinguished standouts from the rest of the pack: sound quality, design, pricing, and pack-ins are some of the key reasons to prefer one company’s product over another’s. Vestalife’s Ladybugs ($110) and Limited Edition Ladybugs ($125) are the extremely rare “more than the sum of their parts” iPod speakers that stand out so much on design, pricing, and pack-ins that they surpass the good but not mindblowing performance of the speakers inside. Ideal for younger users, and still very good for older ones, the Ladybug is an all-in-one speaker dock that gets almost everything right—just like the best JBL speakers we’ve previously tested. We’ve waited until now, when the just-released production version could be tested with its final sound curves, to rate the product.
On paper, Ladybug looks like the ultimate iPod speaker dock for kids. Start with the design, which uses several smart touches to strike a perfect halfway point between “fun” and “sophisticated.” It’s a five-inch globe housing three speakers—two full-range, front-firing drivers and a rear-firing subwoofer—that expands to become up to 13 inches long. The “Ladybug” name comes from the fact that the front speakers unfold like ladybug wings to reveal an iPod dock and volume lights, which sit immediately above a light-ringed power button and matching volume controls.
Vestalife picked great materials for the Ladybug, using soft touch paint in a number of metallic colors, such that the standard version comes in silver or red, and the Limited Edition versions come in black or light blue, featuring interior boy- or girl-friendly art from Element Skateboards; other partnerships for themed Ladybugs are planned as well. Metal speaker grilles and judicious chrome accents made each Ladybug look classy and resilient, while the soft touch coating guarantees that the unit will look good and feel even better in your hands. This is, without question, one of the best iPod speaker designs we have seen in the past six years.
Then there are the pack-ins. White with all versions save for the black Ladybug, an included Infrared remote control enables you to access standard volume, track, and play/pause controls, as well as system power, shuffle, and repeat functions; Vestalife also includes simple iPod menu navigation buttons, which work with Click Wheel and touchscreen iPods alike. The package also includes a soft carrying bag, a power supply, an auxiliary audio cable, and five Dock Adapters for various types of iPods. Why the carrying bag? You can pop open Ladybug’s bottom and insert four self-supplied AA batteries for power on the go.
At this point, it’s worth highlighting that the system’s subwoofer driver—its third—is a valuable pack-in of sorts, as well. It’s rare to find three-speaker docks at or near this price point, as most companies—even JBL, with its competing On Stage Micro—instead use two small drivers in a smaller, thinner enclosure. Ladybug gives you more, and better, though you do pay a $10 premium for the added audio and design benefits, and need to deal with a larger body shell as a consequence.
From a performance standpoint, the Ladybug is a very good but not great audio system, though our criticism is limited somewhat by Vestalife’s aggressive pricing. Thanks to the dedicated subwoofer, Vestalife was able to give the system a sound signature that’s warmer and more bass-rich than average, which users almost invariably prefer, especially in relatively inexpensive speakers. Consequently, turning the system on and listening to music at normal volume levels is a pleasant experience without any tweaking, which is a good thing since Ladybug doesn’t include bass or treble controls.
There are reasons, however, that the Ladybug could have done better sonically. First, the system lacks dedicated tweeters—no shock for its price—and its full-range drivers are larger than those in most competing products, which together mean that Ladybug doesn’t excel at high-frequency sound reproduction. Instead, it’s very focused on providing pleasant midrange and low-end audio, and does a very good job at typical volumes. Unfortunately, though the company took some time after its initial pre-release production run to tweak the final audio signature, the system’s bass is still a little on the heavy side, and subject to distortion at higher volumes. Given the size of the speakers inside, we were surprised that there’s a little bit of clipping, or dull thump in the bass when the volume goes up above the 3 of 5 mark, which is louder than necessary for near-distance listening, but normal if you’re listening from afar. Our feeling is that Vestalife could have controlled this, but somehow missed it.
The system’s only other idiosyncrasy is related to its incorporation of Apple’s latest authentication chip, which is designed to let Ladybug unlock the video output features of 2007 and later iPods. Ladybug doesn’t include a video cable, and the inclusion of the chip results in an odd synchronization process that takes place while the system is playing your first song. During that brief, several second time, you can’t adjust the system’s volume—it’s stuck on low—and this sync process happens every time you unplug and reconnect the iPod. While we wouldn’t describe this feature as pointless, the lack of an included video cable and the dodgy synchronization make it more of a pain for users than it’s worth; Vestalife would have been better off leaving out video support and the chip. Ladybug also includes a mini USB port for iPod synchronization with a computer; again, you need to self-supply the cable.
All in all, we consider Ladybug’s issues to be small relative to its benefits: this is a great little unit thanks to its impressive, fun design, variety of colors and art options, and included pack-ins. If you’re looking for a cool-looking, affordable speaker, particularly for a younger iPod user, you’re certain to be hugely satisfied with the Ladybug, especially if you value the ability to occasionally pack a speaker up and run it off of batteries; just don’t expect the system to blow your mind, particularly in the bass department, at higher volumes. Our high overall recommendation is based on an A-level rating for design, pack-ins, and pricing, and a B-level rating for sound performance.