Review: Vestalife Mantis Speaker Dock for iPod + iPhone
As we noted in two earlier reviews today, Vestalife is one of the most gifted industrial designers making budget-priced iPod and iPhone speakers today: its original Ladybug was a sensation, and has now been followed up by two great sequels called Ladybug II and Firefly. But there's another new member of this family of globe-shaped, fold-open audio systems: Mantis ($180) is Vestalife's largest and priciest speaker unit, boasting what the company claims to be "a sound quality experience that compares with speakers twice its cost." Unfortunately, Mantis doesn't live up to that particular claim, so even though it incorporates the same improvements found in its lower-priced sister speakers, it's not a system we'd recommend with equal enthusiasm.
First, a little background: Mantis was originally debuted back in January of this year under the different and more female-targeted name Jewelbox, referencing a major change in its design relative to Ladybug: the speaker-containing wings of this unit open to reveal a large, flat surface that could have been hollowed out to hold jewelry. On a positive note, when Mantis is closed, it’s the fanciest speaker Vestalife has ever produced: whether you choose the soft touch silver, black, or red finish, you’ll find far more black chrome here as an accent than on the Ladybug II or Firefly, and matching metallic-finished speaker grilles that look and feel a little more expensive, too. Volume and power buttons have been moved to Mantis’s front, with a five-bar volume indicator replacing the five-dot indicators found on the earlier models, all illuminating in white when the power is turned on. Again, when it’s closed, the system is very sharp-looking, indeed.
When it’s opened, however, it is probably the most boring of Vestalife’s designs: the egg-shaped base measures between 6.5” and 7.5” in diameter, and has plenty of space for adornment, but instead looks like a floor of plastic, containing nothing more than a Universal Dock and a recessed Vestalife logo. Mantis’s oversized base houses a down-firing subwoofer that has only a small ring of breathing space on the undercarriage—by contrast, both of the Ladybugs and Firefly included rear-firing speakers, covered by large, breathable grilles, but the Mantis design large locks the bass driver inside a plastic shell. This shell also has to leave room for a four-AA battery compartment, and the same ports found on the lower-priced systems: one wall power port, one auxiliary audio port, a video-out port, and a USB port. Once again, Vestalife includes dock adapters, an Infrared remote, international wall power and auxiliary audio cables—all the same parts as are found in the Ladybug II and Firefly boxes—but offers no cables for the video or USB features; it also leaves out the carrying bag that was found in the original $110 Ladybug, but not in the other models.
The lack of extra pack-ins would make sense if there were other major improvements in Mantis over Firefly and Ladybug II, but apart from the cosmetic changes, the more expensive model doesn’t have much to offer over its peers. As noted in our Firefly and Ladybug II reviews, Vestalife now includes very good iPhone TDMA interference shielding in all of these models, eliminating the chirping and squealing sounds that were evident when trying to use the original Ladybug with iPhones in EDGE mode. And this unit doesn’t have the authentication delay problem found in the first Ladybug, which stopped users from changing the volume for a five- or ten-second period after connecting the iPod—all of the new speakers work fully and immediately after connection. These sorts of features aren’t exactly special, but they’re worth noting as positives in this year’s models relative to last year’s.
A major negative is Mantis’s sound quality. Back when we reviewed the original Ladybug, we mentioned that its single biggest issue was noticeable bass distortion at average to high volume levels—essentially, Vestalife hadn’t properly controlled the device’s subwoofer, and the result was sound that boomed in a way that younger users might like, but more discerning ones might well find annoying. Ladybug II went a little way towards fixing this, and Firefly went further, but Mantis goes in the opposite direction: it’s roughly as bad in the bass distortion department as the first Ladybug, in part because its subwoofer isn’t being given as much room as it needs to breathe. The chunkiness of the bass at medium and above-average volume levels is so significant that it overshadows improvements to the other two drivers, which would otherwise be comparable in clarity and range to the ones found in Firefly. Sadly, because of the bass issues, we wouldn’t pick this system over the $130 Firefly, say nothing of “speakers twice its cost”—$360 buys some pretty spectacular sound quality in the iPod and iPhone market, and you can do much better even for Mantis’s $180 asking price. Anyone who goes into a Mantis purchase expecting great sound is going to be disappointed pretty quickly, at least if they have music collections with bass-rich songs.
As much as we liked Ladybug II and Firefly, Mantis strikes us as a misfire: beautiful on the outside, less impressive looking when it’s actually in use, and disappointing sonically by reference to less expensive models made both by Vestalife and numerous competitors. The $180 price tag takes it out of the “good enough for kids” category and places it decidedly in red waters, where portable systems from companies such as Logitech, Altec Lansing, and JBL can eat it alive sonically, in features, or both, even sometimes comparing in the industrial design department. For Vestalife to compete at this price level, it’s going to need more than just a semi-neat casing—better speaker performance, features, and/or pack-ins should be mandatory in any subsequent update to this model. In its current form, Mantis is recommendable only to the narrow market of people who like its design enough to put up with its significant bass distortion; Firefly is a smarter buy with better overall sound quality.