Review: Monster Beatbox
If there's one thing that we had expected to be a lock in Monster's Beatbox ($450) -- its first all-in-one iPod and iPhone speaker, co-developed with famed rap producer Dr. Dre as part of their Beats line -- it would have been heavy bass, a signature element both in Dre-produced songs and prior Beats headphone products. Yet this system, priced directly between the mass of "premium" $300 audio systems and comparably rare $600 offerings from companies such as Bowers & Wilkins and Bose, isn't a low-end heavyweight; instead, it's a more nuanced performer with its own advantages and disadvantages, some of which are matters of personal taste rather than fact.
As has been the case with most of the higher-end audio systems released for the iPod and iPhone, Beatbox diverges from the typical glossy plastic styling found in cheaper all-in-ones, using a clean design that initially appears stark but has subtle hints of class. Straight out of the box, the system looks like a plain matte-finished trapezoid with an unusually off-centered iPhone and iPod dock on the top left, a big scoop-style carrying handle in the middle, and a volume knob off to the right. A small power button sits next to the dock, concave and anything but flashy, and the system’s sole indicator light is on its face, hidden behind an all-black grille. So too are four speaker drivers, two we measured at roughly 5” in diameter and two at around 1.75”—Monster calls them 5.25” and 2”, respectively. In a bright room, the drivers and a silver Beats logo can be seen through the grille; in darkness, they’re almost invisible.
This is, like the Beats headphones, a stylish design that is hard to find fault with on the aesthetics. Beatbox is as visually neutral as Bose’s SoundDock 10 and certainly less polarizing than B&W’s Zeppelin or, say, Altec Lansing’s iMT800 Mix, all systems that possess similarly large speakers and ambitions of filling rooms with powerful volume levels. You can decide for yourself whether Beatbox’s looks work for your personal needs; our feeling is that it certainly won’t turn people off, and so closely resembles center-channel surround speakers that it will easily blend into most living rooms.
Monster falls short only in the frills department, including a plain, button-limited Infrared remote control, dock inserts, and feet to prop the system up on a flat surface if you’d like. The rear has a line-in port, a power port for a short included cable, and a rubber cap to cover a compartment labeled “Wireless Module.” If we were placing bets, we’d put money on Monster releasing a $100-$150 AirPlay adapter for Beatbox, but the company has said only that it’s for a Streamcast Wireless System Adapter—whatever that may be.
As with all speakers at or above the $300 price point, Beatbox will thrive or fail on the strength of its sonic performance, and it’s here that the system runs into some difficulties. On a positive note, the system’s treble performance is considerably better than we would have expected from a system that relies upon 2” drivers for high-frequency sound reproduction, rendering tracks with crispness and detail that might even surprise users of the more expensive B&W Zeppelin. Lossless songs played on both systems next to one another sparkled a little more on Beatbox, and for psychoacoustic reasons sounded as if they were a little cleaner at the same volume levels. Beatbox’s top volume level is a little louder than Zeppelin’s, though the difference isn’t major; both have more than enough power to deafen users in a small room, and fill a medium-sized one—the only noteworthy takeaway is that both systems continue to sound good at their peaks when less expensive systems fall apart.
Beatbox’s biggest issue is in its low-end, where it lacks for the dedicated bass hardware that would commonly be expected in systems at this price point—$300 all-in-ones such as the iMT800, Logitech’s prior Pure-Fi Elite, and others have dedicated or more large speakers purely to bass, but the $450 Beatbox relies on its 5.25” drivers to handle both midrange and low-frequency sounds. Midrange performance is very respectable and, like the treble, detailed enough to pass muster even at this price point, but the consequence is that the system doesn’t reach as low as the Zeppelin or the iMT800, both of which offer warmer and deeper bass than the Beatbox. Even Dr. Dre’s own songs are performed more clinically through this speaker than we’d expected. As just one example, you can feel and settle into the heavy background beat in “Been There, Done That” with the Zeppelin, while Beatbox focuses your attention more on the high-pitched percussion. We’d have guessed that the beat-driven Dr. Dre would have preferred the former style of performance back when the song was released in 1996, but who really knows? In any case, the added clarity that Beatbox appears to offer is partially due to its restraint in the bass department; without the extra warmth flooding the speakers, your ears focus more on other nuances in songs, for better or worse.
Overall, while we certainly wouldn’t call Beatbox sonically anemic when considered in totality, the reality is that its performance puts it on par with the top $300 iPod and iPhone audio systems we’ve tested—arguably better in clarity, while falling a little short in bass—even though Monster’s selling it at a significant step up in price. If it was marketed as a direct rival to the $300 Bose SoundDock or the Altec iMT800, it would hold its own thanks to its strong treble and midrange performance, which continues at volume levels that many lower-priced peers couldn’t match. At $450, however, Beatbox is a bit of a reach; it doesn’t perform at the same level as the best $600 speakers out there, but it doesn’t cost as much, either. It’s therefore notable more for the quality of its styling than the sonic advantages it offers relative to lower- or higher-end competitors. On balance, we’d call it just good enough to merit our general recommendation at this point; future price tweaks and the wireless adapter’s release may make it a better buy.