Review: SpeakerCraft / Paul Frank Julius Dance Machine
Between iLounge's Orange County roots, our love for iconic designs, and our iPod-aged kids, we're as close to the target audience as possible for SpeakerCraft's new Julius Dance Machine ($100) -- an iPod-only sound system developed in partnership with Julius's creator, Costa Mesa-based Paul Frank Industries. The only things that will dissuade some of Julius's fans from jumping on board are the speaker's sonic value for the dollar and possibly its lack of iPhone compatibility, both of which are offset by the design's aesthetic charm.
As Paul Frank’s most widely recognized character, Julius the Monkey is described as “fun, lovable, and curious,” with only “one weakness”—“he just can’t help getting in trouble.” So it may please parents to know that SpeakerCraft’s rendition of Julius is anything but the hard-rocking or dancing rendition that some might have expected from the product’s name or the character. Instead, the companies have placed Julius in the zen and yoga Lotus Posture, with his legs folded and hands up above his knees. There’s an iPod dock in the middle of his lap, and a single plastic Dock Adapter is included in the package. His ears double as buttons for volume control, and a similarly glossy button on his head glows blue to indicate that the unit’s power is on. Otherwise, there are no controls to worry about; you just plug your iPod in, make sure the power’s on, and enjoy your music.
We generally really liked the way Julius looks and feels. Most of the unit is made from matte soft touch plastic, with glossy accents on Julius’s face, hands, and feet, and rubber pads on the bottom for stability on a nightstand or table. While it’s not the heaviest or biggest speaker system we’ve ever seen, it’s right-sized for a character-specific toy, doesn’t shift around accidentally, and the placement of the iPod in the center seems right for the most part. A coated metal bar moves forwards and backwards behind the dock to provide support for whatever iPod you need to connect. Only the most recent sixth-generation iPod nano may encounter control-related issues, as the bottom edge of its screen sits a little below the dock’s lip—a consideration when using this iPod model with almost every speaker based on Apple’s Universal Dock standard.
There are a handful of issues that we’d normally consider problematic for a $100 speaker system, but discount somewhat given that Julius Dance Machine is intended primarily for younger users. First, no remote control is included with Julius Dance Machine; you’ll have to decide for yourself whether its omission is important, but most speakers of this type include a remote at this price level. Second, it’s only a two-speaker audio system, and third, roughly half of each speaker is blocked by full-sized iPod touch and iPod classic models that sit in front of them. Practically speaking, Julius Dance Machine clearly wasn’t designed to be an audiophile-class listening device, and the impact of placing even larger iPods in front of the speakers is small: when comparing docked iPod output to the sound of an iPod connected to Julius’s rear auxiliary audio input, there’s a modest reduction in high-frequency (treble) output that kids will almost certainly never notice. The fact that the speakers are small and relatively underwhelming, starting out fairly flat—midrange-focused, with only a little treble and bass—and distorting considerably at higher volume levels, won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone; that their audio channels are reversed such that left-side sounds go through the right speaker and vice-versa, however, might. If it wasn’t for the Julius license and target audience, the speaker performance here probably would have dropped our rating below our standard recommendation level.
An offset to the so-so audio quality and pricing is Julius Dance Machine’s atypical inclusion of a rechargeable battery pack, which enables the system to continue playing music for six hours at normal volume levels even when it’s disconnected from the included wall power adapter. While rechargeable batteries are commonly found in $150-$200 speakers, they’re rare in $100 models, and offer users the convenience of listening to their music anywhere. Though Julius can’t be folded up or made smaller in any way for transportation, his roughly 8” height, 4” depth, and 5.5” width are easy enough to either pack a day bag around, or carry from room to room of a house.
Overall, Julius Dance Machine’s assets and issues aren’t going to shock anyone: this is a charmingly designed and conveniently rechargeable speaker for kids, only so-so in the sonic department and sparingly equipped with extra frills. Fans of Paul Frank and Julius who were anxious for a good-looking iPod audio system will find it here, so long as they’re not expecting fantastic sound or an actual dancing monkey to come leaping out of the package. There’s plenty of room for SpeakerCraft to improve upon Julius in a next-generation version, but also enough positive characteristics to make the Dance Machine worth considering for kids.