Pros: An attractive iPod-docking boom box speaker system that runs off AC or battery power.
Cons: Speaker hiss and switched left/right channels are accompanied by control and volume oddities, most notably including inability to listen at low volume levels. Cannot connect AC and battery power at once without bursting batteries, a potentially dangerous issue.
iLounge has reviewed four reasonably clear categories of iPod-specific speaker systems: ultra-portable, portable, quasi-portable, and stationary speakers. The quasi-portable category is the diciest – it covers speakers that look and may even be advertised as portable at first blush, but can’t be taken everywhere for one reason or another. Typically, those reasons are power- or size-related; a quasi-portable system either can’t run off of battery power or is too big to carry without a large bag or suitcase. All three quasi-portable systems we’ve previously tested have rated a B+, but for different reasons.
Late last year, Digital Lifestyle Outfitters released the iBoom ($149.99), a decidedly quasi-portable speaker system. Like Tivoli Audio’s iPAL ($129.99), it features an integrated radio, optionally runs off of battery power, and doesn’t fit into a briefcase or medium-sized handbag. In fact, iBoom is physically larger than some of the stationary speakers we’ve reviewed, including Bose’s SoundDock ($299.99), and set apart from those systems primarily because of its battery compartment.
But there are other significant differences between these systems, including some that are very much worth your attention before making an iBoom purchase. Read on for our look at this unique stereo system.
As its name suggests, the iBoom is modeled after the large all-in-one boom box speaker and radio systems that peaked in popularity in the 1980’s, but DLO has tailored the device to more contemporary audiences: it uses iPod-matching glossy white plastic, has an internal antenna instead of an old-fashioned wand-like external one, and includes a Dock Connector port that accommodates any 3G, 4G, or mini iPod (via an included plastic sizer). iPod photos fit uncomfortably, and DLO explicitly notes that the iBoom wasn’t designed to be used with them.
Unlike the iPAL, no one has accused the iBoom of lacking design originality – to the best of our knowledge, it’s not just a repainted version of an identical older product with the letter “i�? added to its name. The shape of its white enclosure is attractively curvy, legitimately cool, and appropriate to the look and feel of any full-sized iPod. Moreover, you don’t need Apple’s optional iPod Dock to use it. Oversized dark gray metal grilles on its left and right front sides surround a matching integrated iPod dock, which sits on top of a control panel with seven buttons, a knob, an amber-lit LCD screen, and a small green LED power light. There’s a grip hole on its top, a battery compartment on its rear bottom, and a silver auxiliary audio-in port on its right side. When the battery compartment is opened, a black AC power cord is revealed. Foam rubber strips on iBoom’s bottom keep it in place on a table.
Certain of the design touches are smart. A groove at the top of the iBoom’s dock area makes it easy to remove any inserted iPod, and the use of a digital FM radio tuner with a brightly backlit LCD screen is easier on the eyes than Tivoli’s oversized numbered tuning knob. The fact that six D cells can be used to power the iBoom certainly set it apart from similarly-sized competing speaker systems.
Other design touches are questionable. The decision to include a small grip hole on the case’s top rear rather than a flip-open, fully graspable handle makes the iBoom more difficult to carry than it needs to be. Additionally, there are a lot of buttons on iBoom’s front bottom – one or two more than many people would expect, as explained below. And while the use of dark gray paint isn’t bad by any means, it doesn’t match any of the iPods that are compatible with the device.
Competing products at the same and lower prices have wisely gone with silver or chrome metal and paint, which is a bit classier.
All in all, however, the iBoom is a very nice-looking speaker system, and wouldn’t be out of place in any high schooler’s bedroom or a college dorm room. It’s a smart, contemporary design with a few compromises.
Functionality and Performance, Part I
Without dwelling on the point, we get the sense that even though the iBoom looks clean on the outside, its innards were designed and manufactured somewhat hastily. DLO appears to be aware of the issues, and has suggested that future production units will be improved – if so, we’ll update this review to reflect as much.
Though earlier iBooms may have different (and more) issues, our review is based only on the issues we’ve seen ourselves. We had heard that iBooms included a volume control system that wouldn’t let users reduce the volume to zero without entirely turning off the iBoom, but never saw a unit with that issue. Ours had a different volume problem: rather than gradually decreasing volume at the low end of the volume scale, the knob stopped making reductions at a volume level equivalent to comfortable listening in a quiet room, then abruptly switched the speakers off entirely. Hushed listening isn’t possible; the volume starts at 4 or 5.
Second and more serious was a power-related issue, which has only partially been addressed in the iBoom we tested. Users began to report a couple of weeks ago that batteries were leaking inside of their iBooms – specifically when both batteries and the AC power cord were being used at the same time. Wall current power apparently channels directly through the unit’s D batteries, which respond by leaking battery acid in the iBoom’s internal compartment.
DLO has acknowledged the issue, and notes that currently shipping iBoom units include a sticker found inside the compartment of our review unit, which reads as follows: “Important: Do not use AC power while batteries are in place. Remove all batteries while unit is under AC power. Failure to do so could damage the unit.�?
