Review: Kensington FX 500 Speaker To Go
Late last year, we looked at three hybrid "speaker cases" -- iPod accessories that simultaneously protect your iPod and allow you to hear its music. During the review of one of them, Kensington's monaural FX 300, we noted that the same product with iPod screen and control access would have been worthy of our flat B, standard-level recommendation rather than a B-, limited recommendation; none of the three speakers blew us away.
Now Kensington has released FX 500 ($50), which for $20 more changes three primary features the FX 300 design: you now get iPod screen and control access through a medium-thickness clear plastic panel, a second speaker, and considerable additional bulk. Like FX 300 and Portable Sound Laboratories’ iMainGo, it’s technically device and iPod-agnostic because it uses a headphone plug rather than a Dock Connector to connect your iPod, but it does best with devices sized and shaped like full-sized iPods.
That’s because Kensington’s device compartment wasn’t designed especially well. Full-sized iPods and all other devices save the nano are held in place by nothing more than two elastic and Velcro straps, which when combined with the type of plastic used on the unit’s front made it a challenge to precisely control the iPod inside. While there’s a foam insert included to help FX 500 accommodate iPod nanos; the type of plastic used for the cover means that you still have to work to make the controls, particularly button presses, function fully. On the bright side, the compartment does permit you full and unfettered screen access to even the larger 5G iPod screen.
From an audio standpoint, FX 500 isn’t an especially impressive upgrade to the FX 300. As noted, the unit now houses a second speaker, enabling you to hear modest stereo separation in your songs, though we’d underscore the word “modest.” Like all of Kensington’s speakers, FX 500 is based upon NXT flat panel audio technology, which can convert virtually any surface into a speaker, but rarely delivers stellar audio performance. The unit’s semi-soft, splash-resistant shell isn’t an ideal conduit for sound, and is so modest in the stereo department that the second speaker seems hardly worth the bother and bulk. FX 500 didn’t match the clarity or overall balance of Logic 3’s $35 i-Station Traveller; it sounded comparatively muddled, flat, and boomy.
We had mixed feelings about the unit’s case. On one hand, Kensington’s made it attractively neutral, using only black and gray tones, a good double zipper, and a functional if simple flip-out metal stand to prop the system up while it’s in use. There’s no volume control—that’s handled on your iPod—just a power switch in the front, which activates the three AAA batteries inside for around 10 hours of high-volume play. It all just works.
But it’s big, at 8.6” by 6.25” by 1.25”, roughly twice the volume of the FX300, and therefore comparably sized to a set of considerably better-sounding Altec Lansing speakers. The flip stand hangs loose on the case’s bottom and flaps around when the case isn’t standing up; there’s no sturdy bike or other mounting hardware here like what was included with iHome’s better-sounding iH19, and the prior bag- or belt-ready carabiner clip has disappeared as well, thanks to the case’s size.
Ultimately, making FX 500 bigger didn’t make it better in most regards, and they also made it more expensive. As we said in our prior FX 300 review, all that case needed to be legitimately good for its $30 price was iPod screen and control access, but given how that feature was implemented here, plus the added $20 price, and the mediocrity of the stereo sound, we think it’s a toss-up between FX 300 and FX 500. One offers some (but not great) additional iPod access, and the other one’s cheaper and easier to carry. Neither is what it could or should have been.