Review: Digifocus Mini Sound System for iPod and iPhone
In the three years since we reviewed Macally's AP-A111 -- the first pocket-sized speaker released specifically for the iPod -- there haven't been a lot of similar competitors. Sure, there have been PocketParty speakers from Gear4, ever-less-expensive Cube Travel Speakers from Pacific Rim Technologies, and a handful of forgettable options, but most of the speakers we test these days skew larger and more expensive, not small and cheap.
Now Taiwan-based Digifocus has released the Mini Sound System for iPod and iPhone ($60), which has a lot in common with the smarter pocketable and portable speakers we’ve previously tested. Measuring roughly 3.75” wide by 1.75” tall and 1.375” deep, the twin speaker, slightly wider than iPod-style design comes from AP-A111, and the “below iPod, serving as a base” form factor comes from PocketParty, but there are a number of signs that this isn’t just another low-end iPod speaker.
First, Digifocus has picked metallic shells for the Mini Sound System’s front and back, as well as a rubberized center core with a chrome iPod docking base, rather than going with a cheaper-looking glossy plastic enclosure. The metal shells come in silver, black, or red as you prefer. Second, the drivers inside of the chassis are more powerful than those in PocketParty or AP-A111, and arrayed to face you rather than pointing left and right. Third, there are pack-ins—items typically not found in lower-priced pocket speaker systems. Digifocus includes a frosted clear plastic box with short USB and audio cables, a cap for the Dock Connector, and a single AA battery to provide power to the speakers.
The AA battery is the same cell used in the smaller Macally and Gear4 speakers, and Digifocus claims that you’ll get 9 hours of life from a battery, on par with the IP-A111, which promises 8 hours to PocketParty’s 10. For reasons below, don’t expect miracles when running off of battery power, but Digifocus provides an alternative: the included USB cable can be plugged into a computer or other USB power adapter—not included—to power both the System and your iPod. No synchronization is permitted, just charging, but it’s nice that the system has this as an option. Small speakers we’ve tested often don’t.
Mini Sound System’s rear has both power and volume controls, as well as USB power and audio-in ports—the latter also unusual for a pocket speaker—and the boxy shape of the unit enables it to support the weight of any iPod or the iPhone mounted on top. As odd as the concept of a bottom-mounted iPod mini speaker once was, they’ve become a more natural fit as iPods have lost the ability to stand on their own, and Digifocus’s design is just big and heavy enough to achieve for all models what PocketParty did for the iPod nano. It’s not sexy, but it’s a nice enclosure, and nicely matches silver, black, and even colored iPods. Similarly, the System does let you mount and use an iPhone for audio out, but it’s not a Works with iPhone accessory—it triggers the device’s nag screen—and it does pick up some TDMA interference when the iPhone’s plugged in.
We were generally impressed by the System’s sound quality. It properly separates left and right channel audio, providing at least as much apparent separation as peer-sized systems like those mentioned above, and delivers considerably more volume—perhaps twice as much as the Macally and Gear4 designs. It also exhibits less distortion at its higher peak than either of these other systems do at their lower levels, a sign that Digifocus chose better parts, and tuned them properly. The result is sound that isn’t audiophile-quality, but great for a system as pocketable as this one—fuller-bodied and louder, for sure. As a consequence of this power, expect that the battery life of the Mini Sound System will be comparable to its peers at similar amplitudes, but decrease if you turn the volume up louder.
There’s only one other problem: your definition of pocketable. If you have bigger pockets, there’s still a ton to like about slightly bigger systems such as Logic3’s i-Station Traveller, which comes in multiple colors, folds out to serve as an iPod base, and features even better sound than the Mini Sound System—again, louder and fuller-frequency, making the nice Digifocus drivers sound as flat as the Mini Sound System makes the AP-A111 and PocketParty sound. Like Pacific Rim’s Cube Travel Speakers, which sell for $20 and continue to fall in price, Traveller’s $35 price makes it a strong alternative to a $60 speaker with less audio horsepower. Both can run off of AC power, and Cube even includes a wall adapter.
In our view, Digifocus got almost everything right with the Mini Sound System. A clean design, very good sound quality for its size, and the ability to hold up any iPod are all strong points—ones that lean heavily in favor of our high recommendation. That said, the system’s size makes it less pocketable than the best of its small competitors—the fact that there’s a carrying box belies this compromise—and its price is higher than smaller and slightly larger alternatives alike. It fits nicely in-between Macally’s and Logic3’s designs in size, missing their high recommendation levels only because of price; consider it an excellent buy relative to the smaller speakers if you can find it at a lower price.