Review: MTX Audio iThunder Portable Boom Box
Pros: A powerful iPod boombox that uses two large full-range drivers to deliver superior audio quality to its lower-priced rivals, with rich, full, and reasonably clean sound that will please all but the pickiest listeners, making music sound big and powerful. Runs off C-cell battery or wall power, includes good Infrared remote control.
Cons: Aesthetic design is uninspired by comparison with virtually all other speakers in its class - arguably a pro for those who like their speakers to look neutral - but feature set, particularly the lack of a radio, is limited and not aggressive for the price. Not as eye- or ear-popping as top iPod boombox speaker we’ve tested, which can now be had for same general price. While strong at regular volumes, significant distortion is evident at high volumes.
Thanks to what we’ve heard is fear over patents, boom box-style speaker systems for the iPod are regrettably uncommon, and the market has been dominated by DLO’s iBoom (iLounge rating: D), a portable box that looked nice but had some serious issues in our testing. Another option, Tivoli Audio’s iSongBook (iLounge rating: B+), is substantially superior in a number of ways, but considerably more expensive. So we were elated to see two aggressively priced boom boxes finally emerge as competition: iHome is offering the $150 iH30 iHome2Go Portable System for iPod (iLounge rating: B), reviewed earlier today, while MTX Audio is selling the larger iThunder Portable Boom Box ($200). Both systems have plenty to offer, though they’re substantially different animals.
As between the iBoom, iH30, and iSongBook, iThunder is the most conservative boom box - in fact 1980’s retro in its design. Rather than pack the system with extra features, MTX Audio went for a simple, stripped down aesthetic that looks like a substantially larger version of iSongBook. Two ported 4” full-range speakers are housed behind metal grilles inside a rectangular glossy plastic box that measures 7 1/16” by 15 1/2” by 4” - closer to ghetto blaster proportions than the softer-looking iBoom and iH30. A white plastic version sold as iThunder, while a black plastic version is sold as iThunder-B, both with silver metallic painted accents. There’s an iPod dock in the center, which works with all Dock Connecting iPods, but isn’t as protective as iH30’s, and super-simple controls on the system’s top - minus volume, a power switch, and plus volume. The unit’s back has auxiliary input and wall power ports, plus compartments for eight C batteries (optional) and an included Infrared remote control.
The remote is one of three standout features in iThunder: it includes the predictable volume, track, and play/pause controls, plus the less obligatory mute, shuffle, and backlight buttons, only the latter not especially useful. Though it’s limited by standard Infrared limitations - it works reliably within a line-of-sight from a distance of around 21 feet, and indoor lighting can cut that to 15-17 feet - the remote is unquestionably better than the one included with Altec Lansing’s popular inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-), and it’s a feature you won’t find in the less expensive iBoom’s or iH30’s boxes. Tivoli’s iSongBook remote is superior, but then, the iSongBook sells at a $130 premium.
Another of iThunder’s noteworthy features is simple but cool: a spring-loaded silver carrying handle, which is recessed into the unit’s top, and activated by pressing down on its top center surface. When not in use, the handle is only visible as a silver accent to iThunder’s body, and when in use, it lets you feel comfortable carrying the 5.5 pound box.
The final, and arguably most important thing about iThunder is its sound quality. MTX Audio boldly claims that it is the “best sounding iPod boom box ever,” with “powerful, undistorted bass,” and those boasts turn out to be pretty close to accurate. When placed next to iBoom and iH30, there’s no doubt that iThunder is the best of the bunch - it produces noticeably richer, fuller sound, but also has better detail across the spectrum, and superior highs and lows. The semi-surprise is that it even holds its own against the much more expensive iSongBook, which has a small edge on treble but cannot compare in bass or amplitude with iThunder. Both iSongBook and iThunder do exhibit distortion, particularly in the bass, at higher volumes, but iThunder’s absolute and distortion volume levels are higher than iSongBook’s. We only call this semi-surprising for one reason: iThunder is nearly twice as thick as iSongBook, which does about as well as could be imagined with a smaller and more portable enclosure. Audiophiles will likely prefer iSongBook’s overall balance and treble detail, but we’re pretty confident that iThunder would win an average listener’s blind test: it makes popular music sound equal parts good and powerful.
On audio quality, the only boombox-style speaker system we prefer in iThunder’s price range is Altec’s iM7. At normal volumes, the iM7’s dedicated 4” subwoofer provides slightly lower lows, and its four other speakers (twin 3” mid/bass drivers and twin 1” tweeters) offer superior highs and cleaner midrange detail. Turned up to higher volumes, iM7 walks all over iThunder: bass distortion becomes very apparent in MTX’s design, while Altec’s stays comparatively clean. Since iM7 is now available for $180 and up, it’s a clear winner in basically all other categories, too - it’s is a bit larger than iThunder, looks a lot nicer, and lacks for nothing MTX included: it’s equally capable of running on battery power, and more user-adjustable thanks to built-in bass and treble controls. Only its unimpressive remote control tilts in iThunder’s favor.
The reasoning behind our flat B rating of iThunder is a bit complex, but it boils down to two words: competition and style. There are lots of good iPod-docking speakers out there right now, and though we feel comfortable offering a general recommendation for a speaker that sounds as good as this one, it takes something special these days to stand out from the pack. If iThunder’s industrial design had been just a little bit more interesting, its feature set a little more robust, or its price a little more aggressive, it would have been a B+ speaker, clearly superior to the iH30 we reviewed today, and a closer rival to the iM7 we’ve liked for some time. If it had accomplished two of these things, it would have been a highly recommendable, A- level speaker, and all three, conceivably a flat A.
But as-is, despite its solid sound quality and included remote, it does lack the FM radio and other frills found in the most recent boombox designs we’ve seen, the eye-catching looks of top iPod speakers, and the “gotta buy it” price point that would make this an easy recommendation above its competitors. Instead of trying to disrupt the current boombox market through aggressive pricing or features, iThunder is testing the “pay more, get more” philosophy, which will appeal more to some people than others. As such, our advice would be this: consider iThunder if you can get a really aggressive discount, otherwise, consider the iM7 for similar features and superior sound, the more expensive iSongBook for comparable normal-volume sound, far superior features, and greater portability, or spend less on the iH30 for better styling and built-in FM radio, though lower-quality audio.