Review: Soundcast Systems OutCast All-Weather Wireless Audio System
Last year, iPod speaker innovation appeared to have all but come to an end. The few companies who weren't aping Bose's SoundDock had settled into a predictable rut, releasing either iterative improvements to their own prior models, or trying minor spins on those released by others. Then, for whatever reason, the middle of 2008 caught us by surprise: three companies recently delivered four audio systems that took different, interesting spins on earlier genres in an effort to appeal to new audiences. We're looking at all four of them in separate reviews today.
Of all of these options, the one that’s the most “outside the box” in terms of its approach and pricing is Soundcast Systems’ OutCast ($699), a massive outdoor audio system designed to be resistant to weather conditions and capable of pumping out loud audio from a wirelessly connected iPod. In the sizable box, you’ll instantly notice a 26”-tall, 9.75”-diameter tube-like beige speaker with seven buttons and a power light on its top; pressing a lightbulb button activates a two-stage purple/blue mood light that radiates from the unit’s bottom. Play/pause, track backward and forward, volume and power buttons are the only others; the unit also has a large round handle built-in for easy carrying.
It is, in a word, heavy. Loaded inside are four 3” high-range speaker drivers, radiating in a circle behind a metal grille near the top, plus one downward-firing 8” woofer that’s significantly recessed but otherwise completely uncovered on the bottom, and a 100-watt amplifier in between them. You’re given a huge battery pack to power the system, which is recharged by an included cable that’s intended to be connected to a safe indoor power outlet; the unit’s ports are rubber-sealed for use outdoors, and the battery can run for 10 or more hours depending on volume level.
This all leaves an obvious question: what about the iPod? Also inside the box is one of Soundcast Systems’ wireless indoor iPod docks, which includes and requires its own power supply for power. The idea is to dock the iPod indoors where it’s safe, and enjoy music outdoors via the huge battery pack-powered OutCast speaker and its top remote control buttons. You can also use included auxiliary audio cables to connect your iPod or another device directly to a rubber-sealed port on the speaker if you want to enjoy the music outside.
The good news about OutCast is that it mostly does what it promises to do. We placed the iPod dock in the center of a house, then lugged the speaker unit outside while music was playing to see how the wireless technology handled being separated by both distance and walls. With the iPod in a non-optimal location, separated by three or four walls from the speaker unit, OutCast let us get to the very edge of our property before the signal disappeared. SoundCast Systems claims a 350-foot maximum broadcast range, but with walls and other physical impediments, we found that the range was closer to 110 feet before the audio cut out. Users with issues can switch between three different 2.4GHz channels, toggled on both the iPod dock and the speaker system.
We were generally impressed by the sound quality, as well. The audio sounded clear in quiet surroundings and appropriately powerful when the volume was turned up, enabling the iPod’s music to be heard over the sound of lawn mowers and other outdoor ambient noise. Though the system isn’t quite audiophile-balanced in terms of its speaker array, SoundCast’s high- and low-range drivers do a very good job of providing an enjoyable rendition of music, with the 8” woofer providing low-end fullness that a less expensive wireless audio system such as Griffin’s Evolve doesn’t offer. It’s worth noting, though, that Evolve’s wireless broadcasting distance was similar to OutCast’s, capable of performing at the same 110-foot range with impediments; the only difference was that Griffin’s signal broke up more while the speaker was initially being positioned, then stabilized when placed in its final resting spot.
On another mostly positive note, OutCast is extremely easy to set up. Once the battery pack is in and charged, and the iPod dock powered up, the pairing process is effortless - a green light on the speaker’s top goes purple to indicate that the units are talking. Plug in an auxiliary audio cable and the speaker shifts automatically to the wired sound source. It’s all very straightforward, and though there’s lag between an on-speaker button press and the iPod dock’s response, the delay’s acceptably short in our book.
The major issues we have with OutCast—surprise—are its pricing and relative practicality. SoundCast’s iPod audio systems have traditionally sold for a major premium over what we’d want to pay for wireless audio functionality, and though the OutCast system does deliver more powerful audio than somewhat similar systems such as the $300 Evolve, you’ll pay more than twice as much and have to compromise a lot on convenience. Lugging around the big speaker is a chore by comparison with the handheld, similarly rechargeable Evolve speakers and its pocketable remote control, which provide the same basic functionality. There are other considerations; thanks to the presence of ambient noise, outdoor listening doesn’t typically demand superb fidelity, and since OutCast’s 8” woofer isn’t completely sealed against water intrusion, you’ll probably want to bring the system indoors when it rains—or snows.
It’s also worth noting that OutCast’s $700 asking price leaves users with plenty of same-priced or less expensive alternatives, from battery-powered boomboxes to piecemeal wireless systems. If you’re trying to stay wireless, Griffin’s $200 add-on Evolve speaker sets provide you with the ability to spread pairs of additional speakers around an area; you could have six speakers and charging stations for the same price as one OutCast. Viewed in that way, it’s really a matter of whether you want one powerful centralized audio system or a diffused system with speakers spread out in multiple listening areas.
Our overall evaluation of OutCast is therefore positive, but caveated. If you’re looking for big outdoor sound, willing to drop a big wad of cash, and capable of moving around a pretty big speaker, SoundCast’s new audio system will deliver a powerful audio experience pretty much anywhere you’re interested in setting it down. However, if your budget’s not in the $700 range and you don’t need the ability to leave the speaker outdoors most of the time, you’ll get highly similar functionality from a system such as Evolve; similarly, lower-cost boomboxes such as Harman Kardon’s Go + Play can deliver stylish portable sound without the need to worry about wireless links.