iLounge is proud to announce the winners of our 2009 Best of Show Awards. Over the past month and a half, our editors have been screening confidential product submissions from both new and established iPod/iPhone developers, testing, discussing, and occasionally even debating the merits of this year’s upcoming offerings. As always, our evaluation process ended when our team of editors walked the Macworld Expo show floor to give each potential winner a final group inspection and opportunity to either win us over or fall short of an award.
Our eligibility standards were fairly high. Products that had been debuted or released prior to the show were ineligible, and we were unwilling to issue awards to speakers or headphones that we couldn’t actually test under proper listening conditions; coming up with a nice new shell wasn’t enough. We also required final pricing and availability dates for all products prior to consideration, and reserve the right to withdraw awards to products that miss their promised dates or prices.
This year, we issued fewer overall Best of Show awards to specific products—only six—than we have in the past, with three company-wide Best of Show Awards and five Finalist Awards making up for the lack of breakthrough offerings. In a year in which few announcements really stood out from the pack, Griffin Technology managed to win a record-breaking six total Awards, on account of its especially impressive across-the-board performance in accessory development. In addition to the descriptions below, you can view a video of all of the winners here.
Company Winners: Best of Show, Design, Innovation, and Value
In addition to specific products, we recognized three companies whose overall product lineups represented the qualities we always look for: great design, innovation, and value. Vestalife won a Best of Show Award for Design, in recognition of the outstanding industrial designs of its upcoming FireFly, JewelBox and Butterfly audio and video systems. While the FireFly and JewelBox systems were not presented in final, listenable form, and the Butterfly video system was not yet finalized—the reason that we would not give them individual Best of Show Awards—Vestalife’s entire lineup demonstrates how great design can transform familiar components into standout products.
A multi-year winner, Griffin Technology again earned a Best of Show Award for Innovation. Across all of its products, ranging from simple cases to sophisticated electronic accessories and now even iPhone applications, Griffin has again demonstrated how smart, solution-based thinking and expert execution can lead to spectacular results. We cited a number of its releases for individual awards, but there was little doubt that this company’s overall lineup demonstrates a level of thoughtfulness that is currently unmatched in the industry.
A first-time winner was Incipio, which took home a Best of Show Award for Value. While a number of companies impressed us in 2008, Incipio demonstrated its commitment to great product value going forward with its upcoming lineups of iPhone, iPod, and MacBook cases, which combine smart designs with very reasonable prices. Rather than forcing customers to pay for multiple pieces—screen protectors, video stands, and other frills—Incipio always seems to pack everything in and sell it at the right general price.
Bluetooth Wireless Accessories
Two monaural Bluetooth wireless headsets for the iPhone earned Best of Show Finalist awards this year: Griffin’s SmartTalk ($100) and iVoice’s Diamond-X ($99). Both of these new headsets feature twin microphones that enable them to filter out ambient background noise, with strong results: nearby noises and even voices don’t overwhelm your voice when you’re talking to your caller. While SmartTalk’s visually neutral, long design includes 4 hours of talk time and voice prompting, Diamond-X’s is a flashier arrowhead-shaped earpiece in your choice of four colors, with 5.5 hours of talk time and the ability to announce at least the numbers of incoming callers, and possibly their phonebook-stored names, as well. We especially liked iVoice’s included flexible USB cable, which made recharging more convenient.
iLounge’s readers and editors alike are tired of me-too iPod and iPhone cases, so this year, we’re going to radically change our approach to covering them. And, as with this year’s awards, our focus will be substantially on especially innovative or well-executed options, rather than the hundreds or thousands of forgettable ones out there.
Our Best of Show Awards this year went to two case designs that really stood out from the rest. Breaking from the tradition that rubber cases need be relatively tame in shape, Incipio’s Silicone LAB series of cases ($25) were awarded a Best of Show Finalist Award for employing a new process to create dramatically molded silicone iPhone cases. Suddenly, the sides and back of an iPhone can become floral, puffy like a pillow or muscles, etched with interesting shapes or just interestingly blocky. Superhero, Tribal, Eagle, and other versions are planned for release this month; you choose the one that appeals to your sense of looks and coloration.
LAB picks up where Speck’s uniquely blocky ToughSkin and PixelSkin cases left off, which is why it’s fitting that Speck won a Best of Show Award for CandyShell ($35), the newest evolution of its plastic case designs. Initially available for the iPhone 3G, CandyShell combines a soft rubber interior with a hard, glossy plastic outside, interestingly mixing colors and materials to provide almost complete protection for the iPhone; it also, finally, includes iPhone 3G face protection in the form of a screen shield.
Charging, Power, and Car Accessories
If you’re an iPod owner, you’ve probably dealt with this scenario; if you’re an iPhone user, you certainly have: you’re running out of battery power, you have too little time to recharge fully, and you just need to squeeze a little extra life out of your device. Griffin’s new $40 PowerJolt Reserve and PowerBlock Reserve accessories—also to be offered as a $60 bundle—solve these problems. Each one bundles an iPod/iPhone charger with a rechargeable, magnetically detachable battery pack that you can pull off for roughly 6 hours of audio time or 2 hours of iPhone talk time; PowerJolt goes in your car, PowerBlock in your home. Run out of your house or exit your car with the iPhone or iPod as charged as you can get it, and pull the battery pack off to go that extra mile. These are thoughtful, innovative solutions to a common problem, reasonably priced and attractively designed—worthy of our full Best of Show Awards.
