Review: Cy-Fi Wireless Sports Speaker for iPod
Compatible: iPod 5G, classic, nano, touch
Bike-ready iPod and iPhone speakers just make sense. Wearing earphones while cycling can be dangerous, even deadly, but riding for miles at a time without music can be tedious. A small speaker with enough power to let you hear your music on the road is a safer compromise -- assuming of course that you keep the sound at a reasonable volume and don't create noise pollution in the process. iHome was the first to address this market with its iH85 Cycler, and now another company -- Cy-Fi -- has come up with its own alternative, the Wireless Sports Speaker for iPod ($199, aka Model 18).
As it turns out, there are some serious, interesting differences between the two companies’ approaches—ones that weigh in iHome’s favor today, but may tilt in Cy-Fi’s in the future. iHome’s solution was to create a thermos-like enclosure that would hold the iPod and a speaker inside, mounting near the bike’s seat while providing a wireless handlebar-mounted iPod remote control. The Wireless Sports Speaker for iPod instead mounts both the bike helmet-shaped speaker and the controls either at handlebar or seat level, making a wireless connection to the iPod for audio. This is accomplished via a wireless transmitter that mounts on the bottom of the iPod, drawing power from the iPod’s battery; it uses Kleer 2.4GHz audio technology to send what’s said to be CD-quality audio from the iPod to the speaker. You can choose from three mostly black versions of Cy-Fi, differing in their red, black, or silver accents.
There are good and bad points to Cy-Fi’s approach. On the positive side, the Wireless Sports Speaker includes two clamp-style bike mounting pieces, a recharging dock, and a wall power adapter with the transmitter and speaker set, and actually mounting the speaker on a bike is a snap; once the clamp’s on either your handlebars or frame, you can rotate the speaker to face in your preferred direction. You’ll likely want to have its integrated five track, volume, and power/play/pause buttons facing you for convenience, but depending on where you mount the speaker, certain angles might work better than others. Removing the speaker from either mount is easy enough, and necessary to recharge its six-hour integrated battery with the included dock.
Less positively, though Cy-Fi’s wireless system is a nice idea, and allows multiple Cy-Fi speakers to be paired with the same iPod transmitter, assuming that you buy them separately, it doesn’t necessarily yield the sort of fantastic sonic results one might expect for the asking price. Even if the system is transmitting CD-quality audio, the small unit’s twin, stereo audio drivers aren’t anywhere close to being able to perform it with such fidelity: not surprisingly, they’re maximized for volume and perform loud but flat sound that sounds decent when you’re on a trail, but isn’t worth hearing indoors. It’s hard to even hear stereo separation, though it’s there if you get really close to the Cy-Fi speaker. iHome instead uses a single, larger driver that delivers comparable results. Then there’s the battery issue: putting a wireless transmitter on the iPod leeches down its power, and the receiver on the portable speaker demands similar power from the system’s internal battery. iHome’s four AA batteries power its speaker, and the iPod runs at its normal battery capacity while inside. Notably, both speakers are water resistant but not waterproof, promised as safe to use with rain or sweat but not submersion.
There are a few other considerations that may make one of the speakers better than the other for your personal needs. iHome’s older speaker was designed for iPod, iPod mini, and iPod nano compatibility, but isn’t recommended for the iPod touch; Cy-Fi’s works with all Dock Connecting iPods save for the iPod mini. Avid cyclists may dislike the iH85’s size, which can occupy the space otherwise consumed by a water bottle, while others may dislike Cy-Fi’s dependence on an armband or other special location for mounting the iPod. iHome’s design holds the iPod inside, but with Cy-Fi, you still need to find a place to put the transmitter-equipped iPod while you’re on the bike; the wireless speaker goes silent if the iPod is separated by a 20+ foot distance.
Finally, there’s the issue of pricing. As of mid-2009, the originally $100 iH85 has an MSRP of $50, and Cy-Fi sells for $199, a very significant price difference that in our view is not justified by the performance distinctions between the two speakers. By ignoring wireless audio hardware, iHome offers an option that’s more affordable, has less iPod battery drain, and eliminates the need to physically mount the iPod someplace else while you’re riding. It has only two consequences, namely impeding frequent iPod Click Wheel or touchscreen control, and forcing users to mount the speaker in a location that’s further away from the handlebars and potentially disruptive to a spare water bottle. For the time being, iH85 strikes us as a much better buy for casual bikers, while Cy-Fi may appeal more to certain avid cyclists, albeit at a much higher price. When the iPhone OS 3.0 enables dongle-free stereo Bluetooth on iPod touch and iPhone devices alike, we’d expect wireless options such as Cy-Fi to become more appealing and more affordable, besides.