New electronics that resemble old electronics are all the rage these days. With a case that looks like it belongs in a mad scientist's laboratory, the Tivoli iPal is on the vanguard of retro style. In fact, the "Pal" stands for Portable Audio Laboratory--a cheeky reference to the unit's obvious Geiger counter-inspired design. Fortunately, the iPal does more than just look cool. When paired with an MP3 player such as the iPod
or with a laptop, the iPal is a versatile companion that musters much better sound than we expected from a single-speaker unit. Tivoli is known for engineering small components with surprisingly good sound, such as the Henry Kloss Model One
radio. The iPal proved to be no exception.
Its compact size makes the iPal an excellent MP3 player companion.
While the iPal is functionally identical to Tivoli's multicolored line of Pal-powered speakers (offered on Amazon.com in Electric Blue
, Pearl White
, Sunset Red
, Basic Black
, Neon Yellow
and Spring Green
), its white and silver casing is designed to complement the iPod MP3 player. At 6.25 inches high and just under 4 inches wide and deep, the 3.5-pound unit is small enough to slip into a backpack, but it's a little hefty for a briefcase.
The iPal's single rotary dial handles tuning for both AM and FM stations. Testers didn't expect to have much to say about something as mundane as a radio tuning dial, but the iPal's is truly unique. The dial is designed to move between stations at a speed that's a bit slower than the speed at which the user turns the knob. We found that this ratio dialing technique makes it far easier to tune stations accurately and quickly. Little touches like this really set Tivoli products apart.
The iPal's radio tuning ratio dial is smooth and accurate.
The tuner band selection and volume dials are easy to control, although their conical shape could make them a little pesky to operate for those with larger hands. A small LED power indicator blinks when the battery is running low. Meanwhile, the iPal's single, 2.5-inch magnetically shielded driver is protected by a handsome metal speaker cover.
The back of the unit sports a telescoping antenna that has the solid, metal construction reminiscent of older transistor radio antennae. A standard 3.5-millimeter headphone jack is provided here, as is a 3.5-millimeter auxiliary line-in port for plugging in your iPod or other music device. A port for AC/DC power and battery charging is also present. All the ports feature handy, attached rubber plugs that keep out the elements when they're not in use.
The base of the iPal houses a rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery pack that, when fully charged, delivered a respectable four hours of listening at moderate volume levels. The iPal's rechargeable batteries give it a leg up on many other portable speaker solutions; gone are the days of hauling around an armada of disposables. Tivoli claims that the battery pack does not suffer from the dreaded memory effects that afflict other types of rechargeable batteries.
At first, we were skeptical about the performance of a small, one-speaker unit that offers only monaural sound. The reality is that most small, portable two-speaker systems don't allow you to place the speakers very far apart anyway, and the iPal's rich, resonant sound more than made up for its lack of true stereo separation. Plus, the iPal is an elegant box with no cumbersome speaker cords to fuss with when you're entertaining on the go.
We plugged the iPal into the kinds of audio devices folks tend to use these days--an iPod, a laptop and a portable CD player. We came away impressed with the iPal's performance with all three. Highs were crisp and clean, while mids and lows were accurate, with a fullness that surprised us. "Could this kind of sound really be coming from this little box?" we asked. When we really pumped up the volume, there was noticeable distortion, but at normal to high volume levels, the iPal excelled. For casual listening, indoors or out, the iPal is a great way to let others hear that iPod library you've been slaving away to build.
We were also pleased by the iPal's tuning accuracy. Tivoli says this is the result of the unit's automatic frequency control (AFC) technology. Whatever witchcraft is behind this tuner, we were impressed. Tivoli adds that the iPal can be used as a component tuner via the headphone-out port--not a bad idea given its quality and accuracy. --Joshua Gunn
- Small and portable with great rechargeable batteries
- Simple, elegant design
- Great sound
- One of the more expensive portable speaker solutions
- Cone-shaped tuner and volume dials might be challenging for larger hands