What is a “portable” speaker? Is it something you can fit in your pocket, like an iPod or iPhone? Something that fits in a bowling bag and weighs enough to demand a table of its own? Or something in-between? Our reviews of portable speakers have for years distinguished between these different levels of portability, noting that each category has different price and performance expectations. Until this week, the iPhone has had precisely zero portable speakers of any kind — as of today, it has two.
Both of these speakers—Logic3’s i-Station Traveller for iPhone and iPod touch ($60) and DLO’s Portable Speakers for iPhone ($50)—are in the “in-between” category, sized to fit into a small bag or briefcase rather than squeezing into your pocket or demanding their own totebags. But they’re physically very different designs. i-Station Traveller is a 6.6” x 3.4” x 1.25” all-in-one brick that looks like an oversized, wide-orientation iPhone. It slides open to become 10.5” wide, revealing a platform capable of holding the iPhone or an iPod touch on its side, and can contract into a narrower width of 8.5” to hold an iPhone in vertical orientation as well. Because the iPod touch has a bottom-mounted headphone port, it doesn’t stand perfectly straight upright without putting i-Station Traveller into an awkward state of compression, but from an audio standpoint, the system works fine.
The Portable Speakers for iPhone are two cup-shaped speakers that connect with cables to a dish-like rubberized base, collectively compacting to a 4” height and a 5” width. When they’re separated from one another, they take up no less than 10” in width if placed in a line, and stand roughly 4” tall if you pop in an included plastic iPhone holder. You can place the iPhone or an iPod touch vertically or horizontally in the holder, and move the speakers around to your heart’s content; they both plug into the back of the base. While Logic3’s design is original, expanding upon the cheaper, smaller, iPod-only i-Station Traveller, DLO’s design isn’t: these are repackaged speakers from DLO’s new parent company Philips, seemingly part of the company’s past 1500 mobile device series, updated here into a new model SBA1620/27. Philips’ web site shows that it also has iPod Dock Connector-based versions of this speaker coming out, minus any guarantee of iPhone compatibility.
Looks and shapes aside, the speakers have a lot in common. Each system has one speaker driver per left or right channel, a headphone plug connector that goes into the iPhone’s top, and your choice of using four AAA batteries or an included power supply. They both include headphone port adapters, DLO’s just an iPhone headphone port extender, while Logic3’s is designed to let you use i-Station Traveller with 2.5mm headphone ports on mobile phones. Both systems are both supposed to be shielded against the sort of radio interference put out by the iPhone, yet neither is an Apple-certified “Works with iPhone” speaker: they don’t connect to the iPhone’s Dock Connector port, and haven’t been subjected to Apple’s speaker testing protocols. Logic3 and DLO both took the less expensive route of self-testing and limiting their electronic connections to the iPhone, so their prices are lower, and the wall power adapters included with the speakers provide power only for the speakers, not the iPhone.
Ideally, we’d be able to tell you that both devices worked identically in providing interference-free audio despite their lack of Apple testing, but they didn’t. DLO’s speakers are definitely shielded better than Logic3’s, such that you can definitely hear a low buzzing in i-Station Traveller when the GSM phone or EDGE data features are being used—much quieter than the prior Traveller and other iPod speakers, but still noticeable—while the sound isn’t apparent at all in DLO’s speakers whether voice or data services are being used.
Sonically, DLO and Logic3 have otherwise taken similar but not identical approaches. Logic3 originally worried us a bit when its prototype version of this speaker used 30mm (1.1”) drivers that seemed to underperform the original i-Station Traveller, but the final version includes larger 40mm (1.6”) drivers that deliver additional power for higher-volume, lower-distortion, and enhanced frequency performance. As a consequence, the new i-Station Traveller is a little louder at its peak than the prior one, and possesses warmer, more full-bodied sound that doesn’t sound as rough when turned all the way up. The difference isn’t massive, but the new version definitely sounds better.
By comparison, DLO’s Philips-developed speakers use 50mm (2”) drivers that can be turned up a little louder, but also have less bass distortion, especially at their peak. Neither speaker has volume controls; rather, they use amplifiers to boost volume from the iPhone’s headphone port. At the same iPhone volume level setting, DLO’s speakers are louder, clearer, and a little more natural sounding—again, not a huge difference from the new i-Station Traveller, but enough to prefer DLO’s design instantly in a direct comparison. Unlike the i-Station, you can also move the speakers up to 5 feet from one another—each one can run 30” from the base thanks to included speaker cables.
The biggest difference between these options is in convenience. i-Station Traveller is a considerably simpler system to use and carry around: it includes a carrying bag, comes with its first set of AAA batteries, and accomplishes all of its portability through smart use of folding and expanding components. Two flip-out legs in the back help it lean on a small incline, and the headphone port cable sneaks into its back as well, near its simple power switch, helping the package to be as straightforward as possible to pack up. By comparison, the DLO package is laden with dangling cables, doesn’t include a carrying case or an initial set of batteries, and doesn’t compact all of its parts into a single enclosure; it’s not as easy to pack up or fold away. But it sounds a little better, lets you position its speakers wherever you want, and doesn’t exhibit any sort of iPhone audio interference.
Had Logic3’s design completely eliminated iPhone radio interference, we would have been inclined to rate it a B+—it provides superior sound to the prior Traveller, and though it’s also more expensive, comes bundled with two power alternatives and a carrying case that basically offset the $25 price difference with the earlier Traveller and the $10 price difference with the DLO design. Unfortunately, to the extent that it doesn’t provide a totally clean audio signal from the iPhone, one of the two devices it’s designed to work with, it’s on the fine edge of our B and B- ratings, scoring a B only because of its convenience and nice aesthetic design.
The Portable Speakers for iPhone are another story: they promise interference-free iPhone audio and deliver, offering superior sound quality and speaker versatility to their more expensive competitor here, while preserving the same general package of features—battery-powered portability, an included power supply, and fairly simple operation. While they’re not as convenient to pack and carry around—the only way in which they may disappoint a little for the dollar—they’re good enough for most users in that regard, and deliver such solid sound for the price that people will undoubtably like them for $50. Repackaged or not, they provide a low-priced, interference-free speaker alternative for the iPhone at a time when Apple-certified options look set to start at $150 and climb upwards; we’d recommend them to budget-conscious users who value sound quality over simplicity.
Company and Price
Company: Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO)
Model: Portable Speakers
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone