Review: Sonic Impact Video-55 Video and Speaker Dock for iPod
Pros: A beautifully designed combination of several very good components - a 7-inch video display, two speakers, and a rechargeable battery capable of delivering nearly 6 hours of continuous audio and video playback at normal volume and brightness levels - housed inside an attractive fold-closed enclosure. Easy to use with 5G iPod, includes deluxe collection of pack-ins, including Infrared remote, wall and car chargers, and carrying bag. Overall audio and video quality is best we’ve seen to date in a device of its kind.
Cons: Price is high relative to similar competing options, one of which has a noticeably larger screen. Remote control performs only at moderate distance from base unit. Carrying bag isn’t great by company’s past excellent standards.
If you’ve been squinting at your fifth-generation iPod’s screen or hoping for a bigger, better way to watch videos, there’s good news today: with three different options now on the market, the fight between iPod-ready portable video display accessories is officially underway. We’ve already reviewed iLuv’s $250 i1055 (iLounge rating: C) - recently rebadged as the Zeon Z1055 and sold for as little as $200; today, we’re covering a new fight between two considerably better options.
In the red corner, wearing matte black trunks and weighing in at $300, we have Sonic Impact’s brand-new Video-55 - the heavyweight of iPod portable video displays. And in the blue corner, wearing glossy black trunks, we have Memorex’s iFlip, a less powerful but only $200 alternative. If you want the play-by-play throughout all six rounds, keep reading to the end of this review; otherwise, the summary’s this: Sonic Impact’s Video-55 is the better option, but costs more than a 30GB iPod, while iFlip is a very good, though less impressively equipped alternative. Both are substantially better than the iLuv i1055/Zeon Z1055 for iPod use, but even that somewhat odd design has one advantage.
Round 1: Specs and Key Features
When Apple introduced the fifth-generation iPod last year, it was instantly apparent that long-term video viewing wouldn’t be the new device’s forte: many of the users who didn’t find the 2.5” screen instantly off-putting on size sought cases with flip-out stands and other cheap ways to make extended video playback more comfortable. Several higher-tech companies took a different tack, devising larger screen add-ons, most choosing to use the 7- or 8-inch LCD screens already found in portable DVD players and car AV systems. At those sizes - roughly 3 times the size of the iPod’s built-in screen - videos become highly watchable over hours of play time, though the consequence is that you have to carry around a device the size of a small laptop computer to house the screen and related components. As such, these accessories are best for travel, in-car, or in-home use, and are not meant to be pocketed and taken everywhere.
As the pictures here suggest, Sonic Impact and Memorex clearly had similar ideas when designing their iPod portable video displays, but the execution varied quite a bit, and not in a way that yields a clear winner on specs alone. Unlike iLuv’s i1055, which exposes both its screen and part of the iPod to potential damage while you’re traveling, both of the new devices seal closed like laptops, protecting their screens and the iPods inside. Both measure roughly 9” by 6.5” by 2” when shut, and reveal two halves when opened; the screen is on top, and an iPod-slash-speaker dock is on bottom. Memorex has picked a glossy, somewhat scratchable black plastic exterior for iFlip, while Sonic Impact went with a matte, rubberized black plastic shell that wears and looks a bit better. Each unit looks good, but Video-55 has a slight edge.
The key specs you’ll probably care about are the screen, speakers, and battery inside each unit. Both companies picked widescreen, 480x234 displays, but the less expensive iFlip unit actually uses a larger 8.4” screen, while the more expensive Video-55 has a smaller, 7” screen. As noted below, however, Video-55’s screen actually looks better than iFlip’s, but not by a lot. Additionally, each company uses two speaker drivers, but iFlip’s don’t sound as good, and point directly upwards from its bottom half, while Video-55’s sound richer, firing left and right from its central, “boom tube” hinge, with two front breathing ports at the front of the hinge. And while Memorex picked a rechargeable battery that promises 5-hour run time with headphones attached, Sonic Impact variously claims a 4+ hour or 5-7-hour run time, depending on how you use the screen and speakers. We’ll discuss test results for each of these items below.
