Review: Monster iSpeaker Portable
Pros: Small, truly portable size, clean iPod-matching design, and runs off batteries.
Cons: Clock radio audio quality, no volume controls, and no AC power supply.
Over the last several years, one company rapidly became synonymous with premium-priced, bling bling audio and video accessories - the sorts of parts people would find connecting their brand new home theater components when they told a Best Buy or Circuit City salesperson to spare no expense. Whether it was $59.95 for Monster Cable’s gold-tipped Xbox cables when Microsoft’s reference version sold for $19.95, or $49.95 for “gas-injected dielectric” FireWire cables that could be had for $3.99 as no-frills generics, we’ll admit to having been somewhat skeptical of the premium products based on their prices alone in the past.
But Monster’s new iSpeaker Portable is - depending on one’s perspective - a major exception to the company’s generally premium prices. At a MSRP of $59.95, it’s now the cheapest iPod-dedicated portable speaker system on the market. If you’ve read our review of Altec Lansing’s inMotion Speakers, you’re aware that we liked the idea of a truly portable speaker set that matched the look of the iPod, though we had some reservations about Altec’s $149.95 price and performance relative to even low-end quasi-portable JBL Creature speakers. Now Monster has come along with a small, iPod-complimenting speaker set priced at - surprise - under half of Altec’s price. How does it compare?
A Return Back to CD Cases?
If you thought you’d left CD jewel cases far behind, the iSpeaker Portable may be a bit of a visual shock: it’s a speaker set in the exact size and shape as a classic double-CD plastic case. And it even has left and right compartments that flip open, only the trick here is that each side’s plastic is actually… a speaker. A 5.25” by 4.75” speaker.
These aren’t just any old speakers, mind you: the iSpeaker Portable is based upon technology licensed from NXT, a company that recently figured out how to make speakers out of anything from flat-panel LCD screens to picture frames. In this case, the shells of a double-CD case become nearly square audio sources, an audio line plugs in to the rear of the center of the case, and a tiny power switch turns on the miniature amplifier and four AA batteries nestled inside. A small blue LED indicates that the unit’s ready to play. When folded up with batteries, the total thickness of the iSpeaker Portable is a mere inch and the weight is slightly over a pound.
Monster’s styling has varied from iPod peripheral to peripheral, and unlike its black car chargers and grey cassette adapter, this speaker set is an easier match with the iPod. Clear plastic shells coat the two silver hard foam speaker panels, and white plastic is used for the central amplifier compartment. Black text on the interior reading “MacSpeaker by Monster” hints that a secondary marketing plan towards PowerBook and iBook users might be afoot, and the unit’s silver exterior would certainly seem as good a match for either of those laptops as anything else.
Also included in the package are the four necessary batteries and a three-foot male-to-male gold-tipped stereo minijack cable - but not much else. Notably, the iSpeaker Portable package is missing an AC power cable or adapter, though the back of the unit includes a port for a power line. Blame the low price tag or the “Portable” moniker, but a power cable is something we would have expected to find in the box.
Flat Panels, Flat Audio Quality
We went into testing the iSpeaker Portable without any preconceived notions as to how it would perform, as we were confronted with the unusual offering of a product at a low-end price point from a company known for premium audio and video components. And as we recently found in our tests of the aforementioned inMotion and JBL speakers, higher prices don’t necessarily translate into better audio quality. Given Monster’s reputation and its unusual use of NXT’s technology, we thought that there was a possibility that they would deliver impressive audio in this tiny little package.
Like most audio peripherals, the iSpeaker Portable sounded fine before we compared it to anything. There wasn’t much left- and right-channel audio separation, but we didn’t expect it because of our experiences with similar portable speaker solutions, and Monster’s speakers - like the inMotions - are not detachable. The output from the iSpeaker Portable is a flat, loudspeaker-like wall of sound without noticeable depth or range, reproducing audio but not giving it fine or especially accurate definition.
Lacking volume controls of any sort, Monster’s peripheral depended on the iPod’s built-in volume controls, and first exhibited noticeable distortion at above-average volumes. When we turned the volume down to average, the music sounded acceptable for non-demanding applications - picnics, visits to the beach, or occasional desktop use. We thought we could hear distortion at average to low volumes, as well - slight static-like popping from the midrange of a tested clean audio source, accompanied by less than crisp treble and very little apparent bass.
Our suspicion was confirmed when we compared the iSpeaker Portable to our reference JBL Creatures, which we use as a benchmark of the audio quality iPod users can expect for around $100. Switching between both sets of speakers, the differences were much more pronounced than between the inMotions and the Creatures, and we could clearly hear generalized distortions in songs that together created a staticy fuzziness in the Monsters distinct from the cleaner, crisp performance of the Creatures. We were left with the distinct impression that the Monsters sounded like inexpensive clock radio speakers, not tinny, but muddled, and were not intended to be pushed much. That’s not what we would have expected from products bearing the Monster name, but then, it’s easy to blame the iSpeaker Portable’s relatively low price for just about anything.
Conclusions and Options
Marketed at a price tag under $60, the iSpeaker Portable is a cheap audio solution, and perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that it fails to stand out against higher-end speakers. Monster’s peripheral is certainly significantly cheaper than the $100 JBL Creatures and $150 inMotions, and not coincidentally, our testing places it in third place behind both products in performance. The iSpeaker Portable is also generally lower priced (varying by store) than Sony’s foldable silver SRS-T77s, the model Apple previously stocked as a generic portable audio solution in Apple Stores, though we have not performed a unit-to-unit comparison of those two devices. (We’ll note parenthetically that the SRS-T77s include an AC power adapter, but have received mixed commentary for their audio performance.)
But the relatively low price tag can’t excuse everything, and there’s no doubt that the audio performance of the iSpeaker Portable isn’t stellar. Sixty dollars is still sixty dollars, and there are some people who might flinch at spending $60 on a less than spectacular set of speakers. For cash-conscious consumers, we’d recommend testing a few different devices in person before making any final choices. Those with more money will have a better variety of options.
Since the choice between speakers is so often a question of balancing price and performance, it would be easy to say that the iSpeaker Portable performs adequately as a budget audio solution, and assume that audiophiles would be willing to spend a bit more for superior performance. But there’s another alternative. If you have around $150 to spend on portable iPod-matching speakers, the choice may now seem to come down to Monster’s $60 solution and the $150 inMotions; however, the price difference is significant enough to leave Monster buyers with almost enough cash to buy a second set of higher-quality desktop speakers. If we were shopping for portable speakers, that’s the option we’d seriously consider.