a good number of portable speaker systems for the iPod, but all of them have one limitation in common: They aren’t exactly built to take abuse. Sure, some come bundled with a carrying case of some sort—in the case of Logitech’s
mm50, one that can withstand a few bumps—but I wouldn’t feel comfortable tossing any of them around. Although your response might be, “Well, duh,” the truth is that there are a good number of situations when an iPod owner might have a legitimate need for a sturdier portable speaker system; for example, when camping, or even when just packing their speakers in a suitcase.
It’s for these types of situations that Sonic Impact has designed their
i-Fusion and i-Pax
speaker systems ($150 and $80, respectively). Actually, the company calls them “speaker case systems,” for obvious reasons: Each portable speaker system is built into a sturdy hardshell case, covered with ballistic nylon, that zips closed for travel; a layer of padding between the case and the internal components provides added shock protection. (Although Sonic Impact doesn’t mention water-resistance as part of the cases’ protective features, each system’s external connections are protected behind a rubber door, and the advertising copy states that the cases protect “against the elements.”) The gray i-Fusion, at approximately 9″ wide, 6.7″ deep, and 2.8″ thick when closed, is designed for dockable iPods, whereas the black i-Pax, at around 8.3″ wide, 4.8″ deep, and 2.5″ thick when closed, is made for the iPod shuffle. Because of their protective cases, both are heavier than competing systems: With an iPod and earbuds, the i-Fusion weighs just under 3 pounds, with the i-Pax weighing in at around 1.8 pounds.
Both battery-powered systems include room to store your iPod and earbuds for travel—a nice touch. Each also includes a wrist strap for easier carrying. When you unzip and unfold the two halves of each system, a nylon strap on each side of the case holds the lid, which contains the speakers, upright. (You can also unsnap the straps to lay the speakers flat.) Unfortunately, the straps aren’t adjustable, which means the angle of the speakers is not adjustable. This was a problem for our i-Fusion review sample, which had straps that seemed to be too short—the lid didn’t even open to 90 degrees, so the speakers ended up pointing slightly downwards, adversely affecting sound quality. When I contacted the company about this issue, I was told that the straps often restrict when packed in the box and that it’s safe to stretch them to the desired angle. After some reluctance—they don’t
like they would stretch much—I pressed forcefully on the case lid; the straps did indeed stretch a bit and allowed me to use the speakers at a better angle. But simple adjustable straps would be a better approach, in my opinion.
The i-Fusion includes the features that have become fairly standard in portable speakers at the $150 price point. For example, a dock slot accommodates all dockable iPods, grabbing the dock connector’s line-level audio output while charging your iPod and syncing it with your computer (when powered via the included AC adapter and connected to your computer via Apple’s dock connector cable, respectively). Four included dock inserts and a spacer insert provide compatibility with all full-size and mini iPods. (Our review sample was missing the spacer; we’ve been told that it is included with all currently shipping units, which also include an additional adapter for the iPod nano.) In my testing, these cradles fit securely—sometimes almost too much so, making them difficult to remove. (You can also connect a 1st- or 2nd-generation iPod, or any other source, to the i-Fusion’s auxiliary input using the included mini-to-mini cable.)
Along with the dock cradle, the base of the i-Fusion includes an On/Off switch, battery indicator, and volume controls. The On/Off switch glows green when on; if you leave the system in the On position without an audio signal, it will automatically go into a low-power Standby mode after 8 minutes —the On/Off switch will glow red—but automatically “wake up” when it detects audio again. According to Sonic Impact, power is still used in this mode, but usage is significantly reduced compared to On.
The five-level battery indicator displays a rough estimate of remaining battery life; when the first indicator glows red, it’s time to plug in—like Logitech’s mm50, the i-Fusion includes a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery that’s charged, along with your iPod, whenever the system is powered via the AC adapter. The system’s estimated battery life is 15 hours, and in my testing at moderate volumes, that was just about right. Finally, the Up/Down volume buttons allow you to adjust the system’s volume. There’s no level indicator, but volume is reset to approximately 30% of full—so you don’t scare yourself or others—when you turn on the i-Fusion.
The base of the i-Fusion also includes a long compartment with two sections: one for housing the system’s battery and one for storing your iPod’s earbuds; I was pleased to discover that that most third-party earbuds and canalphones (in-ear-canal headphones) easily fit in this storage area. As for the battery, although the owner’s manual provides instructions for replacing the battery if the need arises, the battery itself has a label that reads “Attention! Broken Without Warranty.” I’ve been unable to decipher this vague warning message.
