In the beginning there was iPod. And it was good. The original iPod may seem primitive now compared to Apple's current line of products, but its DNA is still found in every iOS device. Most people still use their iOS device as their primary music player. Headphones are fine for personal, on-the-go use, but speakers are an absolute necessity when you're relaxing at home or listening to music with friends. And a music device is only as good as the speakers you use with it.
The success of iOS devices has created an entire industry devoted to designing speakers for the iPhone, iPod touch and even the iPad. They come in so many shapes and sizes that it can be tricky choosing the right ones for you. Here is a review of three of my favorites.
Small and inexpensive
X-mini II Capsule Speaker
To call this speaker portable is an understatement. The X-mini II is a little smaller than a tennis ball and weighs just 2.9 ounces. But don't let the size fool you; this speaker packs a punch. Speakers this size usually sacrifice sound quality for portability, but the X-mini has a surprisingly full sound and a pretty rich bass. It also comes with a "buddy jack" that allows you to plug one X-mini into another for an even bigger sound.
I really didn't think I'd like this speaker, but the sound quality won me over. It's perfect for travel and very reasonably priced at $29.99. The developer has a whole line of portable speakers ranging from $19.99 to $79.99.
Mid-level with solid sound
The most exciting thing about the Octive Duo is the fact that you can dock two of the smaller iOS devices simultaneously. Altec offers a Music Mix app (free, app2.me/3720) that allows you to shuffle music between the two devices. My roommate and I usually listen to music while we cook or clean, and this feature has been a godsend. The speaker/app combo allows us to shuffle back and forth between his techno and my indie rock and keeps both of us happy. The distinctive triangular shape of the Octiv Duo allows you to tuck it away into a corner so as not to take up too much room.
The Duo's sound quality is solid for a mid-level speaker system. It falls short of some of Altec's more expensive models, but it has a nice bass and enough power to fill your kitchen or bedroom. The speakers are compatible with the iPhone so you don't have that annoying interference sometimes associated with speakers that weren't designed for iOS devices. All in all, this is a very good and affordable option for people who have two devices to dock or families who fight over the music.
Large, well-designed, and expensive Zeppelin Air
The first thing you ask yourself when you see these speakers is, "Why are they shaped like a football? The first thing you ask yourself when you play music through them is, "How did they make the sound so good?"
If you are an audiophile with an iPhone, Zeppelin Air is the speaker system for you. The design is sleek and the sound quality excellent. Bass is very full at low and normal volumes, but just a little flat when you crank it up. In addition, Zeppelin Air is one of the first speaker systems compatible with Apple's new AirPlay technology (see the sidebar). For most consumers, speakers that cost twice as much as an iPhone may seem a bit pricey. But if all you care about is sound quality, these are the speakers for you.
Using AirPlay with Zeppelin Air
AirPlay gives you the ability to share content between iOS devices over Wi-Fi-enabled network. For example, AirPlay lets you stream video from your iPad to your Apple TV or music from your iPhone onto Airplay-ready speaker system. AirPlay has been available since the release of iOS 4.2. However, we are just now starting to see the first wave of AirPlay-ready speakers.
Activating AirPlay on Zeppelin Air was a bit complicated. But once it was set up, streaming music was very easy. I really enjoyed being able to control the music being played through the speakers from the iPhone in my pocket. The Wi-Fi link between the iPhone and the speakers would occasionally drop. Sometimes they would reconnect after a second or two, and sometimes I would have to manually reconnect. The problem seemed to be caused by my router, so if you're considering using an Airplay device make sure that you have a good router.
While Apple is still working out some of the kinks, I found that AirPlay was much easier to use than Bluetooth and produced better sound quality than comparable Bluetooth speakers.