Review posted April, 2007 by Jacob Spindel, Chief iPod Correspondent
When we reviewed the XtremeMac MicroBlast, I noted that it was perhaps the pioneer of a new type of iPod peripheral: a hybrid between a case and a speaker dock. However, the device’s limited functionality and audio quality impaired its ability to execute this new idea successfully. Sonic Impact’s V55 attempts a similar idea, but it adds an attention-grabbing 7-inch LCD screen to the mix. Besides the screen, the unit also adds several more subtle features that the MicroBlast lacked. Although it adds a few new problems too, the Sonic Impact V55 is, at last, an effective combination of an iPod case and a speaker dock.
The V55 measures 10.8 inches by 1.6 inches by 9.5 inches, and it folds open “clamshell” style, much like a laptop. The top half features the aforementioned widescreen LCD, with a resolution of 480 pixels x 234 pixels (the iPod’s built-in screen is 320 x 240), and stereo speakers with enhanced bass are built into the hinge area. The bottom half has a bay for a 5G iPod (inserts are included so that any capacity of iPod Video will work, but no other iPod types will) and a hold switch, as well as buttons for controlling the volume, navigating the device’s own onscreen menu, and a power on/off button. The buttons don’t actually move when you press them—they are touch-sensitive and light up instead. This is a cool idea that complements the iPod’s own design, although I had occasional problems with the buttons getting “stuck” even though I was no longer touching them (you can move the hold switch on and then back off to remedy this situation, although it is not especially convenient).
The iPod bay itself is remarkably well designed, with a base connector that is hinged and an indentation on the other side to allow for some “thumb room.” In other words, you can remove the iPod simply by lifting it forward and then pulling it off the connector, without having to pry at it for hours or smash it against a blunt object (don’t ask). It’s still a tight fit, though, so you won’t be able to use any other iPod case (except for thin film protectors) while your iPod is docked in the V55.
By now, you may instinctively be wondering where the controls for the iPod are. The answer is... on the iPod. The V55 does not make any attempt to replace the iPod’s built-in interface; instead, you just use the click wheel as you normally do, except that you must turn TV mode on (you can configure this in the iPod’s Settings menu). Although the V55 does have an AV output port that could potentially be used to connect it to a TV (as well as an input port for external video sources), it is primarily designed to be used in your hands, not from across the room.
Nonetheless, the V55 does include a remote control, which is also very cleverly designed. A small bay at the front of the V55 stores the tiny remote with the same sort of spring-loaded “push-in/push-out” mechanism that most PDAs use for inserting SD cards. Snap the remote in, and you can carry the remote with you, without adding any extra bulk or volume whatsoever. Snap it back out, and a small door flips in to cover the remote bay, preventing the bay from getting dusty or hindering the aesthetics of the device. The remote has all the same buttons that are built into the main unit, but again, no iPod controls.
Built into the bottom of the V55 is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery whose appearance again evokes the phrase “like a laptop.” Although it is indeed a relatively large battery by portable device standards, in my testing, even after bringing the battery to a full charge with the included AC adaptor, the total amount of video-watching time I was able to get per charge was generally in the range of 2-3 hours. This is enough for shorter trips, but I wouldn’t recommend the V55 as an “extended battery” product—if extended play time is your main goal, you would do much better with a product like XtremeMac’s MicroPack.
The left side of the V55 also has a standard USB mini-B 5-pin connector (a corresponding cable is included), which you can use to sync your iPod with your computer, a feature that the MicroBlast sorely lacked. You can charge the device and your iPod using the AC adaptor, even without connecting the USB cable, which is handy if you are concerned about a sync starting and interrupting your playback. Although the V55 does have built-in speakers, a standard headphone connector is also included if you don’t want to use them—just be careful not to yank out your headphone cord in public and inadvertently share whatever you’re watching with everyone around you. Finally, two lights on the left side indicate the device’s power and charge status—did I mention “like a laptop”?
Audio & Video
The V55’s screen is big and bright. If you take advantage of your iPod’s ability to play back videos at a resolution of up to 640 x 480, then the screen image will be as crisp and sharp as the iPod’s own screen. However, also like the iPod’s own screen, the V55’s screen can be very difficult to use in direct sunlight, which tends to wash out the image. You can view pictures and videos on the big screen, but not iPod games. You can still play games on your iPod while it is docked in the V55, but only on the iPod’s own built-in screen; however, this is a limitation of the iPod, not the V55.
The built-in speakers also work well, featuring strong bass and clear, high-quality audio. Whereas one of my concerns with the MicroBlast was its fairly limited volume capability, the V55 can reach a very loud maximum volume. Although this can sometimes combine with a button sticking to cause a quite undesirable result, for the most part the V55 can be adjusted to practically any volume level you could possibly need.
The V55 tips the scales at 3.85 lbs, or about 4.15 lbs with the iPod inserted, which may not sound like much—but consider that a MacBook weighs 5.2 pounds, and you start to get the idea. Although it is certainly possible to carry the device with you, it is significantly less comfortable to travel with than an average iPod accessory. Sonic Impact does include a nice cloth carrying case and a car charger to ease your travels a little bit, but if a device’s weight is important to you, then I recommended taking this into account for your purchasing decision. You might try holding a demo unit, if you can find a store or other location that has one available.
Total Impact: Impressive or Impostor?
So is the Sonic Impact V55 the product you’ve been looking for? It depends on what you’re looking for. If you simply like the idea of a hybrid case/speaker dock, then the V55 is the way to go. If your primary goal is a great screen or quality speakers, you will also not be disappointed. However, if you are looking to maximize portability or battery life, then the V55 won’t suit your needs as well as some other products may.
Pros: Large, bright, crisp screen; high-quality, powerful built-in speakers; well-designed remote control; well-designed docking bay; can sync iPod with computer; touch-sensitive buttons; includes carrying case and applicable cables.
Cons: Buttons sometimes “stick;” mediocre battery life; heavy.