Whenever a traveling presenter is asked to make a technology trade-off, sound quality is usually the loser. Ultraportable projectors and featherweight notebook computers are technological marvels, to be sure, but rarely is there anything marvelous about the sound from their anemic speakers. And patching in to a meeting room's sound system is a crapshoot at best.
Thanks to the demand from the users of iPods and other hard-drive music players, a new breed of small-but-powerful lightweight speakers have appeared, and presenters in need of reliable, high-quality sound no longer have to compromise. Advances in speaker technology and data storage have fueled both the availability of, and demand for, high-quality portable sound solutions. More multimedia-driven content in electronic slideshows, interactive CDs and DVDs, and other media have also made punchy sound a higher priority in business.
The review process
To find out what's out there for the mobile presenter, we tested four portable speaker systems that are new to the market and similar in price and weight. Each package was evaluated in the following categories: design, features, portability, sound quality and overall value.
The sound-quality evaluation consisted of a microphone test, playback from a DVD movie, a narrated Microsoft PowerPoint show run from a notebook, and several musical selections from different genres (Brahms to Brubeck to the Beastie Boys) played from a portable CD player as well as an Apple iPod.
In addition to comparable weights and prices, these sound systems have similar line-in connections and can operate on batteries. But the similarities end there. There are plenty of different design characteristics and features to take into consideration. For example, the Logitech mm28 speaker offers a low price and a no-nonsense design that anyone can hook up. If space is an issue, the Creative TravelSound 500 easily slides into a pocket or purse. Both the Altec Lansing and the JBL speakers we reviewed produce rich sound, but again, offer varying designs and features.
The choice really depends on your needs as a presenter. So consider how you intend to use the loudspeakers, how much you want to spend, and what features you would like. Then you can leave awful, muddy, unreliable sound behind for good.
Logitech mm28 portable speaker
By the time you read this, the Logitech mm28 will be on store shelves, but for this review we looked at a preproduction unit. The mm28 is a thin, 11.5-inch-long speaker that uses NXT flat-panel technology to produce its sound. (See How does a flat-panel speaker work?) It's about 4.5 inches wide and 1.3 inches deep, and weighs less than a pound — a slim package that's easy to slide into a carry-on bag. The power connection is on the back, along with a footlong audio-input cable that folds into it. The battery slot is also in the back; with four AA batteries, the mm28 can crank out up to 45 hours of music.
A plastic cover protects the speaker when it's not in use, and then folds over to serve as a stand. The power button is on top and there is no volume button (volume is controlled by the input source).
Connected to a notebook, the mm28 output audio from a mic, a narrated PowerPoint slideshow and DVD playback that could easily fill a small conference room. In music tests, the bass was adequate and the high end fairly clean. At higher volumes, however, there was some distortion in the low range and some buzzing in the highs. (This likely comes from relying on the input device — the computer or DVD player — to control the volume, making it easier for the input device to overpower the capabilities of the speaker itself.) Mid-range audio was disappointing, though; it sounded hollow on several selections, no matter the volume.
What's nice about the Logitech is its no-nonsense design, functionality and price. It's a great addition for the business presenter on a budget and won't add much weight to the travel bag. For presentations, it will do its job with no fuss, even if its sound characteristics (that muddy mid-range) aren't ideal.
CONTACT: Logitech Inc., 800.231.7717, www.logitech.com.
PROS: One-piece unit, simple design. Easy to travel with. Good value.
CONS: Midrange sounded hollow; no volume control.
RATING: 7 (out of 10)
Creative TravelSound Notebook 500
The Creative TravelSound Notebook 500 speaker system wins our Truly Portable award. At 8.0 x 1.8 x 1.3 inches, it's small enough for a purse, briefcase or just about any other carrying case. It uses neo- titanium microdrivers and a digital amplifier capable of outputting 4 watts of sound (2 watts per channel, left and right).
The 10-ounce speaker box can be clipped to the top of a notebook screen. The connection panel in the back also folds down to steady the Notebook 500 on a flat surface. The power and volume-control buttons are on top.
Besides connections for power and a line input, the Notebook 500 has a USB port so you can power the unit by connecting it to your computer. An external battery pack takes four AAA batteries, which will provide up to 30 hours of use. (A universal power brick is optional.) Its small travel bag also holds the battery pack and USB and line-in cables.
The Notebook 500 provided adequate sound for the narrated PowerPoint slideshow, DVD playback and microphone connection. In the music tests, it put out a fair amount of volume when needed, but distortion was quite noticeable at the top of the range. The speakers struggled with bass and low-end tones, as well, especially at higher volumes.
