Review: dreamGear i.Sound Concert to Go High Performance Home and Portable Stereo System
These days, it's not hard for companies to make decent iPod speaker systems; the challenge is to make a standout. For the past year or so, a company called dreamGear has been selling all sorts of iPod accessories, including speakers, under the i.Sound name, and we've recently had the chance to test three of them: the TimeTravel Speaker System and Alarm Clock ($60), the Wall Mountable Desktop & Speaker System ($100), and the Concert to Go High Performance Home and Portable Stereo System ($150).
Since none of the speakers is a standout from other, similar options we’ve tested, our reviews will be comparatively brief: it suffices to say that all three are budget options with merely decent sound and aesthetics. Each boasts an integrated, blue-backlit clock, at least two speakers, an auxiliary audio input cable and port, and dock adapters for use with iPods, iPod nanos, and iPod minis. They’re all capable of running off of an included wall adapter or battery power, with bottom- or back-mounted battery compartments that become more demanding as the systems increase in size.
Measuring approximately 16.75” by 5.75” by 5.5”, Concert to Go is the largest and most fully-featured of the i.Sound speakers we’ve tested, if more than a bit derivative aesthetically. For those who have wondered what the genetically-manipulated baby of Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7, Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, and an iHome clock radio might look like, Concert to Go is it: the unit’s front boasts an iM7-like metal grille and iHome-ish clock radio, while its shape, top-mounted iPod dock, and side-mounted carrying handles roughly parallel the iPod Hi-Fi. With compartments in the bottom for 12 C-cell batteries - yes, 12 - and a 36-watt amplification package, it’s obvious that the system was designed to deliver room-filling sound, just like its bigger and more expensive counterparts, but it can also be viewed as one of the largest clock radios yet released for the iPod. As explained further below, we tend to see it as a speaker first and a so-so, grafted on clock radio second, but opinions on this one may vary.
Viewed merely as an iPod speaker system, Concert to Go is pretty good by reference to what you can get elsewhere for the same outlay of cash. While its audio drivers have not been tuned to the extent we’d expect from a truly excellent, comparably sized iPod audio system - a failing of the less expensive i.Sounds we’ve tested that renders them flatter-sounding than peer speakers - the default out-of-box sound is a bit better than inoffensive, and capable of being turned up to above-average volumes with only modest distortion. The distortion increases considerably as you boost the system’s output to large room-filling levels, and there’s a light buzz in the speakers even when nothing’s playing, but for the price, it’s not bad. Once again, the system’s stereo separation is apparent but lacking for the detail or imaging that can create a convincingly large stage, but the sound is conspicuously more dynamic, bigger, and cleaner than the $50 less expensive i.Sound Wall. Given that they otherwise share similar features, this is a much better value for the dollar, if considerably more limited in portability by its larger size and commensurately greater weight.
That said, Concert to Go is unquestionably not an audio rival for the iM7, which as we’ve noted many times despite its $250 MSRP can be had these days for around $150, yet delivers comparatively outstanding sound. Superior driver tuning and a dedicated side-firing subwoofer make the iM7 sparkle and growl in ways that the i.Sound system cannot, and we needn’t go through the list of other options one can pick with similarly impressive audio for $150 or less; as our extensive reviews section shows, there are many. The system’s lack of dynamic range may be partially blamed on dreamGear’s inclusion of a remote control with screwed up bass and treble tweaking functionality. As with the company’s TimeTravel system, we found the remote’s buttons harder to use than might be imagined; for instance, neither the instructions nor the remote made clear how to actually adjust the treble or bass, and we couldn’t figure it out ourselves after several days of intermittent trying.
The remote’s otherwise okay. With 19 buttons, it’s capable of putting the unit on low-power standby mode - unlike the lower-priced i.Sound Wall’s remote - and features full control over the system’s AM/FM clock radio, plus iPod track and menu navigation controls, digital volume controls, and a snooze button for the alarm. Like Wall’s remote, it works only on a direct line of sight from the front panel, and not especially well from the sides, but we were able to use it from 20-foot distances without a problem - not great by absolute standards but better than Wall’s performance, for sure. Twin AA cells in the remote improve Concert to Go’s performance here, but have the consequence of making the remote around two or three times as thick as Apple’s and Altec’s alternatives, and taller besides.
That brings us to the unit’s radio functionality. Rather than integrating antennas into the large shell, a design choice that would have really rendered Concert to Go more portable, dreamGear has instead included two separate external radio antennas - a big one for AM and a small coil for FM. We found that these parts significantly complicated the process of carrying the unit from room to room or outdoors, but more importantly didn’t work exceptionally well. FM reception was, in a word, bad, and AM reception was only decent, with a fairly high level of noise on those channels it could tune. Tuning is accomplished in painful .1 increments for FM, and we didn’t think much of the unit’s simple station scan and memory feature, either. If you’re thinking of getting this system for the radio, our advice would be not to expect too much.
As an alarm clock, Concert to Go is similarly a bit above passable. You can set its single alarm to wake you from the iPod, the current AM or FM radio station, or a tone. The tone is surprisingly pleasant - a little song - rather than the dull drone of a digital bell or buzzer, though you can’t set volume for the alarm separately from the unit’s current speaker volume level. It’s also worth a note that dreamGear’s clock is only decent - though it’s larger than the ones on TimeTravel and Wall, the backlight is either on or off, without a dimmer, and there’s no calendar information like that on Wall; the display is used only for the time, and indications of the current audio source and alarm settings.
The only other features worth noting relate to ports and pack-ins. dreamGear includes Composite and S-Video outputs on the unit’s back, along with a USB port and the necessary cables to use Concert to Go with a computer or a television set. An auxiliary audio port and cables (minijack to RCA and minijack) let you connect non-iPod devices to the system, as well. In these regards, the system is exemplary: it offers nice input and output ports and all the necessary cables to use them.
We found Concert to Go tough to rate. For the price, it sounds good but not great - the marks of a B-level rating - but its weak radio performance, so-so remote performance, and so-so clock and alarm features all place it closer to the C-range. Our general impression was that system’s issues took away from an otherwise good, perhaps B+-rated product, but we recognize that some people will ignore the clock and radio and focus on the speaker performance. To be fair to both its good and disappointing qualities, we felt that Concert to Go merited our B-minus, limited recommendation. However, if you’re willing to overlook its deficiencies, some of which are fairly significant, you’ll find that it’s a fine iPod audio system with better sound and I/O features than many other options at its suggested retail price.