Review: Griffin Journi Personal Mobile Speaker System
Pros: A somewhat novel, aggressively priced portable speaker system that generally compares to top-rated peers in features and audio performance. Includes a good quality Infrared remote control, 8-10 hour rechargeable battery, iPod cable and wall charger; capable of charging itself and iPod from wall or computer USB power. Leatherette case doubles as a stand.
Cons: Though build quality is high, with rubberized sides and a reinforced casing, overall sound quality, look and feel aren’t as slick as in the best portable systems we’ve seen. Audio is more treble-heavy than some listeners will prefer, not as dynamic as in top competitors.
New speaker makers—even when they’re established vendors of other types of accessories—now instantly raise our suspicions. It’s far too easy these days for a Western company to slap its name on a system already on sale in Taiwan or China, raise the price by $50-100, and market it as its own. And there are other things that happen often with inexperienced speaker sellers, too: features don’t work, sound quality isn’t up to snuff with designs by bigger players, or the sound signature changes in the middle of the product’s life cycle.
Griffin Technology has for years been one of the leading vendors of iPod accessories, but its experience in speakers is decidedly limited. After releasing its only prior speaker system—the rebranded, Asian-developed, nothing special TuneBox for iPod shuffle—back in 2005, Griffin retrenched for an extended period to develop truly new speaker products. The fruits of that effort are beginning to appear on store shelves: Amplifi ($150) is an aggressively-priced, tabletop-sized competitor to Bose’s SoundDock, Journi ($130) is a feature-packed portable speaker system, and Evolve ($300) provides you with two wireless speaker cubes you can carry around. We review Amplifi and Journi today; Evolve is scheduled for release in July.
The good news about Amplifi and Journi is that they’re both competent new speaker offerings, and unlike so many of the alternatives we see these days, they’re actually groundbreaking in at least minor-league ways. Amplifi delivers unmatched sound performance for its $150 suggested retail price, so closely rivaling Bose’s $299 SoundDock that only looks and small sound differences are in Bose’s favor. And while Journi isn’t the sonic rival of its top competitor, Logitech’s mm50, it’s the least expensive portable iPod speaker that includes a rechargeable battery, remote control, and carrying case. Since they’re so similar to one another in price, the dichotomy is obvious: consider Amplifi if you need a tabletop speaker, and Journi only if you need something to take on the road.
While we were actively enthusiastic about Amplifi’s sound quality for the price—typically our most serious consideration in assigning a final rating to a speaker system—it was the frills-to-dollar ratio that appealed to us in Journi. When you open Griffin’s $130 box, you find inside a speaker system similar to a classic Altec Lansing inMotion unit, only wrapped in a high-quality imitation leather shell. Mostly black with silver dots on its front and back, the shell attaches magnetically to the rear of Journi’s black and silver body, covering a panel that houses the unit’s included six-button Infrared remote control and an odd little dial. A magnet holds the remote in—a smart touch—while the dial can be used to resize a pad inside Journi’s front central iPod dock.
At maximum extension, the pad just touches the back of an iPod nano, though the dock otherwise provides no front or side physical support to hold your iPod inside. A Dock Connector is the only true tether, so you’ll want to make sure the dial is kept in the proper position to support your iPod, especially when transporting Journi with an iPod inside, lest you accidentally flex the Connector. Alongside the dock are silver metal speaker grilles that appear to house four audio drivers, but actually only contain two, with two adjacent passive radiator vents. The speakers boast SRS Labs’ SRS WOW digital signal processing, and like the docked iPod in the center can be controlled with the included remote, or with buttons on Journi’s sides. Griffin’s remote worked well on line-of-sight from 25-foot distances—further than the mm50’s remote under identical lighting conditions, but a little under iM600’s.
The unit’s rubberized right side hides volume and power buttons, along with a red power light, while the left side battery button and four yellow lights let you know how much of the rechargeable battery’s life remains. Griffin promises 8 to 10 hours of play on a single charge from the included PowerBlock AC wall adapter—our testing saw performance on the higher end of that range—and the adapter can be split into a cable-only portion for connection to a computer, as well. Interestingly, Journi can recharge from your computer while charging and/or syncing your iPod, a novel and convenient alternative to using the wall charger if your Mac or PC has a USB port to spare. Like its Dock Connector port, an audio line-in port is hidden within a rubberized compartment on the unit’s left side, and could be connected to your computer or non-Dock Connecting iPods for audio purposes.
We found Journi an interesting contrast with top-rated peer speakers such as Logitech’s mm50 and Altec Lansing’s latest inMotion, iM600. Logitech redefined the portable speaker category by bundling high-quality speakers with a simple iPod dock, simple metal prop-up legs, a nice carrying case, rechargeable battery, and remote control. Then Altec released the iM600, which for the same $150 price looked nicer than the mm50, included a nice FM radio tuner, and dropped only one feature—the carrying case. Griffin is taking a smart “new challenger” attitude: it comes at both these products with a $20 price advantage, includes an acceptable carrying case, plus a remote and a rechargeable battery that are both better than Logitech’s. But there were compromises.
One is the way the system stands up. You fold the case back and stick a hard, reinforced part of the leatherette into a hole on the bottom back of Journi. As with mm50, the system stands up properly, but doesn’t have quite the same unwavering feeling of inherent stability as the iM600. Like Logitech’s design, Griffin’s works, but isn’t ideal. We also weren’t blown away with the system’s overall look; like the company’s Amplifi speaker, it looks fine, but not great, especially by contrast with the sharp iM600.
Another compromise is on sound quality. Despite licensing SRS WOW technology, which is supposed to produce “big sound from a compact package,” Journi didn’t wow us—our initial feeling, confirmed with comparative testing, was that it sounds more than acceptable for portable purposes, but not quite as big or dynamic as either the iM600 and mm50. Benchmarked against last year’s sub-mm50 portable speaker offerings, we guessed that Journi would do pretty well, but the wide-bodied mm50 design has continued to confound attempts at sonic duplication for the dollar. In tests, the mm50 sounds comparatively warm, smooth, and spatialized, while Journi has a more treble-flavored, occasionally harsh presentation, coming across at once as more clinical and slightly less enjoyable. There’s also a bit more amplifier noise in Journi, though you won’t hear it unless your iPod’s on pause and you’re standing nearby. You can abstract its performance relative to the mm50-like iM600 from the iM600 review; it suffices to say we preferred the iM600’s sound, as well.
It’s a good thing, then, that Journi’s priced more aggressively than both of these peers: for the $130 asking price, it delivers a bit more in features—particularly in charging and synchronization options—than the current crop of mm50s, and includes a case, which is absent from the iM600. Overall, we’d be inclined to recommend the mm50 instead on sound, and the iM600 if you need a radio or superior styling, but its combination of features and good battery life make Journi a good enough offering to quality for our general recommendation. On sound quality, we’d put it closer to the flat B range, but we think that its charging versatility, smart magnetic remote, and aggressive pricing make it a closer competitor to the mm50 and iM600 than that. You can make the call as to which system’s feature set and pricing best meets your personal needs and sonic tastes.