Review: Boynq iCube Speaker & Docking Station for iPod
Pros: A single small cube speaker system with an iPod dock and separate drivers for left and right channel audio. Includes bass and treble controls, a glowing power light, and audio cables to connect the cube to external/non-dockable devices. Female Dock Connector port and line-out let you use system as a standard iPod dock for computer synchronization and audio output. Runs off of wall power.
Cons: Dock does not recharge iPod when connected to wall outlet; must connect to separate cable and power source for this. System’s left and right audio channels are reversed. Sound quality is good overall, though neither volume nor bass is truly powerful.
In an increasingly crowded field of docking iPod speaker options, Boynq’s new iCube ($70) provides an inexpensive alternative with a couple of unique features. Despite its small (approx. 4” cubed) size, iCube runs only off of wall power, not batteries, so it falls into our “semi-portable” category of speakers: ones that are small enough to move easily around a house or office, but can’t easily be used on the road because of some design limitation. It ties Macally’s earlier IceTune (iLounge rating: B+) as the least expensive such system we’ve seen with an integrated iPod dock.
iCube includes two five-watt speaker drivers inside a single box, an adjustable iPod dock with four inserts, plus three dials, and four rear ports. The most interesting feature is the set of dials: the left one adjusts bass, the right one treble, and the center one volume and power. We’ll get to the impact of the bass and treble adjustments in a moment, but we were impressed to see them here - too many speakers lack this easy tool to let people tweak the sound to their preferences. Press the center button in to power up the system, and a yellow ring of light illuminates around the dial, along with a Boynq logo hidden below it in the white plastic front surface. While not our favorite color choice, the idea’s a good one, and looks nice.
The integrated iPod dock is simple, but not as sophisticated as we’ve come to expect from docking speakers. One of the included plates fits iPod minis, two more resize the dock for thick and thin full-sized iPods, and the fourth closes off the dock entirely. These plates aren’t Universal Dock compatible, but they’re adequate for various iPod models, except the nano. The odd part is the dock’s charging functionality. If an iPod’s plugged in to the wall-powered iCube, it plays its music, but doesn’t recharge. Instead, you’ll need to plug iCube into both its own wall adapter and a computer or iPod wall charger in order to power both the iPod and iCube; the iPod charger or computer can’t power both the iPod and iCube, either. This is the first docking speaker system we can recall with this sort of limitation.
If this doesn’t make sense, it’s worth noting that iCube is actually an updated version of a USB speaker system called Cubite that was originally designed for use with computers. Though the company made certain tweaks to the design, removing its USB ports and enhancing its audio performance, finding a way to properly handle power from two different sources at once may have been beyond the company’s time or engineering resources. Regardless of the reason, this was a disappointment to us, and not what most people expect from dockable iPod speakers.
But for some, it may be enough that iCube can otherwise be used as a replacement iPod audio dock. To that end, it does include a standard female Dock Connector port for charging and synchronization using Apple’s iPod cables, and worked properly for both in our testing. It also includes a line-out port for iPod output, and a line-in port to connect to the audio ports of Pod shuffles, 1G/2G iPods, other portable audio players, or computers. Boynq even includes two types of white audio cables, one 3.5mm to 3.5mm and one 3.5mm to RCA left and right audio, to help you make the line in or out connections. Used in this way, iCube can be seen - at least for iPod owners without S-Video output needs - as a way to add speaker functionality to a standard iPod audio dock for only $30 more than Apple’s price.
How does iCube sound? Our testing results were mixed. On one hand, its peak volume level is higher than the comparably priced IceTune, and it doesn’t distort significantly at that top level. This appears to be because the volume control was intentionally throttled back - it turns all the way to the right, but doesn’t adjust volume past a certain point on the dial. Addtionally, its bass and treble customization were welcome additions, with the treble control enabling Boynq’s system to deliver superior apparent detail (clarity) to IceTune. This was especially surprising given that IceTune’s two separate speakers are each almost as large as iCube’s entire enclosure; we’d expected IceTune to put up more of a fight.
Then there are the less positive results. While the speakers provide decent left and right stereo separation, mostly because they’re mounted on the cube’s left and right sides rather than the front, iCube can’t compete with the fully detachable speakers in IceTune in this regard. Worse yet, Boynq has reversed its stereo channels, such that left channel sound comes out of the right side of iCube, and vice-versa - a major no-no. If you want to hear the channels properly, you’ll need to turn the system so that the iPod and controls face backwards. The system isn’t exactly a bass powerhouse, either, putting out almost no sub-sonic thump at its peak bass level, even by comparison with Tivoli Audio’s similarly-sized iPAL (iLounge rating: B+). This isn’t as bad as it initially sounds, though: we would not characterize iCube’s sound as “tinny” by any means, especially given that the bass and treble controls give you the ability to customize the balance of sound to your liking, and we ultimately found the tuned sound smoother and more appealing than IceTune. But like IceTune, bass heads will find that there’s just not enough low-end in the iCube to really tweak.
Overall, iCube is a nice-looking dockable speaker system with a couple of engineering glitches that detract from an otherwise positive rating. If proper stereo separation and bass aren’t important to you, you’ll find that iCube otherwise bests IceTune on overall audio performance, particularly in volume and detail. But as-is, we’d only recommend it to the people identified a couple of paragraphs up - price-conscious buyers who want to add $30 worth of speaker functionality to a standard iPod audio dock, yet aren’t concerned about proper left-right separation and one-cable iPod charging.