Review: XtremeMac Soma Travel
Some accessories -- probably most -- are released with Apple's latest and greatest devices in mind, while others were clearly developed for prior-generation iPads, iPhones, or iPods. XtremeMac's Soma Travel ($50) is in the latter camp, a very unique little speaker system that defies convention in several ways: it doesn't contain a battery, require a wall power adapter, or even radically increase the built-in speaker power of the iPad 2 or iPhone 4S. But if you're using Apple's earlier pocket devices, including prior iPhones and low- or no-volume iPod touches, nanos, or classics, you'll find Soma Travel to be a particularly able travel companion with good enough performance to justify its place in a bag.
Soma Travel’s concept is solid. Measuring 9.8” long and 2” tall, the matte black plastic unit has just enough size and weight to be able to support iPads and iPad 2s inside its pop-out front dock, using flip-out bottom feet for added stabilization on a table. The Dock Connector plug inside is flexible enough to accommodate some iPad/iPad 2 cases—results will definitely vary on a case-by-case basis, with thinner cases more likely to work than others—and generally works quite well with iPhone and iPod cases. At maximum expansion, with the dock popped out and the feet open, it’s around 3.5” deep, compacting down to around 2.2” as necessary. This size makes it easy to toss into most bags, and the plastic feels very solid; even the gray-capped ends feel like they could resist an accidental drop or five.
A fabric speaker grille on the front covers two small ported audio drivers, which interestingly are powered by the connected iPod, iPhone, or iPad rather than by any sort of integrated battery within the accessory. This is “interesting” not because it’s the first time we’ve ever seen this—some early iPod speakers used headphone plugs and passively-powered drivers to provide relatively cheap on-the-go audio options—but because we can’t recall any developer trying this with a Dock Connector plug before. Because of this choice, Soma Travel is a little more expensive than it would have been with a headphone plug, but also benefits from serving as a dock and stand for your device. There’s a mini-USB port on the back and a somewhat short cable in the package for connection to a computer; you can charge your iPod, iPhone, or iPad this way, or sync them. No aux-in audio port is included.
The rub with Soma Travel is something that would have been hard to imagine back when passively-powered speaker accessories were more common—while early and later iPods almost all lacked for integrated speakers, today’s iPads, iPhones, and some iPods have built-in audio drivers that are at least adequate for listening without headphones. Plug an iPad, iPad 2, or iPhone 4S into Soma Travel and you’ll be hard-pressed to get much louder sound from the accessory than from the Apple device itself; at maximum volume, Soma Travel is roughly on par with the speakers Apple’s using in its tablets. If volume is all you care about, and if you’re willing to hold your iPad or iPhone 4S in a direction that maximizes its volume from your perspective, then there’s no need to consider this accessory for those devices.
But that’s not the full story; there is definitely a convenience factor here. With Soma Travel, you can dock your iPad, iPhone, or iPod on a comfortable recline and have audio firing forward, rather than downwards or backwards. Additionally, the peak volume level is higher than all of Apple’s other devices—prior speaker-equipped iPod nanos, the second- through fourth-generation iPod touch, and all pre-4S versions of the iPhone. XtremeMac’s two speakers provide properly separated stereo sound rather than the monaural audio Apple’s speakers offer, and they’re also just a little clearer than even the iPads, which don’t strain as much at their peak volumes as the iPhone 4S does. Finally, while XtremeMac hasn’t used the best little speakers we’ve ever heard in a small unit like this, they’re good enough to let you enjoy music and videos with at least a little extra clarity than what you’ll hear from even Apple’s latest devices. Audio is still flat and not particularly bass- or treble-optimized, but it’s at least a little better in Soma Travel, sometimes a lot, depending on your device. A simple control bar on the top provides a power switch and volume buttons, ringed by an orange loop.
In sum, Soma Travel is a portable docking speaker with more advantages for users of older Apple devices than newer, top-of-the-line ones, but depending on your needs, it may even be worth considering for iPad and iPhone 4S users. As a speaker, stand, and optional charge/sync dock with a nice industrial design and reasonable asking price, it’s good enough to generally recommend to all iPod, iPhone, and iPad users; that said, it will do more to impress users of Apple’s less capably equipped devices.