The iPod docking solutions are similarly similar in concept but different in execution. Memorex includes three large dock adapters that can be used to hold 30GB 5G iPods, 60GB/80GB 5G iPods, and “any” iPod, respectively, and Sonic Impact simply uses a plate-like insert that makes its deep 60GB/80GB-ready dock shallower for 30GB iPods. Neither solution is definitively better - iPods flop around in Memorex’s universal holder, but stay put properly in the specifically-sized ones; similarly, Sonic Impact’s solution works great with current iPod models, but if Apple releases a 6G iPod thicker than the 60GB and 80GB iPods, Video-55 users might be out of luck.
Other features vary a bit. The left side of iFlip includes dual headphone ports for two-person “quiet” listening, ports for line-level audio output and S-Video video output, plus separate cables for both purposes. Video-55’s left-side ports include a single headphone port, a video input port, a composite video output (with included cable), and a USB port so that the device can be used as a computer’s iPod dock. In sum, while only iFlip has dual headphone ports, only Video-55 has data sync and video input capabilities.
Memorex includes a power port and all of its controls - power, menu (settings), plus and minus menu toggle buttons - on iFlip’s right-hand side. Video-55 instead keeps its power port on the left with the others, hidden beneath a sealed rubber compartment for safety during travel, and places its buttons on a capacitive (touch-sensitive) surface immediately next to the iPod. Neither company’s buttons are as perfectly responsive as they should be, but Sonic Impact’s are better positioned, easier to use, and cooler to look at.
There’s only one feature that the iLuv i1055 design has that both of these alternatives lack: an integrated DVD player. If you don’t have worthwhile video content on your iPod, iLuv’s solution lets you watch a DVD or two before its battery runs out, and actually appears to have been designed more as a portable DVD player than an iPod accessory. We’d recommend i1055 over these other options only if you really need DVD viewing functionality; otherwise, there’s no contest between the devices on design or features.
Round 2: Pack-Ins
As their different prices might suggest, these options also vary quite a bit in pack-ins, with Sonic Impact’s more expensive package including many more frills than Memorex’s. iFlip comes only with its three dock adapters, a wall power charger, and separate composite audio and S-Video cables. In addition to its similar items - the aforementioned composite video cable, wall charger, and dock sizer plate - Video-55 also comes with a soft fabric carrying case and screen cleaning cloth - neither anything special, especially by Sonic Impact’s past excellent case standards - and two other items.
One is a car charger - just like iLuv’s i1055, you can power Video-55 in your car (or in some airplanes with similar power outlets) right out of the box, without purchasing anything else. Sonic Impact’s charger is smaller and nicer-looking than iLuv’s, a nice addition overall.
The critical distinguishing pack-in is Sonic Impact’s included Infrared remote control. iFlip doesn’t include any remote, and though iLuv’s 48-button remote worked well at long distances, most of the controls didn’t do anything iPod-related at all. By contrast, Video-55’s remote was clearly, simply designed to integrate properly with the rest of the system. For storage, it tucks away into a spring-loaded compartment on the unit’s bottom half, and when it’s out, the simple 10-button design is easy to use.
Sonic Impact includes access to all of Video-55’s face controls save one - the base unit’s physical Hold switch that prevents accidental button presses. Ten buttons - power, mute, play/pause, track backwards, track forwards, menu, up and down menu arrows, and plus and minus menu/volume controls - let you handle all of the iPod and Video-55 controls you need from afar. The only limitation is the remote’s distance performance - it worked properly on a line of sight from the base under normal lighting at 13 feet away, but wasn’t responsive past that point, which is only so-so by remote control standards. This 13-foot distance is better than the iFlip’s zero, and truthfully more useful for iPod purposes than the i1055’s more powerful remote, but still not ideal.
Round 3: Interface and iPod Integration
When it comes to iPod integration, there’s a major gulf between the approaches taken by Sonic Impact and Memorex on one hand, and iLuv on the other. iLuv essentially grafted an iPod dock onto the back of a video screen-equipped DVD player, with predictably mediocre results - controlling the iPod for video purposes is frustrating, and it’s not entirely protected from the elements unless you carry i1055 inside of a bag. Since Sonic Impact and Memorex both built their iPod docks into the bottom halves of their flip-open designs, allowing you to see the iPod’s screen at all times, you start at a big advantage going with either of these newer options.
