We’ve noted in a number of recent speaker reviews that as the number of iPod-compatible speakers continues to climb, and as certain “sound quality for the dollar” metrics have been established, the major differentiators between options have become looks and pricing. Buying an iPod speaker these days is mostly a matter of finding an option that looks good, suits your budget, and sounds acceptable to your ears; breakthroughs are becoming fewer in number with every passing month.
Clockwise, from bottom left: JiSS-330, JiSS-550, i-Station Concert, Vers 2X, and iH82
Today, we briefly review five recent iPod speakers priced from $100 to $180, each with a polarizing body shape that will either immediately appeal to or offend your sense of good design. At the low end of the price spectrum is Jensen’s Banshee JiSS-330 ($100), an ultra-glossy black and chrome system with three speaker drivers, with the company’s bigger and more deluxe JiSS-550 model ($130) instead possessing five speakers. At the same price is iHome’s iH82 ($130), a two-speaker version of the $100 rounded cube iH80 OutLoud Portable Speaker System we’ve previously reviewed. Then there are Sprout Creation’s Vers 2X ($179), a wood veneer and plastic enclosure with two speaker drivers inside, and Logic3’s i-Station Concert ($180), an update of the previously released i-Station 8, which houses 9 speaker drivers—4 each on the left and right sides, and one 2.5” woofer for bass. Like many of the other speakers we’ve reviewed, each of these units has at least one major selling point, and one or two issues that prospective buyers should be aware of before a purchase.
Of the group, we were most impressed overall by the Banshee JiSS-330, which is the least expensive system in the collection. Using a design that most people will either love or hate, Jensen has placed three speakers on a horizontal line beneath an iPod dock, housing everything in a single glossy black plastic enclosure with prominent chrome highlights and a metal front grille. You also get an elongated, color-matched remote control, composite and S-video cables—each supported by color 4G and 5G iPod-only ports on the unit’s rear—along an audio cable, with six dock adapters for various iPods, and a power cube. JiSS-330 also has a subwoofer out port on its back, along with a switch to toggle between audio from the iPod dock and auxiliary audio input.
This particular Banshee model is a very good but non-portable speaker at a budget price. Whereas lots of other speakers at this price level are battery-powered, miniature-speaker solutions, which force certain volume and sound quality compromises, Jensen decided to go with slightly larger speakers and an enclosure that you can’t just toss into a backpack or take outdoors. The benefit is somewhat more powerful sound that isn’t spectacular in an absolute sense, but is reasonably well-balanced at average volumes, while holding up much better at loud volumes than thinner, similarly-priced low-end models from Altec Lansing, Logic 3, or JBL. While unimpressive on stereo separation relative to systems such as Logitech’s Pure-Fi Anywhere, and not a bass powerhouse, the 330’s good treble and midrange performance enable it to deliver quality sound at a very attractive price point.
In concept and pricing, JiSS-550 is the more deluxe of the Banshee speaker systems. Here, Jensen has added two more speaker drivers to the prior enclosure, bringing the total to five, and moved the iPod dock into a separately cabled cup that sits off to one of the unit’s sides. You still get the same styling, pack-ins, and features—there are no differences save for the division of rear ports such that half are on the iPod dock, half on the speaker chassis—and you pay a $30 premium for what should be enhanced audio quality. Jensen backs JiSS-550 with a massive power cube, which along with the extra speakers would make you think that you’re getting a much bigger, badder system for a slightly higher price. Like the 330, the 550 isn’t portable, and it’s worth noting that you can’t use it without the iPod docking cup attached, as its only audio inputs are the iPod Dock Connector and the aux-in on the cup.
We weren’t as impressed by JiSS-550 as we were with its smaller, less expensive brother. Jensen has used the extra speakers to extend the frequency response on both the high and low ends, giving 550 sharper highs and slightly lower lows than 330. Unfortunately, the extension is too aggressive on the high end; such that the treble is too strong in many songs, with a distracting edge that sometimes leads to sibilance, and at other times allows certain drums to completely distract you from the vocals. As the difference in bass isn’t as big as you might expect from the extra speakers, and the 550’s added size and separate cup make it less convenient to situate on a tabletop, we’d sooner recommend the smaller, less expensive 330; this is the rare case where a company’s decision to add more hardware doesn’t necessarily create better sound.
On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that the elongated remote control included with both systems is unusually pleasant to use. Though it is still based on the same line-of-sight dependent Infrared technology as all of the other speakers we review today, Jensen has designed it in a shape and with weight that feel comfortable in the hand, and with a simple array of buttons that are easy to press, and cool-looking. One easily replaceable AAA battery powers the remote, rather than forcing you to use a watch battery; given the comfort of a remote like this, we wouldn’t mind seeing other companies go with similar solutions.
Our overall rating of the JiSS-330 is a B+ level general recommendation, while the JiSS-550 rates a B-, limited recommendation, the latter solely because of the over-aggressive treble. Mostly because of their cosmetics, these systems won’t be right for all users, but if you like the look and are on a tight budget, the JiSS-330 is a pretty good option for desktop listening.