Review: Oregon Scientific iBall Wireless Speaker System
Pros: A highly stylish stereo speaker system with a unique two-piece design: wireless speaker globe and extended functionality wireless iPod dock, which can be used alongside a computer or television in even more ways than an official Apple iPod Dock. Includes mounting kit, rechargeable batteries, and power supplies for both speaker and dock, as well as a cleaning cloth for the system. Audio can be bass- and treble-adjusted by user. Nice LCD display.
Cons: No remote control in box, or sold separately; audio quality suffers because of noise from wireless dock, and distortion in the treble adjustment. Practicality of mounting and carrying alternatives will depend on your personal needs.
Though it’s been cloaked in secrecy, we’ve known generally what to expect from Oregon Scientific’s brand new iBall Wireless Speaker System ($299.99) for several months now: the increasingly design-conscious developer of clocks, weather measurement devices and audio accessories wanted to enter the iPod market with a unique accessory, and chose wireless speaker technology as the way to do it.
iBall is actually the fourth product in the company’s new StyleFi line, which includes the beautiful stationary home MP3 CD player Music Element, the slick, portable MP3 CD player and dock Music Orbit + Music Station, and the device-agnostic two-piece wireless speaker system Music Sphere. In fact, iBall is actually a further evolution of Music Sphere, and enough of one that most iPod owners would be better off picking iBall over Music Sphere despite the former device’s $50 higher price.
In The Box
Each iBall box comes with a huge - and we mean huge - assortment of different items. In addition to the speaker globe and separate iPod dock, which we discuss in detail below, you currently get seven different plastic dock adapters that fit every iPod released since 2003 except the iPod shuffle and nano. Oregon Scientific will be shipping nano-compatible plastic dock sizers in October 2005 to all early customers, and packing the sizers into retail boxes thereafter. An iPod shuffle adapter for charging and docking will be sold separately, though both the shuffle and older, non-Dock iPods can connect to iBall with their headphone ports.
There are also two power supplies (one for each major component) and a set of included rechargeable C-cell batteries for the globe. When you want to place the speaker globe near an outlet, you can recharge it, but it’s designed to run off of battery power most of the time.
There’s even a cleaning cloth in the box so that you can keep the iBall parts sparkling. The inclusion of this cloth underscores one difference between iBall and other speaker systems in its price class, such as Bose’s SoundDock: this is intended to be as much a looker as a performer, and if you want to show it off, you can keep it in its best light. Oregon Scientific notes that they think iBall’s going to be best-received by women, and then mostly on its looks, which the cloth will surely help to protect.
A mounting bracket and white box of mounting tools lets you place iBall on a wall of your choice. A small wrench helps you tighten screws into iBall’s bottom, while wall screws and the white plastic mount go into the wall.
These mounting parts are strictly optional, and in fact somewhat de-emphasized in Oregon Scientific’s discussions of iBall’s appeal. The company envisions that you’ll want to place iBall in one spot temporarily, then pick it up, and carry it around to a different location whenever you desire. But if you want to mount it in the corner of a room, or place several of them in different parts of a home or office, you can - in that situation, the iPod gets docked separately and serves as the only way to control the system.
On a related note, the only major thing missing from the iBall box is a remote control, and unfortunately, Oregon Scientific doesn’t make one for iBall. What that means practically is that mounting iBall up high on a wall will require you to make a one-time adjustment to the speaker’s sound levels, since they can’t be controlled through the dock - they’re only accessible by buttons on the speaker globe’s back (above). For various reasons, we consider the lack of a remote to be the second biggest weakness in the iBall package, and one that really does mean that you’ll want to carry the speaker around or keep either it or the dock someplace close to you at all times. The company envisions the dock potentially remaining next to your computer at all times for syncing and the like, with the ball going wherever you go. You’ll need to decide whether this fits your needs.
The iBall Speaker Globe
You mightn’t totally understand the iBall speaker concept until you hear it for yourself: contrary to appearances, it’s actually a complete stereo audio solution in a small circular enclosure that will remind many people of the original Apple iMac computer. It deftly uses clear and opaque components to create a cool, modern look, one that will likely appeal more to urban and/or female iPod owners.
The globe measures 8 by 7.4 by 7.7 inches, and includes two 1-inch drivers plus a 3-inch ported subwoofer. You actually get legitimate left and right channel stereo from a single iBall unit, as well as pretty significant control over the unit’s sound: treble and bass are independently adjusted in steps from -6 to +6 with an on-screen display.
Let’s focus on the display for a moment. iBall uses an icon-driven system and a collection of eight top-mounted buttons to provide control of both the iPod and the speaker’s internal amplifier. A button shaped like a musical note toggles between volume, bass, and treble levels, the latter two indicated by brainy bass and treble clef icons - bass looks like this:
While treble looks like this:
The screen also provides details on the level of the rechargeable batteries, which last for 6-8 hours per charge depending on how you’re pushing the speakers, and an icon that generically indicates that the unit is connected via wireless technology to the iPod dock. There’s a simple analog clock in the center bottom of the screen, and lines that can stretch from the bottom left to the bottom right across the top of the screen to indicate volume, bass, and treble levels, depending on what you’re doing. A circle above the clock changes icons depending on what you want the iPod to do. For instance, play/pause, track forward and backward buttons all appear iconically on the screen.
