Company: Matrix Audio
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones + iPods except iPod shuffle 3G
Matrix Audio Qube
Though the engineering realities are more complex than this reductionist statement would suggest, it's generally accepted that the smaller a speaker is, the less likely it is to sound great by any absolute standard. Even Apple's most carefully selected and enclosure-optimized iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch integrated speakers become noticeably less powerful with each step down the "smaller, thinner" ladder; after a one-time experiment, Apple actually opted to remove speakers altogether from later, smaller iPod nanos rather than include ones that sounded terrible. Third-party accessory developers face similar challenges, but have one major advantage: they can design their add-on speakers in any shape and size they want, and therefore choose whatever parts sound best.
Arriving shortly after JBL’s release of the $39 Micro II speaker, Matrix Audio’s Qube ($50) has a lot in common with that earlier small speaker conceptually, but goes in a completely different direction aesthetically. Both are monaural, single-driver solutions, built with rechargeable batteries, 3.5mm plugs for headphone port audio, and USB cables for recharging. Each comes with a drawstring carrying bag, and is small enough to fit in virtually any pocket.
But while JBL picked a 40mm speaker to fit inside the all-plastic, 3.25” hockey puck-shaped Micro II, Matrix Audio selected a smaller 31mm driver and an almost entirely metal, rounded cube housing measuring just under 1.5” in each direction. Made primarily from anodized aluminum, Qube comes in five different colors, and has a finely perforated plastic speaker grille that looks and feels a little cheap by comparison with the rest of the chassis. Apart from that component, and a slightly lightweight dual audio and recharging cable with a built-in Velcro cord manager, Qube looks and feels really solid—it’s a handsome, compact little speaker.
Functionally, Qube is generally in the right ballpark. The rechargeable battery requires two hours on a USB port to reach around eight hours of playback time—a bit more than the larger Micro II—and using the speaker is quite simple: there’s just one cable to connect to its rear micro-USB port, a single button to press, and a small blue power light on the back to indicate that it’s on or off. There’s no volume knob; everything’s handled on your iOS device. Want to listen to audio? Just connect the cable to your iOS device’s headphone port. Want to charge it? Connect the same cable to a USB port. That’s it. JBL’s decision to build the headphone cable directly into Micro II’s body guarantees that you’ll always have an audio cable around, but leaves the USB cable separate; Matrix Audio’s use of a single cable for both functions has advantages and disadvantages.
Qube’s one stumbling block is sound quality, though as hinted in this review’s introduction, there’s some room for debate over how much this is an actual stumble versus an insurmountable volumetric limitation of small speaker designs. Viewed most positively, Qube does just about as much as could be expected from such a small, aluminum-housed speaker at its price point—the sound is flat and monaural, but reasonably loud: fuller-sounding and two to three times the amplitude of a full-sized iPad’s integrated speaker, with the ability to point forward rather than backward. If all you’re looking for is a way to hear monaural music louder than your iPad, iPhone, or iPod can perform it alone, Qube will do the trick.
However, it needs to be noted that Micro II does the same trick better, at a lower price. JBL’s decision to go with a wider, flatter enclosure gave it the ability to use a larger driver, which provides much more lifelike and richer sound at any volume—plus a slightly higher peak volume than Qube. While Micro II consumes more space, it uses its shape to create a better listening experience. Moreover, JBL wisely designed Micro II to perform sound upwards rather than solely forward, an issue with Qube that could have been remedied with a slightly different enclosure design, or an included stand. Marketing images aside, there’s actually no way to mount Qube on an edge that would project its sound upwards from a flat surface; this could help its sonic performance at least a little under some circumstances.
The key reasons to prefer Qube over JBL’s Micro II would be the former’s unique metal body, smaller size, and longer battery life. If you’re looking for a good rather than great little speaker, and prioritize aesthetics over sonic performance, Qube will satisfy your needs; it is certainly distinctive and respectably built, at a price point that’s not crazy for what it offers. That said, we’re going to keep our fingers crossed for a sequel, as we like what Matrix Audio has done here, while definitely seeing room for improvement in a future model.