But from there, the experiences are pretty similar. Apple still hasn’t released any simple on-TV menu interface for the iPod, so Sonic Impact and Memorex both have you select videos and manually choose the “TV Out” feature by using the iPod’s own controls. Depending on how often you intend to change videos, skip through chapters of movies, or otherwise interact with the iPod, you could be doing plenty of on-iPod fidgeting; thankfully, Video-55’s dock is a little less cumbersome, and its remote control provides enough access from afar that you can mitigate your use of the iPod’s own controls at least somewhat.
Volume and screen visibility controls are handled entirely through iFlip and Video-55, not the iPod: moving the iPod’s volume slider has no impact on amplitude, despite its large on-screen display. You can change iFlip’s volume by pressing its right-side plus and minus controls, and Video-55’s by using the controls on its bottom face; accessing screen controls requires a press of each unit’s Menu button and additional presses of those plus/minus buttons. Video-55’s on-screen controls are easier to use, but iFlip offers more settings.
Round 4: Video Performance
The full story of Video-55’s performance relative to iFlip’s is complex, but it’s easy to quickly sum up: despite its slightly smaller size, Video-55’s 7” display looks a little better than iFlip’s 8.4” screen. We reached this conclusion after initial testing with identical video clips (at varying resolutions) at each unit’s default settings, then after some additional tweaking of both units’ screen settings.
Part of the reason is pixel count. Pixels are the tiny square dots that create pictures, and generally speaking, the more pixels a screen has, the more detailed a picture looks. Both Video-55 and iFlip use 480x234 pixel displays, which is somewhat higher than the 320x240 resolution of the 5G iPod’s built-in display, but lower than Apple’s current maximum video encoding resolution of 640x480. In other words, a video that’s output from the iPod can look more detailed on iFlip or Video-55 than it does on the iPod’s own screen, but not as detailed as it looks on a higher-resolution computer or HDTV screen.
But - and this is a big but - there is a point of diminishing returns when screen sizes continue to grow. When a video at 320x240 or greater resolution is displayed on the iPod’s tiny, 2.5” screen, the pixels will be virtually invisible to the naked eye. But blow the same video up on a bigger screen like the Video-55’s 7” display, and the pixels will become more visible. Then do it again on the iFlip’s 8.4” display, and you’ll certainly see the blocky, rough edges.
Companies can get around this issue in several easy but potentially costly ways. They can add more pixels to larger screens, use smoother color palettes, or process the video to make jagged lines less visible. Alternately, they can offer a not-as-easy option - give the user lots of settings menus and let her try to calibrate them herself. Though iFlip’s and Video-55’s screens are otherwise extremely similar, Sonic Impact appears to have done a little better than Memorex at naturally calibrating its colors, which when combined with its slightly smaller pixels results in default video that looks a bit more lifelike and less jagged up close.
That said, iFlip’s default settings are a little more vivid than Video-55’s, a difference we noticed in testing with the color-saturated movie What Dreams May Come. We were able to bring Video-55 up to iFlip’s level of vividness fairly easily, but noticed that Memorex’s display options (Brightness, Contrast, Sharpness, Color, Hue, Screen Mode (16:9/4:3), and Default) let you have more control over the integrated display than Sonic Impact’s (Brightness, Contrast, Sharpness, Color, Language, and Source). After testing and experimentation, our feeling was that the two companies’ differences in default video settings are small, and can be made even smaller by playing with each monitor’s menu features, but on balance, Video-55 is better than iFlip. Both are better than iLuv’s i1055, which has a more washed out, bluer default cast, and is harder to change from its default settings.
There were a couple of other interesting video differences to note between the three portable video displays we tested. Though the Video-55 and iFlip video displays have similarly good horizontal and vertical viewing angles - you can still see most of the color and detail from left, right, top, or bottom without being perfectly centered - Sonic Impact’s design is the only one that provides complete 180-degree user positioning of the integrated screen. As such, you can make Video 55’s display flat with the bottom surface if you prefer, whereas iFlip’s screen lacks around 45 degrees of similar freedom. However, iFlip’s screen lets you adjust aspect ratios (4:3/16:9) using its menus; Video-55 does not - its only widescreen/non-widescreen mode is in the iPod’s settings, so if a video is misformatted during encoding, it will look distorted on screen. The worst of the bunch is iLuv’s i1055 display, which has comparatively very shallow viewing angles, and can’t be easily tilted on any angle other than the single one it’s built to sit on.
