Walt Mossberg

The iPod Out Loud: Testing Speaker Attachments

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

Many people who use Apple iPods have grown so attached to the digital music players that they want to listen to them at home as well as on the go. So it makes sense that many different accessories are designed to make it simple to use an iPod at home.

Some of these accessories allow the iPod to play its music using your current sound system. These include special plugs and cords that connect the iPod to your stereo, devices for streaming music over your home network, and tuners that broadcast the iPod’s music over your home speakers using an unused radio station.

But the most straightforward way to play your iPod’s music out loud is by using a set of speakers made especially to work with the iPod. These come in many shapes and sizes, but basically consist of a small set of speakers and a docking cradle for your player so you can use its navigation buttons to select music.

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested four of these iPod speakers from Bose, Altec Lansing, Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO) and Harmon Multimedia that ranged in price from about $150 to $300. Each device worked without requiring much set-up, and they all charge the iPod while it isn’t being used. Two come with remote controls. We tested each with three different iPods: the iPod Photo, iPod mini and a relatively new 20-gigabyte monochrome iPod.

All products include docks that accept the more recent iPod models, which have a “dock connector” on the bottom. Every device except the Bose can play tunes from older iPods without the connector by attaching a special wire that connects the player’s headphone jack with an auxiliary jack in the back of the device.

Neither Katie nor I claim to have an audiophile’s knowledge of which speakers sounded the best; we just listened to various types of music, like any average user would, and tried to decide what sounded best to us. True to its hype, the Bose SoundDock seemed to emit the richest, most detailed sound, but it also is the most expensive of the four sets of speakers that we tested, and its dock didn’t hold the iPods tightly.

The first two devices we used can easily be toted around because they run either on batteries or when plugged into a wall socket. The $180 inMotion iM3 from Altec Lansing is most expensive device in the company’s inMotion line, while the $150 iBoom from DLO was the least-expensive of the four gadgets we tested.

Altec Lansing inMotion iM3; Price: $179.95; More info: www.alteclansing.com
Altec Lansing inMotion iM3; Price: $179.95; More info: www.alteclansing.com

The iM3 is a modified version of Altec Lansing’s original inMotion portable speakers, but it’s slightly smaller and includes a tiny remote control, which the original speakers didn’t. It weighs just under a pound without batteries and measures about the size of a paperback novel when collapsed. To use the iM3’s speakers you must unfold the book-shaped device, which was a frustrating process at first, but was simple enough once we got it down.

An “on-off” switch is on the back of the iM3, while a power button and two volume buttons are on the front, along with the remote control’s sensor. Four different adapters are included so your iPod will fit into the dock. These are labeled “30/40GB,” “10GB/15GB/20GB,” “mini” and “Old iPod.”

The iM3 comes with the “30/40GB” adapter already in place, so we simply removed that adapter to reveal a larger dock below for our slightly larger 60-gigabyte iPod Photo and snapped the iPod into place. For the mini and 20-gigabyte iPods, we locked the correct white plastic adapter into place, and inserted each iPod. The iM3’s remote saved us from getting up to adjust volume and switch songs over and over again.

The iM3 sounded OK, but — to our untrained ears — it lacked the bass power that came out of the Bose.

DLO iBoom; Price: $149.99; More info: www.dlodirect.com
DLO iBoom; Price: $149.99; More info: www.dlodirect.com

The DLO iBoom is a simple radio boom box (hence the product’s name) that has a cradle for the iPod where a tape cassette door might usually be positioned. It was refreshingly simple to set up and use, and didn’t require any special unfolding or different adapters for each iPod — all iPods with bottom connectors work in this player’s cradle.

We used each iPod in the iBoom with ease, and since the holding cradle is sunk into the boom box, the iPod stays in place when you tote the device around. An FM radio is built into the iBoom, and a button on the front lets you switch back and forth between the player and the radio. Two memory buttons can be programmed to save your favorite stations, and a large volume knob controls the iPod and radio sound levels.

Though the iBoom isn’t nearly as small or light as the Altec Lansing iM3, a special bag is available to make lugging the iBoom a little easier. This $40 neoprene BoomBag zips around the iBoom and has a shoulder strap, carrying handle and pockets for storing extra “D” batteries — the player runs on six of them.

The iBoom’s sound quality paled in comparison to the three other speaker systems. But it wouldn’t be a bad option if you’re looking for a very basic device that plays music from your iPod and doubles as a radio.

The $160 JBL On Stage by Harmon Multimedia sounded much better, almost as good as the Bose. It’s shaped like an extra-large doughnut, with an iPod cradle carved into the doughnut’s ring, and speakers lining either side of it. Its AC adapter plugs into the back of the unit, next to a power button.

JBL On Stage by Harmon Multimedia; Price: $159.95; More info: www.jbl.com
JBL On Stage by Harmon Multimedia; Price: $159.95; More info: www.jbl.com

The On Stage comes with four adapters that are very helpfully labeled with names and photos of the iPods with which they’ll work. As of today, its adapters accommodate the iPod mini, the standard, current-model iPod and the iPod Photo, though the Photo model fit rather snugly into the cradle. A slightly larger adapter for the iPod Photo will be included with On Stage units shipping as of this Friday.

Two touch-sensitive, silver volume buttons labeled with plus and minus signs flanked either side of the cradle, and when pressed simultaneously, they muted the iPod’s music completely.

The $299 Bose SoundDock was rather straightforward. Its design is stunningly simple: a solid rectangular set of speakers measuring about a foot from left to right positioned behind a centered cradle for your iPod. A “minus” button for volume is on the left of the cradle, the “plus” volume button is on the right.

Five dock adapters are included, but Bose had to send us the adapter for our iPod Photo separately. The company says that adapter will be shipped with the SoundDock in May, but for now customers can order it, free of charge, from the company’s Web site.

Bose SoundDock; Price: $299; More info: www.bose.com
Bose SoundDock; Price: $299; More info: www.bose.com

We plugged the SoundDock into a wall socket, and inserted each adapter into the cradle before docking the iPods, one at a time. We were surprised to find that the iPods didn’t feel as secure when snapped into the Bose dock as they had when attached to the other players. In fact, when we pressed buttons on the iPod or turned its scroll wheel, the player wobbled enough to bump into the speaker because it was so flimsily docked. A Bose representative explained that this design is intentional because it isolates the iPod from the speaker and vice versa so that neither is damaged by music vibrations.

Though we were able to sit back and use the SoundDock’s credit-card-size remote for limited song navigation, the flimsy way that our iPods connected to the dock came back to haunt us every time we touched the player to browse through menus.

The sound that came from the Bose SoundDock was remarkably good, and it certainly didn’t sound like it was coming from such a tiny digital player. We suspect many users will buy the Bose solely for its outstanding sound quality.

Overall, the Bose certainly produced the best sound, but the JBL On Stage sounded rather good and used cradle adapters that were more secure. No matter which device you decide to use, rest assured your iPod usage doesn’t have to end when you take off your headphones.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications:

Harman Multimedia makes the JBL On Stage speakers, an accessory for the iPod digital music player. This column misspelled the company name as Harmon Multimedia.

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