My quest for decent 'portable' speakers

November 07, 2006

Update: Thanks so much for the avalanche of feedback. I've decided to go with the Audioengine 5's, which I discuss below.

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I wanted to get a speaker set for my office because I was tired of listening to music on my headphones.1 After researching this a bit, I decided on the Klipsch iGroove HG — it was relatively cheap ($250), could interface with non-iPod players (through a regular 1.8" jack), came with a remote, looked decent, and, by most accounts, sounded great. But, not everything was as it seemed.

The "remote"

While the system sounded pretty good (for what it was — a cheap, portable speaker set), it had a few significant problems. First of all, the remote was useless. In my book, if the remote does not allow you to choose between different albums, it's useless. Period. I almost didn't believe this was the case when I first took it out of the package; I thought there must be some key combination that could act like the iPod's "menu" button and take me back through my selection trail. Certainly a system advertised as "iPod-compatible" would allow me to do such a thoughtless task through the remote. Nope. That would make too much sense.

Let me try to put this into perspective: if you are sitting more than an arm's length away from the speakers and you want to listen to a different album — the most basic of wants — you have to get up and fiddle with the iPod, even though you are holding the freakin' REMOTE in your hand!

Perhaps the worst part about all of this is that the majority of reviews floating around make nary a mention of this ‘oversight.' Everyone just acts like it's totally normal and praises the remote. Am I missing something here? Did us humans suddenly recover some long-lost desire to make things difficult? My head is going to explode.

The sound

Lucky for me, I didn't really plan on using the remote so that wasn't necessarily an insurmountable issue, though the mere fact that I couldn't even if I wanted to didn't sit well with me. Unfortunately though, the problems didn't end there. Like I said, the system actually sounded pretty good, at least until I started playing Thom York's "Atoms for Peace" (from his first solo album, The Eraser, easily one of my favorites this year). At some point in that song the tweeters began to make this awful sound in line with the pitch changes of his voice, not unlike what you would expect from blown speakers. I was able to reproduce the noise with other songs as well, like Wilco's "Hell is Chrome"2 (off of Ghost is Born).

After playing with it for a while, I determined that it actually wasn't the speakers (something I wasn't terribly surprised about given that I had never come close to pushing them), but was the unit itself. For whatever reason, certain vocal ranges caused the center console unit, the part that docks the iPod, to vibrate in such a way as to attempt to harmonize (unsuccessfully, obviously) with the singer. Though I was willing to get over the whole remote thing, I'm not willing to compromise on sound quality.

I took the system back, and fearing a design defect, decided that I wouldn't swap it for another of the same model.

Bose

Short on options, I decided to try out the Bose SoundDock. As most know, I'm no fan-boy of Bose and wouldn't have given them a shot had there been other viable options, but, surprisingly, there just isn't too much out there to choose from.3

If you can believe it, the Bose remote was apparently conceived by the same team that came up with the Klipsch remote, as it too thought it normal to deprive you of the very simple, and oft-requested, album change. Give me a break.

As with Klipsch, that wasn't even the worst of it. At least with the iGroove, the iPod had some sort of back-support so that you could press the iPod's buttons (albeit carefully) without having to cradle the device. Not so with the Bose system. If you want to manipulate the iPod in any way (e.g., choose a different album), you have to thoughtfully slide your hand behind the iPod, bend your fingers so as to push your knuckles against the speaker grill, and then make your selection. It is completely and utterly ridiculous. Moreover, the "center console" is very shaky and when I pick the system up, this console hangs below the rest of the unit, so much so that you can see some of the electronics inside.

I'll be returning this system in the next couple of days.

Alternatives

Like I said, this space is pretty bare. I've half a mind to just buy some nice powered monitors that can handle a 1.8" jack. In fact, I'm considering the Audioengine 5's, which can dock an AirPort Express in the back, take an iPod (or any other player) in the top, and, as far as I can tell, blow other similarly-situated speakers out of the water. And they look great to boot. To be honest, the only downside I can see to this setup is the price; I'd probably end up getting an iPod Universal Dock and an Apple Remote, which would put the total cost somewhere around $450, a bit more than I wanted to spend on office speakers.

Another option may be the Tivoli iYiYi (yes, that's its real name). I'm not a big fan of its looks, but at this point I think I'd be happy with anything that functions well. I've a friend who'll be receiving one in the next couple of weeks and I look forward to giving it a good once-over.

Recommendations?

Yes, please.


  1. Let's be honest, I'm a total music snob and just want everyone walking by to ask me what I'm listening to so that I can expound on my musical knowledge. I'm just kidding, well, partly, I mean, I am a music snob.  :)   

  2. Not for nothing, but this song has one of the most harrowing 20 seconds of guitar you'll ever hear (from about 3:00 to 3:20).   

  3. Many will no doubt point to Apple's own speaker system, the iPod Hi-Fi, but not much has changed for me since I first wrote about this system right after it was announced. If anything, I'm even more turned off by it now because of what I've read about it since (i.e., weighs over 15 lbs., has no non-iPod connectivity, is meant to be listened to from 10+ ft. away, etc.).   

You should follow me on Twitter here