Review: DGA Livespeakr Ultra Portable Speaker System
Certain iPod and iPhone accessory categories remain under-served despite obvious demand for products, and the reason is typically pricing: when the cost to make the accessory is X and consumers are only willing to pay a little more than X for that functionality, companies tend not to bother entering that market. Those that do have two options: charge some multiple of X and see how many people are interested, anyway, or pare down the features to get closer to the "right" price point. Ultra-portable, pocket-sized speakers are a prime example: we've seen a lot of evidence that people are generally interested in paying up to $50 for them, and would like them to be better than the current crop -- iHome's iHM79 and Altec Lansing's Orbit MP3 -- but they don't want to pay big speaker prices for small, sonically so-so options.
As that introduction and its price tag suggest, DGA’s Livespeakr ($100) is a pocket speaker accessory that is trying the “2X multiplier” strategy, going somewhat beyond its aforementioned competitors in features while doubling the asking price. Available in black or white versions, Livespeakr is a single glossy plastic housing that incorporates two speakers, a cradle for iPod classic, iPod touch and iPhone models, a reclining stand, and a 15-hour rechargeable battery. DGA also includes a wall adapter, USB cable, and a drawstring velvet carrying case. For those keeping score, the “new” parts here relative to $40-$50 competitors are the iPod/iPhone cradle and stand—most pocket speakers leave them out—and the completeness of the charging solution: iHome also includes rechargeable batteries and a USB cable, but Altec’s speaker offers neither; only Livespeakr includes the wall charger. Just like Altec and iHome, DGA uses a headphone plug rather than a Dock Connector to pull audio from the iPod or iPhone; volume is adjusted solely on the device rather than on the speakers.
There are certainly several positives to DGA’s approach, starting with the way the company has integrated the speakers with the cradle. Apple’s touchscreen devices can play music and videos in horizontal or vertical orientations, so Livespeakr’s cradle rotates to three positions—upright, left, or right—with the left rotation expanding the speakers to clear the edges of the rotated device, and the right rotation leaving them partially obscured to save space. It’s a nice idea, and combined with the integrated metal stand, which uses a smart system to offer three different physically supported angles of recline, makes tabletop video viewing easier and more listenable than with an unassisted iPod or iPhone. The fact that the unit folds down into a 6 5/8” by 2 1/2” by 1 3/4” package is also nice: it’s similar in size and shape to a Sony PSP console—larger than iPods, iPhones, and its competitors—but should you want to skip using the oversized bag to carry all the other parts around, it’s easy enough to travel with; you can pull the cradle off for added safety.
That said, Livespeakr’s negatives are ones that take it out of the category of speakers we’d widely recommend to our readers—at least, at the product’s standard $100 MSRP. First and foremost is the audio quality, which due to the small drivers and shallow enclosures is no better than the $40-$50 competitors mentioned above; we actually preferred the competing alternatives by a small margin. Speakers at this size and price range are all saddled with the same challenges—trying to replicate the whole of the audio spectrum with too little hardware and power—and like its rivals, Livespeakr primarily performs a midrange-focused part of the range, with just enough bass and treble to let you recognize the highs and lows of your songs. iHome’s speakers are a little more dynamic, and Altec’s have has a little more body, but they’re all in the same general “flat but fine” performance category. The peak volume levels of all three of these speakers are roughly the same, with distortion at their peaks that makes them well-suited to near-field tabletop listening but not much else. Such sonic omissions are acceptable at the $40-$50 price point, but $100 can buy bigger and better speakers, with commensurately bigger and better sound, assuming that enclosure size isn’t an issue for you. Notably, DGA touts Livespeakr as iPhone interference-shielded, but we still heard a little tell-tale chirping with iPhones in EDGE mode—inoffensively low in volume, but there nevertheless. iPhones in 3G mode had no obvious issues.
All of this leaves the cradle and stand features as the real standouts here, and though we’d like to be able to say that they’re worthy of the premium, we can’t. DGA’s cradle is made almost entirely from hard plastic, and designed to be capable of holding unencased iPhones, iPod classics, and iPod touches—notably, it can’t hold thicker prior-generation iPod classics, only the thinner-bodied 2007 80GB, 2008 120GB, and 2009 160GB models. Too little anti-scratch rubber is included as padding, but more importantly, using the cradle requires those of us with cases or protective film to go through the uncomfortable or impractical exercise of pulling protectors off to use the speakers. We liked Livespeakr just fine with unprotected devices, but as we always protect our iPhones and iPods, the design just doesn’t work practically for our needs.
Your mileage, of course, may vary. To the extent that you either leave your device unencased, or are willing to remove the case to use speakers, Livespeakr may be a better fit for you than it was for us; similarly, if the appeal of a smaller, cradle-rotating speaker stand is worth a premium to you over, say, a same-priced but vertical-only docking option such as JBL’s On Stage Micro—with better sound—you might find DGA’s design to be worthwhile. At press time, the company is offering Livespeakr at a “sale price” of $80, and a little searching revealed that Amazon.com is selling it for an atypically low $40, dramatically enhancing the product’s overall value proposition relative to its $100 MSRP. If DGA’s official price for Livespeaker was like Amazon’s, our rating would be higher, but as of today, it’s not, and there are no guarantees that you’ll be able to find it discounted whenever you come upon this review. As we suggested at the beginning of this article, speakers with this sort of sound quality are just about right at the sub-$50 price point, and should you be able to find Livespeakr there—and accept its cradle’s good and bad point—you’ll be pleased with what you get for the dollar; for $100, or even $80, we’d look at other options instead.