The iPod was first introduced as an ultraportable music player, so it makes sense that portability is important for iPod speakers, too. Portable speakers are usually small enough to toss into a bag or briefcase, and although they typically don't provide quite the expansive sound you'd get from a larger system, the good ones pump out enough sound to fill a bedroom, home office or patio. Portable iPod speakers used to cost between $75 and $150, but the advent of high-end portable speakers, which come close to providing the level of sound you'd expect from larger speakers, means the price range can go higher than $500 for an item that is, by definition, small and light enough to carry in one hand.
Experts say the Logitech Rechargeable Speaker S715i (*Est. $150) strikes the best balance between value, portability and sound quality. The 1.5-pound S715i is easily portable, and reviewers say it offers excellent audio quality in a compact package. It includes eight drivers in all, including two 3-inch mid-range drivers and two half-inch tweeters. The rechargeable battery can last up to eight hours on a single charge, and the infrared remote can control the speakers from up to 30 feet away (unobstructed). The Logitech S715i is compatible with all iPods that have a dock connector (older iPods and other MP3 players can be connected via the 3.5 mm auxiliary input). The S715i is also certified to work with the iPhone, so you won't have to use airplane mode to avoid buzz and static.
ILounge.com, one of the best sources for iPod speaker reviews, calls the S715i "Logitech's best-sounding portable sound system yet." Audio quality is even better than previous Logitech speakers, including the well-reviewed Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 (now discontinued). The S715i iPod speaker has more bass drivers than the Pure-Fi Anywhere 2, so music sounds deeper and richer. "At moderate listening levels, the S715i sounded fantastic in my tests," writes Tim Gideon for PCMag.com. You'll lose some volume and bass when the speakers are running on battery power, but most reviewers can live with that tradeoff because the audio quality is so good overall. "We can think of no other portable iPod-iPhone speaker with a price less than $200 that can match the sound quality of the Logitech S715i," writes Donald Bell of CNET, which gives the Logitech S715i an Editors' Choice award.
Critics note that you may have to remove the case on your iPod or iPhone in order to fit it into the speaker's dock. ILounge.com's Jeremy Horwitz tested the Logitech S715i with the iPhone 4 and found that some thicker cases don't fit. We saw similar complaints from iPod Touch users at Amazon.com. Reviewers also complain that the speakers' carrying case is thin, and doesn't offer much protection.
If your budget is tight, the Altec Lansing inMotion Compact iMT320 (*Est. $50) sacrifices some sound quality, but costs only a third as much as the Logitech S715i. Of all the sub-$100 speaker docks we reviewed, it gets the best reviews. The inMotion Compact has just two drivers (2-inch full-range), and is much smaller than the S715i, measuring only 9.5 inches wide and 4.7 inches tall. The inMotion Compact, which is certified to work with dock-connected iPods and the iPhone, will run for up to 24 hours on four AA batteries, or you can power it via the included AC adapter. Older iPods without a dock connector can be connected using the 3.5 mm auxiliary input.
As expected for a budget iPod speaker, the inMotion Compact's sound quality isn't great, but it's good considering the unit's small size. "The dual (left and right) 2-inch drivers provide rich, full, and unquestionably powerful audio, with enough upper-bass to provide solid impact," Lex Friedman writes at Macworld. Others say that the loud, distortion-free audio is surprising for such a portable unit. Reviewers also like the integrated case, which folds backward to double as a stand when the speakers are in use. The Altec Lansing inMotion Compact iMT320 lacks some features you'll find on pricier iPod speakers, including a remote. There are also few onboard controls, so you'll have to use the iPod's menu to do anything beyond adjusting the volume.
If you're looking for the ultimate in portability, the Portable Sound Laboratories iMainGo X (*Est. $70) comes close. This zip-close speaker system doubles as a case, and reviewers are impressed by how much protection it offers. The case, which resembles a giant audiocassette, isn't quite small enough to stick in a pocket, but it will fit in a purse or bag. Dual headphone jacks mean that you and a friend can both listen to the same music without disturbing others. The rechargeable battery runs for about 12 hours. Users do sometimes complain that the battery runs down quickly, but this may be due to the iMainGo X's confusing dual power switches: one on the outside of the case, and another on the inside. Leave the inner switch on by mistake and the battery continues to run down, even if you're not using the speaker to play music.
There's no external volume control on the iMainGo X; instead, you use your iPod or iPhone's controls through a plastic shield that also holds the device in the case. The iMainGo X doesn't have a 30-pin dock, but it has a 3.5 mm audio-in jack you can use to connect to almost any MP3 player. Although most users feel the touch-through plastic shield works fairly well, a user known only as "Terrence T" points out a potential problem in a guest review for BerryReview.com. He tested the iMainGo X with a non-touchscreen Blackberry, and discovered that if your device doesn't have a touchscreen, controlling music volume and playback becomes extremely difficult.
