We’ve reviewed a good number of speaker systems for the iPod, but it’s rare that we see a system that truly stands out in terms of looks. Most are white, or, more recently, black, with white or silver trim. Some have more stylish designs than others, but one look at them and you immediately think “iPod.”
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but some aesthetic variety would be a Good Thing in the iPod speaker market. So I was excited the first time I saw Speck Products’ new SpeckTone Retro, which is unlike any other speaker system we’ve — quite literally — seen.
The SpeckTone Retro’s name is quite fitting, as the system’s design is a spitting image of a 1950s/60s radio. The boxy enclosure is 14″ wide in front (12.3″ wide in back), just over 7″ deep, and 4.8″ tall and looks more like something you’d find in an antique radio catalog than on an iPod accessory Web site. Finished in a glossy “piano” treatment, the Retro is available in black with black speaker grills, white with gray speaker grills, or (the super-retro choice) light green with brown speaker grills. All three models feature a silver front faceplate that hosts the Retro’s illuminated volume control. The SpeckTone Retro’s glossy finish looks great, but even more impressive, given the Retro’s $150 price tag, is that the cabinet is made of real wood rather than plastic.
The top of the Retro hosts a silver iPod dock cradle that accommodates 4G and later dockable iPods (3G models don’t work) as well as the iPod mini and iPod nano. Unfortunately, the SpeckTone gains this compatibility not through sturdy plastic inserts, like many other speakers at this price, but via adhesive foam spacers; you add as many spacers as is necessary to keep your iPod braced from behind. This means that if you’ve got multiple iPods, there’s no easy way to adjust the Retro’s cradle to fit each. As with most dockable iPod speakers, your iPod is charged while in the Retro’s dock but — and this differs from many other speakers — only when the system is actually turned on.
The austere front of the Retro contains the aforementioned backlit volume control as well as two (left/right) 3-inch drivers hidden behind the system’s fabric grills. Another speaker, a 4-inch “subwoofer,” is hidden behind a metal grill on the bottom of the system.
The rear of the unit hosts a 1/8″ audio-in minijack, which allows you to connect older iPods, an iPod shuffle, or other audio sources. (Note than when a cable is connected to this jack, the dock cradle input is automatically muted.) It’s also where you’ll find the Retro’s hardware power switch and AC input. The power switch is a bit inconvenient to access and it produces an audible “pop” through the speakers when you turn the unit on. And the Retro exhibits one of pet peeves of iPod speaker systems: When you turn off the Retro, it doesn’t turn off your iPod, or at least pause it. You’ll also find a sizable heatsink hanging off the back of the Retro, designed to cool the system’s relatively powerful 28-Watt amplifier. (28 Watts in a system this size? Thatsalotta power.)
The Retro’s most glaring omission is its lack of a wireless remote control. Given that most of the $150 iPod speaker systems we’ve recently tested include a remote, it seems a shame — although it’s perhaps a bit more historically accurate — that the Retro lacks such a convenience. It also doesn’t include a port for syncing your iPod with your computer, but given the system’s “table radio” design, I don’t consider that to be a serious oversight.
How does the SpeckTone Retro sound? Its volume and upper bass are fairly impressive given the system’s size and price, although if you turn the volume up too loud, you’ll get some low-end distortion. (You shouldn’t expect true bass from a system this small.) The rest of the audio spectrum can best be described as inoffensive — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You get a somewhat warm sound that’s lacking in detail compared to some of the better-sounding systems in this price range (such as Logitech’s portable mm50) and midrange that’s a bit too prominent for my tastes, but at the same time you don’t get the fatiguing top-end tinniness or harsh midrange that make you want to turn some systems off after short listening sessions. In other words, although the Retro has obvious sonic flaws, they’re bearable flaws — I had no problem listening to the Retro for extended periods.
A more glaring problem was that on our test model, the left and right channels were reversed: Audio that should have been produced by the right speaker was instead produced by the left, and vice versa.
An interesting bonus is that each SpeckTone Retro includes two matching-color Speck SkinTight “skin” cases — one for the iPod nano, one for the 5G iPod (with video) — that include hard plastic screen protectors. Conveniently, the SpeckTone Retro’s dock accommodates a SkinTight-clad iPod nano, and the bottom of the 5G iPod SkinTight flips away to let you dock it.
Despite its average sound quality and lack of features, the SpeckTone Retro is a unique, and uniquely attractive, speaker system, and I suspect that a good number of iPod owners will buy it based on looks alone.–Dan Frakes