Kensington’s FX 500 Speaker To Go is a bit of a challenge to review. On the one hand, it doesn’t sound great and has very few features for an iPod speaker system. On the other hand, its design is unique and will make it quite attractive to particular types of users.
At 8.6 inches wide by 6.7 inches tall by 1.4 inches thick, the FX 500 isn’t the smallest portable iPod speaker system we’ve tested, but it’s thin enough to easily fit in a suitcase, carry-on, or laptop bag. With batteries (but without an iPod), it weighs just under 15 ounces, which is quite light given the size. But what makes the FX 500 unique is that the entire unit is made of EVA foam and completely encloses your iPod, making it a sort of speaker “case,” similar to Portable Sound Laboratories’ iMainGo but aimed more at active/outdoor use. As with the iMainGo, you open the FX 500, plug its built-in audio cable into your iPod’s headphone jack, and then insert your player, face-down, into an iPod-sized slot; the front of your iPod is visible through a clear-plastic window on the front of the speaker system. A Velcro strap keeps your iPod in place in the slot. (Full-size iPods fit in the slot bare; iPod nano models use a foam spacer to fit. Since the FX 500 connects to a headphone jack, you can also use any other portable player that fits in the slot.) You then close the case’s two halves and zip them together.
The FX 500 has only a single control, a power switch on the front; a small LED next to the switch indicates that the power is on and blinks when the FX 500’s batteries are getting low. You control all other functions — playback and volume — using your iPod’s own controls, which are accessible through the clear-plastic window. Because of this design, your iPod is vulnerable to direct blows to the front of the system, but apart from this, the FX 500 offers quite a bit of protection. Dropping the system onto hard ground, or even tossing it across a room, did no damage to the system or to the iPod inside (other than a few minor scuffs to the EVA foam from the asphalt onto which it was dropped). Once the FX 500 is zipped closed, Kensington says it’s “splashproof,” which seems to mean that water won’t get through the front or back pieces of the unit, but it could get through the zipper. (Of course, this sealed design means that the FX 500 is also fairly impervious to dirt, dust, and sand.)
A metal flip-out stand keeps the FX 500 upright while listening. This stand isn’t the sturdiest I’ve seen, but its design fits the inexpensive-but-functional FX 500. It’s simply an L-shaped metal piece attached to the bottom-rear of the FX 500 by a wide, “pleather” loop. When flipped around to the back, the stand holds the FX 500 at a slight angle; when flipped around to the front, the stand sits flush against the bottom and front of the case for packing. There’s nothing to hold the stand in either position — it rotates freely — but that’s more a nuisance than a significant problem, since the FX 500 is likely to be either on the stand or packed away. (One other minor annoyance: When using the stand, the bottom edge of the FX 500 acts as the base; if the two zipper pulls are positioned at either end of the zipper — in other words, on either bottom corner — the FX 500 isn’t very stable, as it rests on the zippers instead of the bottom edge. You need to move the zippers to either side or the top of the FX 500.)
The FX 500 is powered by three AAA batteries; the battery compartment is on the interior of the case and is accessible only when the unit is open in order to keep the system splashproof. Kensington advertises 10-hour battery life, and that seems about right from my testing at moderate volume levels.
The FX 500’s sound quality isn’t great; the two (left and right) NXT flat-panel drivers can’t produce any real bass (or even much upper bass, for that matter), so the system’s audio output is fairly tinny. And once you crank up the volume, you’ll hear a good amount of distortion. That said, the FX 500’s sound is fairly representative of what you’ll get from a $50 iPod speaker system, and is adequate for hotel-room listening or for casual listening at a campsite or the beach — as long as you don’t need a lot of volume.
Overall, the FX 500’s construction looks and feels somewhat inexpensive, but is surprisingly rugged. Although the system is limited in both features and audio quality, this durability alone will make the FX 500 attractive to outdoor and active types who are more concerned that their iPod and speakers survive the trip. –Dan Frakes