Review: Athena Technologies iVoice Wall Mountable Speaker
Pros: A simple all-in-one alternative to Bose’s popular SoundDock, with almost identical audio performance, a $100 lower MSRP, and several superior features. Can be hung flat on a wall without a protruding dock; includes audio-in, video-out, and USB ports. Infrared remote control is better than SoundDock’s, and works from 30-foot distances. Great audio, remote, and feature set for the price.
Cons: Almost imperceptibly off of SoundDock’s peaks in volume and bass. Only available in black. Though the best match we’ve heard for market-leading SoundDock, can’t best sound-to-value of other top alternatives we’ve reviewed in larger enclosures.
Tons of all-in-one speakers have come through our doors recently, two of which were from the same company, Audio Products International. One product, the $300 OmniVibe (iLounge rating: B-), is being sold under the company’s Mirage brand name, while the other, iVoice ($200), is being sold under the Athena Technologies banner. Both systems come in all-black enclosures - no white is available - and even include the same remote control, and it’s obvious that both are gunning for Bose’s popular SoundDock in design and features. Of the two, the less expensive iVoice is the better value.
Though there’s no question in our minds that the best all-in-one iPod speaker for the dollar is Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-), sales of Bose’s SoundDock have eclipsed the iM7’s by a wide margin, owing equally to Bose’s marketing strength, the SoundDock’s simple design, and its good-enough-for-most-listeners sound quality. What Athena has done with iVoice is to quite nearly replicate the SoundDock’s sound signature, feature set, and simplicity at a $100 lower price point, adding a few bonuses in the process. SoundDock shipped without any rear ports, and thus any ability to be used as something other than a Dock Connector iPod-equipped speaker dock; iVoice includes video-out, audio-in, and USB data ports if you want to use the system next to a computer or television, or with other audio devices. An audio cable and power cable are included; you can supply the composite video-out or USB data cable if you want to use it for those purposes.
Despite its similar-to-SoundDock thickness, iVoice also includes both a carrying groove - handle would be too generous of a word - and two mounting holes on the back. No mounting hardware is included, but the holes allow anyone to easily put nails in a wall and hang the system, rather than placing it on a countertop, bookshelf, or desk. The angles of the plastic allow iVoice, which normally reclines gently on a flat surface, to hang flat on the wall, and the unit’s integrated dock sits in a central location rather than jutting out of its front. Other than the fact that the built-in dock sizing dial - a simple rubber unit we thought was so-so in the OmniVibe - isn’t as thoughtful as many of the resizeable docks we’ve seen, this overall design and mounting approach is superior to what we’ve seen in other wall-mounting iPod speakers, such as Altec Lansing’s recent M602 (iLounge rating: B+).
Control of the system is very simple, thanks to three integrated buttons on the unit’s top - power, volume down, and volume up - and a blue light which indicates power status or, somewhat annoyingly, flashes when the unit’s “on hold.” Remember to turn the unit off and the light won’t bother you. We were impressed, though, by iVoice’s sensitivity to its integrated remote control. Just as with OmniVibe, the remote includes the five iPod remote standards - volume, play/pause, and track backwards/forwards - plus a power button for the entire system, and a mute button that instantly kills the audio. As with the best Infrared remotes we’ve tested, iVoice’s remote worked properly when challenged from a distance of 30 feet - a bit better than Bose’s SoundDock remote, and lots better than Altec’s iM7 remote.
As suggested above, a major part of iVoice’s appeal to average users will be its SoundDock-like audio - simply put, it is almost the mirror equivalent of the SoundDock at every volume level save at the SoundDock’s peak, and for $100 less, the audio performance is great. At low to above-average volume levels, iVoice exhibits relatively low amplifier noise during audio, which Athena further mitigates by aggressively powering down the amplifier when music isn’t playing. For that reason, when the two systems sit next to each other on any volume but without music playing, iVoice sounds quieter than SoundDock. Athena has also used Bose’s digital equalization trick to its advantage, making very similar calls on each song’s correct optimization and thereby rendering virtually any track enjoyable to listen to. Both systems also use a gradual volume ramp-up feature that starts any song at a slightly lower level than the speaker’s current audio setting, ramping upwards within a couple of seconds.
Are the systems completely identical sonically? There was only one situation in which we noticed a more than trivial difference, and that was at each system’s peak volume. Bose lets you turn the SoundDock up to a more than room-filling point, creating obvious distortion, but as a result, SoundDock can get a little - and we mean little - louder than iVoice. Athena’s design stops one step shy of the audible distortion level, which frankly we tend to prefer. On an even less important note, very careful listeners may hear a hair more bass on SoundDock, but again, the difference is small enough that we’d be shocked if average users heard it at all.
In sum, if you’re looking for a true rival to Bose’s SoundDock that delivers virtually equivalent sound quality, simplicity, and styling at a substantially lower MSRP, iVoice is the single best match we’ve seen to date. We’ve noted many times that you can do better at the $250 MSRP point with Altec’s inMotion iM7, a physically larger and more powerful system that is available for even less than iVoice today if you shop around, but if you want something smaller and considerably more worthy of its price point than the SoundDock, iVoice should be amongst your top picks. It’s highly recommended.