The sheer number of iPod speakers available for purchase can be dizzying. From inexpensive miniature speakers for less than $75 to high-tech docks that cost hundreds of dollars, consumers have a lot of choices. With so many models available, manufacturers try very hard to make their products stand out from the crowd, which is why you'll see speakers designed as everything from soccer balls to ladybugs or, in one notable case, a dirigible. The Apple iPhone's explosion in popularity, including the recent release of the iPhone 4S, has prompted the creation of even more accessories that work with both iPods and iPhones. Many of the newer docks still work with earlier iPod models, although compatibility is sometimes limited.
Even with all that variety, there are really just a few main types of iPod speakers -- portable, stationary or bookshelf, wireless, and clock radio.
Portable iPod speakers can run on batteries (user-replaceable or rechargeable, depending on the speaker) or electricity. Some have an integrated handle or come with a travel case, and they are usually small enough to toss into a tote bag or suitcase. You'll find a greater number of portable iPod speakers for under $100 than any other type of iPod speaker; one of the best-reviewed models we found costs around $150. On the downside, most manufacturers have to compromise on audio quality to fit everything into such a small, light package, so the less-expensive portable iPod speakers often don't sound as good as larger, stationary systems. Higher-end portable speakers are becoming more common, and if you're willing to pay $400 or $500, you can get sound quality that comes close to that of larger, stationary bookshelf speakers.
Stationary, or bookshelf, iPod speakers don't have a battery; they run on AC power only. They are bigger and sometimes have multiple components, such as a dedicated subwoofer or extra speakers. Audio quality is better than most portable systems, but you'll also pay more -- most bookshelf iPod speakers cost $300 and up, although it is possible to find some in the $200 range.
Wireless iPod speakers (which play music from your iPod or iPhone without actually docking the device) is here to stay, even at a higher price. The 2012 iLounge iPhone + iPod Buyer's Guide points out that "a wired system is currently $50 to $100 less expensive than a wireless version with comparable speakers inside." So if price is your main consideration, opt for a wired system with a conventional dock. If you're willing to spend more for the versatility and expandability that wireless systems offer, some systems allow you to link several speakers wirelessly in different rooms of the house, and a few can also stream Internet radio.
Common wireless protocols include Bluetooth, Kleer, and Apple's lossless AirPlay. Wireless speakers don't always provide the same quality as a wired system, because the music files must be compressed for transmission to the speakers. With a lossy wireless protocol, some of the original sound file's detail may be lost along the way, due to data compression. Speaker manufacturers usually don't advertise the fact that their wireless protocol is lossy, but those with lossless protocols, which do a much better job of retaining and reconstructing the music's original data once it gets to your speaker, are understandably proud of their status and will almost always let you know.
IPod clock radios, which combine the features of a traditional alarm clock with an iPod/iPhone dock, are also an option. Most clock radios will charge your iPod or iPhone while it's docked, so you can just grab it and go in the morning. It's easy to find a good iPod clock radio for less than $100, but they're still more expensive than a traditional alarm clock. Audio quality isn't the best, but most experts agree that iPod clock radios are fine for casual use.
Until early 2008, using your iPhone with an iPod speaker system meant putting the iPhone in airplane mode to disable the telephone component. AT&T's iPhone uses Global System for Mobile, or GSM, communication. If a phone call or text message came through while the iPhone's music was playing through the speakers, the GSM signal could generate annoying, buzzing interference. Now, however, nearly all iPod speakers feature GSM shielding so you can receive calls and texts without interference -- look for Apple's Works with iPhone certification -- and all of the iPod speakers in our Best Reviewed chart are fully compatible with the iPhone. The iPhone is now also available on Verizon and Sprint, both of which use the CDMA (code division multiple access) network, and thus are not subject to GSM interference.
In terms of quantity and quality, iLounge.com has the best reviews of iPod speakers. The site tests nearly every iPod speaker on the market, and no other source can match its thorough, detailed analysis. CNET, PCMag.com, TrustedReviews.com and Macworld are also worth checking out for their speaker reviews. Additionally, some of the better expert reviews we found came from websites or publications based in the United Kingdom or Australia. Although they occasionally featured models that aren't available in the United States, we found quite a bit of crossover in international availability for iPod speakers.
For user reviews of iPod speakers, we turn to online retailers like Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and the Apple Store. Amazon.com has the largest selection of user ratings, and the reviews themselves tend to be more detailed than at other retailers. The Apple Store and BestBuy.com don't have as many user reviews as Amazon.com does, but every so often an iPod speaker model accumulates enough reviews, and a high enough rating, to stand out from the others.