Relative to other iPod speaker systems, the unique concept behind iBall is that the two components use wireless 2.4GHz, spread spectrum technology to communicate with each other from a promised distance of up to 100 feet away without obstructions. No wires are or can be connected to the iBall speaker besides its power supply; it’s meant solely for use at a distance. In our testing, iBall came pretty close to the 100-foot marker, but fell off quite a bit when a wall was involved. We were able to carry the speaker globe around 60 feet away from the the dock with a solid wall inbetween them and still hear music without a problem, but beyond that, the signal digitally dropped out, and only resumed when we came closer to the dock.
The iBall Dock
Oregon Scientific’s included dock is substantially more fully-featured than had originally been expected. Beyond the dock inserts, which are locked in with a simple press and popped out using a button on the dock’s bottom, it also includes its own power adapter - required to make it communicate wirelessly with the speakers - as well as ports for synchronization with your computer, video and audio out, and audio in. These ports generally duplicate the features of today’s $39 Apple iPod Dock, but audio in permits the iBall speaker to choose from two different audio sources rather than just working with one iPod, making the system very similar to the three-input Music Sphere. When the alternate source is selected - just press the play/pause button on the speaker for 3 seconds - iBall’s screen lights up green instead of its customary blue.
This feature shouldn’t be underestimated. If you’ve placed the dock next to a TV with audio outputs, for instance, you can have your iPod’s music playing while the Yankees are playing the Angels, and toggle back and forth between both of them while you’re on the porch with the speaker ball. Or you can have two music devices connected at once and switch between them based on the mood - the only limitation is that you’ll have no way to control the auxiliary device unless you have and carry around a dedicated remote for that device.
Overall, iBall’s dock is a nice pack-in, and since it’s so fully featured, definitely adds to the package’s overall value proposition. Even if you’re not interested in using the speaker at a given point, you still have the option to charge, sync, and perform music or photo slideshows from compatible iPods using the dock, features which collectively can’t be said for any other speaker system in iBall’s price class. Whether you’ll care, or just buy an Apple Dock for the $39 list price, is a matter of personal preference, but we think it’s nice to see this in the box.
Though it has a bunch of nifty features and a very slick design, iBall’s one issue is in its audio quality, a fact which will endear it far less to serious listeners than casual ones. On a positive note, the unit performs most audio in a way that listeners will find acceptable, though a couple of steps shy of Bose’s SoundDock - comparable in ways to Altec Lansing’s lower-end inMotion series, rather than the considerably superior iM7. iBall’s added bass and treble adjustability do it the most favors by comparison with the lower-end inMotions, but can also lead to some distortion - particularly in the treble - if really pressed.
Similarly, adding wireless technology to the package has its benefits, but also a consequence: there’s an ever-present, low-level cycling noise in the audio that precludes it from being deemed “clean,” no matter what you think of the unit’s sound adjustability otherwise. Tweaking the treble accentuates the noise, which would lead us to use the unit’s treble adjustment less aggressively than we might prefer, except if we were using the speaker at a distance or with music through which it’s less obvious. If you’re going to listen to dance, rap, or other music with strong background noise through iBall, you might not notice most of the time. But during silences, in quieter tracks and acapella verses, you probably will. It’s not totally surprising given the 2.4GHz technology used, but still unfortunate.
The bigger surprise is that the iBall’s idling noise was a bit more noticeable than it was in the less expensive Music Sphere, for reasons that aren’t totally clear to us. This leads us to believe Oregon Scientific may be able to reduce the noise in the future, but if you’re looking for a quieter option - albeit without all the iPod-specific controls - you might find Music Sphere more to your liking.
It’s also worth noting that we had no problems with interference from outside 2.4GHz sources when using iBall - either nearby telephones or wireless networks. Other than its noise floor, the digital spread spectrum technology seemed to work quite well in our testing.
On looks in particular, Oregon Scientific’s StyleFi line is one of the most promising we’ve seen: rarely does a company emerge so quickly as a strong competitor to companies such as Bang & Olufsen on aesthetics, or come up with interesting ideas that push the expectations of iPod owners. Clearly iBall expands the iPod speaker category in ways no one else has tried, bringing both a novel look and an interesting wireless concept to the table. For certain people and certain applications - art galleries, higher-end homes, and the like - we think that iBall will be a beautiful showpiece and a good audio compliment to attractive surroundings. Those who it appeals to may well be so drawn to its body that its omissions are not relevant.
However, mostly given its “idling” sound and secondly because of its omission of a remote control, and despite the legitimate value proposition that a speaker system with included rechargeable batteries and a full detachable iPod dock represents, we can’t class it in the same league as the best of the $250-$300 speaker systems we’ve tested. Audio quality is important to us and most of our readers, particularly at this price point, as is the ability to control volume and the like from a distance. iBall’s current design gets only part of the way there, and at a time when companies such as Klipsch, Bose, and Altec Lansing all have strong entries in this price range, the major thing setting iBall aside positively is its look, not its sound.
If you like its looks, give it a try and see how it fits into your home or office. If you’re living or working in a place with a high ambient noise level, or plan to take it outdoors with great regularity, you might find it perfectly suited to your needs. Otherwise, do what we’re doing: look seriously at the other StyleFi designs, and keep your fingers crossed for iBall 2. Though iBall wasn’t everything we’d hoped, we are very confident that it is only the start of great designs to come from Oregon Scientific, and look forward to seeing them in the near future.