“a consumer reports for the cheap” — the new york times

Cheap iPod/iPhone Speakers Buying Guide

If you're just starting to shop, don't let the music snobs in your life fool you. While there are certainly low-quality speakers that make music sound like it's coming from a tin can, the best cheap iPod speakers deliver plenty of boom for your buck.

By all means, resist the temptation to jump on the bargain-basement deals of the no-name brands. For a price that's a steal compared with Bose and other high-end systems, you can get sound and style from a respected brand that rivals speakers costing five times more.

IPod Speaker Reviews: Sound Quality
IPod Dock Reviews: Ease of Use & Connectivity
Portable iPod Speakers

Our picks for the best cheap iPod/iPhone speakers are the iHome iD55 (starting at $76) and the JBL Flip (starting at $85). The iHome iD55 speaker dock, which accommodates iPads, as well, offers very good sound for its low price. The JBL Flip connects wirelessly to any device with Bluetooth and delivers excellent audio quality. We also like the OnBeat Micro from JBL (starting at $100), a small speaker dock that's surprisingly loud given its size. The portable, 2-inch Cube speaker from NuForce (starting at $99) is even smaller yet plays clean, clear audio. The Vizio VSD210 (starting at $76) sounds as good as far pricier docks, according to online reviews, but users report it has a tendency to break down.

Note that Apple doesn't make any of these cheap iPod speakers. Although some manufacturers seek reflected glory by incorporating the i-style into their marketing, these are not Apple products. Some are worth your money, others aren't; an imitation of the Apple branding in and of itself is not a seal of quality.

On the other end of the spectrum are speakers such as the Bowers & Wilkins A7 (starting at $500). Its price is jaw dropping, but so are its volume and audio quality, reviewers say. It also streams music wirelessly, via Apple's AirPlay technology, rather than relying on a cable or dock connector. The cheap iPod speakers on our list may not offer the same features or performance as the best iPod speakers, but they deliver very high quality for the price.

Here are several factors to consider before buying:

  • Sound Quality. Don't expect small iPod speakers to sound like full-size speaker systems. Cheap iPod speaker docks are notorious for lacking good bass. Still, we found speakers that deliver crisp, clear sound, even at higher volumes.
  • Connectivity. Is the speaker compatible with your iPod or iPhone? What about other music devices you own? Will you need an adapter or cable to connect? All the speakers we chose can connect to just about any iPod, iPhone, iPad, or MP3 player via a simple 3.5 mm cable plugged into the headphone jack. Some models we looked at are dock-style speakers with built-in connectors. At one time these would have all been 30-pin connectors, but Apple has introduced a new nine-pin Lightning connector for the latest generation of iPhones, iPods, and iPads. Be sure to note whether your device has a 30-pin or Lightning connector before buying a cheap iPod dock. The market is also moving toward wireless speakers, some of which lie within the Cheapism price range.
  • Ease of Use. Our research found that cheap iPod speakers can be a bit quirky, but in general they are relatively user-friendly. Setup, controls, and navigation should be straightforward and will definitely affect your enjoyment of any iPod speaker system.
  • Power and Charging. Some speakers have rechargeable batteries and others use AA or AAA batteries. These make the speakers portable, but be sure to note the expected battery life. Cheap iPod docks can also charge your device even as the music plays, although generally only when plugged into an AC outlet; battery power won't do the trick.
  • Style. Cheap iPod speakers come in many shapes and sizes, from large docks to tiny blocks. This is purely a matter of personal preference.

IPod Speaker Reviews: Sound Quality

Even if you don't spring for the very best speakers, you don't have to settle for cut-rate audio. IPod speaker reviews credit plenty of low-priced models with producing good sound quality. IPod and iPhone speakers worth buying are also user-friendly, reviewers say, and connect easily to a variety of devices. All our picks are portable, yet they hold up to the wear and tear that go with the territory.

Sound Quality.

Despite what you may fear, you can get quality sound from an inexpensive set of iPod speakers. But remember: Size does matter. If you choose a model that's no larger than a paperback book, the volume level will be limited. Also keep in mind that MP3s and Apple's ACC files are digitally compressed, which means the music has already lost some of its sound quality (even if many people don't notice when they're listening only on earbuds).