The Creative TravelSound Notebook 500 is a nice, portable package. The USB-power option, small size and clip for a notebook screen are all handy features. Like the Logitech mm28 (above), the Notebook 500 is more than capable for the presenter needing extra volume on a DVD presentation. And you certainly won't notice any extra weight in your briefcase. Sound snobs won't be impressed, however.
Creative TravelSound Notebook 500
CONTACT: Creative Technology Ltd., 800.998.1000, www.us.creative.com.
PROS: Nice design. Three power options. Adequate sound for most presentation purposes.
CONS: Bass and treble performance below average at higher volumes. Universal power brick not included.
RATING: 7 (out of 10)
Altec Lansing inMotion iM4
When not in use, the Altec Lansing inMotion iM4 has a 10.3 x 5.3-inch footprint and resembles an inch-thick book. At 1.8 pounds, it's the heaviest speaker pack in this review, but its slim profile makes it easy to slide its carrying case into a briefcase or notebook bag.
The inMotion iM4 relies on a Class D amplifier, four neodymium 25mm microdrivers and Altec's MaxxBass technology to produce its big sound. Two speakers fold upright like rabbit ears and together they produce 4 watts of sound (2 watts per channel). The device's middle section, which remains flat, has the power switch and volume control on the front, and connections on the back. The inMotion iM4 has a DC power connection and two line inputs for dual-source capability. One input uses a retractable, footlong cable; the other uses a longer, detachable audio cable. The middle section's rubberized top provides a secure surface for hard-drive music players.
If you're an international traveler, you'll appreciate the power supply with its changeable plug set and four face plates. The iM4 can also be powered by four AA batteries for up to 18 hours of playback.
If the added weight gives you pause, the results of the iM4's evaluation should put your mind at ease. The speakers produced rich sound from microphone, slideshow narration and DVD, and the CD and iPod tests yielded similar results.
The inMotion iM4 produced richer bass than the Logitech mm28 and Creative TravelSound Notebook 500, with no noticeable drop-out in the mid-range. But although its volume can fill a small conference room, it can't be cranked as loud as the others. Then again, this prevents forcing the speakers to take on more than they can handle. Even at the highest volume, the speakers produced only slight high-end distortion with some of the music.
The Altec Lansing inMotion iM4 produced impressive sound. It performed solidly in all of our tests (although it didn't deliver the volume range of the other models). Its dual-source input is a handy feature, especially if you want to plug in a notebook and a music source, or amplify voice and music through the same sound system. If you are fussy about sound quality, the inMotion iM4's performance will be well worth the extra heft.
Altec Lansing inMotion iM4
CONTACT: Altec Lansing Technologies Inc., 866.570.5702, www.alteclansing.com.
PROS: Dual-source inputs. Efficient, slim design. Good sound; produces rich bass for its size.
CONS: Retractable cable only 1 foot long. Lower maximum volume.
RATING: 8 (out of 10)
JBL On Tour
JBL's contribution to the portable-speaker universe is an unassuming oblong package measuring 6.8 x 3.0 x 1.5 inches and 1.1 pounds. Its white cover slides back to double as a stand and reveals the left- and right-channel speakers, each capable of producing 3 watts of sound apiece (for 6 watts total). The JBL uses two Odyssey neodymium drivers and a Class D digital amplifier.
Underneath the cover are two inputs, one for power and one for the audio-source connection. The location is a bit awkward for hooking up cables, but the lid/stand allows for cables to run out the sides of the unit and ultimately protects the interface ports when they're not in use. The rubber-soled bottom has a battery compartment for four AAA batteries, which deliver up to 24 hours of playback.
There isn't a power button, but there are volume controls to the right of each speaker. Pressing both volume buttons simultaneously mutes the speakers. And the JBL On Tour has a "last volume" memory feature that stores your last setting and recalls it the next time the speakers are used. If the cover is closed, or the On Tour doesn't sense an audio input, the system will go into sleep mode to conserve battery life. It also comes with a power pack, as well as a line-in cable and carrying case.
Like the Altec Lansing inMotion iM4, the JBL On Tour makes use of its additional heft to produce rich sound with solid bass and mid-tones. Audio was full and clear in every test, from microphone to music. The On Tour produced a slight distortion at top volume on some musical selections, but its overall sound was impressive.
The JBL's well-balanced sound quality put it at the top of this review pile. The On Tour's design is clean and attractive, and its extra features, such as volume memory and instant mute, are practical and handy. All in all, the JBL is a great buy for multimedia presenters who are picky about their sound.
JBL On Tour
CONTACT: JBL, 818.893.8411, www.jbl.com.
PROS: Great sound, with solid bass and mid-range. Nice design, mute feature.
CONS: No on/off switch. Input connections a little difficult to reach under sliding cover.
RATING: 9 (out or 10)
Julie Hill is a self-confessed iPod zombie, audiophile and freelance technology writer in Minneapolis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.