Review: Sharper Image iPulse ZipConnect Speakers with ColorSync LEDs
Pros: A simple speaker system with the ability to perform a LED light show to the beat of your music.
Cons: Quality of sound, light show, and body design are only okay. iPod-specific Dock Connector sold separately.
Sharper Image had a good thing going in the 1980s and early 1990s. Its mail order catalogs were always packed with photographs of high-tech gadgets - generally touted as hand-selected, and best of breed. The prices were high, but the industrial design of the products was generally impeccable, and readers had every reason to believe that someone smart was selecting each catalog’s offerings.
By the mid-1990’s, catalog and Internet mail-order business was common, and prices became increasingly competitive. But Sharper Image stuck with its pricing and selection formula, and expanded it to include exclusive “Sharper Image Design” items you can’t buy anywhere else. Now the iPod gets two such exclusives - speaker systems called iPulse ZipConnect Speakers with ColorSync LEDs ($129.95) and the iSphere ZipConnect Speaker System ($149.95). This review covers iPulse, while a separate review covers iSphere.
The ZipConnect System
Though marketed primarily to iPod owners, iPulse is sold by default as cross-compatible with virtually any small music player. Like iSphere, it comes with the company’s only universal “ZipConnect” unit, a detachable white box with a retractable headphone jack plug - this is a less than optimal way to connect an iPod for listening.
If you want a better experience, you have to buy an optional ZipConnect accessory - either Dock Connector (iPod/iPod mini/iPod nano) or USB (iPod shuffle). These ZipConnects now sell separately for $9.95 a piece, down from a more objectionable $19.95, and should be considered mandatory if you want to charge your iPod and pull music from its bottom rather than its top.
iPulse: The Design
iPulse is the nichier of the two products: it’s a 2.0 (subwoofer-less) speaker system that has one major claim to fame: it includes an array of LED lights that flash in a manner generally corresponding to the music you’re playing. Measuring 8” x 10” x 4”, it weighs 3 pounds.
The body - a half circle of frosted clear and white plastic with two gray elements at its center - is most appropriate for younger iPod users. Holes in the clear plastic expose two small speaker drivers on iPulse’s left and right sides, each silver-centered with a black outer ring. There’s a large gray plastic back that juts out of the circle’s top docking area, and a volume and power control ring below it on iPulse’s center. This ring has three buttons - volume up, power, and volume down - as well as a blue light that shines through plastic between them when the power’s on.
iPulse’s rear has a knob, two input ports, and an output port. The knob lets you adjust the intensity of the unit’s LED lights from “off/lo” to “hi.” There’s a port for wall power input (provided by an included black, clear, and silver power adapter), another port for audio input from an external device, and an output labeled “sub,” just in case you want to buy a separate subwoofer($99.95, or $69.95 when ordered with iPulse).
As with iSphere, the docking area is sort of odd. In its shipping configuration, a headphone jack cable comes out of the dock’s bottom, extending to your choice of lengths, and plugs into your iPod’s top. It’s an easy, but not satisfying way to attach your iPod. Additionally, and even more than iSphere, iPulse doesn’t provide much of a basin to hold your iPod in place when the headphone plug is attached. Your iPod sits on top, but doesn’t feel steady in any way - hence the large gray plastic back, as a prop. Virtually all of the other iPod speaker systems we’ve tested have been better in this regard.
It’s also worth a brief note that despite its relatively small size, iPulse is not portable; there’s no battery compartment underneath, or other way (say, a rechargeable battery) to use it without the wall adapter. Its bottom surface has four rubber stabilizing feet, but nothing else.
iPulse’s reason for being is its array of seventeen integrated LED lights, which radiate out from the unit’s center like beams of light, pulsing in sync with your iPod’s music. Twisting the knob on the unit’s rear activates more of iPulse’s lights, and makes them pulse with more vigor - the green lights start first, then the blue ones, then the red ones.
The pulsing effect is a great idea, but in execution, it’s only okay. Part of the reason for this is color: each of the lights is just one color, and all it does is flash on or off at whatever level of sensitivity you specify with the knob. No matter what song you listen to, the light show looks pretty much the same: green is always on, with added levels of blue and red depending on how much you turn the knob. Contrast this with Tiger’s iDog, which made some attempt to determine the “type” of music it was hearing, then display a differently colored and animated light show based on the music. We’re not saying that iDog was a terrific product, but it tried to do more with lights than iPulse - at a lower price.
As far as sound quality is concerned, iPulse sounds okay. It lacks for clarity by comparison with iSphere, and though it does separate its channels properly into stereo, audio sounds a bit flat and compressed, with less treble than top comparably-priced options. As its light show functionality is its biggest selling point, we suppose this won’t matter much to its apparent target audience, but it’s not really a standout on sound.
The iPod speaker marketplace is already pretty crowded - there are 25 or 30 iPod-specific options at this point, and a number of better-sounding portable and non-portable speakers at or around the iPulse’s $129.99 price point. Many of them today include iPod Dock Connectors rather than forcing you to make a separate purchase, and some even include remote controls and other features that make them more useful. Most use superior industrial designs, too. Given all of the alternatives out there, and especially given its track record of showcasing cool technologies, Sharper Image needed something special to stand out from the pack.
Unfortunately, iPulse isn’t it. The unit’s most positive distinguishing characteristic is its light show, which will undoubtably attract some people, but our feeling is that even they will quickly tire of the unit’s limited effects. In its current form, iPulse is more of a gimmick than a fully realized design. That said, and particularly because the iPod lacks for its own visualizer capabilities, Sharper Image has a legitimately good idea on its hands. We hope that there will be an iPulse 2 that better exploits the good concept and technology.