Review: Brookstone SongPlay (OnStage) Music System for iPod
Everyone has a guilty pleasure - a song, food, or hobby you enjoy, but feel like you have to justify to others. Brookstone's SongPlay Music System for iPod ($150) is one of our guilty pleasures. In sound quality, it's about par for course in bang for the buck, but a novel aesthetic design helps it transcend the masses of boring speakers we review week in and week out at iLounge.
We tend to love seeing the iPod at the center of circular speaker dock designs—JBL’s On Stage pioneered this on the horizontal axis, and its On Time and Radial went further and better with vertical enclosures. Brookstone’s SongPlay, which was perhaps coincidentally originally named “OnStage,” and only recently renamed, is somewhere in between these products visually. In truth, it looks better in person than our photos suggest, mostly because of the angle it’s designed to sit on.
Viewed from the front, it looks like a half-globe with a metal front grille and a centrally suspended iPod dock; its sides and back reveal it to be more of a tapered tube shape with bowling ball-like vents in the rear. Like the higher-end JBL designs, it elevates the iPod to almost iconic status with a cute twist: a light behind the iPod dock illuminates its rear for dramatic effect, and can be turned up or down in intensity with an included remote control as you prefer.
Brookstone has also given more than a little thought to clean iPod shuffle integration. With an included minijack cable and seven Dock Adapters - six apparently official Apple parts, one custom-made - you can use it with the iPod shuffle or any Dock Connecting iPod you own. Unlike most speakers, the shuffle connects to an audio port on SongPlay’s front, under the dock, so you don’t have to wind a cable around the system’s back. Under the rear bowling ball-style vents, you’ll see RCA-style audio outputs and a power input, nothing else.
That’s SongPlay in a nutshell. It looks cool sitting on a desk - arguably cooler than the average $150 iPod speaker system - and doesn’t have any secrets or other frills. There isn’t a battery compartment for portability. Other than its speaker light control and mute button, the nine-button Infrared remote control is unremarkable except for its larger than average size. And the system doesn’t offer any special audio enhancement features, bass, treble, faux 3-D surround sound, or otherwise. It’s basically what Oregon Scientific’s iBall could have been, in a practically stripped down form.
As suggested above, the sound quality is acceptable, not mindblowing. The circular face hides truly and properly separated left and right channel speakers that cast off sound that’s a little bigger than you’d expect from the unit’s size, but not dramatically so. In clarity and resonance, it’s one step over and one step under a top-flight $150 portable speaker like Logitech’s mm50, respectively; at average volumes, there’s more bass response and a little less treble than the nicely balanced mm50, but with a bit more low-end distortion and a tendency to sound flat, rather than crisp, at higher volumes.
It’s the sort of system average users will enjoy without complaint until they hear it next to something else - say, an Altec iM7, which can now be had at some places for around SongPlay’s price, though it decimates SongPlay on sound - at which point SongPlay’s good looks and size will be all that justify its existence. Unlike XtremeMac’s Luna, which has somewhat similar sound quality, minus some of SongPlay’s natural warmth and low-end, there’s no clock or radio here: you’re paying for the design and a simple, generally satisfying sound signature.
On that note, it’s worth noting that the iPod-specific speaker market is so cluttered with options at this point that a purchase really comes down in our view to several questions: do you like how it looks, are you comfortable with the sound for the price, and does it do what you need it to do? In our book, SongPlay rates best in the looks department, and sounds like a good but not great tabletop—or corner—speaker system. You can do better on sound or frills for the dollar, but with its neat shape and cool integrated light, SongBook strikes us as a guilty pleasure you won’t need to justify to your friends.