Although DLO stressed that it is difficult to connect the batteries and AC power at the same time, the company says that it will replace any user’s iBoom that is damaged as a consequence of doing so. In fairness to DLO, we tested their assertion by trying to insert 6 D cells while extending the AC power cord from its hiding place inside the battery compartment. It was initially difficult in the unit we tested – we had to go out of our way to make it work. At first, we couldn’t get the batteries to provide power when the cord was extended, and found it hard to get the compartment panel to attach. But with a little playing around, we got the batteries to work with the cable out, and even got the compartment to close, as shown below. So there is a potential safety issue, as DLO has acknowledged, though you’d now have to both play around and ignore the internal warning label.
We’re tempted to leave it to someone else to debate whether a vendor can warn its way out of a defective design, but the answer is generally “no�? (see Uloth v. City Tank Corp. (1978), as summarized in this link (PDF format)). A better solution is protective internal circuitry that prevents AC power from flowing through the batteries under any circumstances.
Though it’s likely that one or both of the problems above will be resolved in a future iBoom production run, what concerns us is that there’s no way for consumers (and perhaps even retailers) to know which version of the product they’re receiving – an issue we ran into after reviewing DLO’s TransPod FM accessory, which has apparently gone through a number of component changes that may materially impact the device’s usefulness in users’ cars. Even if a positive change has been made to some production run of units, there may be units sitting in stores that don’t include it – and people who buy those units. And if some cost-cutting change is made that negatively impacts the hardware’s performance, it will be an unpleasant surprise to many people, as well.
This presents a major challenge for reviewers such as us, as it’s hard to recommend a product knowing that what’s sold under the same name a month from now may substantially differ from what we’ve tested. In addition to fixing the underlying issues, we seriously hope that DLO will at the very least consider marking its future packaging with a version number or other easily identifiable revision label so that concerned consumers can know they’re getting what they’re expecting.
Functionality and Performance, Part II
To start this section with the positives, the iBoom’s integrated dock is a nice feature, and in some ways justifies the unit’s price premium over comparably sized non-iPod specific speaker systems. If your iPod is plugged into the iBoom and AC power, the iPod’s battery recharges, which is great; not surprisingly, battery power only powers the speakers, not the iPod. Like Bose’s SoundDock and unlike the Altec inMotion series, there’s no pass-through Dock Connector port for computer synchronization with the iBoom-docked iPod, but we don’t get the sense that many people will mind that omission, and we didn’t.
Some of the unit’s other compromises will vary in importance from user to user. First and foremost on that list is the iBoom’s audio quality, which isn’t going to win any fans amongst serious music listeners. Simply turning iBoom on at any volume creates a hissing noise that is frankly surprising for a $149.99 speaker system, given the presence of lower noise in all of the comparable Altec Lansing portable inMotions we’ve reviewed ($129, $149, $179) and for that matter virtually every other speaker system we’ve tested, regardless of price. Audiophiles who drooled over the rich, clean sound of Tivoli’s cheaper single-speaker iPAL or Bose’s considerably more expensive SoundDock will find the iBoom’s sound quality especially wanting. Outdoors in an area with ambient sounds, the hissing isn’t noticeable, but indoors, it is.
While we’ve already discussed a limit in the iBoom’s ability to lower its volume past an indoor listening level, it’s not as bad on the higher end. DLO promises 20 watts per channel, just like Bose’s SoundDock, and the maximum volume level is literally deafening. If you’re looking for loud music, iBoom will be more than adequate for your purposes no matter whether you’re in a small room or an auditorium, and the distortion isn’t bad. Of course, the SoundDock does the same thing with an even cleaner, better-defined signal, but then it’s also twice the iBoom’s price. For reference, Altec Lansing’s iM3s sound substantially similar to the iBoom, only with less capacity for volume boosts without distortion and a little less thump in the bass.
Stereo separation is generally a point of interest for our readers, and though many people (not including iLounge’s editors) were willing to give it up entirely in the iPAL, it will be interesting to see how people react to a different issue in the iBoom: our unit’s left and right speakers were reversed. We always test stereo separation with Edwyn Collins’ song, “A Girl Like You,�? which opens with the whispered but distinct phrases, “to the left�? and “to the right�? in the appropriate channels. But we noticed the problem even before we got to the Collins song based on more subtle differences in other speakers we were testing. While we suppose that some people will find a reason that the swapped channels don’t matter, we were pretty surprised to discover that issue.
Another oddity of the iBoom’s design is its seven-button configuration. There’s a button on the left for system power, and then a second button for radio power, and a third button to switch between the iPod (labeled “player�?) and the radio. If the unit’s turned on and you want to listen to the radio, press the player/radio button, and then activate the radio with the radio power button. It seems like a quickly hacked-together way to integrate a radio into an iPod dock system, rather than the conventional boom box automatic single switch between cassette or CD and radio playback. Most people won’t mind, but it’s worth noting.
Sound and button oddities aside, the iBoom does an above-average job as a FM radio, with simple digital tuning, two station memory buttons, and no need for an external antenna.