The design challenges inherent in small speakers have been established for decades: regardless of the audio drivers and amplifier an engineer selects, there’s only so much space inside a little speaker cabinet — generally too little room for the sort of resonance or wooden walls that help with rich bass, and similarly tight quarters to pack in multiple speakers for both left and right audio channels. Consequently, developers wisely tend to make small speakers inexpensive and simple, recognizing that consumer disappointment would be inevitable at higher prices. That philosophy explains the appeal of three new wireless speakers we review today: iFrogz’ Boost ($40) and two new models from iHome. All three of these speakers are only a little bigger than pocketable, occupying several times the total physical volume of an iPhone, and designed to occupy a small corner of a desk. They’re all designed for convenience, and one — Boost — uses an extremely novel technology to achieve its wireless connection with your iOS device.
Boost is pitched as a “no wires, no syncing, no problems” speaker that has the ability to “magically amplify the audio” from most iOS devices. Normally, these sorts of marketing phrases would sound like pure puffery, but they’re justifiable for Boost: iFrogz has designed a soft touch-coated black plastic box with a power button to press, requiring users to do nothing more than place an iPhone or iPod touch on top, and make sure the device is playing music through its own speaker.
So long as the iOS device’s bottom is close to the power button—the opposite side from where Boost’s two chrome-capped audio drivers are located—you’ll hear its audio performing through the speaker at a surprisingly high volume, with comparable overall clarity to Bluetooth wireless audio systems such as the iHome units. Yet there’s no Bluetooth at work here, no pairing to worry about, and no audio cable in the box: you just have to buy three AA batteries on your own for each 15 hours of play time, and if you prefer a wired connection, there are ports for 3.5mm audio and micro-USB cables that you self-supply.
Since iFrogz is doing something completely different to achieve its wireless connection, it’s worth explaining what does and doesn’t work here—and why. There’s a microphone built into Boost’s top surface, specifically isolated to a quarter- or half-inch-long area on the top immediately above the power button. It uses traditional or vibration-conducting technology to amplify whatever’s coming off of the bottom of your iPhone or iPod touch’s speaker, with enough fidelity to seem fully appropriate to the low price point: not phenomenally clear, and subject to the same dynamic range and monaural output limitations as the iOS device’s own output, but better than one would expect… and considerably louder. The amplification remarkably makes even the lower-volume fourth-generation iPod touch sound roughly as loud, though modestly less clear, than the amplified iPhone 4S, which is normally considerably louder without assistance. Moreover, Boost works with iPhones and iPod touches inside many cases.
Despite the magic of its wireless approach, Boost does have limitations compared with Bluetooth speakers. Unlike the iHome speakers we’re reviewing today—and virtually all Bluetooth speakers, for that matter—it doesn’t work with iPads: Boost requires the iOS device’s speaker to be directly above the power button, and iPads will tip off of the speaker’s top surface rather than resting properly in place. The fact that you need to keep the device literally on top of the speaker is also a limitation relative to Bluetooth, which lets speakers work from 30 or more feet away. And Boost does depend substantially on the quality of the speaker in the iOS device: its microphone retransmits what it hears, so if your device is at higher than roughly 80 percent of its output level, pops and distortion become more evident in Boost’s output; clarity, stereo separation, and compatibility can be improved at least a little by connecting your device with a 3.5mm cable. These would be bigger issues if Boost was a more expensive speaker, but for $40, the limitations are generally unobjectionable.
Overall, iFrogz’ Boost is a bona-fide good speaker for its low asking price, assuming that you’re using one of the several iOS devices that it’s physically compatible with, and that you’re willing to sacrifice a little sonic performance and range for the sake of simplicity. Like all small, inexpensive speakers, Boost does make some tradeoffs in order to achieve what it offers for $40, requiring users to self-supply the batteries and/or cables that rivals now routinely include, and limiting compatibility somewhat, but if you’re using a currently-sold iPhone or iPod touch, you’ll be surprised at just how capable it is. Boost is worthy of a B+ rating and strong general recommendation—it’s a very impressive little audio system for its price, and more genuinely “magical” than we’d expected when we took it out of the box.
Company and Price
Compatible: iPhone/3G/3GS/4/4S, iPod touch 2G/3G/4G