iPads, iPods, and iPhones do a lot of things well, but one thing they're not so hot at is delivering satisfying sound through their tiny onboard speakers.
Luckily, third-party vendors have produced loads of gizmos designed to amplify music residing on Apple's gadgets. Below we take a look at a trio of very different accessories - a clock, a standalone system, and a compact portable speaker - designed to let you pump up the volume on your iOS device.
Stem Innovation TimeCommand More and more people are replacing their alarm clocks with phones, but there's something to be said for the comforting glow of a dedicated bedside chronometer - especially one as elegant and functional as Stem Innovation's $100 TimeCommand, which connects to all iOS devices.
It looks like a supersized hockey puck; its perfectly circular top plays host to a smattering of intuitive controls that flow back from the front edge in a triangular pattern. Its glossy face displays large digital numbers in bright Hugo Boss orange.
A standard Apple device dock atop the clock can be rotated for easier connection. We tried hooking up iPods, iPhones, and iPads, and the only device that proved a little tricky was the iPad 2, which has a curving bottom edge that wants to slip away from the connector. Stem says it's working on an adapter to fix the problem.
Once you've connected the clock to your device you'll be prompted to download a free program from the App Store that syncs alarm settings between device and clock. The app also permits users to program multiple calendar-based alarms, can automatically switch on your bedside lamp at set times (assuming it's plugged into the socket on the clock's power adapter), and offers a small selection of sleeping sounds, including ocean waves and a crackling campfire. Current and forecasted weather is displayed at the top of the screen.
All this, and it plays a decent song, to boot. Stereo drivers push sound out from the clock's curved sides, which are covered in taut speaker fabric. Bottom end is surprisingly satisfying, given the device's size. Middle and higher ranges sometimes seem a bit dirty, but can be tinkered with via a ten-band virtual equalizer found in the app. It's more than sufficient for wakeup play lists and bedtime audio books.
Speakal Cool iPig When I first saw the "Cool" edition of Speakal's popular porker I thought it was merely a slightly larger version of the company's iPig speaker system, with sunglasses added to give the swine a little more attitude.
Turns out I was only partly right.
A pair of cones behind the hog's eyes creates clear separation of stereo channels and a down-firing 15-watt sub-woofer delivers a decent amount of oomph. The resulting sound profile is quite similar to that of its predecessor.
However, new motion sensors in the pig's ears, eyebrows, and nose allow users to skip tracks, control volume, and toggle between play and pause with simple hand waves. Plus, its portly posterior is actually a replaceable lithium ion battery that charges while the pig is plugged in, making it possible to take the boar on excursions into the yard sans power cord.
Sadly, the model I tested proved a bit finicky.
Its universal dock for iPhones and iPods didn't always make a solid contact. I often had to do a bit of gentle nudging to establish a connection. You could simply plug into the auxiliary jack on the back, but then the pig simply becomes a dumb speaker that can't be used to control playback.
Plus, those motion controls don't necessarily work on the first pass. Subtle volume adjustments are particularly risky; huge leaps in decibels are a real possibility if your hand movements aren't quick and precise. Luckily, the motion controls can be switched off. I ended up simply using the included infrared remote most of the time.
Long story short, one expects fewer issues with a speaker system that runs a "cool" $150.
iMainGo X To be frank, I don't really know what to make of the $70 iMainGo X. It's one part oddly styled external speaker system, one part oversized protective case, with a healthy sprinkling of unexpected little extras, such as a pair of headphone jacks, a mic jack, and the ability to daisy chain multiple systems together to increase audio power.
The zippered case is a hard chunk of plastic covered in black nylon fabric about the size of a DSLR camera body. It looks and feels quite durable, inviting users to toss it around. I threw it into the back seat of my car and onto hardwood floors and it's none the worse for wear.
One side of the case looks like a giant cassette, with 3.7mm speakers where the cogs would be and various ports lined up below them. The other side plays host to a soft plastic window through which you can see and access your device's screen. Soft foam inserts are used to accommodate media players of varying sizes (a standard 3.5 mm jack means it's not limited to Apple gizmos). iPhones and iPods fit snugly enough, but require a bit of fiddling to ensure they're properly positioned in the window.
Sound quality is better than you might expect from a device this size. It's certainly loud enough - you won't want to be too close when it's cranked up to maximum volume - but highs are a bit tinny and the bass lacks kick. I'd place it somewhere between the speakers on an average laptop and a mini stereo system, though closer to the former.
Its size, durability, and surprising power makes the iMainGo X a decent speaker to toss into a backpack for camping trips and beach outings, but unless compactness is your paramount criterion I'd be tempted to go with a slightly larger external speaker with superior sound quality.