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Rain Design iWoofer
Rain Design's compact iWoofer is one of the more interesting speaker systems we've seen. The main body of the iWoofer is a small sphere, approximately 4.5 inches in diameter, that rests on four chrome-finished legs with gray, rubber feet. On top of the sphere is dock-connector plug positioned on a small "ledge," as well as a clear-plastic brace against which most dockable iPods will rest; dockable iPods charge when the iWoofer is running off AC power. The brace is mounted on the bottom of an extendable antenna for the iWoofer's built-in FM radio. With the antenna pointed downward, the iWoofer is just over 6.5 inches tall.
(Four braces are included with the iWoofer. Three fit full-size and mini iPods; the fourth acts as a cradle for the first-generation iPod shuffle, which connects via an audio cable. If you've got a first-generation iPod nano, Rain Design sells a nano-specific version of the iWoofer with a different bracket.)
On the front of the iWoofer are two (left and right) 30mm speaker drivers that stand out, visually, thanks to black (on the white model) or grey (on the black model) metal grills surrounded by chrome-finish trim. Just below the speakers is a small acoustic port for the iWoofer's bottom-mounted, 2.5" low(er)-frequency driver. Also on the bottom of the unit, surrounding this larger speaker, is a glowing blue ring. The combined effect of the speakers, port, and glowing ring is a design that makes the front of the iWoofer look like some sort of alien-ish face.
The back of the iWoofer provides a mini-USB port for syncing a docked iPod with your computer, as well as an auxiliary-input minijack for connecting an external audio source. When a cable is connected to this jack and the iWoofer detects audio from this source, the iWoofer's internal audio (iPod or radio) is reduced and the external and internal audio are mixed together. The iWoofer includes a USB cable, a minijack-to-minijack audio cable, and a 2.5mm adapter for connecting the audio cable to the smaller headphone jack found on some mobile phones.
Since no remote is included with the iWoofer, you control all of its functions via two large Click-Wheel-looking pads, one on the left side and one on the right. (You can also control iPod playback via the iPod itself.) The pad on the right side controls volume, bass level, and -- via the center button -- power. The left-hand pad is used to switch between FM-radio and iPod modes; tune the radio or skip forward or back during dockable-iPod playback; and toggle the blue bottom light on and off. Because the system is fairly small and light, you may need to hold the iWoofer in place while pressing a button to prevent the system from sliding around your desk.
The sound controls on the right are easy enough to use, iWoofer's radio is a bit of a challenge. After pressing the FM button to turn on the radio, you tune using the forward and backwards buttons. However, there's no LCD display, so you basically have to "tune blind." Although the iWoofer's manual states that the tuning buttons will automatically seek out the next clear station, in my testing in the crowded radio market of the San Francisco Bay area, they simply increased or decreased the FM frequency by 0.2, even when there was obviously no clear station on a frequency. You can save a single frequency to memory by holding down the FM button for approximately five seconds; the blue light on the bottom of the iWoofer flashes when the station is saved. From that point on, pressing the FM button switches directly to that station. I found myself basically listening to this one preset, as finding other stations was too much of a hassle. (Even if you don't have a "favorite" station, it's a good idea to set one so you can use it as a starting point -- a known frequency -- when you want to tune to different stations.)
The iWoofer sounds better than I expected it to given the size of the system; although there's a bit of the tinniness I've come to expect from tiny systems, the larger driver on the bottom of the iWoofer adds enough lower-midrange -- there's no true bass -- that this tinniness isn't nearly as noticeable as it could have been. The ability to adjust bass levels helps in this respect, as increasing the bass to its highest setting adds quite a bit of warmth to the sound without any boominess. The 12-Watt iWoofer can also play fairly loud -- again, given its size -- distorting only at the highest volumes with the bass level set to the highest level. On the other hand, with the speaker drivers just an inch or so apart, you get virtually no stereo separation, and there are a good number of systems that offer better sound quality for a similar price. But most people will be interested in the iWoofer for its design, and considering that the system is basically a 4.5-inch globe with tiny speakers, the sound quality is pretty good.
Although the iWoofer can run off AC power or four AAA batteries, its unique design prevents it from being a truly portable system -- the various protrusions don't appear to be sturdy enough to throw the iWoofer in a bag without fear of damage. Rain Design sells a $30 hardshell travel case for the iWoofer, but unless you're quite enamored with the iWoofer's design, if you need to take your speakers from place to place, you'd be better off opting for a system designed to be portable.
Rain Design iWoofer