Review: Brookstone Wireless Music System for iPod
Pros: An affordable wireless audio system for the iPod, featuring two portable, battery-powered speakers, a 900MHz wireless iPod dock, and a remote control. Each speaker includes its own charging dock, which can be placed in one room with the iPod dock, or in other rooms around your home. Cool-looking white and silver speaker globes continue Brookstone’s tradition of interesting design. Acceptable audio by wireless standards for the price; speakers include built-in volume controls.
Cons: Uses interference-susceptible analog 900MHz broadcasting that may or may not sound good in your home, depending on whether you have existing wireless phones or other 900Mhz devices already in place. Speakers have comparatively low peak volume and noticeable amplifier hiss that make them less than well-suited to certain environments or outdoor use; handle-less globe designs aren’t always easy to safely pick up and carry. Multiple charging docks are great to keep batteries charged, but require three power outlets; speaker batteries have low, 2-hour run times. Infrared remote control only works in dock’s line of sight.
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 ($300) 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.
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 Brookstone’s Wireless Music System for iPod; our reviews of Evolve and RoomGroove are linked separately.
Though it is difficult to talk about Brookstone’s Wireless Music System for iPod without referencing Griffin’s Evolve, thanks to their strong similarities, the two systems are in fact different animals. Brookstone’s design, which we’ll also call WMS, initially feels like a “do it yourself” wireless audio kit at a lower price: when you open the box, you’ll find two speaker globes, a remote control, an audio cable, three separate docks with four plastic iPod inserts, three separate power supplies, and two user-installable battery packs for the speakers. Your first task is to figure out what to do with all the parts—a major difference from the considerably simpler Klipsch and Griffin boxes.
As it turns out, you start by connecting each of WMS’s power supplies to the three included docks: one dock is for the iPod and remote control, one is for the left speaker dock, and one is for the right speaker dock. Then you open each of the speaker globes with an unscrewing motion, put one of the green battery packs inside, and close the globe. Finally, you place the globes on the charging bases, an adapter in the iPod dock, and the iPod in the adapter. Once you turn the dock on with the remote and the speakers on with their own top-mounted power buttons, you’re ready to go.
Brookstone’s speaker design has four advantages relative to Griffin’s. Unlike Evolve’s speakers, the WMS speakers have built-in volume controls so that you can change their levels independently, without carrying around the remote control. They also have switches for three channels you can manually select from to avoid interference from existing 900MHz wireless products in your home. Additionally, their batteries are easily replaced, a boon for people who plan to use the speakers often, and for years. And Brookstone’s separate speaker charging bases can be hooked up anywhere you have a wall outlet, limiting your need to constantly rely upon battery power so long as you’re indoors.
Unfortunately, each of these advantages is offset by a commensurate disadvantage or two. First, WMS’s maximum volume level is comparatively very quiet, such that even at the system’s peak, you’re not performing sound at a level that’s going to be easily heard in a noisy room or outdoors. We found that the volume controls were more useful for turning down or muting a speaker, the latter of which could also be accomplished with the power button, rather than turning the volume up. Second, unlike Evolve, which uses digital 900MHz technology and manages to automatically sidestep interference without using manual controls, WMS actually picks up a lot of audio interference when it’s in proximity of another 900MHz device, so you may need to use the included switches. Third, Brookstone’s batteries don’t last anywhere near as long as Griffin’s; WMS promises 2 hours of performance before a recharge to Griffin’s 10, and then, only at WMS’s comparatively low volume level. We also found that the batteries ran down pretty quickly even when the speakers weren’t being used.
The fourth advantage, Brookstone’s separate charging bases, will vary in appeal based on the needs of individual users. If you’re going to use Wireless Music System in a classical one-room configuration, you’ll immediately find that you have to allocate three separate power outlets just to keep the iPod and speakers charging together. Evolve’s larger, comparatively beautiful all-in-one base handles all of this with just one power adapter, and unlike the simple iPod, aux-in and aux-out WMS dock, offers additional video-out features for older full-sized iPods, besides. However, Evolve doesn’t include any way for you to permanently keep speakers charging in other rooms of your home, so the speakers will always need to be returned to the base after they’ve been run down. You’ll need to decide which system will suit your lifestyle better, but our feeling is that Griffin’s better batteries and simpler unified charging solution is on balance the smarter implementation.
