Review: XtremeMac Tango 2.1 Digital Audio Speaker System
Pros: A simple but neatly designed all-in-one speaker system with a Universal iPod Dock at the top, single front-mounted light to indicate status, and nice remote control with iPod, volume, bass, and treble controls. Video output and auxiliary input ports are included. Packs a nice combination of five speaker drivers that together could be capable of delivering impressive sound.
Cons: Bass distortion and vibrations from down-firing subwoofer are major distractions from otherwise generally good audio, and worsened by reversed left- and right-stereo channels. Though treble and bass controls are appreciated, they’re more in need of repeated adjustments here than on rival systems to produce properly equalized sound, and volume adjustments throw off their curves.
We really wanted to like XtremeMac’s new Tango 2.1 Digital Audio Speaker System ($200), and in all candor, that’s an unusual feeling around these parts. Speaker systems seem to have been delivered here by the boatload in recent months, and they’re one step short of blending together - Tango, which was introduced way back in January, looks very similar to Apple’s much more expensive iPod Hi-Fi (iLounge rating: B), which was released in February, as well as Saffire’s comparably priced October release iWoogie Blaster (iLounge rating: C), and Logitech’s upcoming, even less expensive AudioStation Express. All of these systems include a plain-ish white cabinet with a black front speaker grille, simple controls, and a remote control; most of them place the iPod in a Universal Dock centered above the speakers, rather than in front of them.
In our view, Tango was poised to be the best of the bunch. When we first saw it back in January, the design didn’t do much for us, but over the past 10 months, it’s evolved in our perception to be the best-looking of the aforementioned, similar speakers, as its white casing actually suspends its speaker chamber above surface level, and the small silver metallic accents on top (volume and power buttons) and front (logo) of its still-simple design looked more interesting than the too-minimalist, ho-hum Apple iPod Hi-Fi. Further, its its $200 price tag seemed reasonable for what the company decided to pack inside. There are actually five total speakers inside the cabinet - two one-inch tweeters, two 2.5-inch mid-range drivers, and a downward-firing 4-inch subwoofer - plus the aforementioned Universal iPod Dock and remote control, which together provide the opportunity for some serious high- and mid-range detail without compromising on bass horsepower.
When Tango actually arrived for testing a couple of weeks ago, we were further impressed by its “out-of-package” experience, which combined a box, nice manual, and compartments to create one of the nicest unpacking experiences we’ve seen from XtremeMac - the closest to old school Apple in class that we’ve seen in too long. Besides the speaker and its remote, the box interestingly contained five different sets of wall blades for the international power supply, plus Universal Dock Adapters 8, 9, and 10 - first-gen nano, plus 30GB and 60/80GB fifth-generation iPod - rather than the more common, outdated collection of Adapters 3-7 that are found in many other speakers.
XtremeMac got all of the dressing right, down to the look and feel of the remote, which is white on top, black on the bottom, and has buttons that both respond well and afford control over the iPod, the speakers’ volume, and even bass and treble - a much-admired feature around these parts. A blue power light shines through the front cabinet while the unit’s turned on, flashing to indicate that you’re inputting commands with the remote; a red light flashes to indicate that you’re at the peak or valley of bass, treble, or volume. And there aren’t any oddities here, such as the need to flip on a rear power switch; the back has power and auxiliary input ports, plus output ports for composite A/V and S-Video. Very simple.
The problem, as one might suspect from our rating, is in the audio. At first, it sounded like Tango did enough well - delivering nice high- and mid-range detail, plus gradually fading audio in and out on power on and off - that we were pleasantly surprised by what XtremeMac’s sound engineers had pulled off. But the more we listened and played with the unit’s bass controls, the more we realized that there were some fairly serious, difficult to remedy issues with the audio, particularly in the bass department. We’ll put aside for the moment the fact that Tango reverses the iPod’s stereo output channels, presenting left-channel music through the right speaker and vice-versa, something that is virtually always a disqualifier for a high all-in-one speaker rating from us, and just focus on the unit’s low-end.
Down-firing speakers - particularly powerful ones - tend to have a real issue when placed on flat surfaces: their rumbles create vibrations that can shake a table, the speakers, and the docked iPod inside. At above-average volumes, Tango modestly shakes any surface underneath, but that’s not our biggest concern - it’s that, perhaps because it’s being fired so close to the flat surface underneath, the bass just doesn’t sound right. Using the remote, you can toggle it through 14 stages, but after the fourth step from the bottom, there’s a lot of distortion, which only becomes worse as you go higher. No matter where we placed it - on wood, ceramic, or even fabric floor surfaces - Tango rumbles too much, and sounds flat and bass distorted on its default settings. The treble needs to go up and the bass needs to go down near its minimum in order for music to sound the way it would on a properly tuned system. But then, when the volume is adjusted, the sound signature skews off again, and needs to be re-adjusted. It’s not a pretty picture.
Similar all-in-one systems like Logitech’s AudioStation and Bose’s SoundDock have different approaches to these sorts of audio balance problems. Bose locks you into the company’s equalization settings, which adjust dynamically and sound pretty good, but provide no user control over bass or treble levels. AudioStation has a nice default equalization curve, but provides bass and treble controls that allow you to tweak the sound to your preferences. By contrast, Tango doesn’t sound the way it should on its default setting - a fact you’re reminded of every time you hit the remote’s “R” button to reset the bass and treble levels - and though it has those bass and treble controls, you’ll be hard-pressed to make them sound great from song to song, volume to volume, either. When bass sounds as bad as it does here above level 4, we’d almost prefer not to have the option to control it.
In short, Tango was a surprising disappointment for us - a system that appears to have been very strongly designed on paper, from packaging to actual casing to components - but just doesn’t sound as good as the top speakers in its class and price range, based on bass, equalization, and channel reversal issues. Looks and the remote are the only reasons we’d offer it a limited recommendation at this point. Having now tested both Tango and XtremeMac’s earlier, portable MicroBlast speaker for iPod nanos, we’re now convinced that the company has some of the best industrial designers in the world at its disposal; now it just needs the sound quality to match.