Tuesday Mar 26

The Little Soundbar That Could

Fair warning: This is a surprisingly (even to me) long review of a product that is being sold as a computer accessory for laptop users. But it is, after all, a loudspeaker system and it has a potentially broader appeal and many more likely applications than even the manufacturer seems to have noticed.

Straight from the company's website, here's the official word on Edifier's new Sound To Go compact soundbar:

Sound To Go by Edifier is an all-in-one micro speaker that is fully portable and encased in an elegant brushed aluminum chassis. The USB cable powers and allows for audio streaming from any computer system, to provide exceptional audio performance above and beyond any built in speaker solution. Control the volume using the button on the device or through the host device. Sound To Go is a great solution for home or business use.

I've been using a pre-release sample of Sound To Go (I understand it will be for sale at Apple stores in December 2010) and can tell you quite a lot more about it than Edifier has announced. This, by the way, is the first review for which I'm using Ideafusion's tested, researched, and validated Creative Product Semantic Scale to provide ratings and help me inform my judgments. The three ratings above are the three factors that relate to product creativity, each based on a 1 to 7 scale.  I've put further notes on how it worked for this review over at theSoundscapeBlog.com.

Before we get to the judgments, here's Sound To Go in statistical and descriptive terms.

Laptop with Sound To Go

Sound To Go is one of the smallest soundbars I've come across. Remember, it's made to go with laptop, not a widescreen TV. It's an aluminum wedge about 10 inches wide and 1.75 inches deep with a perforated matte black metal grille and high gloss black plastic ends. At one end are a USB port (standard miniature device type) and AUX jack (standard 3.5 mm stereo type). The USB port is for both audio and power. The AUX jack is an auxiliary sound input. At the other end is a round volume control button, more about that later.

Edifier says that if I were to gain access to the interior of the Sound To Go wedge, I would find a stereo amplifier rated at 2 watts per channel measured at 1000 Hz and 10 percent THD. That's not audiophile or hi-fi performance, but again it's for enhancing a laptop's audio on the go, not for a music listening room or a home theater system. And I have to respect a company that will go to the trouble of precisely specing out this sort of product. They even state signal-to-noise ratio, a respectable ?75 dbA, and point out correctly in their troubleshooting guide that if extraneous noise is heard coming from Sound To Go, it probably originates elsewhere, in the computer sound card for instance.

I ran into inconsistencies in stated specs for Sound To Go's speaker drivers. The user manual says only that it contains a 1.25 inch subwoofer. The Edifier website says that it contains full range 30mm by 70mm speaker drivers but doesn't say how many. Other online reports add to the confusion by claiming that there are two 3 inch woofers and two 1 inch tweeters inside.

Based on peeking through the grille in the bright Arizona sunshine, I can assure you that all of these descriptions miss the mark. The fact is Sound To Go uses five small speaker drivers. At the center of the bar is a so-called subwoofer measuring 30 mm by 70 mm. Indeed, that's about 3 inches wide, but only a bit over an inch tall.

The other four drivers are 30 mm domes--two to the left and two to the right of the woofer. These deal with the middle and high ranges and create the stereo image. A hold-the-bar-to-the ear listening test discloses that they seem to serve slightly different frequency ranges. I hear the outermost ones producing a bit less treble but somewhat higher sound levels than the ones that directly flank the subwoofer.

The Sound To Go box also contains a USB cable, a audio jumper cable, and a soft slide in drawstring bag for protecting the speaker unit during transport. It's a smooth fit for the soundbar only. You'll have to stuff the cables in your pocket, purse, or other bag.

How does Sound To Go do as an audio listening device? In a couple of words, surprisingly well. It's an effective upgrade for the sound from my vintage Thinkpad. First off, Sound To Go is louder. I've often resorted to headphones to hear audio clearly from the Thinkpad. That's not necessary with Sound To Go in place. Another benefit is the improved stereo image which tremendously enhances both music listening and movie watching. And Sound To Go tucks into the hinge area quite discreetly, doesn't get in the way of the screen or keyboard, and doesn't call attention to itself visually.

Sound To Go's volume control exemplifies the restrained and elegant visual impression. It's tucked neatly into the right end of the unit and is flush with the shape defining aluminum frame. It's so neatly tucked, that turning it to adjust the sound level could be very inconvenient. The slick design trick here is that it's not a knob so you're not called upon to turn it. It's a button. Successive presses increase the volume. Holding it down continuously decreases the volume. Intuitive? No. Easy, convenient, and elegant? Yes.

Volume Button

Now let's talk about that audio AUX jack. It accepts a standard 3.5 mm stereo plug so you can feed signals from an almost unlimited variety of sound sources. Audio signals coming in this jack will take precedence over audio coming in through the USB port. This is a good thing to avoid having to mess around with sound settings on your laptop to avoid having it conflict with sound, for instance, from an MP3 player you might have connected to the AUX jack.

In the user manual, Edifier states that "the system has to be connected to the PC laptop in both AUX and USB mode to get power." Of course, that's not true at all.

Take a look at the photo below for one example of using Sound To Go without a computer. The substitute is a small AC USB power adapter. The audio source is a Sansa Fuze media player. The method is obvious enough not to require explanation.

Sound To Go

An AC adapter of the type shown is only one of many additional ways of getting power to Sound To Go without a computer. There are similar plug in adapters for use with the 12 volt outlets found in cars, trucks, RVs, and boats. Both of these types of adapters may be had with built-in batteries for considerable freedom from conventional power sources and there are battery packs that charge from USB and then will feed it back to USB.

Solar charged battery packs with ports for feeding power to USB devices also exist. The catch to most of the current ones of these is that those that sport enough storage to power something like Sound To Go can take days rather than hours to charge up from even strong sunlight while those that charge more quickly are likely to give you only a couple of hours of music from Sound To Go.

So what we have here is not only an excellent audio enhancing accessory for laptop computer users, but also a compact, easy to use device for turning a personal media player into a social media player. And we all know the importance of social media these days.