Perhaps the best-sounding speaker we researched is the JBL Flip (starting at $85). This wireless model earns high praise in several iPod speaker reviews for its crisp, clear sound. An expert from iLounge proclaims that the JBL Flip is one of the best speakers the site has ever tested, regardless of price. A reviewer from Wired was blown away by how loud it was, even as it managed to produce such high-quality audio. A CNET expert notes the particularly great sound in the midrange and says the bass isn't too shabby by small-speaker standards. Playing bass-heavy music like hip-hop starts to push the limits of the speaker's ability, but as the reviewer points out, that's pretty typical for a unit this size.

The iHome iD55 (starting at $76) may not be quite on par with the JBL Flip in terms of audio quality, but it still sounds very good, according to iPod speaker reviews, and costs considerably less. A reviewer from The Gadgeteer says this dock delivers clean and clear audio even when you turn it up loud, although the highest volume isn't quite up to party standards. At iLounge, an expert credits the SRS TruBass audio processing technology on the iHome iD55 with improving the bass on the small system. The sound in the midrange is sufficiently detailed, this iPod speaker review says, and overall the audio quality is very good considering the low price.

The tiny NuForce Cube speaker (starting at $99) gets surprisingly loud, marvels an expert from Digital Trends, and yet the audio is distortion-free. Reviewers seem to agree that the small Cube can't kick out much bass, although one from Gadget Review says this speaker is still strong enough in the lower register to add some nice depth to the audio. Like the Cube, the JBL OnBeat Micro (starting at $100) is pretty loud considering its diminutive size, according to an iPod speaker review from PC Mag, and doesn't produce very strong bass -- again, not unexpected. However, audio in higher registers sounds pleasant -- bright and detailed. This speaker also aptly balances bass, midrange, and treble, according to a reviewer at iLounge.

The Vizio VSD210 (starting at $76) doesn't seem to have shown up on experts' radars, but we found plenty of iPod speaker reviews from users who bought this dock and attest to its very good sound quality, although they don't provide many specifics. On Amazon, many compare it to far more expensive systems, calling it a great value. However, several mention a problem with the volume control: If they leave their music playing for a while and then turn it up or down with the remote, the speaker reverts back to the original volume and refuses to adjust.

IPod Dock Reviews: Ease of Use & Connectivity

You may have bought an iPod in part because it doesn't require an inch-thick manual to operate. Shouldn't your speakers also fit that profile? You'll find some iPod speakers that include extra features such as a built-in radio or alarm clock, but we focused on simpler systems that concentrate on simply playing music. That being the case, the models we chose don't have a lot of extra frills, but what they do, they do pretty well. Granted, iPod dock reviews indicate that all the models we researched have their idiosyncrasies. Some reviewers note that it takes a bit of trial and error to get all the functions to work just right. We also found occasional reports of devices not always fitting on the docks or seeming insecure. But overall, the iPod speakers on our list were declared user-friendly by expert reviewers, as well as consumers posting iPod dock reviews on various websites.

The cheap iPod speakers we researched are all pretty simple devices. In most cases, you'll either plug your player directly into a dock or use a cable that plugs into its 3.5 mm audio input. With the exception of the minimalist NuForce Cube, the speakers on our list have basic controls for playback, such as volume and so on, although most often you'll use the iPod itself to control your music (skip songs, choose playlists, etc.).

Lightning vs. 30-Pin iPod Docks.

Apple's wide range of digital music players, smartphones, and tablets and frequent generational updates can make it difficult to figure out if a given speaker dock will work for your iPod, iPhone, or even iPad (although they all have 3.5 mm input jacks for connecting pretty much any audio device via a male-to-male stereo cable). Before you begin shopping, verify the model and generation of each device you own. Apple has a web page that can help.

In recent months, the company has released a slew of products that use a new eight-pin Lightning connector, among them the iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod Touch, and seventh-generation iPod Nano. These are not compatible with docks and other accessories designed for older iPods, iPhones, and iPads, which have 30-pin connectors. As a result, you may see iPod dock reviews declaring 30-pin iPod docks such as the iHome iD55 and Vizio VSD210 obsolete. Don't be deterred: If you use a previous-generation device such as the iPhone 4, that 30-pin connector is the one you need. If you upgrade later, you can still plug into the auxiliary input jack, just not the dock. Lightning to 30-pin adapters are also available.

