A Portable Speaker as Good as Your iPad

Tablets are spectacular inventions, but, as a rule, their internal loudspeakers do a poor job reproducing sound. With tiny loudspeaker drivers, often pointing in any direction except toward your ears, assisted by an amplifier never intended to seriously reproduce music, even the most appealing iPad is so uninterested in music, it contains only a single monaural loudspeaker.

Most people either enjoy the experience as-is, and don’t worry much about fidelity. Or, they use a pair of stereo headphones and enjoy the kind of audio that seems to exist inside the tablet (or phone), but won’t come out without some sort of accessory.

For months, I’ve been seeking a portable speaker for use with a tablet, or a phone, that provides the seemingly impossible combination of small size, convenient weight, sufficient amplification for listening at desk or in a bedroom, and, most important of all, clarity across the dynamic range (that is: nice clear highs, credible mid-tones and, perhaps most difficult in a tiny setup, bass is crisp and well-defined).

FoxL, basic model, front view, now apparently on sale for about $120.

FoxL, basic model, front view, now apparently on sale for about $120.

At a trade show, I found what I was looking for. It comes from a small company called soundmatters and it goes by the name of FoxL. In fact, there are several models.

The core of these devices is a hybrid loudspeaker design that soundmatters calls a “Twoofer,” which combines “tweeter” and ‘woofer.” This design allows a dynamic range that begins as low as 80Hz, or roughly what you would hear from a good tabletop stereo system, and also allows highs in the 20KHz range, which seems fairly commonplace. These speakers fit into a ruggedly constructed (mostly) metal box that is, truly, pocketable. The dimensions: 5.6 inches wide, 2.2 inches high, and 1.4 inches deep. It’s about the size of an eyeglass case. It weighs 9.5 ounces. (By comparison, the popular JAMBOX weighs 12 ounces, and, overall, it’s about 20 percent larger). Does the size matter? For a portable device, sure it does… the smaller (and lighter) the device, the more likely I will take it along in my shoulder bag.

But only if it sounds (very) good.

Right now, I’m listening to a recording by The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis. The album is called Live in Swing City, and the tune is a complicated arrangement called “Chinoiserie” and it contains some very aggressive performances, lots of solos, deep notes, a barking saxophone, a sweet backup horn section, and a live audience in the background. Not an easy combination for a so-so audio system. The results are excellent–but I am careful to keep the audio level no higher than about 80% on both the iPad and the FoxL (which contains its own amplifier and volume control). The system can play louder, but bits of distortion and harshness make the listening just a bit unpleasant.

For something completely different, I switched to Peter, Paul & Mary, a trio that was always well-recorded, and whose individual voices and harmonies are both distinctive and familiar. The album is See What Tomorrow Brings and the song is “If I Were Free.” Mary is singing lead, and the nuances of her vocal are presented with appropriate warmth, if just the slightest bit lacking in punch. The guitars and the male background vocals sound clear and wonderful. The opening guitar on “Early Morning Rain” and Paul Stookey’s vocal sound ideal, and once again, the vocals are right, too.

The opening drums and other percussion on Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” grabs the listener with just the right power and clarity. The vocals sound fine. The more frenetic “Walcott” has enough bass and the right drum sound to fill a (very) small room.

“Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” by Wilco on their Woody Guthrie tribute album, Mermaid Avenue, also sounds right. The vocal is crisp and clear, and when the background vocals kick in, with the additional instrumentation, everything holds together beautifully.

Dawn Upshaw brings her operatic voice to artful arrangements of Weill, Bernstein and other 20th century heroes on her album, I Wish It So. I’m very familiar with her version of Sondheim’s “There Won’t Be Trumpets” because it was one of a half dozen songs I used to test loudspeakers and sound systems for a feature story in Stereophile, a high-end audio magazine. Once again, Upshaw’s nuance in Upshaw’s voice is about right, but again, there’s a small lack of punch.

Presence turns out to be less of an issue for Karan Casey, who brings her pretty Irish voice to the ballad “She Is Like The Sparrow” on her self-titled album, but the low string accompaniment must be played at about 70% to avoid distortion. When the sound level is monitored, and the FoxyL is placed on its soft rubberized mat (supplied), the presentation is rich and quite wonderful.

Concerned about the occasional presence of distortion, I find some songs with distinctive and abundant bass. The little speakers sounded fine on Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Has No Pride,” and when Charlie Haden plays the bass behind James Cotton’s voice and harmonica on “All Walks of Life” from their Deep in the Blues album, the level of distortion was neither obvious nor troublesome. No problem on the Emerson Quartet’s version of various Beethoven String Quartets, either. In fact, they sounded terrific.

All of my listening was done with an iPad2 connected, by a supplied cable (miniplug to miniplug) to the most basic FoxL model ($149). For fifty dollars more, you can buy a Bluetooth model (I’m not a huge fan of Bluetooth for music listening because the sound, inevitably, cuts in and out). Both will run for 12 hours on a single battery charge (charger included). An additional $30 buys a total of 20 hours of battery life and a pretty silver enclosure. You can also charge via USB. My one complaint: a poor design on the back of the device–an easel stand is made of plastic and can be difficult to open.

Visit the website to learn more about an accessory subwoofer (also quite small) that plugs into any FoxL device.

FoxL with its subwoofer.

FoxL with its subwoofer.

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