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The Writers Workbench: Portable Sound

08/21/2008 01:36 pm 13:36:11 | Updated May 25, 2011

Most MP3 players today provide very good sound, but without built-in speakers. As a result, some form of headphone or external sound source is needed. Though there are high-quality options for listening at home, the core of an MP3 player is its portability - so what choices are available for listening on the go, particularly if you want others to hear what you're listening to. While none of these will match a home theater system, there are nonetheless some strong choices in a variety of categories. And a few surprises along the way.

• Logitech mm28
• iMainGo 2
• iSymphony T-Speaker
• Macally Portable Stereo Speakers
• X-Mini Capsule Speaker
• Macally Retractable Earphones
• DataDriveThru Retractable Earphones
• Griffin TuneBuds


To see this column complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.


LOGITECH mm28

Though known for keyboards and mice, Logitech has come up with a very nice entry in the realm of portable speakers. Though not something you'd slip in a pocket - few in the portable speaker market are - it's quite small and, by virtue of being flat (the unit is just 1-1/4" thin), very convenient to pack away in a briefcase or backpack.

Because stereo sound will be at its best the farther that speakers are apart, no single unit product will ever deliver the separation that separate units can. But then, those will always be far less convenient to carry around. And though the speakers on the mm28 are only a few inches apart, the sound nonetheless is rich and powerful. (In fact, the louder the sound, the more you can feel the unit vibrate.) Sound is very clear, and the farther you sit away, the more sense you'll have of stereo.

While sound is always the most important issue with speakers, with it comes to portable speakers, portability ranks a close second. And on those terms the mm28 is beautifully designed - indeed, as crisp as the sound is, it's the elegant design which sets the product apart. A hinged clear-plastic cover not only protects the speakers when closed-eliminating the need for a carrying case - but when opened it serves as a base to support the device. The connector plug is conveniently built into its own recessed nook that hides away when not in use. And the mm28 runs off either four AA batteries (rated at a strong 45 hours of air play) or AC adapter, which is included.

Logitech offers a somewhat-similar product build specifically for an iPod (the mm32), and though that might be to the preference of some, what makes the mm28 so versatile that it not only would work with any MP3 player, but a CD player or tape player, as well.

Retailing at $80, the Logitech mm28 is not inexpensive, but a serious portable speaker to consider.


iMAINGO 2

The iMainGo 2 is a bit of a hybrid, falling in between the more substantial portable speaker above the micro-compacts to follow. The company refer to its product as an ultra-portable. It's basically like a small, zipped speaker case that you snugly fasten your iPod or MP3 player inside. Everything is very well-protected. With a highly-sensitive touch screen of thin, though sturdy plastic, you can control your player easily. (The company said that even with the iPhone, which Apple insists shouldn't work with it, it works in the iMainGo 2, as well.) It runs on four AAA batteries, no AC adapter.

There have been other such cases, but they've generally been mono or had weak sound. The iMainGo 2 offers stereo sound and extremely nice quality, which isn't common for speakers so small. The sound isn't deep and rich, but crisp and extremely clear. Though the music doesn't boom out, it does play at a reasonably-loud volume, particularly for such a compact unit. However, when ratcheting up your music, let alone blasting it, there was a big buzz feedback. Without question, its sound quality (at normal levels) is definitely good, although the Logitech mm28 is better. One quibble: if you have one of the larger iPods and keep it in a protective case, you'll likely have to remove the skin each time before putting the player in the tight iMaingo 2 holder.

Where the iMainGo 2 does well is in that halfway point. Retailing at $40, it's not miniature - approximately 6"x4"x3" and weighs a little over half-a-pound - but much smaller and more portable than the Logitech, which you wouldn't likely carry around, and the iMainGo 2 you would, and it's real, solid, stereo sound compared to the pocket-sized micros, though not anything small you'd stick in your pocket.

On the far other end of the landscape is the T-Speaker from iSymphony. In no stretch of the imagination would one consider it if looking for an optimal sound experience. You would no more get a T-Speaker for great audio than you would expect surround sound from a pocket transistor radio. But -- the T-Speaker serves a different (and valuable) purpose entirely.

Only 2-1/2" by 1-1/4" by 1-1/4", the T-Speaker fits easily into your pocket - pants pocket, shirt pocket, any pocket. And that's what it's for. As top quality as other portable speakers may be, they generally aren't things you'll carry around on your person. The T-Speaker is. And for that purpose, the sound delivers what you need.

To be sure, although these are "stereo speakers," they're so close to one another that you're essentially getting mono. There's not much base at all, the sound is fairly thin, and volume output is low. However, the sound is clear and without static. It's at its best with single voices, rather than choruses or groups which are harder to differentiate. Running off a single AA battery, with an "On" light, the T-Speaker is something you drop in a pocket or backpack when you might want to play a few songs for others - and when you don't want to lug around top-notch portable speakers all day. The T-Speaker is portable. That's what it's for. Tiny and light. Plug it into the earphone jack of any media player, and it will deliver external sound when the need arises. It retails for $20.


