Review: Sharper Image iSphere ZipConnect Speakers
Pros: A three-speaker system with pretty good sound quality and a nice overall look.
Cons: Odd docking system and lack of included features (iPod charging, remote, sound control) by comparison with other options in its price range.
Sharper Image had a good thing going in the 1980s and early 1990s. Its mail order catalogs were always packed with photographs of high-tech gadgets - generally touted as hand-selected, and best of breed. The prices were high, but the industrial design of the products was generally impeccable, and readers had every reason to believe that someone smart was selecting each catalog’s offerings.
By the mid-1990’s, catalog and Internet mail-order business was common, and prices became increasingly competitive. But Sharper Image stuck with its pricing and selection formula, and expanded it to include exclusive “Sharper Image Design” items you can’t buy anywhere else. Now the iPod gets two such exclusives - speaker systems called the iSphere ZipConnect Speaker System($149.95) and iPulse ZipConnect Speakers with Colorsync LED ($129.95). This review covers iSphere, while a separate review covers iPulse.
The ZipConnect System
Though marketed primarily to iPod owners, iSphere is sold by default as cross-compatible with virtually any small music player. Like iPulse, it comes with the company’s only universal “ZipConnect” unit, a detachable white box with a retractable headphone jack plug - a less than optimal way to connect an iPod for listening.
If you want a better experience, you have to buy an optional ZipConnect accessory - either Dock Connector (iPod/iPod mini/iPod nano) or USB (iPod shuffle). These ZipConnects now sell separately for $9.95 a piece, down from a more objectionable $19.95, and should be considered mandatory if you want to charge your iPod and pull music from its bottom rather than its top.
iSphere: The Design
iSphere is the more broadly appealing of the two speaker systems, designed as a glossy white plastic globe with 2.1 channels of sound. It is 7.5 inches in diameter and weighs 2.5 pounds, which makes it a little larger than the footprint of a typical clock radio, minus the clock and radio. Black and silver speakers are mounted behind matching silver mesh grilles in a triangular fashion, left and right channels on the front, with a bass-filling subwoofer (the .1) on the back. A vent on the bottom lets the speakers breathe.
A recessed dark gray plastic cup at the top appears from a distance to be an iPod dock, but doesn’t really hold the iPod as much as give it a place to sit. One medium-sized detachable hard plastic piece fits into the cup to provide a sort of backing for an iPod to stand up, and Sharper Image also includes a small insert sized to prop up the smaller iPod shuffle instead. At the bottom of the cup is ZipConnect’s headphone cord, which plugs into the top of any iPod (or bottom of the iPod nano), then retracts to a minimal length underneath the iPod.
Like iPulse, iSphere features a dark gray plastic volume and power control ring on its front. This ring has three buttons - volume up, power, and volume down - as well as a blue light that shines through plastic between them when the power’s on.
Also like iPulse, the unit features an external audio input and power input (here, both on its bottom, next to three rubber stabilizing feet), but there’s no output to a separate subwoofer, and no option to use either integrated or removable batteries as an option.
Overall, the iSphere’s design is nice, but simple. While we liked the spherical shape and integrated speakers, the unit’s odd docking system takes it down a notch from the top options we’ve tested, each of which better handles iPod connection and mounting. As picky as it may seem, we also weren’t especially fond of iSphere’s front-and-center branding, which really plays up the not especially great ZipConnect logo. As with most things iPod, a minimalistic approach would have worked better.
Audio Performance and Conclusions
As compared with iPulse, iSphere sounds quite good - better stereo separation, treble response, and overall clarity of sound. You can turn up the volume on iSphere to a loud enough level to hurt your ears at close distances; for that reason and others, the system would benefit a lot from a remote control. Though some bass distortion is evident at those high volumes, it’s not typical at lower levels, and we liked how the system sounded overall. As between iPulse and this, there’s no doubt that we’d pick iSphere of the two if they were our only options.
But they’re not, which is the primary reason that iSphere rates only a limited recommendation from us. For the $149.95 asking price, you can get really good speakers these days, especially when you consider that iSphere isn’t portable. Sound aside, it’s generally in the same size and price category as options such as Ignitek’s cheaper dock and remote-included iCruiser (iLounge rating: B-), iHome’s much cheaper iH5 Docking Stereo Clock Radio (iLounge rating: A-), but has fewer features than either. We compared it directly against Logitech’s mm50’s, a new four-driver system that for the same price as iSphere includes a remote control, integrated rechargeable battery, and true iPod dock - no need to buy ZipConnect separately. The mm50’s actually deliver better-balanced sound than iSphere, including substantial bass, and yet are truly portable.
For non-portable systems, we also typically underscore our preference for designs that permit some degree of control over audio beyond just volume. True bass and treble control are preferable, and many systems we’ve tested in iSphere’s price range include one, both, or a psuedo 3-D spacialization option of some sort. iSphere doesn’t.
Overall, iSphere isn’t a bad speaker system. And because of its unadjusted sound quality, it’s definitely better than okay. But its awkward optional accessory approach to iPod docking, its lack of a remote control or sound adjustment features, and its relatively high price by comparison with other available options make it an option we’d only recommend under limited circumstances: if you like its looks and don’t mind its lack of features. Like iPulse, we think Sharper Image had a good idea in the design of iSphere, and hope the company will evolve it into a superior second-generation form.