Native Union’s Moshi Moshi-branded desktop phone accessories have generally been so impressive in look and feel that we’ve been excited to test them, even when they’ve had issues that impacted their overall appeal. Most were designed by David Turpin, who took inspiration from retro and modern telephones to create the company’s MM01, MM02, MM03 and MM05 handsets, each of which we’ve liked in at least some way. But there’s another member of the family called MM04 that was created by a different designer named Michael Young, and Native Union has just released an iOS device-specific version called MM04i ($200). We’ve been putting the latter model through its paces alongside the simpler and less expensive unit MM03i, reviewed earlier today. While MM04i offers the Moshi Moshi family’s most daring industrial design and feature set, it tries to do too much without really succeeding at anything, and deserves a thorough rethinking before another sequel is released.
Unlike the other Moshi Moshi series accessories, which are primarily designed to let cell phone users enjoy the comfort of a traditionally sized and shaped telephone handset when making phone calls, MM04i is a multi-purpose device. Fully assembled, it looks like a futuristic metal and plastic speaker system with an iPhone dock jutting out from the center, but you can pop the dock inside the base for a more minimalist look, and pull off the top half of the system to serve as a hand-held telephone. On paper, it is a handset, a speaker system, and an iPhone/iPod-ready docking station capable of both powering a device and outputting Dock Connector audio. Unlike MM03i, the speaker functionality in MM04i works fully with iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads using stereo Bluetooth 2.1 streaming. More on that in a moment.
The most eye-catching design element in both MM04 and MM04i is the one piece they have in common: an oversized handset made substantially from soft touch rubber and plastic, with a highly distinctive honeycomb-styled aluminum face. Peering through the metal are twin speaker grilles and three tiny holes, one for a microphone and the others for LED lights to indicate functions and charging. On one side—generally the “top”—is a set of three total multi-function volume, track control, and play/pause buttons, plus another microphone, while the back has an illuminated power button and a mysterious rubber-coated port. Silver- or copper-colored aluminum can be chosen for the face; the rest of the phone is always soft touch black.
Most of the time, the handset is supposed to rest on a black plastic charging station with four metal pins on top, and a pop-out iPhone dock front and center. This dock is the major new feature of MM04i relative to the shallower original MM04, and as with MM03i, Native Union has added a 3.5mm audio output port to the back of the MM04i base so that you can use it as an audio dock. It’s initially a little odd that unlike MM03i, which omits the audio-out cable but comes with a USB cable for syncing and charging purposes, MM04i comes with the audio cable but leaves you to get the USB one yourself—a Micro-USB tip is needed for the MM04i-facing end. An included international wall power adapter supplies enough juice to recharge your docked iPhone or iPod, and top off the handset’s two-hour rechargeable battery.
Yes, you read that correctly. Scattered in the paragraphs above are a collection of yellow and red flag issues that combine to make MM04i feel at a minimum incomplete, and arguably ill-executed on a number of different levels. They start with the handset’s distinctive honeycomb metal facade, which looks cool but turned out to be physically off-putting over several weeks of on and off testing; the rough texture and cold metal never felt right when hand-held or brought up to face level, and the handset’s lack of immediately conspicuous top-bottom labeling led us to repeatedly wonder which side was supposed to be placed by one’s ear. MM04i’s multi-function buttons also had an odd tendency to shift between volume and track control features in less than totally predictable ways, as double button presses and holds can inadvertently activate track skips and scrubs when you’re trying to turn the volume up or down. Overcomplexity in design and function make this the only handset in the Moshi Moshi family that we didn’t enjoy holding or trying to use.
While Native Union isn’t the first company to get tripped up by trying to make a handset do double-duty as a speaker system, its execution doesn’t suggest that it learned much from the mistakes made by others. MM04i’s stereo speakers are underpowered, flat with a midrange focus, and decidedly anemic in the bass department by any standard—let alone the $200 Bluetooth speaker category they’re most naturally placed in—without sounding great at closer ranges in handset mode. Callers described our voices as muddy when heard through MM04i’s microphone, noting that we sounded decidedly better through the integrated handset and speakerphone hardware in the iPhone 4. They also said that they could hear themselves echoing in the MM04i microphone when they spoke during handset use, a problem we didn’t experience with the MM03i.
MM04i is also a weak contender relative to competing $200 Bluetooth speakers such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion Air, Aliph’s Jawbone Jambox, and SoundMatters’ foxL v2.2. The unit’s meager rechargeable battery life falls short of the six to eight hour run times that are offered in these stereo Bluetooth speakers, all of which deliver superior speaker quality for the same price. Both Jambox and foxL v2.2 also use significantly smaller form factors while including the same microphone and speakerphone functionality as MM04i; the only way in which they fall short is in their omission of a handset mode—no great loss given how MM04i performs in that regard.
One particularly odd element of MM04i is something that is underplayed on Native Union’s web site: the handset’s mysterious covered rear port turns out to match the aforementioned 3.5mm audio port on the charging station’s back. Native Union’s web site includes a photo of an audio cable connected to the handset, but doesn’t explain what it’s for. It turns out that the only way to get non-Bluetooth audio from MM04i’s iPhone/iPod dock to the speakers is to connect them with the included audio cable. Otherwise, the only music that will play through the speakers is whatever’s streaming to them wirelessly, a point that will confuse the MM04i—and you—whenever an iPod or iPhone streaming music is physically connected to the dock. Unless the audio cable is connected, plugging in the iOS device will silence it, as it will automatically shift away from Bluetooth streaming and into Dock Connector output mode. MM04i should be able to handle the transition from wireless to wired playback without needing anything, let alone a wire for connection; this feels like an engineering omission that really should have been fixed before MM04i was released.
Though we take no pleasure in saying it, MM04i is a neat-looking speaker system that really flops on execution, providing mediocre sound quality and battery life while kludging what should have been a seamless transition between wireless and wired audio modes. In every way but aesthetics, it falls short of the standards of other $200 wireless speakers we’ve tested, and even then, the design element that makes its handset half stand out so much is unpleasant when actually used for one of its intended purposes. A revised version will need to simultaneously improve the performance of the stereo speakers, the feel and sound of the telephone, and the wired functionality of the dock. That’s a tall order, but hopefully Native Union will rise to the challenge with a better sequel.
Company and Price
Company: Native Union
Compatible: iPhone (all), iPod touch 2G/3G/4G, iPad (2010)