Review: Tivoli Audio iPAL AM/FM Radio
Pros: Rich sound, nice design, impressive radio tuning.
Cons: Little iPod integration, limited practical portability, monaural speaker output.
As you have probably noticed from iLounge’s prior reviews, we have deliberately chosen not to mince words when accessories - or even iPods - have been overpriced or underperform their advertised specifications. By the same token, we have been quick to praise any product that represents a good value for our readers, or does more than its manufacturer promised.
On the aforementioned value and performance scales, we feel that Tivoli’s “new” iPod-compatible single-speaker radio system iPAL is a product that reasonable people could disagree upon, and you’ll see that our review expresses our own inner conflicts. For example, the word “new” appears in quotes because the iPAL turns out to be a nearly two-year old portable radio design lightly repackaged and renamed to appeal to iPod users. But despite our desire to inform you of that fact, and our temptation to dismiss the iPAL as a hasty attempt to jump on the iPod bandwagon, we also feel obliged to acknowledge that it performs just as promised, delivering surprisingly rich (though monaural) audio and nice radio tuning capabilities.
We’ll leave it to you to decide whether the iPAL’s combination of a single speaker, radio tuner and rechargeable battery power is the right set of features for your needs, but hopefully, the details and opinions we present below will help you to make a good decision.
Old Design, New Paint, 25% New Name
Unlike Altec Lansing’s stereo inMotion speakers, which were engineered for maximum iPod compatibility and portability, the iPAL wasn’t developed for the iPod at all: contrary to the assumption one might draw from its name - that it was created to be the iPod’s buddy, the iPAL - the speaker was originally named the Portable Audio Laboratory (PAL), and was released in nearly identical form by Tivoli roughly two years ago.
PAL and iPAL units therefore entirely share functionality, physical characteristics, and features. Both are designed primarily to work as standalone portable radios, and given that the success of the iPod post-dates the release of the original PAL, it’s merely a lucky side benefit that the device was designed to accept stereo output (using a standard auxiliary input port) from other devices. Since the PAL and iPAL include only a single speaker, the devices mix two-channel (stereo) output from an iPod into a single monaural output channel, though you can monitor the sound in stereo using Tivoli’s built-in headphone port.
With an external casing made almost entirely from plastic, the two flavors of PAL each weigh two pounds and measure 6.25x3.69x3.88 inches, which is to say that they’re about four times the weight of the iPod, 70% taller, 80% wider, and over four times thicker. The iPAL is thus portable in the sense that it is powered by a rechargeable Nickel-Metal-Hydride (NiMH) battery and isn’t tethered to a wall, but it couldn’t be tossed into a briefcase, unlike the collapsible inMotions and most other portable speaker accessories. It’s around 75% the volume of a two-quart milk carton, and comparably hefty.
Tivoli’s PAL and iPAL are feature-identical. Each is equipped with a prominent dial used for AM and FM radio tuning, as well as two smaller power and volume dials, a metal grilled 2.5” speaker, and a green power LED in the center. A metal antenna folds down against each unit’s back, and extends to a length of roughly 20 inches. Three rubber capped ports - one for auxiliary input, one for headphone output, and one for AC power input - adorn the center back of each PAL, and a battery compartment is sealed by screws at the lower rear. Four rubber feet are on each unit’s bottom. Because of the largely plastic and rubber design, Tivoli describes both units as weather resistant, but not weather proof, and urges that they not be submerged in water.
Notably, Tivoli’s devices also lack the same features. Neither device has independent adjustment knobs for bass or treble, nor does either offer a cable specific to the iPod’s line-quality Dock Connector - widely considered to be the cleanest audio signal one can draw from Apple’s hardware. They also don’t have digital displays, clock radio functionality, or remote controls for volume or tuner adjustment. Neither integrates with the iPod beyond connecting to its headphone jack via an standard stereo audio cable (included) and performing its audio.
The iPod-specific changes in the iPAL are purely cosmetic in nature: Tivoli previously released eight different colors of the PAL ranging from black to blue, red and yellow, and even sells a mostly white version under that name. To match the iPod, the iPAL is a composite of a white front panel with metallic gray rear casing pieces, plastic knobs, and grille guard. The front of the unit says “iPAL,” but the rear of the unit reverts to the original PAL brand name.
Overall, even though the iPAL is bulkier than Altec’s inMotion speakers and other portable speaker solutions, we do like its appearance. While there is nothing magical about the choice to paint this particular version of the PAL in iPod-esque white and metallic paints, Tivoli’s two-year-old design is both professional and highly functional. The oversized tuning dial at the top is distinctive, and visually parallels the unit’s single metal grilled speaker. Its weight, though limiting its utility on-the-go, makes the iPAL feel more substantial than its plastic parts otherwise might, and we would have no reservations about placing one permanently in the corner of any room as a radio.
