We’ve reviewed a number of portable speaker systems for the iPod, including Altec Lansing’s
iM mini, and
iM4, Tivoli Audio’s
iPAL, Pac Rim Technologies’
Cube Travel Speakers, and MacAlly’s
PodWave. Although each of these systems has advantages, all tend to be lacking in areas that traditional boom boxes—the bane of 80s street corners and school hallways—excelled: ruggedness and volume levels. These systems are all easy to take with you, but (the weather-resistant iPAL aside) are better suited for an office or a hotel room than a day at the beach.
So it follows that a certain amount of techie excitement followed Digital Lifestyle Outfitters’ (DLO) 2004 announcement of their $150
boombox for the iPod. Although we had a prototype last fall, Playlist’s policy is to only review shipping products; after a long wait, we got our hands on a shipping unit and have been using it for the past month.
Note: There have been reports around the Web of problems with the iBoom’s electrical system. Early iBoom models exhibited an issue where using the unit on AC power while batteries are installed—a difficult feat, as explained below—could cause the batteries to leak. According to a DLO spokesperson, current models have an internal protection circuit to prevent such problems. Consumers who purchased an early unit and have experienced this problem should contact DLO for a replacement.
The iBoom is about the size of a small boombox (12.5” wide by 8” high by 6” deep), featuring an iPod-white plastic body with gray plastic trim, gray plastic buttons, and gray metal speaker grills. Left and right two-way speakers supply the sound, and an iPod cradle in the center holds dockable iPods, connecting via the dock connector. (The cradle normally fits full-size 3G and 4G iPods, but also fits iPod mini models using an included cradle insert. Unfortunately, as with many dockable speaker systems, our 60GB iPod photo would not fit.) Beneath the cradle is a backlit LCD display for the iBoom’s FM tuner, as well as the power, radio, and volume controls.
Overall, the look of the iBoom is a bit plasticky, but unlike some of the other portable speakers we’ve tested, the iBoom doesn’t feel fragile. And at over 5 pounds (including batteries), it’s certainly more substantial. A slot on the upper rear of the iBoom acts as a handle for carrying.
To play music from your iPod, you simply press the iBoom’s power button and then start playing your iPod. Using the radio, on the other hand, isn’t so intuitive. Once the power is on, you must then toggle the Player/Radio button to Radio, and then press the FM power button to turn on the radio—a messy sequence of button presses the company says will be addressed in a future version. This isn’t a show-stopper, but it takes some getting used to. Once the radio is turned on, Tune up/down buttons let you change the frequency, and two memory buttons let you store your very favorite stations.
The only other control on the iBoom is the volume knob; I’ll talk about that when I get to sound (“The Boom,” below).
The iBoom also has a 1/8” (miniplug) audio input jack on the right side, intended for use with other audio sources such as a computer or CD player. This input is a mix input—meaning you can listen to both your iPod and the secondary audio source at the same time—but the mix level of that source is low, and connecting a source to the jack has the odd effect of slightly lowering the overall volume level of both that source and iPod playback.
The iBoom runs off 6D batteries or AC power, the latter via an included, captive AC cord that folds up into the bottom of the battery compartment. When running off AC power, the iBoom charges your docked iPod.
Although the iBoom has a plastic carrying slot/handle, DLO also offers a $30 form-fitting bag for the iBoom called, appropriately enough, the BoomBag. This nylon bag provides padded sides, bottom, front, and back, as well as an open rear pocket and three zippered pockets for storing cables, earphones, batteries, or other item. The padded front of the bag unzips—either completely off or just enough to flip down the front panel—to reveal an inner panel that covers the speakers in mesh and the iPod and controls in clear vinyl. (You can operate the controls through the vinyl, or you can unzip just the vinyl area to access the iPod and controls directly.) The BoomBag also provides a padded shoulder strap and thick rubber handle.
With the BoomBag on, you can’t access the iBoom’s battery compartment or the auxiliary-in jack on the side of the iBoom. However, you
use the AC cable, which fits through a rubber grommet on the back of the bag.
If you’re going to buy an iBoom, the BoomBag is a no-brainer accessory. It protects your iBoom from bumps, scratches, and the elements; provides a good deal of space for carrying accessories, gadgets, and personal items; and makes the BoomBag easier to carry.
With 20 Watts of power, the iBoom plays much louder than any other portable system we’ve tested. (Well, except for the $400
Cambridge SoundWorks Model Twelve, but that’s a completely different class of product, and more “transportable” than portable.) It easily fills a large room louder than I found comfortable, and I was able to generate enough volume outside to hear the music from the other end of a suburban driveway. The iBoom won’t take the place of your home stereo, but it should be more than adequate for your outdoor activities.
The iBoom’s sound quality is among the better of the truly portable systems we’ve heard, and generally on par with that of the Playlist Pick Altec Lansing inMotion iM3. On the one hand, the iM3 has slightly more warmth (which basically means the midrange is a bit more prominent); on the other hand, because the iBoom is quite a bit larger—the left/right speakers are further apart—it provides a bit better stereo separation. However, these are subtle differences. I played both systems for several other people, and all felt that the two were fairly comparable in sound quality, volume levels aside. (The differences I heard are unlikely to be noticeable in a portable environment.)
I was also pleasantly surprised by the performance of the iBoom’s FM tuner. Despite the lack of an external antenna, I was able to receive stations on the iBoom—clearly—that were difficult to receive on several other tuners that I expected to perform better. And even in the crowded FM spectrum of the San Francisco Bay Area, stations in proximity to each other on the FM dial rarely “bled” into each other. Overall, despite its funky buttons, the iBoom’s FM radio is a welcome and functional extra not found on other iPod speaker systems.
In addition to the confusing radio buttons, we also experienced odd behavior with the iBoom’s volume control. On our review unit, this knob didn’t change the volume level smoothly: Below a certain volume level—too high for a quiet room—the volume simply cut out completely, making our iBoom unit inappropriate for low-volume listening. And as we turned the volume up, it didn’t increase in smooth increments: Above the “cut-off” level, the system’s volume rose very slightly for the first half-rotation, then increased rapidly for the next quarter-rotation, beyond which the expected “boombox distortion” occurred.
The other quirk of the iBoom is that in order to use the unit’s captive AC cord, you have to open the battery compartment door and
the top row of (3) batteries. Although it’s possible to replace the batteries and shut the door while using the AC cord, it’s a tight fit.
The iBoom definitely has some quirks, and those issues keep it from earning a higher rating. However, it’s such a unique product that even with these quirks, it’s a lot of fun to take to the beach or park—or just for hanging out in the back yard. In fact, if I had one word to describe the iBoom/BoomBag combo, it’s that: fun. If you can live with the minor issues I’ve described here, you’ll likely enjoy using it as much as I did.