We also felt that Griffin’s new TuneFlex AUX with SmartClick Remote ($80) merited a Best of Show Finalist Award. It was a no-brainer to combine the prior TuneFlex AUX car charger and mount, itself a 2008 Best of Show winner, with a wireless remote that attaches to your car’s steering wheel for convenient iPod or iPhone control while you’re driving. We say “no-brainer” because Kensington did the same general thing with its LiquidAUX Deluxe kit last year. But while the LiquidAUX Deluxe solution was too expensive at $100, Griffin’s product sells for a more reasonable price, and features a charging and mounting solution that we prefer—on balance—to Kensington’s. Though neither company has completely nailed the right combination of practical and industrial design for both of its components, Griffin’s solution strikes us as a strong value and very good option for owners of cars with either aux-in ports or cassette tape decks.
Lots of companies—arguably too many, most sourcing their parts from the same few manufacturers—have been debuting new earphones over the last couple of years, leading to an explosion of aesthetic options but relatively little improvement in core audio quality. This year, we considered a number of submitted options from relatively new players in the earphone space, but felt that the real breakthroughs came from companies with established track records in developing high-quality listening devices.
We were most impressed this year by Shure’s Best of Show Award-winning SE115 Sound Isolating Earphones ($100/$120), a budget offering that’s worthy of the company’s history of excellent in-canal earphone designs. Employing a housing that’s highly similar to last year’s SE110, the SE115 replaces that model’s flat, unimpressive audio drivers with a miniature dynamic driver that two of our editors independently described as a nearly “night and day” improvement: highs and particularly lows suddenly came alive, and clarity improved, as well. Users can choose from four different colors—black, red, pink, or blue—and get an ear fit kit with the standard Shure noise-isolating options.
We also really liked Ultimate Ears’ new series of low-end MetroFi earphones, which consist of the entry-priced MetroFi 170 ($50) and 170vi ($60) series, the former for iPods, the latter with a microphone and remote button for iPhones, as well as the more deluxe MetroFi 220 ($80) and 220vi ($90), with similar microphone differentiation. After testing, considerable discussion and deliberation, we decided to award a Best of Show Finalist Award to the MetroFi 170vi because of what it represents—a relatively strong, highly affordable combination of quality in-canal earphones and microphone functionality with a nice design. We also liked, but did not issue an award to the MetroFi 220vi, which looks nicer and sounds a little better, but costs more. Both pairs do a nice job of matching the classic Ultimate Ears sound signature, with good treble detail to offset strong bass, and though fans of the company’s many more expensive earphones won’t be blown away by the audio quality, either model would be a solid, sharp-looking starter pair of canalphones to upgrade from Apple’s iPod and iPhone pack-ins.
As much as we had hoped to issue a number of awards to promising upcoming iPhone and iPod software this year, we weren’t really blown away by anything we saw. Iterative upgrades to Elgato’s EyeTV 3 software and Roxio’s Toast 10 added relatively little of award-worthy interest to iPod and iPhone owners, and having just rushed most of their iPhone OS apps out for the holidays, far too few developers showed as-yet-unreleased software of note.
A notable exception was Griffin Technology, which won a Best of Show Award for iFM, an upcoming free App Store download that will tie into its Navigate display remote control. Named after the popular FM radio tuner accessory that was previously released for iPods, the iFM software adds an all-new layer of information to Navigate’s FM tuning hardware, enabling users to browse their local FM channels by name and genre, download album art and track details for currently playing songs, and then download iTunes Store versions of songs that they liked on the radio. Though local FM radio tuning is declining substantially in relevance given the growth of Internet radio, iFM helps to revitalize the flagging format, and merits recognition for taking the traditional radio tuner accessory to the next level.
This was not a good show for speakers. As with many of our readers, iLounge’s editors have been anxiously waiting for real breakthrough iPhone-ready offerings to replace the iPod-only speakers that have faded in value and importance over the past year and a half. Unfortunately, this was not the show to find them; one promising entry from iHome, the iP1, wasn’t available to us for testing, and Vestalife’s upcoming, attractively designed FireFly and JewelBox speakers were similarly on display but not yet finalized in sound performance. As with other speakers that we saw but couldn’t hear, we were unwilling to issue awards based on looks alone; hopefully, these new offerings will sound as great as they look.
The best of the options we heard this year was a pair of multimedia speakers from JBL, which have at least as much appeal for direct connection to your iTunes library as to an iPod or iPhone. After a weird last year at the Expo, JBL emerged this year with Duet II ($100) and Duet III ($150), strikingly attractive 10” and 12” tall freestanding two-channel speakers, the latter more powerful than the former. Shaped like oversized champagne glasses, both Duets have silver fabric front grilles, along with black and silver plastic bodies. Though they’re only single-driver speakers, Duet II’s 40-millimeter Phoenix SE drivers and Duet III’s 48-millimeter Warrior drivers do a very good job of delivering balanced, clean sound, and benefit from a simplified power and volume dial that’s found on the top of one of the speakers. While not as bassy as JBL’s prior subwoofer-backed Creature and Encounter lines, these speakers feature the company’s legitimately worthwhile audio optimization technology to maximize the performance of their drivers relative to your music, and deliver enough power and good looks to satisfy most users’ needs. We issued a Best of Show Award to Duet II on the basis of its great looks and solid sound for the price, but if you’re in need of more power and don’t want or need a subwoofer, Duet III is also quite nice.
Congratulations to all of this year’s winners! A video of all of the winning companies and products can be viewed here.