Review: Helms SoundBuddy II K999B Mini 2.1 Digital Audio System
Concepts are important, but ultimately, execution is everything. Thus, while the idea of a stark, small, platform-like iPod audio station with three speakers inside makes a lot of sense, what good is such a thing if the end product is too expensive for how it sounds, and not engineered especially well? That's the question facing the Helms SoundBuddy II K999B ($140), which arrived at our door unexpectedly two weeks ago and has basically been confounding us ever since.
Explained broadly, SoundBuddy II looks like a black plastic box with a circular silver metal ring around its central iPod dock, and visual interruptions in its corners. It breaks with convention—a generally good one—in mounting your iPod straight up, rather than on a recline, and further deviates from the norm in eschewing Apple’s Universal Dock standard in favor of some odd, ill-fitting circular inserts that are supposed to keep your iPod in place. Between the design of the inserts and the slightly too recessed Dock Connector that pokes up through them, you don’t get a real sense of confidence that your iPod touch or classic is actually secure on the base; moreover, you can forget about trying to mount these models while inside of most cases. Cosmetically, the idea works, and we frankly love the silver ring against the black top surface, but in practice, the dock really needed some extra time in the shop.
Other touches in the design are similarly a little off. In keeping with the body theme, Helms includes a set of four rubber baby tooth-sized white buttons on the top, two for bass, and two for volume. They’re really small, marked even smaller, and an odd contrast with the otherwise black and silver design. On the front of the unit is a pinhead-sized power light inside of a stripe of silver metallic material, emitting at an angle that makes it difficult to see whether SoundBuddy II is actually on unless you’re positioned directly in front of it.
Should you go on that angle, you’ll see the most unusual design elements of the system’s design. It’s really not so much a box, but rather three layers of plastic, starting with that top docking platform, continuing through a partially carved-out middle section, and finishing with a bottom platform that has three speaker drivers inside. A bass driver radiates from the bottom while two standard speaker drivers oddly fire upwards from the bottom platform, projecting sound directly into the top platform. While it’s normal enough to have a down-firing, side-firing, or even standalone bass driver that can be placed almost anywhere in a room due to the way that low-frequency sounds work, putting tweeter or midrange drivers directly behind a wall of plastic is generally not a great idea. In fact, with the exception of engineering accidents and one audio system—Speakal’s iPig—that does this with two of its five drivers, virtually no one mounts drivers this way.
The reason: these drivers do best when they’re pointing towards you, alright when they’re pointing somewhat away from you, and terribly when you’re either behind them or trying to listen to them through a physical obstruction. SoundBuddy II relies upon these drivers to produce at least two-thirds of its sound, and the results are disasterous: by the standards of $140 audio systems, the highs and mids sound flattened and radio-like, with some treble sibilance and seeming distortion at normal listening levels. Somewhat amazingly, even the bass turns out to be anemic at its maximum level, thanks to the use of a driver that’s barely larger than the midrange/full range drivers in similarly priced systems such as iPig and VestaLife’s LadyBug. The sonic difference between these systems is profound, and embarrassing for Helms; we get the impression that the company must have been trying to build upwards from a system even smaller, like Digifocus’s Pocket Hi-Fi speakers, rather than creating an audio system from scratch to make the most of the $140 asking price.
There’s also the not-so-little issue of power. Virtually every speaker we’ve seen at a $100 or higher price point comes with a wall power supply, and most come with a remote control, as well. Not SoundBuddy II. This bad boy’s equipped with four AA batteries for a meager 10 hours of play, an auxiliary audio cable, and a USB cable if you want to connect it to your computer for power. There’s a port on the back, alongside a simple power switch, if you want to go out and find your own wall adapter, and the system only charges your iPod if you use something other than AA batteries. Again, the K999B’s bundling is a step or two back from the way that virtually all of its competitors operate.
Overall, SoundBuddy II is a rarity these days—a quixotic little speaker that has nothing save an unusual design and size to recommend it over competitors. For the price, and given both its sonic limitations and functional omissions, we can’t in good faith recommend it to any of our readers; it’s the sort of accessory that we’d be tempted to place in the “bad” (D-rated) category but for the fact that it works and does bring a novel if impractical aesthetic to market. Hopefully Helms or someone else will pick up on the unit’s nicer design concepts and incorporate them into a system with more to offer.