Pros: Clean and attractive ultra-portable stereo speaker solution for the iPod delivers solid sound quality in a package that barely stretches the width of the iPod.
Cons: Volume appropriate largely for one- or two-person listening at short distances, can’t compete on raw power with larger and more expensive solutions.
One of 2004’s biggest areas of growth for iPod accessories has been in speaker systems: following the early lead of Altec Lansing and JBL, a number of companies are now selling speaker systems that are marketed for use primarily with an iPod. Some are small and portable, others are large and stationary, and still others fall somewhere in-between. After testing virtually all of these speaker systems, we’ve come to view the iPod speaker market as having divided into the following four categories:
While it’s possible and useful to compare speakers from one category to those in another, there are reasons to prefer product-to-product comparisons only within a given category: people who buy ultra-portable speakers aren’t expecting the same sound quality or horsepower as a set of non-portable speakers, and people who buy non-portable speakers typically favor sound quality and horsepower, and aren’t looking to pay a premium for compactness they’ll never use.
In that context, Macally’s new PodWave ($39.00) is not only the best ultra-portable speaker system we’ve seen so far for the iPod, but for some people and purposes (underline the word “some”), it will also rival the considerably more expensive full-fledged portable systems we’ve identified above.
Our updated review of the PodWave looks at two versions of the product that are identically named but differ in size and performance; we advise our readers to inquire with their retailers as to which version(s) of the product they sell. As of mid-January 2005, Macally said that it is “currently shipping” version 2.
Version 1 of MacAlly’s Podwave: Sold in 2004 and early 2005
Modestly longer (3.3”) than the top of any iPod, version 1 of the PodWave is a 1” deep white plastic tube that protrudes that same single inch when connected to an iPod’s headphone port. Otherwise, like other top-mounting accessories, its gold-plated headphone jack sticks out of its bottom, but unlike them, it doesn’t interface with current model iPods’ tiny four-pin headphone data ports. Two white metal rounded speaker grilles stick out of its sides, creating separate left and right audio channel outputs from the iPod. A gray Macally logo is on its front, with a single AA battery compartment (for around 8 hours of power) and a simple black on-off switch on its rear. There’s no volume knob; only the iPod’s volume controls adjust its output.
The only thing missing from the design is a plastic molded groove to accommodate iPod hold switches, most likely absent because of the different placements of such switches on different-sized iPods. As a result of this omission and its lack of interface with the modern iPod headphone data port, the PodWave doesn’t necessarily stay perfectly straight when mounted on an iPod’s top, though it won’t really move much unless you push it yourself. Other than this minor issue, the PodWave’s a great match for any full-sized iPod, and only modest overkill on the iPod mini.
Sound quality seriously surprised us. We had expected that the PodWave would perform terribly given its small size and low price, two factors which individually or collectively doom many audio accessories. But Macally appears to have made some smart manufacturing choices: for the dollar and given its intended purpose, the PodWave’s sound is pretty clean and maintains a healthy frequency balance. It’s not tinny, and while there’s no thump in its bass response, you can hear enough bass at normal listening levels to satisfy the type of needs you’ll have for such a small speaker system. When compared against Altec’s imMini system, it doesn’t sound shrill, but it also doesn’t have any deep resonant sound. This isn’t a surprise, but it’s worth noting.
The PodWave’s stereo separation is also surprisingly good, thanks to Macally’s decision to have the speakers cast their sound off to the left and right rather than forward at the listener. While the unit does create a predictably small sound stage, you can clearly hear sounds intended to come from the left and the right even at a fair distance from the iPod and speakers; everything else sounds as if it’s at center stage in the middle of the iPod.
It almost goes without saying that the PodWave’s sound is substantially cleaner and louder than the vaguely competitive Griffin iTalk, and less distorted and flat than Monster’s iSpeaker, but the point should be made anyway; Macally’s product is the best-sounding product in its size category.
Only one limitation bears mention: don’t expect version one of the PodWave to deliver enough volume and clarity for stress-test listening – it’s not going to be audible over the sounds of a passing train. This is the one area where the device cannot compete with full-fledged portable speaker systems such as the inMotion series from Altec. Use of the PodWave under regular conditions requires you to pump the iPod’s volume level up to around its 75% mark, and scratchy bass distortion becomes noticeable at slightly under 90%. As a result, you can use PodWave perfectly well in a single room and outdoors, but it’s not going to deliver loudspeaker-level volume or audiophile-grade clarity at its top volume levels. It’s a nearly perfect individual listening device if you don’t want to use headphones, but no substitute for a larger system.
Overall, the first PodWave was an important product for the iPod family: the first truly pocketable stereo speaker solution for the platform, and at a wonderfully affordable price. It can’t do everything, but what it does, it does well.
January 25, 2005 Update: Macally’s Version 2 of the PodWave (now AP-A111)
In late January, iLounge had the opportunity to test version 2 of the PodWave, which Macally says is “currently shipping” and will replace version 1 units going forward. Responding to concerns raised in iLounge’s review and comments section, Macally improved the PodWave’s sound quality while only modestly increasing its physical size. Version 2 of the Podwave is wider, taller, and thicker than before, but still fits neatly on the top of a full-sized iPod – a size difference that won’t matter to virtually anyone. Unlike its predecessor, it also includes a small groove on its bottom to accommodate full-sized iPods’ hold switches, thereby increasing the speakers’ stabilization and reducing their tendency to spin around when touched.
One AA battery still provides power, but Macally is using better audio components in the new design. As a consequence, while the PodWave’s maximum volume hasn’t increased, its ability to output clear sound closer to the maximum level has improved. Our version 1 unit showed some bass distortion slightly under the 90% mark; the version 2 unit isn’t significantly distorted until the very top of its range – at or above the 95% mark. Even with these improvements, the price remains the same, and for that reason, we commend Macally for further improving the performance of an ultraportable speaker system we really liked before.
However, as indicated in the version 1 comments below (those prior to this January 25, 2005 update), we do note that more than a few iLounge readers expressed concern about the performance of version 1 PodWaves that did not appear to perform as well as the one we received for testing. Moreover, it’s unclear whether stores other than Macally’s online storefront will immediately stop selling version 1 PodWaves and replace them with newer models. Please continue to use the comments section below to update us and your fellow readers on your PodWave experiences – we hope that they are as good as ours.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school – ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.
Company and Price
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, iPod photo, iPod shuffle