The “lid” of the i-Fusion houses the system’s 1.25-inch neodymium speaker drivers, two on the left and two on the right, each set protected behind a metal grill. In between the speaker grills is a convenient storage area with a drop-down door; your iPod fits inside—still sitting in its dock cradle adapter—for travel. My only complaint here is that the compartment isn’t padded; thicker iPods in cradles fit snugly, but thinner iPods can bounce around a bit.
Along bottom left edge of the i-Fusion’s base is a rubber door, behind which you’ll find the aforementioned dock connector port (for connecting the i-Fusion to your computer via Apple’s dock connector cable) and auxiliary input, along with a jack for the AC adapter.
i-Pax packs smaller
The i-Pax, designed specifically for the iPod shuffle, provides less overall functionality that the i-Fusion, but is also significantly more compact and less expensive. I also like its design a bit better, as it doesn’t require you to disconnect and store your iPod when you want to pick up and go.
Like the i-Fusion, the bottom half of the i-Pax provides a dock for your iPod—in this case, an iPod shuffle. However, after plugging your shuffle’s USB plug into the i-Pax’s USB dock, the dock and your iPod rotate 90 degrees down
the base. Your iPod shuffle basically becomes
the base of the system, with only its control pad protruding from the smooth white surface. You control playback (including volume) using the shuffle’s controls, but the shuffle’s position embedded in the i-Pax make the iPod’s control pad seem almost like it’s part of the system. This is an ingenious design and one of my favorite features of the i-Pax, even though the iPod
sideways, so the forward/back buttons seem to be positioned backwards. (To be fair, if the shuffle were positioned to the other side, the volume buttons would seem to be backwards.) As with the i-Fusion, your iPod is charged when the i-Pax is powered via the included AC adapter. However, the i-Pax does not include computer connectivity; you have to connect your shuffle directly to your computer to sync it.
The bottom of the i-Pax also hosts the system’s On/Off switch, a “Sound Extent Control” switch, and the system’s battery compartment. Unlike the i-Fusion, the i-Pax uses standard AA batteries—four of them—instead of an internal rechargeable. (This surely keeps the cost of the i-Pax down, and means you can replace batteries on-the-go if they run out, but I do like the idea of a rechargeable battery.) Although the i-Pax box touts battery life of “up to 24 hours,” we were told by Sonic Impact that the actual rated time is 14-24 hours; in my testing, this is a reasonable range—at moderate volume levels I got approximately 20 hours. Unfortunately, although the company’s Web site states that the i-Pax features an “auto standby mode to save battery and battery charge display,” our review unit never went into standby mode, no matter how long we left it untouched with no audio signal.
One other power-related beef I have with the i-Pax is that turning the system off doesn’t pause your iPod. This is also the case with the i-Fusion (and many other iPod speaker systems), but with full-size iPods, the iPod’s screen makes it obvious that the iPod is still playing—the screen acts as a reminder for you to turn it off manually. With the shuffle, it can at times be difficult to determine if the shuffle is playing or not. On more than one occasion, I turned the i-Pax on and found that my shuffle was already playing—and had been for several hours (in one case, overnight).
As for the Sonic Extent Control switch, the i-Pax manual states that enabling this feature “will expand the sonic horizon of the speakers.” If so, I’ll keep my sonic horizon constricted, thank you—turning this feature on did little but add distortion to the system’s output, no matter what kind of music I was listening to and no matter the volume. Luckily, the sound quality was still good with this feature disabled (see below).
The lid of the i-Pax, like that of the i-Fusion, houses the system’s speaker drivers and a storage compartment. In this case, due to space constraints, there’s only a single 1.25-inch neodymium driver on each side, protected by a metal grill. And as you would expect, the i-Pax’s storage compartment is quite a bit smaller, both because of the smaller size of the system and because your iPod is already spoken for. The compartment is just large enough to fit your iPod’s earbuds—although not all third-party earbuds and canalphones—and your shuffle’s USB cap.
The i-Pax also has a small rubber door on the bottom left edge of the base, like its larger sibling, that protects the systems external connectors. You’ll find auxiliary input and AC jacks—the former for connecting a larger iPod or any other audio source via the included mini-to-mini cable—but you won’t find the dock connector port provided by the i-Fusion. Instead, you get an external headphone jack; you can listen to your shuffle via headphones without having to take it out of the case. Granted, you lose the ability to switch tracks or adjust volume—I would have appreciated a volume control behind the door—but I found it useful to be able to listen to my shuffle, packed safely away inside the i-Pax, which was packed in my backpack. The biggest drawback of the headphone jack is that the jack is recessed quite a bit and the opening to the jack is small, so some third-party headphone plugs won’t fit.
