Review: XtremeMac MicroBlast Speakers for iPod nano
Pros: A uniquely user-customizable portable speaker for the iPod nano, capable of transforming into white-on-black or black-on-black designs thanks to an included extra plastic frame. Fold-out clear hard shell and included bag protect speakers and inserted iPod during travel; power supply is included to power iPod and speakers, AA battery power is an option.
Cons: Sound quality is only decent for the price, no data synchronization or audio input ports, so unit is useless without an iPod nano.
Especially over the past six months, we have been incredibly impressed by the design team at XtremeMac: they’ve clearly figured out how to take items that could otherwise be commodities - cases, cables, and even speakers - and add enough of a new cosmetic and/or functional twist to make them interesting again. The company’s MicroBlast Speakers for iPod nano ($120) are a great example; they wrap so-so portable speakers in a visually and functionally smart package, using swappable white and black plastic frames to let iPod nano owners pick their preferred color scheme. A flip-out clear plastic shell acts as a base for the speakers when opened, or as a shield for the speakers and an inserted nano when closed.
Color customization is MicroBlast’s most stand-out feature. A black metal speaker grille and black plastic rear remain on the unit at all times, but using a Philips head screwdriver, you can pull two screws out of MicroBlast’s sides, quickly detach the clear guard, and then slide off a separate plastic accent frame. The white frame outlines the black speaker grilles and inserted nano with M-shaped plastic piping; the black frame blends into the grilles and the rest of MicroBlast’s body. Both shells look good, but in our view, the white one makes the speakers look more interesting.
MicroBlast was clearly designed first and foremost as a traveler’s audio companion. In addition to the clear and replaceable plastic shells, it includes a simple travel bag and a power supply, as well as a pop-off compartment on the lower back that can hold four user-supplied AA batteries. Unlike other inexpensive portable speakers we’ve seen, such as Altec Lansing’s $100 iM11 (iLounge rating: B+), Xtreme didn’t include other pass-through data or audio ports on MicroBlast’s back: you buy this system solely to listen to and safely charge the iPod nano, nothing else - currently, or in the future.
Similarly, MicroBlast’s controls are kept exceedingly simple: there’s only one switch, an on-off toggle with status indicated via a green power light on the unit’s back. This switch required enough of an initial push that we initially thought the MicroBlast was broken, but thankfully, it wasn’t - that’s just how it works. Once it’s flipped on, everything else is handled by your iPod, including using the Click Wheel for volume and track controls. Given the $120 price, we weren’t surprised that there isn’t a remote control in the package, or that the unit’s maximum amplitude was basically identical to that of the iM11. This is a good speaker system for several-person listening, but not a room filler.
In fact, the iM11/MicroBlast comparison is a pretty fair one in other ways, as well. As low-end portable audio goes, neither system is designed to blow you away on clarity; you’re paying for the thin (1”) portable enclosure, integrated dock, and styling more than the sound, which isn’t up to snuff on detail with JBL’s On Tour (iLounge rating: A-), our favorite dockless portable speaker. That said, Altec’s iM11 also makes slightly more impressive use of its two drivers (at a lower price) than XtremeMac does with its four drivers, providing a modestly warmer overall sound that also has a little extra treble detail and a bit less distortion in the mids. Like other small systems, left and right channel stereo separation is there in MicroBlast, but not mindblowing. At this price level for portable speakers, however, we don’t typically expect or find perfection. Both systems distort at their top volumes, most noticeably in bass, and do best when set to 85% or less of their peaks.
XtremeMac’s a newcomer to the speaker market, and MicroBlast is a good first step: a sharp-looking, easy to use portable speaker system for the iPod nano that gives users color options and either AA battery or wall power alternatives. In our view, and largely because of its design originality, it’s just good enough to earn our standard recommendation to iPod nano owners, though we do note that other options we’ve tested at or below the same price level offer at least slightly better sound quality, and superior rear connectivity for data and audio-in purposes. Consider MicroBlast if you’re taken with its looks and are mostly concerned about listening to and protecting your nano with a hard shell when you’re on the road; otherwise, there are other, more iPod-agnostic options you may want to consider.