We see a trend of relatively high-end, portable iPod speakers filling the upper echelon of the price range. These units are usually a bit bigger and heavier than the less-expensive portable models, but if you're willing to tote them around you're usually rewarded with much bigger, better sound. Some of the higher-end portable models also offer wireless streaming capability, so you can set them down in one room, then wander around with your iPod (within a set radius).
Pair high price and relatively heavy portable speakers, and they'd better be good. That seems to be the case for the 11-pound Arcam rCube (*Est. $475), which earns critical praise for its "unmatched," distortion-free sound. Expert reviewers were sometimes suspicious of the rCube's high price tag, but almost always end up saying that it's worth the expense. Most reviewers do balk, however, at the idea of purchasing separate wireless dongles (the rWand for iOS devices, the rWave for your PC, each *Est. $100) to activate the rCube's lossless, lagless streaming Kleer protocol. Those who did test the dongles report that the wireless streaming sound quality is excellent, and that music transmitted via the Kleer protocol starts immediately after pressing the play button. Buying both dongles raises the rCube's entire cost to about $700, and there's no clear reviewer consensus on whether or not they're worth the extra cost. The Arcam rCube does come with a remote control, so if wireless streaming isn't important to you, you can use the unit happily without having to purchase anything else.
Despite the Arcam rCube's weight, reviewers say it's relatively easy to tote around with its fold-away handle and note that -- at 7.9 inches tall, deep and wide -- the solidly built rCube is on the small side. That compact stature generates one of the few reviewer criticisms we found about this unit's sound; Grant Clauser of Electronic House points out that the rCube's small size limits the amount of stereo separation it can achieve. It comes with a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery that provides four to six hours of playback at maximum volume, and an enormous power brick. Several reviewers comment on just how big the power brick is, but if you're using the speaker portably, you can just leave the brick behind.
The Bose SoundDock Portable (*Est. $350) is another example of high-end portable speakers, but unlike the Arcam rCube, reviewers feel this Bose model should include more for the price. If you're willing to "pay a bit extra for the brand," as Daniel Tangen from iPod Republic.com puts it, you get an attractive, 5-pound portable unit with a carry handle and stow-away iPod dock, which rotates into the speaker's body to keep it from getting damaged during transit. (The SoundDock Portable doesn't offer wireless streaming.) Jeremy Horwitz at iLounge.com thinks the sound quality will please all but the most demanding audiophiles but he, like most reviewers, also thinks the price is too high. Tim Gideon at PCMag.com has a similar reaction, and reviewers at CNET and Macworld also balk at the Bose SoundDock Portable's price. A few users complain about cables persistently coming loose, and several BestBuy.com users report that they couldn't get the SoundDock Portable to work with their iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S.
This isn't the smallest portable iPod speaker (it measures 12 inches wide by 6.75 inches high and 6 inches deep), but it includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a built-in handle so you can move it from room to room or take it outside with you. The Bose's battery is rated for eight hours of playback, but Horwitz was able to squeeze 14 hours of play time out of it when listening at normal volume levels.
Not all portable iPod speakers have rechargeable batteries. Reviewers say that the Harman Kardon Go + Play Micro (*Est. $180)
If the Harman Kardon Go + Play Micro is a futuristic boombox, the Altec Lansing Mix Boombox iMT810 (*Est. $250) is completely retro, with a bulky, box-like design. It's nearly identical to its well-reviewed predecessor, the iMT800, though it doesn't draw many reviews. (The iMT800 earned kudos from several publications, including PCMag.com, CNET, DigitalTrends.com and PC World (Australia).) CNET's David Carnoy is a fan of the iMT810 and says that other than a few minor styling details -- the iMT810 is certified to work with the iPhone 4 in addition to being GSM-shielded -- the two docks are virtually the same. Carnoy compliments the iMT810's sound quality, its "retrolicious design," and the stow-away remote control that either slides into a slot on the boombox or clips to your belt for safekeeping.
The Altec Lansing Mix iMT810 is technically portable -- it has several integrated handles and a reported battery life of 30 hours -- but at about 20 inches long and 10 pounds before you add eight D-size batteries, you won't want to lug this speaker around for long. Reviewers, including CNET's Carnoy, are also unimpressed with the remote, and would prefer a rechargeable battery instead of having to constantly pay for non-rechargeable replacements.