Review: Griffin Evolve Wireless Sound System for iPod
Pros: A high-tech, high-design wireless speaker system that’s easy enough for anyone to use, and powerful both in speaker battery life and maximum volume level. Enables user to dock iPod and put speakers in the same or different rooms 100 feet away, while using a powerful remote control to change tracks, volume, and more from wherever you may be. Beautiful looks and very good, low-interference sound by wireless audio standards; wireless speakers are easy to carry and run off of battery power for 10 hours before recharging.
Cons: While impressive by wireless audio standards, each speaker uses a single 4” driver that’s better used for high-volume performance than for low-volume range or fidelity; different drivers would have improved average-volume sound quality at the cost of high-volume output.
“Wireless.” In the world of iPod audio equipment, the word has two meanings: one is ideal, the other practical. The ideal wireless device doesn’t use wires to connect to anything, except a power recharger. It can be taken and used anywhere, at any time, except perhaps in the cabin of a moving plane. Practically, however, most wireless iPod audio devices require one or two wires. They are tethered to something, such as a wall power outlet or a sophisticated audio system. You buy them not because you can use them anywhere, but because they break the traditionally wired link between your iPod and whatever is playing its audio. For that convenience, companies typically charge around $100 over the price of a comparable wired device, sometimes a little less, but most often more.
Today, we are separately reviewing three new wireless speaker systems for the iPod, each of which takes a slightly different and interesting approach to the concept of “practical wireless audio.” The least expensive system is from Brookstone, and called the Wireless Music System for iPod ($199); it includes two globe-shaped white and silver speakers, a wireless iPod transmitting base, an Infrared remote control, and three wired power adapters. Next is Evolve
$350) from Griffin, which includes two cube-shaped black and gray speakers, a wireless iPod transmitting base, an RF remote control, and one wired power adapter. Finally, there’s Klipsch’s RoomGroove ($300), an all-in-one unit with built-in speakers and an iPod dock, as well as one Infrared remote control. Klipsch requires the purchase of at least two RoomGroove units to take advantage of its wireless functionality, each with its own wired power adapter. [Editor’s Note: In late 2008, Griffin raised the price of Evolve from $300 to $350, and we have therefore lowered our rating from A- to B+ to reflect the less impressive value for the dollar. The remainder of this review is unchanged.]
In quick summary, each of these three systems has something new to offer iPod owners with an interest in wireless audio, but Griffin’s Evolve is the smartest of the three, and the best overall value for the dollar. Budget-conscious users willing to compromise will find plenty to like in the derivative Brookstone option, while more audio quality-conscious users with considerably higher budgets should consider Klipsch’s, but Evolve comes closest to striking the right balance between looks, features, and pricing. Read on for details on Evolve; our reviews of the Wireless Music System and RoomGroove are linked separately.
Back when we first saw Evolve in January of this year, it was obvious that Griffin had a potential hit on its hands: the prototype was a beautiful-looking, easy to use wireless speaker system, designed to let you dock your iPod in one place while moving speakers around to one or two other places. You could carry a speaker into the kitchen during a meal, or set up speakers on two sides of a banquet hall, or keep everything together in one place, with only one wire—the charger for the iPod dock. The idea was great, but Evolve’s initially announced $350 pricing was set to be a problem. Thankfully, Griffin used the nine months since Evolve’s public debut to fine-tune its audio and work on lowering its price before release, and the result is a set of “take them almost anywhere” speakers that are equal parts fun and elegant.
For reasons that should be obvious from our photos, the company has billed the glossy black plastic and silver aluminum-based Evolve as a speaker system wrapped in modern art. Most prominent are its two rounded cube speakers, which are entirely black save for gray rubber outlines and a 4-inch silver circular driver located behind a black metal grille. The back of each speaker has a finger-ready grip so that you can pick it up and walk around with it, while the top has a power button, and the bottom has three small circular metal power and sync surfaces. Griffin nestles a wireless receiver and a 10-hour Lithium-Ion battery inside of each speaker to enable it to play music anywhere; these batteries last longer at lower volumes and, unlike Brookstone’s, do a pretty good job of holding their charges when not in use.
You charge and synchronize the speakers on top of an silver aluminum and black plastic base, which has a universal iPod dock, two gray antennas, and circular gray power and volume controls in the center. A single power light on the base is matched by subtle power lights behind the speakers’ metal grilles; the base also features RCA-style audio-out, audio-in, composite video-out and S-Video out ports on the rear; the video features only work with pre-2007 iPod models. Griffin also includes a surprisingly stylish black and silver radio frequency (RF) remote control with EQ, shuffle, and repeat buttons, plus power and standard iPod control buttons. This remote simultaneously handles audio performance from both speakers and Evolve’s base; volume is adjusted across all three, rather than independently.
Even with the Brookstone system as a similar, comparative reference, it needs to be said that there is nothing quite like Evolve on the market today, primarily because of its utter simplicity. If you want to use it as an “all in one” speaker, leave the speakers on the charging base, turn the power on, and control the iPod that way—it’s just like a Bose SoundDock or its myriad alternatives in that regard. And if you want to go wireless, it’s just as easy. Pick up the speaker and walk away with it. Once the speaker has touched the base, it’s synchronized to your music without any additional work on your part—turn the speaker off and on again, and it resumes playing within a second or two, after finding the Evolve base’s signal. Need to change tracks or volume? Just use the remote; because it uses RF technology rather than Infrared, it needn’t be anywhere near the base, or in a line of sight. This convenience factor is hard to appreciate until you’ve tested any of the many comparatively unimpressive alternatives.