IPod dock reviews suggest the 30-pin connector on the Vizio VSD210 may have bigger problems than obsolescence. Some customers posting feedback on Amazon and the Walmart website report trouble getting the connector to register that a device is docked. Both the Vizio VSD210 and the iHome iD55 are iPad speaker docks in addition to iPod/iPhone docks. A reviewer from The Gadgeteer notes that fitting an iPad onto the iHome iD55 is a bit tricky, and there isn't a lot of support for the tablet once it's there, but generally iPod dock reviews praise this model. Thirty-pin iPod docks can accommodate iPads up through the third generation; the iPad 4 has a Lightning connector.

Accessory manufacturers haven't had much time to roll out new Lightning-compatible products, so most budget iPod docks still support 30-pin connectors. JBL got a jump on the competition, coming out with some of the first Lightning speakers. If you're looking for an inexpensive iPhone 5 dock, the JBL OnBeat Micro has a Lightning connector. (It's not big enough to be an iPad speaker dock, though.)

Wireless iPod Speakers.

You can bypass the connector confusion altogether with a wireless iPod speaker such as the JBL Flip, which streams music from Bluetooth-enabled devices. An iPod dock review from Wired reports that the instructions clearly illustrate how to sync the JBL Flip with a Bluetooth device, and it's easy to do. Note that the iPod Shuffle, Classic, and some older-generation iPods do not support Bluetooth. Other wireless iPod speakers use Apple's AirPlay technology instead and many go for well over our $100 cap. One example is the impressive Bowers & Wilkins A7 (starting at $500).

Portable iPod Speakers

Many iPod docks and speakers in the budget price range, including all our top picks, are small and light enough to transport easily. They also run on battery power, so you can use them anywhere -- at the beach, in an open field or campsite, or in a room where an outlet isn't handy or AC power isn't safe.

Power and Charging.

The iHome iD55 portable iPod speaker system can run on four AA batteries and the JBL OnBeat Micro dock takes four AAA batteries. The diminutive NuForce Cube speaker has a built-in battery, as does the wireless JBL Flip dock.

When they're plugged into the wall, the speaker docks on our list -- the iHome iD55, JBL OnBeat Micro, and Vizio VSD210 -- do double duty as chargers for docked devices. Have you ever had a room full of people ready to party and an iPod with only enough juice for a couple of songs? You can avoid this predicament with a speaker dock that charges your iPod while the music plays on (or even if the player is powered off). Note that portable iPod docks need an external AC power source in order to provide a charge, so they won't offer any juice when they're running on battery power.

The Eton Rukus Solar (starting at $120) is an unusual portable iPod speaker that takes six AA batteries and has a solar panel built into the top to keep them charged. It's equipped with Bluetooth for streaming music wirelessly. It also has a USB port so it can recharge an iPod, iPhone, or other device -- and do so anywhere without requiring an AC outlet.

The Eton Rukus Solar can play essentially all day if you use it outside, as the unit's solar panel will keep the batteries charged. But with other portable iPod speakers, consumers should take note of the expected battery life. The JBL OnBeat Micro, JBL Flip, and iHome iD55 are good to go for about five hours, according to their specs. NuForce claims its little Cube can last for up to eight hours on a single charge.

iPod Speaker Size.

Some of the same technological advances that shrunk your music collection into the palm of your hand have also shrunk speaker systems from half a living room to a block that fits in a backpack (or purse or suitcase). Some iPod speakers are explicitly built for portability. The NuForce Cube, for example, measures a mere 2.3 inches on all sides. NuForce doesn't say what the Cube weighs in its specifications, but it's safe to say approximately "not much." The JBL OnBeat Micro is also fairly small and portable, measuring 6 5/8 x 6 5/8 x 2 1/4 inches and weighing less than a pound. The JBL Flip is a pretty compact cylinder, measuring about 6 1/4 inches high. The iHome iD55 is considerably larger, at 15 1/3 x 6 2/3 x 3 1/5 inches, but still weighs only 2.64 pounds and is marketed as a portable iPod dock. The Eton Rukus Solar is 12 x 8 x 3.25 inches and weighs 4 pounds. These all stand in contrast to larger bookshelf speakers that are clearly designed to be stationary. The Bowers & Wilkins A7 totals about 12.5 pounds.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap iPod Speakers
  2. Discount iPod Speakers Features Comparison Table
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