When we last looked at DreamGear's line of i.Sound speaker products, we were impressed by their ability to generate huge sound from a small package. Unfortunately, for some iPod owners, that huge sound might have been something along the lines of "AARGH!" as they realized that the original i.Sound, as well as the i.Sound 4X, didn't actually have any iPod-specific features, such as controls or syncing and charging capabilities. If you've been hoping that DreamGear would apply some of the same design principles to a speaker product with a true iPod dock, then your wish has come true: the i.Sound max is a solid contender in the lower price range of the iPod accessory market.
The "Bow Tie"
The overall shape of the i.Sound max is somewhat difficult to describe, but you can think of it as a "bow tie" design. In other words, it is almost rectangular, except that the center is narrower than the left and right sides. Even at its widest, the device is only about 4 inches across. Its length is approximately 9 inches, and it stands only 2.25 inches tall. Although it's a little larger than the models we reviewed earlier, it's still probably the smallest iPod-specific speaker dock I've ever seen (in terms of total volume). DreamGear and other sources did not provide an exact weight measurement, but the device is also very light, which is partially because it relies on 4 AAs for portable use, instead of having an internal, rechargeable battery. Thankfully, the AC adaptor for home use is included. Those who remember DreamGear's earlier models, whose speakers were completely unprotected, will be glad to hear that the speakers are now protected by a metal grille.
In the center of the device toward the rear, you will find the coveted iPod dock connector, allowing you to plug in virtually any iPod that is a 3G or newer. Although there are only four buttons on the i.Sound max itself (power, surround sound, and volume up/down), the included remote control provides an impressive array of additional functions, allowing you to manage albums, playlists, and the shuffle and repeat settings on your iPod. DreamGear dodged another bullet by giving the i.Sound max the ability to both sync and charge a docked iPod - on some competing devices, the inability to sync despite the presence of a dock connector has made their clever designs go to waste, in my opinion. In fact, the package even carries Apple's official "Made for iPod" logo. In short, the level of iPod integration is simply the highest I've seen of any iPod speaker dock, which is ironic considering that DreamGear's older i.Sound models' level of integration was the lowest.
Most iPod docks offer an adaptor to make an iPod nano fit more snugly into their docking area, and some even provide an extra adaptor or two for the iPod mini or other models. Well, here the i.Sound max goes for broke, including nine (!) different spacing adaptors, allowing an optimum fit for 5Gs, nanos, minis, and just about every other iPod model ever made. Even without any adaptor inserted, though, the i.Sound max requires you to remove most iPod cases before the iPod will fit into the docking bay; although every other iPod speaker dock I've tried is the same way, it seems like all they would have to do to support more cases would be to extend the length of the dock connector slightly.
Just in case you have an iPod shuffle or an audio device other than an iPod, the i.Sound max still supports the old 3.5 mm mini-jack cable method as well (the cable is included), similar to the only method that was available on the original i.Sound and the i.Sound 4X. The 3.5 mm input, along with the AC adaptor and standard iPod dock cable connector, span the back of the device, with no additional controls or connectors on the unit's front or sides.
Taking It To The Max
Time to get down to business: what does the i.Sound max actually sound like?Since it features 4 drivers and a bass tube with a total power output of 12 W and a frequency range of 180 Hz - 20 kHz, you might think that the sound output would be pretty good. You would be right.
Pop/rock: For mainstream commercial music, it's not surprising that the strong volume of the i.Sound max gives the songs an extra boost. What is a bit more surprising, however, is the device's bass output. The bass is so powerful that it's almost hard to believe that it comes from such a small unit. Nonetheless, the bass doesn't overwhelm the higher pitches either, and the resulting sound is well balanced and captures all the important aspects of the music.
Podcast/voice: Some speaker systems with amazing bass response manage to shoot themselves in the foot by making speech unintelligible since it simply has too much bass. However, there is no such problem here. Voices were clear and easy to understand, so if you have a podcast with both speech and music, the i.Sound max is a great device to play it on.
A cappella/vocal: The i.Sound max doesn't quite have the level of "high resolution" that some earphones have, which can bring out even the smallest details of each singer's performance simultaneously. However, the resolution of the i.Sound max is still above average, and the device's ability to handle a wide range of pitches with ease is helpful to this type of music too.
Country: The i.Sound max had no difficulty reproducing both the lead singers and the background music of the country songs I tried without washing them out, even though they were quite far apart in terms of pitch.
Rap/Hip-Hop: Usually, all rap really needs is lots of bass and lots of volume. Obviously, this is no problem for the i.Sound max.
Classical: Classical is probably the genre of music that benefits most from "high resolution" devices. Although this is probably not the i.Sound max's strongest area, I still found it to be a good speaker device for listening to classical music.
Normally, I try to identify which group(s) a product is best suited for when doing a review. However, in this case, almost any iPod owner could benefit from owning the i.Sound max, since it excels in just about every category, including bass, volume, size, syncing, and charging, among others, all without being too expensive for average iPod owners. So unless you use batteries often enough that the lack of a rechargeable battery would make the device prohibitively expensive in the long run, the only group not likely to enjoy the i.Sound max would be... I don't know, Martians, maybe?
Pros: Compact and light form factor, while still able to produce very loud volume when needed; well-designed remote with extensive controls; allows iPod syncing and charging; includes numerous form-factor adaptors for different iPod models; stunning bass levels for its size.