Small Speaker, Large Performance
There are three important dimensions to the iPAL’s performance: first, its utility as a radio, second, its utility as an iPod speaker, and third, its portability and battery life. In brief summary, it delivers as promised on all counts, though we continue to have reservations about connecting any single-speaker audio system to the iPod as more than a temporary solution.
Not surprisingly, the iPAL is at its best as a standalone portable radio. Thanks to an impressive tuner and its two antennae (external FM and internal AM), the iPAL consistently delivered better radio tuning than other portable stereo equipment we have tested. Despite the large size of its tuning knob, which would suggest that users need to precisely twist and turn to pick up a station, the iPAL is actually designed to automatically lock onto the strongest spot of any channel - and it does. Only minimal tuning was necessary to pick up a clean, strong signal on every channel we tested, even in a location known for fairly heavy radio interference.
The tuner’s performance is enhanced by the iPAL’s speaker, which despite its small size delivers surprisingly robust, full-bodied sound. By comparison with Altec’s four weaker one-inch inMotion speakers, which are paired into two sets of two, for moderate two-channel (stereo) audio, Tivoli chose to use a single, higher-quality two-and-a-half-inch speaker, and the results are unmistakable: when connected to an iPod, Tivoli’s single speaker sounds better than all four of Altec’s put together, and provide richer bass than the inMotions.
Of course, there’s a cost. Tivoli’s decision to mix two channels of audio into a single speaker is acceptable for radio playback, given that many cheap portable radios do the same and sound worse. And frankly, even as a portable accessory for the iPod, we have little room to complain since the stereo separation is so limited on Altec’s fixed-speaker inMotion setup, the closest comparable option to the iPAL, and since other portable speakers deliver tinnier sound.
But there’s no getting around the facts that the iPod is a stereo device, and that by mixing its two channels of audio together, the iPAL’s clean single speaker takes as much away from music as other portable accessories do by using two or four muddier speakers. Tivoli’s option is just another compromise - one that only some people will be willing to tolerate.
As a portable speaker for the iPod, the iPAL is somewhat of a mixed bag. Though Tivoli warns that it is not scratch resistant, we wouldn’t hesitate to take it outdoors - so long as we weren’t traveling far. At more than twice the weight of Altec’s inMotions, and inconveniently shaped for travel purposes, the iPAL seems to have been designed to stay on a bookshelf in the corner of a room, not in a backpack. It fits into a suitcase, but not a typical briefcase, and could accompany you to a beach or picnic in the back of a car, but wouldn’t be a first-choice carry-on item in a plane.
On the bright side, the included NiMH battery charges with an included AC power cube, and delivers an entirely acceptable 10 to 16 hours of continuous playback - volume level dependent - before requiring recharging. The iPAL’s central power light will flicker to warn you that the battery’s low, and the AC power cube can be used for charging and playback at the same time. By comparison, Altec’s inMotions can run for up to 24 hours on the included set of four non-rechargeable AA batteries, and though you can recharge a Dock Connector-equipped iPod while docked between the inMotions, you’ll have to buy (and recharge) rechargeable batteries separately.
Our previous review of Altec-Lansing’s inMotion speakers met with some controversy when we dared to compare Altec’s $149.99 portable speakers with JBL’s cheaper ($99.99) Creatures, which also match the iPod and have been widely praised for both performance and value. Several users complained that the comparison was unfair despite the considerably higher (and then undiscounted) price of the inMotions, and their “more than acceptable” but not “standout” audio performance, mostly because Altec’s speakers were designed to be portable.
Because the iPAL was also designed to be portable, we suppose that the same users will raise the same objections again if we dare to suggest that the $129.99 iPAL - again not discounted anywhere at this time - should be held to a higher standard of performance than a cheaper but popular set of speakers. Moreover, we’re fairly certain that there are at least a few users who really want an excellent FM radio in addition to a portable speaker for their iPods, and will see the iPAL as the nearly perfect synthesis of these two needs in a shiny white and grey package. We won’t try to change their minds.
But we do think that the iPAL presents a series of difficult questions for any reviewer of iPod accessories, including the following: (1) If a “portable” speaker is actually bulky and heavy enough to be better suited for home use than travel use, is it fair to compare it against cheaper home speakers? (2) Will typical users be happy with a single speaker that delivers rich single-channel audio instead of two or four speakers delivering acceptable stereo audio? And (3) Does the average person care enough about FM tuning to consider it a worthwhile add-on to the iPod, even if it can’t be used “on the road?”
Our answers would be yes, maybe, and no, respectively. As a consequence, we are on the very finest edge of a “Happy” rating for the iPAL, and only award that rating because we truly liked its audio quality and its physical styling. With that said, we wouldn’t recommend it as a truly portable speaker solution for most users’ purposes, nor would we prefer it as an alternative to a cheaper pair of home stereo speakers. We would recommend it solely to those who would answer “maybe, yes, and yes,” respectively, to the questions above.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.