"I don't like the way that sounds" is something you'd hear me say to a) nagging ex-girlfriends trying to "improve" me and b) portable iPod & Zune speakers. Let's focus on the latter. Most portable speakers sound like crap and follow a simple rule: Function follows form, meaning the smaller they are, the crappier they sound.
Thankfully, this rule does not apply to the FoxL Pocket-Sized Speaker by Soundmatters, voted one of Time Magazine's "Top Ten Gadgets of 2008." The FoxL sounds amazing, particularly in relationship to its size--you simply can't believe something this small could sound that good. It enables you to bring music to places you couldn't before without compromising the sound quality. "We felt there was a need in the marketplace for a pocket-sized portable speaker system that in hi-fi terms, didn't suck," says Lee Adams, Soundmatters' VP of Sales & Marketing.
Designed by Soundmatters founder Dr. Godehard Guenther (an ex-NASA nuclear physicist with multiple PhD's), the FoxL is a tiny, eyeglass-case-sized portable speaker that can inexplicably fill a room with clear and loud audio (providing you're not listening to anything too bass-heavy). In this review we will focus on the object's physical features and usage vis-a-vis the physical design; while we will discuss our opinions of the sound, we recognize that we are audio laypeople, and we recommend that true audiophiles read the three-part review posted by Sound & Vision Magazine for a more technical analysis of the device's sonic properties.
My testing was supplemented with testing by Business Guy Tony, who put the FoxL through its paces for conference calls and general road warrior use. Click on to read the review.
The first indication that you're carrying a quality piece of merchandise is the FoxL's heft. It's not heavy by any means--you'd throw this thing in your bag and hardly notice it--but the weight of it in proportion to its small size makes you certain you're carrying a quality piece of hardware. The construction is all metal, save for the rubber feet on the bottom and a plastic kickstand on the back that allow the FoxL to stand up on a desk, directing the speakers towards you.
The FoxL is about 5.5" long, 2.25" tall, and 1.25" deep.
Rain: Up-front, Soundmatters' Adams warned me that "Honestly speaking, an overwhelming focus on producing the best sound from as portable a package as possible did lead to some significant industrial design/control location constraints." Adams is referring to the FoxL's dimunitive controls. There is a miniscule on-off slider on the back, and two similarly tiny rubber buttons for raising and lowering the volume. The buttons have slightly embossed letters (ON) and arrows (^ and v) next to them, but are easy to miss as everything is colored the same as the body of the unit.
Tony: This unit definitely feels like it was designed by an engineer. The control buttons are a bit annoying; the on/off switch is practically invisible, as it's the same color and texture as the rest of the unit and you can't really feel your way to find in in the dark. The other button, which turns on Bluetooth, I didn't even know was a button until I re-read the instructions a few times.
Rain: The FoxL features four ports, two on each side of the device: audio input, power input, a jack for an external subwoofer (this same jack will also turn the FoxL into a microphone for your computer), and a mini USB port for charging the device from your computer.
There are two FoxL models, one with Bluetooth, one without. The Bluetooth model can also be connected to your cell phone (via Bluetooth, obviously) for conference calls or playing music. Plugging into the device is simple and straightforward; the Bluetooth pairing leaves a little something to be desired, as you have to go through a little routine of holding buttons and listening for sequences of beeps while it "finds" your phone. Thankfully, the Bluetooth pairing operation only needs to be done once, and after that it finds your phone automatically.
Tony: Connecting with a stereo cable to an iPod is easy and there's nothing to futz with besides on/off. Turning on the bluetooth option consists of pressing down on the front button (the one that I couldn't find because it didn't look like a button), listening to a series of different beeps until you get a final ping and a flashing blue light. Simple, right? Not if you read the instruction book, because it describes everything you're supposed to hear until you can let go of the button.
You can run the device both through the power cable/USB connection, or by charging the internal lithium-ion battery beforehand. The battery will run for five hours. If plugged in (either through the adapter or USB), the FoxL gains more power and can crank out another 3 decibels.
Rain: Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini sounded terrific. Radiohead's OK Computer sounded fantastic at mid-volume, but cannot be cranked; at louder volumes the bass-heavy notes come through staticky. The house-like beats of Jamiroquai and any hip hop track was an absolute no-go; but Stevie Wonder sounded pretty good, and Ella Fitzgerald's voice sounded clear as a bell. I think it was when I heard Ella's crisp vocals that the unit converted me into a believer. That Radiohead also came through well was a big surprise--I find their complex, layered sonic arrangements often come through crappy on anything but high-quality stereo systems.
Paradoxically, I found that not only did the device not sound worse if I placed it further away from me, but sometimes it actually seemed to sound better.
Tony: Performance-wise, I was very impressed by the sound quality of the unit, no caveats. The last time I heard something this warm and room-filling was the Tivoli Model One, which I think was also made by engineer eggheads, but is like, ten times larger.
I used it for an afternoon in place of my normal iPod speaker, the much larger Vers 2x, and in a small room I really couldn't detect a huge difference--the sound was warm and room-filling.
Tony: I used the FoxL to do some conference calls and the sound came out very good on my end. The people I spoke with on the other end said I came across echo-y, like I was in a very large room, though it wasn't bad enough that they wanted me back on the handset. I connected through Bluetooth and was able to walk around the room while talking.
Rain: The FoxL's hard-to-find controls didn't bug me so much, because I figured that like the Bluetooth connectivity, it's only a hassle the first time and that you'd know where the controls were after frequent use. Sure enough, after a few days I was reaching for it to turn the volume up and down without really thinking about it or fumbling around; my fingers just remembered.
More troubling for me was that there is no power indicator. I'd like to see a little red light on the front of the unit so that I'd know it was on. I'd often turn the FoxL on and forget to turn it off after use, and when I'd come back to it later the battery would be dead.
I demand a strong interface design for devices I constantly have to futz with, like the iPhone, for instance. But because my interaction with speakers is minimal--I turn them on or off, and raise or lower the volume, that's it--I'm willing to put up with a poor interface, particularly if there is a worthwhile trade-off.
And there is: The FoxL is small, or to use more technical language, it's really friggin' small. I brought it with me to a job site where I was doing some sanding and staining work; ordinarily I'd never lug a radio with me when there are tools to be carried and I would just toil in silence, but now I was able to listen to podcasts and music to help while away the time, an immense pleasure. Tucking it into a jacket pocket did not appreciably increase my load at all.
Rain: To me, the FoxL is not a replacement device--for instance, you'd never use it to replace your bookshelf stereo--it's a supplementary device that opens up new avenues. It allows you to listen to music in places where you couldn't before, like hotel rooms and job sites, and this is a huge boon to me. For frequent travelers, this will be one of your must-pack items.
Tony: Besides a few quirks--Bluetooth pairing is quite the rigmarole, first time around--which take a little time to adjust to, this is a solid product. I've bought a lot of portable speakers and nothing I've come across sounds as good in such a small package. I would call it the perfect traveling companion.