Round 5: Audio Performance
As between Video-55 and iFlip, there’s no question as to which unit sounds better: Video-55 wins this round by a knockout. Sonic Impact promised months ago that it would be coupling a low-noise, low-distortion amplifier with two legitimately good speakers - ones that would be good enough to listen to music even if the monitor was turned off - and it has delivered on that promise in a big way. Because of its integrated central tube, which creates a resonant bass chamber for the left- and right-firing, front-ported speakers, Video-55’s audio sounds full, rich, and clean - “big” by comparison with iFlip’s, and can go a little louder than iFlip’s top level.
Memorex’s sound system isn’t bad by any means, but it’s not great, either. As noted earlier, iFlip’s two speakers fire upwards rather than towards you, and are positioned to the left and right of the docked iPod’s screen. They sound flatter than Video-55’s, and there’s a lot of amplifier noise in iFlip’s audio signal, particularly at higher-than-average volumes. Whereas Sonic Impact’s design sounds big and clean, iFlip’s sound is noisier and only a step or two better than adequate.
Round 6: Battery Performance
The good news about both Video-55 and iFlip is that they’re legitimately capable of delivering long-term video viewing. We performed a number of playback tests on both units, and unlike the iLuv i1055, we never noticed power wavering or other oddities during video playback. Both units delivered consistent, TV-like video and audio, and used power management tools to keep from running down their batteries when not in use. Video-55 has a compartment on its bottom for eventual battery replacement, if you run the included one down to uselessness.
In our longest continuous test, which tests whether either company had overstated the run time of its device, we were glad to see that neither had. Memorex claims that it can play back video for five hours on its screen with headphones attached; Sonic Impact’s box says that Video-55 has “an average battery life of a remarkable 4+ hours.” We started with fully charged iPods, having them repeatedly play back an iTunes Store download of The Incredibles, and succeeded in more than three full run-throughs of the 1 hour, 48-minute movie on each device. Both units were playing the videos back on their default, very watchable levels of brightness, with speaker-based audio at slightly above their middle levels; under these conditions, Video-55 played for 5 hours and 45 minutes, slightly longer than the battery in the originally attached 60GB iPod, before its speakers turned off and the screen began flashing a low battery icon.
iFlip did better in two regards. First, it ran for over 7 hours and 45 minutes, and second, it also kept the iPod’s battery topped off in the process. When iFlip died at the 7:45 mark, it left an apparently fully-charged 30GB iPod (yes, significantly past its original run time), whereas Video-55 left a fully-drained 60GB model. This round, Memorex won clearly.
Value and Conclusions
Overall, the single biggest problem we faced in rating Video-55 and iFlip was due to a single word: pricing. These are not equivalent devices - Video-55 is generally better - but people who see them next to each other won’t think there’s $100 worth of difference between them, despite the fact that iFlip sells for $200 and Video-55 sells for $300. There’s no doubt in our minds that Memorex priced iFlip appropriately for what it delivers - a big video and bigger power improvement over the stock 5G iPod, plus decent integrated audio and dual headphone ports - and its few issues are so small that it was on the bleeding edge of our high recommendation level.
Given what appears to be a “natural” $200 price point for these sorts of add-ons - iFlip and iLuv’s rebranded Zeon Z1055 are both in that zone - we’re not sure that people will be willing to pay a $100 premium over that for Video-55. That’s despite the fact that it’s better in almost all the particulars - build quality, video quality, audio quality, remote controllability, and other pack-ins, save battery life. Sonic Impact delivered on all of its promises for the device, and the result is that Video-55 delivers the best overall portable video display alternative we’ve yet seen for the 5G iPod. But Memorex’s decisions to go with a larger screen, two headphone ports, more battery juice and a lower price were savvy, equaling out the options for most users.
Today, consumers have two very good choices: spend $300 and get a deluxe add-on AV solution for your fifth-generation iPod, or spend $200 and get a less deluxe but still very satisfactory alternative. If Video-55’s price drops significantly below its MSRP, we would consider it a good deal, and highly recommendable to all of our readers. As-is, however, we think these devices and their pack-ins are evenly matched at their respective price points, and equally worthy of our strong, B+ -level general recommendation.