Griffin has also added another cool feature for users of heavily stereo-separated music: you can toggle the speakers between stereo or monaural modes, so you can either keep the music stereo-separated through twin speakers, or let each speaker perform both the left- and right-channel audio at the same time. A switch on the base flips between the modes, and each of the speakers becomes left- or right-channel just by touching them to the correct side of the charging base, so you can have two left-channel speakers, a split pair, two right-channel speakers, or each speaker outputting left- and right-channel audio in mono mode. The power LEDs on the speakers’ fronts switch to the left or right side to indicate which channel they are, and also let you know if their batteries are running low.
How does Evolve sound? The simple and somewhat surprising answer is “very good for the price,” though as with all wireless systems, the reality is more nuanced. Griffin has used 900MHz digital packet technology for its wireless broadcasting, which initially concerned us as the 900MHz devices of years past were never known for their analog audio fidelity, and were highly susceptible to interference from other 900MHz wireless devices, such as wireless phones. In our testing, however, Evolve proved to be basically immune to 900MHz interference, including the signal from Brookstone’s analog 900MHz Wireless Music System, while the Brookstone system was heavily impacted by Evolve’s digital signal. We found that its actual broadcasting range was closer to 100 feet than 150 feet in in-home testing, and that the signal was briefly interrupted with silence rather than making screeching or other odd sounds when distance became a challenge. Amplifier hiss, a common issue in both wired and wireless speakers, is kept at a minimum here—it’s not totally absent, but unlike Griffin’s prototypes, quiet enough as to be unobjectionable.
As we expected when we first heard Evolve early this year, and subsequently confirmed with additional comparative testing, the system’s overall sound quality is on par with some of the better $150 to $200 audio systems out there, rather than the top $300 fully wired units we’ve heard. This isn’t at all surprising given that Evolve includes wireless audio, RF remote control, and battery technologies that aren’t found in most $300 speakers, but it bears mention to those who aren’t in need of Evolve’s wireless functionality that they can do better with a non-wireless system for less.
This might have been avoided through a different type of speaker design. Rather than equipping each of its cube-shaped speakers with two or three miniature drivers, an array which would have produced cleaner and wider-frequency sound, Griffin instead went with a total of two full-range 4” speakers, an choice which speaker fans will note has distinct advantages and disadvantages. When they’re properly tuned by their manufacturers, as they have been here, large drivers like these are capable of delivering acceptable audio quality at average volumes—typical users wouldn’t complain unless they did direct A-to-B comparisons. However, thanks to both their size and Griffin’s battery technology, these big drivers also have the advantage of offering much higher top volume levels than other wireless speakers, including Brookstone’s and Klipsch’s, albeit with considerable distortion at their peak, and with less full-frequency clarity than most multi-driver systems at lower volume levels. Another way of stating this is that Griffin’s design is almost ideal for taking outdoors where ambient wind and other noises demand higher speaker volumes, but indoors, you’ll be more likely to hear imperfections in its rendition of songs.
To provide a comparative frame of reference, we placed the Griffin, Brookstone, and Klipsch systems next to Bose’s SoundDock—an extremely popular $300 audio system—to see how the systems sounded next to one another. Klipsch’s RoomGroove sounded the closest in sound quality to the SoundDock, besting it in bass response but also missing its marks in midrange, high-frequency detail, and peak volume. Evolve was a step below the RoomGroove, with higher distortion and narrower frequency response at normal volume levels, but a dramatically higher peak volume level that was on par with Bose’s. We tossed Sprout Creation’s new $180, twin 3”-driver wired Vers 2X audio system into the mix just to see how it compared against Evolve, and found them to be of similar quality, though Vers was optimized for smoother low-volume sound and couldn’t be turned up even close to Evolve’s peak level. Last in the pack was Brookstone’s Wireless Music System, which produced sound that was roughly comparable with Evolve’s at low volumes, but suffered from greater wireless interference and couldn’t be ramped up to volume levels that some would consider “average,” and others would think of as “above average.”
It’s also worth nothing that Griffin has promised for months to offer another cool feature: according to the company, you will be able to add additional speaker cubes and charging stations to the base unit, so you could have four or eight speakers wirelessly playing the same iPod’s music. Based on our testing of two different Evolve units, we have every reason to believe that this will work effortlessly, but we’ll have to wait on final add-on speakers before we can say for certain, and Griffin does not yet have a release date or pricing for its supplemental speakers. For the time being, if you need a system with multiple speaker units, Klipsch’s RoomGroove and the Intellitouch EOS Wireless Speaker Core System are currently your only options.
Overall, Evolve is a nearly ideal wireless speaker system for the $300 asking price: from its beautiful design and elegantly simple controls to its powerful functionality, it delivers such a great overall wireless experience that we can’t help but be excited about it. To the extent that sound fidelity is a common issue in all of the wireless speaker systems we’ve tested, we can forgive its imperfections in this regard, especially as it outperformed expectations on interference and high-volume performance. Consequently, there’s no doubt that Evolve’s speakers would be the first ones we would actually carry outdoors and use anywhere around the house, given their convenience and overall quality, and their combination of practicality and good looks unquestionably merits our high recommendation. That said, those without frequent wireless needs could do better on sound fidelity, though not design or cool factor, for the same price; we hope that Griffin will continue to evolve this great starting point into a family of even more amazing wireless audio products.
[Editor’s Note: In the second half of 2008, Griffin raised the price of Evolve from $300 to $350, and we have lowered our rating from A- to B+ as a result. Should you be able to find the system for the original price or lower, we still consider it to be a highly recommendable wireless audio system; however, we do not believe that it is as worthwhile at a higher price point. While the Brookstone system noted above appears to have been discontinued, the Jensen JiSS-585 is a more recent release that offers similar functionality for $130.]