Is the case sound?
As you might expect, the i-Fusion’s sound quality is quite a bit better than that of the i-Pax. After all, it’s got more power (4 Watts vs. 3 Watts), four drivers instead of two, and a larger speaker enclosure that provides better bass response. (Both systems use a ported speaker design.) But since you’re likely to be comparing one of these systems to its own competition, rather than to each other, I should do the same here.
Our favorite portable speaker system for the iPod shuffle is Logic 3’s
i-Station Shuffle, a real bargain at only $50. When I compared the i-Pax to the i-Station, I found that they’re fairly comparable in the bass department—neither provides any real bass, but both give you acceptable upper-bass given their sizes. The biggest difference is that the i-Station emphasizes the midrange, whereas the i-Pax has a bit less presence but is clearer in the highs. Neither is going to win any prizes for sound quality, but I found both to be enjoyable for on-the-go listening, slightly preferring the i-Station’s overall fuller sound. The i-Station can also play a good deal louder without distortion.
However, I suspect many people shopping for this type of speaker are less interested in overall sound quality and more interested in design and practicality. Although thinner and lighter than the i-Pax, the i-Station is taller, so it seems bigger when compared to the (closed) i-Pax. The i-Station also has a few additional features, including USB connectivity for syncing your shuffle with your computer and a line-out jack for listening to your shuffle on a better system at home, and is a good deal lighter. And at only $50, it’s also $30 cheaper. However, the i-Station isn’t nearly as rugged as the i-Pax—its speaker drivers are completely exposed and the plastic body is also unprotected. For the extra $30, the i-Pax gives you…well…a speaker case, and a sturdy one at that.
As for the i-Fusion, our favorite speaker system at the $150 price point is Logitech’s aforementioned mm50. Given the mm50’s larger speaker drivers, it’s not surprising that it provides much better bass response than the i-Fusion. The mm50 also edges out the i-Fusion in both the treble and midrange, and the mm50’s sound enhancer works very well at expanding the soundstage beyond what you would expect from a small speaker system. If you’re buying based on sound quality, the mm50 is the way to go.
However, the i-Fusion still provides sound as good as or better than most other portable systems in this price range, so it’s no slouch. In other words, as with the i-Pax, the i-Fusion’s audio quality is good enough that the deciding factor may just be design and features. Logitech’s mm50 is wider, but shorter and thinner, even when in its rigid travel case, making it a better fit for your suitcase; however, given that the mm50’s case doesn’t hold your iPod—so you also have to pack that separately—the overall size difference is less than you would expect. (Weight is another story; the mm50 is noticeably lighter.) The mm50’s most significant advantage is its wireless remote control. On the other hand, in my testing the i-Fusion betters the mm50 in the battery department, squeezing out a couple additional hours of play time. (Both systems use internal, rechargeable batteries.) And, of course, the i-Fusion is much more rugged and stores your iPod and earbuds for travel.
Sonic Impact’s i-Pax and i-Fusion systems are, quite simply, rugged, good-sounding-for-their-sizes speaker systems. Neither is the best in its class, but each is close enough to that mark that those looking for a system that can take some abuse can opt for the Sonic Impact offerings without sacrificing
much in terms of sound quality or features. Although the i-Pax is $30 more expensive than the slightly-better-sounding i-Station shuffle, its design, which embeds your iPod shuffle into the case itself, is especially clever and has made the i-Pax my favorite travel system for the shuffle—it’s even made me question whether or not I need my full-size iPod on my next business trip, as the i-Pax would take up much less room in my carry-on than a standard iPod speaker system. At $150, the i-Fusion trades ultimate sound quality and the convenience of remote control for the ability to store your iPod and keep it (and the speakers) safe during transit. In both cases—no pun intended—the ability to store and protect your iPod and earbuds means you don’t have to buy and pack a second travel case for your player and you don’t have stray cables in your bag.
If your “portable” speaker system will mainly be moved around the house or transported from home to the office and back, I recommend the Logic 3 and Logitech systems mentioned above. However, if you actually travel and want to bring along a set of iPod speakers without worrying about how baggage handlers will “handle” your luggage, you’ll want to check out Sonic Impact’s offerings.
For more on speakers, please visit the
Playlist Product Guide.