Review: SpeckTone Retro

A stylish sound system in need of a little work. (August 9th, 2006)

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Product Manufacturer: Speck Products

Price: $149.95 US

The Good

  • Sleek and stylish. Loud volume doesn't distort. Charges the iPod when on.

The Bad

  • 90-day warranty. Sound is disappointing, not as full as expected.

The SpeckTone Retro is a sleek and simply designed iPod sound system. With its shiny piano key-like black lacquer finish and simple one-knob design, it is a stylish addition to any room. If black doesn't go with your décor, the SpeckTone Retro also comes in a sea green cabinet with brown trim and a white cabinet with gray trim. No matter the color you choose, this wooden cabinet delivers its best sound at high volumes.

Designed Well

The iPod easily mounts on the top in a slightly angled port. It comes with sticky-backed foam spacers that fit in a trapezoid-shaped recessed space, so it accommodates any dock-enabled iPod. The unit ships with matching video iPod and nano SkinTight cases that fit into the port. My white iPod Photo actually spoiled the sleek look of the speaker system. Note, this is the first sound system that accommodates an iPod while in a protective case, although the Speck ToughSkin and SeeThru cases are too thick and must be removed. There is also a 1/8" mini auxiliary jack on the back for other types of devices, but you need to supply the cable. When turned on a ring behind the volume knob lights up, plus it charges your iPod.

I had great hopes for the sound, but just found it lackluster at normal volume. Any tunes with good bass, from rap to folk music sound darn good, thanks to the bottom-mounted 4-inch subwoofer. The SpeckTone's rubber-covered legs hold the metal encased subwoofer, well above the surface the unit sits on. The unit does heat up, even with the rear heat sink, so give it breathing room when you find a home for it.

Muted Sound

The 3-inch drivers are behind a color-coordinated knit fabric. With a 28-watt output, I think the system could use bigger drivers. The problem is that the overshadowed midrange and high tones sound almost muted. The tones are not bright and don't have the same substance as the bass. Music with a range of harmony or orchestral sound just doesn't sound full or rich. I found that if I tipped the system, so that the bottom-cased subwoofer is aimed into the room, the sound opened up a bit. Of course, that defeats the unit's design.

I've had problems with many MP3 formatted songs delivering too much bass and less than satisfying tones in the top end, so I deliberately tested songs I'd downloaded from the iTunes Store in Apple's AAC format, but those didn't sound much better. AIFF and Apple Lossless formatted tunes fared a little better, but the sound still sounded somehow muted. The analog circuitry gives a rich and deep tone, as the advertising suggests, but within a small tonal range. Lately I've been listening to a lot of show tunes, and the orchestra just recedes into the background and is lost.

Priced to Compete

The SpeckTone Retro is priced to compete with the Altec Lansing IM3C, the Logitech MM50, and the JBL Onstage. The IM3 doesn't have that rich bass tone, but it doesn't mute sound either. The Logitech MM50 had a tinny sound to me, and it was never a system I'd recommend. Although the JBL Onstage is only a 6-watt sound system, I prefer its side-separated stereo-output and its tonal reproduction to the SpeckTone Retro. I don't understand why the SpeckTone Retro's sound doesn't just jump out of its speakers, but it doesn't. On the plus side, music doesn't distort when the volume is pumped up, as it does in the smaller systems mentioned above.

For general listening and as background music while you're working, it is an acceptable system, but it will frustrate a true audiophile. If you are a party animal and want a system to be heard above the din, you want the SpeckTone Retro.

A Few Tweaks Needed

I think Speck needs to do some tweaking for this system to make a solid dent in the market. Slightly higher end sound drivers would make a significant difference. It would also benefit from a remote, so us lazy types don't have to get up every time we want to skip some music. With a little revision, the SpeckTone Retro could become a very popular system. In the meantime, I'll stick with my little JBL Onstage, which uses a lot less real estate in my living room.

by ilene hoffman, Reviews Editor


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