MACALLY PORTABLE STEREO SPEAKERS

Macally's mini-speakers are marketed for the iPod but appropriate for any audio device with a normal 3.5mm earphone jack. It has speakers on each end, and is about the same mini-size as the iSymphony, though more elegantly designed.

There are plusses and minuses to the Macally. On the down side, it's notably quieter than the iSymphony - which doesn't have much power to begin with. If you push all volume settings to their peak, however, it should be fine for most ears, though will use more battery power. Also a negative, there's no light to let you know when the speaker is turned off, so it's possible to run the single AA battery down by mistake. On the positive side - and it's a big one - the sound is surprisingly rich for such a small device. While you won't ever get (nor should expect) noticeable stereo or overtones, the end placement of speakers does give a wider range, and there's a much cleaner sound. It is also decidedly less tinny than the iSymphony. The Macally retails for $30.

The surprising X-Mini is a wonder. It's basically in the same category as the pocket speakers, but with a twist. Literally. It looks like a yo-yo, but you give it a little twist which allows the speaker to expand a few inches, opening up an accordion-like "vacuum bass" connector. This provides for a richer sound. The X-Mini of course cannot compete with the best portable speakers for sound, not just because of size, but also it's mono. The sound is also a bit thin, stronger on the treble. But - the sound for its size is incredibly impressive. It's shockingly powerful, very clear, and has enough bass to make the results not tinny. It may not be "great" sound, but it's serious sound. Easily the best of the pocket speakers, not even a close contest.

With an included, retractable cord, the X-mini connects to any portable device through the earphone jack. A USB adapter on the same two-headed cord lets you recharge the battery with either your computer or any standard AC adapter you may have. (It also lets you connect to your notebook if you're not happy with the computer's sound.) A sack comes with the X-Mini to hold the device and cord. The only negative here is that there's no gauge to let you know how much battery power is left. You control sound through your music player, which conserves battery power of the X-Mini. (The company says it should run up to 8 hours on full charge, your mileage may vary.) The X-Mini is not widely available in the U.S., though the company hopes to increase distribution. At the moment, it can be purchased through ThinkGeek.com, retailing for $25.


MACALLY RETRACTABLE EARPHONES

At the far end of the spectrum is a twist on as basic an option as there is for portable sound - the venerable earphone. The only problem earphones have is when you're not listening to you. While they certainly can ball up nice and small to stick in a pocket, that usually tangles them, requiring an often mind-numbing effort to untwist things each time.

The Macally retractable earphones solve that. It's a nice, compact package (looking a bit like a snail) from which the earbud ends pull out to full length, and then when you're done, a slight tug snaps them back and completely out of the way. Drop them in a pocket, and they'll be ready to go the next time. (A belt clip is included, if that's your preference.) The sound is very good, though not quite at the level of really good earphones, or especially high end ones. But the sound is definitely crisp with a wide range. The only lacking is a deep bass, and most players will let you adjust that with an equalizer. The "shell" adds some weight, of course, but compared to the MP3 player itself, some people might not even notice it much. Other than that, my only other quibble is that the plug-in end doesn't retract; it's not very long, just six inches, so it's not a problem, but it does dangle a big, though the ear-bud end is hidden away. All in all, however, it's an extremely nice solution to a tangled problem. They retail at $20.

Data Drive Thru is best known for making the impressive data transfer device, The Tornado. However, they also have a line of peripherals, largely centered on their patented cable technology, which includes retractable earphones, and there is a difference with the aforementioned Macally product.


Macally has better sound, brighter and crisper. The Data Drive Thru is fine, but it won't win top honors - however, you get retractable earphones for their unique convenience. And on that level, the Data Drive Thru is preferable. The "shell" that winds the cord is noticeably lighter, so there's less pull. When fully-wound, there's no strangling cord left over. Also, they come in longer cord configurations. For $20, there are better sound options, but when looking specifically for earphones that are retractable, the Data Drive Thru is my preference.


GRIFFIN TUNEBUDS

A small twist (almost literally) in the realm of earphones are Griffin TuneBuds. One of the challenges for people is that one size does not fit all, and snug ear buds don't always fit snugly in all ears. Other options that sit on the ear don't tend to provide the quietest sound. TuneBuds are, for in intents, basically earbuds that stick into the ear cavity - but they come with three sets of tips and a little carrying case. One of the three sizes is sure to fit most ears ideally. The other two, just put away in the case for others - or if you ever need a spare. I found one set that fit my ear as well as any I've used.

The sound is quite good, but not rich, nor with a deep base. Nothing tinny, however, they have a fairly soft, almost gentle sound, although very crisp. At $30, their main strength is if you have ears that have been hard to please finding a headset that fits - or if you insist on buds the fit solidly enough to block out as much external noise as possible..


Summary

With only a few exceptions, most of the portable sound options had good things to offer. However, a few did stand out in their categories -- the Logitech mm28 and X-Mini Capsule Speaker. Honorable mentions go to the Data Drive Thru Retractable Earphones.


"The Writers Workbench" appears in full monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here to visit the WGA website.