Balance is also important in another way when considering Brookstone’s design. As with the company’s earlier, interestingly-shaped SongPlay, we really liked the way the speaker globes looked here, but we did find them comparatively difficult to actually transport around. Griffin’s boxy, handle-equipped Evolve speakers are easy to pick up and walk around with, but Brookstone’s grip-less, glossy orbs—especially when you’re trying to carry them with one of the charging docks—aren’t as easy to handle, and clumsier users will find them infinitely more droppable. Thanks to flat bottoms, they do rest on a flat surface without aid from their docks, but the Evolve speaker design is generally more practical, and to our eyes, better-looking as well.
As noted in our review of Evolve, WMS’s sound quality is at the lower end of this pack of wireless speakers, but that’s not to say that it’s bad for the price. Like Griffin, Brookstone went with single-driver speakers that—interference and amplifier hiss aside—are capable of delivering acceptable audio quality at average volumes, sound that typical users won’t complain about unless they did direct A-to-B comparisons against superior systems. These speakers have been optimized for midrange and treble performance, with less bass than comparably-priced two-driver wired audio systems, such as Sprout Creation’s recent Vers 2X, and considerably less amplitude. As is the norm with wireless speakers, you’re paying roughly $80-100 for the wireless technology here, with the balance spent on the speaker parts.
Just for benchmarking purposes, we placed the Brookstone system next to its competitors and 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. Last in the pack was the Wireless Music System, which produced sound that was comparable with Evolve’s at low volumes, but suffered from greater 900MHz interference and as previously noted couldn’t be ramped up to volume levels that some would consider “average,” and others would think of as “above average.” Even when we tested the WMS in an environment with low ambient noise and no 900MHz interference, amplifier hiss was very noticeable when the speakers were turned up to their top volume, a step we found more necessary here than with the other systems.
On a positive note, in an environment without 900MHz interference, the Wireless Music System’s broadcasting distance was nearly identical to Griffin’s Evolve—100 feet, give or take—and its handling of signal loss was identical. Rather than emitting loud, screeching noises or otherwise becoming annoying when it loses the wireless dock’s audio signal, the WMS becomes intermittently silent when music is being missed. We occasionally heard a small pop or two in the speaker, as well, but didn’t find it offensive or troubling.
It’s worth a final, “big picture” note to mention that we found the Wireless Music System to be a couple of steps under Evolve in terms of overall user experience, even given the significant $100 price difference. Apple’s products have long traded on the added value of thoughtful pre-purchase simplification: under the iPod’s (and Mac’s) guiding philosophy, you don’t need to install your own battery, connect tons of wires, make sure any switches are flipped, or worry about whether everything will sound right, and Griffin followed this philosophy with Evolve: you open the box, plug in the base, put the speakers on top, and it just works. The remote works from anywhere in your home, and everything looks drop-dead gorgeous. With the Wireless Music System, there’s a lengthier set up process, more wires and parts to contend with, and the remote works only from a line of sight with the iPod dock. If you take the speakers around, you’ll find that they’re harder to hold, don’t last as long, and can’t ramp up in volume to match ambient noise.
All in all, Brookstone’s Wireless Music System offers a less-than-Evolve-like experience at a lower-than-Evolve price, and had the Brookstone $200 experience been as good a deal at $200 as Evolve’s is at $300, we’d be inclined to rate the two systems identically. In our view, though Brookstone has a compelling and good new wireless speaker offering on its hands—one worthy of our general recommendation—Griffin has delivered more than enough extra value in design, elegance, audio, wireless and battery performance to strongly differentiate these products from one another. Consider the Wireless Music System if you’re not already using 900MHz devices in your home, want low-to-medium-volume wireless speakers on a budget, and have extra power outlets around to keep the globes topped off at all times.