We’ve seen a number of “speaker cases” for the iPod — hardshell cases with a speaker (or two) built-in. Unfortunately, none have impressed us; they’ve either been cheaply made or sounded horrible (or both). So we didn’t have high expectations for the iMainGo, the latest in iPod speaker cases.
As it turns out, that wasn’t fair to the iMainGo, which easily outclasses every similar product we’ve yet seen. Larger than most, the 5.7″ long by 3.8″ wide by 2.4″ deep, 9-ounce (without batteries) iMainGo features a rigid outer shell with two halves that secure using a wraparound zipper. One half holds the system’s amplifier, dual one-inch speaker drivers, and a battery compartment (four AAA batteries provide 25 to 30 hours of playback at moderate listening levels). The speakers face outwards and are protected by flat, plastic grills; the battery compartment is accessible only when the case is open.
The other half of the case hosts your iPod, which sits in a plastic sled. Foam and plastic inserts, in various combinations, accommodate all iPods except for shuffle models; once you’ve configured the sled for your particular iPod, you stick your iPod in the sled, then place it — face-down — in the iMainGo’s iPod compartment. A Velcro strap holds the sled securely in place. In fact, this sled/strap is so secure that taking your iPod out and putting it back in is a bit of a hassle — one you’ll quickly experience, considering that you can’t sync or charge your iPod while it’s in the iMainGo, and that there will likely be times you want to carry your iPod on its own. And since the iMainGo won’t accommodate an iPod in a protective case, if you want to keep your iPod protected when it’s not in the iMainGo, you have to deal with putting that case on and taking it off. This is my biggest criticism of the iMainGo, but one that’s pretty much unavoidable in a product of this nature.
You connect the iMainGo’s 1/8-inch headphone plug to your iPod’s headphone jack and then zip the case closed. The side of the case opposite the speakers is made of clear, flexible PVC; you can see your iPod’s face and even use its controls through the window. (Unless you’ve got a first-generation iPod, that is, since the eldest iPod’s scroll wheel actually rotates instead of using touch-sensitive circuitry.) Although this means the iMainGo doesn’t completely protect your iPod — the player’s face is susceptible to damage if it gets hit, and you’re likely to set the system down on the iPod’s face, since you’ll want the speakers facing up — the upside is that you have full control over playback without having to remove your iPod from the iMainGo. (Since you can’t easily access your iPod’s hold switch, it’s also easy to accidentally start your iPod playing through the flexible window.)
The iMainGo has a three-position power switch accessible, like the battery compartment and your iPod’s hold switch, only when the case is open. The Off and Music settings are self-explanatory, but there’s also an Alarm setting that puts the iMainGo into “sleep” mode — as soon as it detects audio from your iPod, the iMainGo will turn on. This is useful for using the iMainGo, along with your iPod’s alarm feature, as an alarm clock. (The iMainGo also goes into this sleep mode when in Music mode after several minutes without audio.)
Compared to other “case speakers” we’ve tested, the iMainGo is well-designed, but it’s the sound quality that’s the most noteworthy. Whereas other similar products sound tinny and underpowered, I was genuinely surprised by the quality of sound put out by the iMainGo. There’s little to no tinniness, midrange is solid, and — thanks to small ported enclosures built into the case itself — you even get some semblance of upper bass; enough to make the iMainGo enjoyable to listen to. And although the iMainGo won’t match larger systems for maximum output, I was also impressed by how loud it can play on a fresh set of batteries. On the other hand, there’s very little stereo separation, given that the two speakers are just over two inches apart, and once your batteries begin to drain, the iMainGo starts to exhibit quite a bit of distortion.
Perhaps my expectations were unfairly lowered by the other speaker-case systems we’ve seen, but I was pleasantly surprised by the iMainGo. You don’t get many of the features found on more expensive portable speaker systems (for example, a remote control and syncing/charging features), and it suffers from some of the same inconveniences as other case-based speakers, but the iMainGo gives you a sturdy and protective system with surprisingly good sound quality; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find better sound quality at this size. If the idea of a “speaker case” appeals to you, the iMainGo is easily the best one we’ve yet seen.–Dan Frakes