Pros: Attractive and highly compact iPod-matching speaker system that runs off battery or AC power; great audio quality given size and highly attractive price; compatible with all iPods currently (and likely to be) available.
Cons: Isn’t as loud or rich as considerably larger and more expensive options.
As confessed fans of the Transformers, iLounge’s editors find iPod accessories with collapsible or articulating components especially irresistible. That’s only one of the reasons Pacific Rim Technologies’ new Cube Travel Speakers ($34.99 and up) are right up our alley.
On the spectrum of iPod-specific speaker options we’ve previously identified, the Cube Travel Speakers generally fit into the ultra-portable category. They’re pocketable – on baggy pants, at least – with the option of using batteries or AC power from an optional power supply ($5.00) if you so desire. Made from white glossy plastic and employing two foldable 1.5 black and silver speakers, the Cubes are a direct competitor to the Macally PodWave speakers (iLounge rating: A-) we’ve previously reviewed and liked.
Folded, the Cube speaker system isn’t truly cubic, but it’s pretty small – almost the same dimensions as a full-sized iPod, but roughly four times thicker. Fully opened, the complete system is almost three times as wide as an iPod is tall, with a recessed space in its center that just fits a full-sized iPod without squeezing or scratching its sides. A small detachable plastic iPod cradle plugs into two holes next to the recessed center, and an integrated stereo audio-in cord unwraps neatly from the back of the Cubes to plug into an iPod’s headphone jack. AC power plugs into the Cubes’ top, next to a red power LED and an on-off power switch, and four AAA batteries (not included) fit easily into a detachable compartment at the rear. Three tiny plastic mounts at the Cubes’ bottom keep the speakers steady on a flat surface when opened.
One of the cool things about the Cubes is that there’s nothing to say that you need to entirely unfold both of the speakers, or place them in any specific orientation.
If you have less room, or don’t want to carry the detachable cradle, you can pop open one of the speakers and rest the iPod on the other. And the fact that it uses a headphone jack connector rather than the Dock Connector port actually has an advantage: it’s iPod shuffle-compatible, and works with every other iPod regardless of size. First- and second-generation iPods are a tighter fit than the others; iPod photos fit without any issue.
The only thing really missing from the Cubes is the same thing that’s missing from all of the ultra-portable speakers we’ve tested: a built-in volume control. Each small speaker option requires the iPod’s amplifier to handle volume adjustments, and none of them is a direct power match for the larger accessories we’ve tested. On the flip side, the Cubes can more be easily used with top-mounting iPod wireless remote controls such as TEN Technology’s naviPod and DLO’s iDirect as a consequence, and their volume buttons will fully work.
Overall, we really like the Cubes’ physical design, especially for the price. Pacific Rim’s decision to include larger speakers and require more battery power than Macally’s PodWave renders the Cubes comparatively bigger, but they’re still easy to carry around, and have commensurate performance benefits.
Size aside, there are two ways the Cubes arguably outmatch the PodWave: play time and audio power. This isn’t an entirely fair comparison given that the PodWave is intentionally smaller, still sounds great for its size, and uses fewer batteries at a time. But except for people who want to keep iPod and speakers in the same pocket, the two solutions are of roughly comparable portability, price, and purpose, so you’ll have to decide which is a better fit for your personal needs.
As ultra-portable speakers go, we were impressed by the Cubes’ sound.
For obvious reasons, they perform best when they’re entirely unfolded, and feature appropriate left- and right-channel stereo separation for their size, but are still usable when one of the speakers is obstructed by the iPod. At full extension, bass is much stronger and the overall sound balance is better with the Cubes. We didn’t think the PodWaves were by any means too tinny for their small enclosure, but the Cubes are certainly even less so.
Volume is also in the Cubes’ favor. Used at maximum low-distortion power (90% on the 4G iPod’s volume meter), the Cubes are noticeably louder than the PodWave at its maximum (95+%). Though you can push both units to 100% volume, distortion is apparent at that level in each one. Regardless, you’ll get a clearer loud sound out of the Cubes at their optimum level.
Pacific Rim didn’t have any official battery life estimates on the Cube speakers when we started our testing, so we ran tests to see just how long they’d play. With the four AAA batteries we tested, the speakers ran well for more than 16 hours, and instead of turning off, thereafter began to degrade to a scratchy and unlistenable level of quality. This was about twice the run time of the PodWave, which uses a single AA battery to get around 8 hours of playback time, but these numbers may vary with the type of batteries one uses, as well.
We also compared the Cube speakers against Altec Lansing’s iM3 speaker system ($179.99, iLounge rating: B+), which also runs off of four batteries (AAs), but is in a different class of speaker, and significantly larger and more expensive.