Review: Microlab MD332 2.1 Stereo Audio System
Wide, all-in-one 2.1-channel speaker systems were all the rage a few years ago: in 2006, Apple and XtremeMac started the trend with iPod Hi-Fi and Tango, then Griffin released Amplifi in 2007, followed by Blue Raven's Maestro 1070, and XtremeMac countered back with Tango X2 in 2008. Though the designs died off that year -- Grace Digital abruptly cancelled its sharp-looking GDI-iDock5 before release -- the direction of the trend before that was obvious: preserve a similar form factor, pack in more features, and aim for a lower price.
That brings us to the Microlab MD332 ($120), which originally arrived at such a suspiciously low $100 asking price that we said in our First Look that “it’s hard to believe what comes in the package.” The MD332 is a 16 1/2” wide, 6 1/8” tall, 10 3/4” deep box that looks like it could have come from the same family as Griffin’s Amplify, XtremeMac’s Tango X2, or Grace Digital’s GDI-iDock5. This box suspends twin 2.5” speakers, a 5” down-firing bass driver, a clock, an AM/FM radio, and an iPod dock 1.5” off the surface of a table, wrapping everything in a wood, plastic, metal, and faux leather cabinet. It is solely designed for the iPod, though it works fine with the iPhone 3G and 3GS, subject to the standard iPhone interference nag screen.
Let there be no doubt about two things: first, the MD332 has every sign of a product that was made in China—the way-too-low pricing, the janky user interface, the mismatched Infrared remote control, and the somewhat generic industrial design. There’s nothing original or especially awesome about this package. But the second point is key: despite all of the foregoing comments, this is actually a really nice little iPod speaker system—the better-looking heir to those discontinued 2007 and 2008 systems. The faux leather, glossy front plastic, swirled metal volume knob, and metallic front buttons all look really, truly neat. It’s just a shame that the last layer of polish this system needed was never applied.
One strong positive: the system actually sounds good right out of the box. The three drivers kick out nice sound that’s bass-rich, solid in the midrange, and fine in the treble department considering that we’re talking about something that sells for $120—we’ve heard systems in the $150 to $200 range that aren’t as balanced, low in distortion, or powerful as this one. MD332 feels solidly built, and the sound that it puts out is just plain enjoyable without any tweaking; bass and treble controls on the remote control let you make adjustments, albeit relatively minor ones on -7 to +7 scales, if you want.
Another positive: the system has a bright red-lit clock on the front. And the AM/FM radio features both work pretty much as expected, with typical static levels given the limitations of AM and FM broadcasting and the placement of Microlab’s included external AM and FM antennas. Music tuned through the receivers isn’t perfectly static-free, but it’s fine; obviously, audio played through the iPod is clearer, stronger, and better. The single biggest issue with the antennas we noticed was that they’re cheap: the AM antenna’s wires needed to be hand-braided to connect to the back of the unit, and the FM antenna’s wire had a plastic cap that fell off after connection. Both were eventually connected to the back of the system without issues, but their design and build quality were unimpressive.
MD332’s integrated buttons and tuning features are similarly less than ideal in some ways, though they look nice. The power switch is on the unit’s back, on the other side of a heat sink from separate left and right RCA-style audio inputs, and you’re supposed to hit a “ST-BY” (standby) button on the front to turn it on and off without disabling the front clock face, which is stuck in an unattractive 24-hour display mode. The clock can be set by clicking on the Clock button, and a single simple alarm can be set by clicking on an Alarm button, automatically playing the connected iPod or otherwise the last tuned FM radio station at the appointed time.
Once you hit ST-BY, you then hit the Input button to toggle between IPXX, AUXX, FXX.X, and AXXX, which represent the iPod dock and volume number, the Auxiliary input and volume, the FM radio and station, and the AM radio and station, with the IP and AU numbers ranging from silent 00 to blistering 60, with volume levels at or over 50 falling into distortion. MD332 is a more powerful system than virtually anything else we’ve seen at the $120 price point, so the high-volume distortion doesn’t bother us much. Fifteen presets per band are available, but tuned only through the included white remote, which looks totally unlike the rest of the system and really could use a makeover. That said, it does include iPod navigation buttons, play/pause/track/volume controls, and better controls over the clock and audio that anything found on the unit itself; sadly, both the remote and the unit tune radio stations slowly, in small 0.1 FM increments that haven’t been adjusted for U.S. bands. Those presets become important because manual tuning is so sluggish.
Ultimately, the MD332 leaves a mixed but positive overall impression: even after the price was bumped from $100 to $120, this is a surprisingly affordable, nice-looking audio system that offers budget-conscious iPod users a powerful and reasonably well-balanced speaker option in a package that looks much nicer than prior, similar designs we’ve tested. Yet its clock, radio, and other electronic functionality are all caveated by little issues that really could have used a little extra polish. If you proceed on the “you get what you pay for” philosophy or merely ignore the clock and radio in favor of Microlab’s iPod speaker performance, you’ll likely be very impressed by this system for the $120 asking price; if you demand perfection, or if the company opts to try and raise the price again, we’d advise you to spend your dollars elsewhere.