Review: Zagg RockStic Portable Speaker System
Pros: A unique tube-shaped metal portable speaker available in your choice of three colors, each with an included power supply and remote control. Can run off of self-supplied batteries. Unlike less expensive options, integrated iPod dock permits charging and audio performance at the same time, and remote permits use from up to 10 feet away.
Cons: Reversed stereo channels, and aggregate sound quality comparable to speakers sold for half or less its MSRP. Picks up iPod hard drive interference during playback. Though portable, has considerably wider body than similar-sounding competitors.
Speakers are easy for companies to sell, but hard to properly design. That’s the nutshell version of the lesson we’ve learned after testing hundreds of different iPod speaker systems, most recently including Zagg’s RockStic ($70), an interesting new offering from the maker of InvisibleShield film protectors. Like many other first-time speaker vendors, Zagg came up with an iPod-ready all-in-one design that has a unique feature or two, but thanks to some audio engineering issues, didn’t blow us away on sound performance for the price.
The idea behind RockStic is a good one. People like colored aluminum, rounded shapes, and inexpensive speakers, so Zagg mixed all three items into a single product. Thus, RockStic is a hollow aluminum tube in your choice of black (shown), silver, or pink colors, with chrome volume buttons on the front, a power switch, power port, and line-in audio port on the back, and plastic parts on the top, bottom, and sides.
Up top is a plastic iPod dock that doesn’t use Apple’s Universal iPod Dock standard, but is large enough to fit the biggest full-sized iPods, anyway, and comes with a nano-sized insert; most low-end speakers connect to the iPod’s headphone port, so theoretically, this dock is a comparative advantage. You can also connect any audio device to RockStic’s back with an included minijack-to-minijack audio cable. On the bottom is a stand with a compartment for four AAA batteries, which render Rockstic portable if you’re willing to self-supply them. If not, you can use the included wall charger.
The sides have plastic caps to hold metal left and right speaker grilles in place. Inside the caps, you can see that Zagg’s speaker drivers are roughly the same size as the ones in Logic3’s i-Station Traveller, but the metal tube in the center could give them greater breathing room than the shallower, flatter Traveller.
A real surprise in the package, given its $70 asking price, is the included Infrared remote control. Though it isn’t super powerful, and struggles beyond 10-foot distances from the main unit, the remote includes standard iPod volume, track, and play/pause controls, plus mute, shuffle, repeat, and four menu navigation buttons. Remotes of any kind are very rare in iPod speakers at this price level, so despite its so-so performance, we’re happy to see this in the box.
RockStic’s problems are mostly in its audio performance. On a positive note, it’s not a bad speaker in relative terms; in truth, all of the small speakers at or around this price point suffer from at least somewhat flat and muddy sound, particularly in the bass department, a simple reality given the size and quality of the components. Perhaps because of the tube, Zagg’s sound signature here is slightly more mid-bass weighted than i-Station Traveller’s, which reduces apparent clarity but makes the sound seem a little more “full,” as well. In bass-heavy songs, you’ll notice immediately that the low end is is blotchy, but not considerably more so than in other low-priced units we’ve tested; Pacific Rim Technologies’ Cube Travel Speakers, for instance, have a little less bass distortion at average volume levels, and i-Station Traveller has decidedly better treble, but RockStic can be turned up much louder. All-in-all, we’d generally be inclined to consider RockStic’s sound “good” for the price, as both Cube and the i-Station sound very similar, sell for less, and fold up into smaller packages - Cube about half of RockStic’s 7 3/8” width, and i-Station roughly two-thirds that.
Unfortunately, Zagg’s manufacturing partner made the classic rookie mistake of reversing RockStic’s sound channels, such that left channel audio comes out of the right speaker and vice-versa, a flaw that automatically earns any speaker our limited recommendation—or a lower rating. We also can’t say that we preferred RockStic’s midbass-skewed sound at typical levels to what the cheaper, smaller i-Station Traveller delivers, though opinions may vary on that point; we tend to prefer neutral sound with equal proportions of treble, midrange, and bass, but some people like their sound warmer. Another disappointment is that RockStic lets you hear quite a bit of hard disk loading interference when connected to full-sized iPods, and though we don’t deduct for it, it’s also extremely susceptible to noise when placed near an iPhone. (For those who are curious, the iPhone will charge, but not perform audio through the RockStic speakers.)
Because of its reversed speaker channels, and a pricing decision by Zagg—RockStic is “normally” $70, but sold temporarily at an introductory price of $50—our rating is considerably lower than it might otherwise have been. If this was a $50 speaker, and the stereo channels were fixed, the remote and included power supply would have made it a viable alternative to the $35 i-Station and now $20 Cube Travel Speakers. But at two or three times the MSRP, or higher if “sale prices” are taken into consideration, you’ll pay quite a premium for relatively small differences, and offset them with the less easily packed body. For these reasons, RockStic’s a good but not great first try at speakers for Zagg, and we hope that it will press on with fixes and even better models in the future.