Price: G.B.P. 24.98, Approx. US$48.00
Compatible: iPod 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo
PodGear PocketParty Portable Speaker System
Pros: Clean and attractive ultra-portable stereo speaker solution for the iPod delivers best sound quality we’ve heard in a package that barely stretches the width of a full-sized iPod.
Cons: Volume appropriate largely for one- or two-person listening at short distances, can’t compete on raw power with larger and more expensive solutions, and is itself slightly more expensive than its highly similar competitor. Not compatible with iPod shuffle.
If you’ve read our review of Macally’s ultra-portable PodWave speakers (version 2, iLounge rating: A-), you might think you have no need to read further. But despite some obvious cosmetic similarities and a strong likelihood of similar components inside, PodGear’s new PocketParty (G.B.P. 24.98, approx. US$48.00) isn’t exactly the same animal. Currently listed as a U.K. and European product only, it’s a slightly modified PodWave body that costs a bit more, is more stable on top of full-sized and mini iPods, and has a hair more bass. Since the two products are so similar to one another, we’ll repeat the salient points from the PodWave review below, and update them as appropriate to the PocketParty.
As the name suggests, PocketParty is a stereo speaker system small enough to fit in a pocket. Measuring 3.25 x 1.5 x 1.13, it’s modestly longer than the top of any full-sized iPod, and when its stereo audio plug is in the iPod, it stands a single inch higher. Unlike Macally, PodGear inserts a dummy plastic piece into the iPod’s four-pin headphone port extension, thereby stabilizing the PocketParty in a single position whenever it’s inserted on a full-sized iPod or iPod mini. Consequently, however, PocketParty won’t work on an iPod shuffle or non-iPod devices, and PodWave does.
Two white metal rounded speaker grilles stick out of its sides, creating separate left and right audio channel outputs from the iPod. A gray and overly conspicuous PodGear logo with slogan (“Free your tunes”) is on its front, with a single AA battery compartment (for around 10 hours of power) labeled with the PocketParty name and a CE certification on its rear. A simple black on-off switch turns PocketParty on and off, and there’s no volume knob; only the iPod’s volume controls adjust its output.
The major visual difference between the PodWave and PocketParty speakers is physical shape. Whereas PodWave is a tube, PocketParty is a rounded square pipe with similarly rounded square speakers. Otherwise, the units look as if they were built by the same company: save the shape of their plastic casings, all of the components, screw holes, and switches are the same. And Macally’s PodWave subtly leaves a groove for the full-sized iPod’s hold switch and PodGear does not. They’re so much alike that you’d be tempted to believe that they sound alike, too.
We previously expected that any speakers in this size class would perform terribly: miniaturization and low pricing rarely help audio quality. But Macally and PodGear seem to have found a good supplier: given their intended purposes, both companies’ speakers produce sound that is pretty clean and maintains a healthy frequency balance. We noted that the PodWave wasn’t tinny, but there wasn’t any thump in its bass, and it had limited ability to accurately reproduce sound on the same level as a more expensive and larger (but still portable) speaker system. PocketParty is almost identical, but sounded a little better at high volumes: slightly clearer, with hints of extra punch at both the bass and treble ends of the spectrum. By comparison, the PodWave begins to show slight warble at its top volume level. For additional comparative purposes, it should be noted that both units sound substantially cleaner and louder than the vaguely competitive Griffin iTalk, and less distorted and flat than Monster’s iSpeaker.
Both units’ stereo separation is also surprisingly good, thanks to both companies’ decision to have the speakers cast their sound off to the left and right rather than forward at the listener. While both create a predictably small sound stage, you can clearly hear sounds intended to come from the left and the right even at a fair distance from the iPod and speakers; everything else sounds as if it’s at center stage in the middle of the iPod.
Only one limitation bears mention: don’t expect either product to deliver enough volume for stress-test listening - they’re not going to be audible over the sounds of a passing train. This is the one area where neither device can compete with full-fledged portable speaker systems such as the inMotion series from Altec. It’s a nearly perfect individual listening device if you don’t want to use headphones, but no substitute for a larger set of speakers.
If the PodWave and the PocketParty were equally priced and available to customers in the same countries, we’d pick the PocketParty by a small amount - at least for iPod and iPod mini owners. But at the present time, they’re not; the PocketParty is around $10 (G.B.P. 5) more expensive in countries such as the U.K. where both items are sold, and with the exception of the PocketParty’s incompatibility with iPod shuffles, the physical and audio differences between the two units are truly so minute that average listeners will neither know nor care about them. It’s additionally worth noting that European users with volume-capped iPods may not be able to squeeze really usable sound out of any ultra-portable speaker, given that a U.S. iPod on maximum volume only drives the PocketParty and PodWave speakers moderately above the level of moderate ambient noise in a room.
As the PocketParty’s price creeps dangerously into the territory of better sounding systems, and is a fair bit above that of Pacific Rim Technology’s top Cube Travel Speakers, we think they’re an A- overall: still highly recommendable, but a toss-up relative to some other excellent options. iPod shuffle users should go after the PodWaves first, but if you’re an iPod mini or full-sized iPod owner who can find PocketParty speakers where you live, and their price doesn’t steer you towards the cheaper options we’ve mentioned, you’ll like how they sound and love how ultra-portable they are.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.