So many iPod speakers have been released at this stage that it’s hard to really get excited about any new one that might appear: dozens, perhaps hundreds of them look, feel, and sound pretty much the same. So it was with some interest that we received Macally’s new FlexTune ($70), a brand new all-in-one speaker designed to address a relatively recent concern: how do you add speakers to an iPod touch for both widescreen video viewing and standard horizontal audio purposes?
There are several possible answers to this, but FlexTune’s answer is a pretty good one: unlike Logic3’s earlier, $60 i-Station Traveller, which used slide-out speakers with a headphone port plug, FlexTune uses slide-out speakers with two separate Dock Connector plugs, one vertical, one horizontal. When you want to use your iPod touch (or another iPod) in upright vertical mode, you plug it into the bottom Dock Connector; for video viewing, you plug it into the right-mounted one. This isn’t as convenient as just flipping the iPod around inside i-Station, but it carries two benefits: the ability to charge the iPod while inside, and the potential of superior audio quality from the iPod’s bottom audio port.
FlexTune actually achieves this audio quality benefit in practice. Though we’re not completely impressed by the sound from either i-Station Traveller or FlexTune for their asking prices, FlexTune unquestionably sounds better—clearer, with better highs and lows, less distortion throughout its volume range, and a peak volume level that doesn’t introduce anywhere near as much distortion as Logic3’s design.
Neither system is going to fill a big room, and neither one has the sort of bass output we’d expect from larger systems, but as portable speakers, they’re both good, and FlexTune is a little better.
There are some other interesting details in FlexTune’s design. An array of six buttons on the unit’s front provide easy access to track back, forward, and play/pause controls, as well as volume adjustments, that don’t require use of the iPod’s own buttons—handy mostly if you’re using the iPod touch. Macally packages FlexTune with a remote control, wall charger, and audio cable for use with devices other than iPods, and lets you supply four AA batteries if you want to use the system on the road. Somewhat unusually, the system only recharges your iPod when you press the power button to activate the speakers; otherwise, the iPod will sit in the dock without recharging.
Limited audio performance aside, the only things that detract from FlexTune’s rating are certain cheapening touches that make the system look like a downgrade from the i-Station Traveller despite the fact that it’s a better performer and value. The system’s matte black and silver plastic parts just aren’t as nice as Logic3’s or most of the other speakers we’ve tested, and though the speakers feel fine as you stretch them out, the overall appearance of the unit just doesn’t look up to snuff with most of the iPod audio systems we see in stores these days.
At 7.5” wide by 4” tall by 2.3” deep, it feels substantially bulkier than the 6.75” by 3.5” by 1.25” i-Station Traveler despite offering significantly similar functionality; in fact, FlexTune’s oversized base, which might have been used to let the system tilt for better viewing angles, doesn’t really add much to the design. Given the problems we’ve had with viewing our iPod touch screens on certain angles, we’d really have preferred a solution with some tilting ability. And finally, the 12-button Infrared remote—which works well and features iPod menu navigation buttons—uses an odd array of five colors, rather than a cleaner two or three. Macally’s industrial design department could definitely use some assistance in creating products as beautiful as the ones they’re accessorizing. On a final note, FlexTune is only truly compatible with iPods, not the iPhone, as TDMA interference is clearly audible in its speakers if you attempt to dock the iPhone without putting it in Airplane Mode; the iPhone does dock, and work as a video or audio player, when switched into that mode.
The appeal of an audio system like FlexTune is fairly obvious: for a reasonable price, you get a nice little iPod touch-friendly audio system with charging, portability, and remote control functionality, all of which will endear it to budget-conscious users.