Soundmatters Foxl Portable Speaker System

Foxl: A David Among Goliaths foxLmb/ Foxl foxLmb These days, traveling sucks for everyone, but it's always been hard on the audiophile. Those $10 hotel clock radios tune in about three stations - literally - and they sound so bad they couldn't beat an Edison wax-cylinder phonograph in a double-blind test. You could tote along a portable audio system, but the ones that sound decent take up half a carry-on bag. You could pack headphones, but they get in your way when you're putting yourself together in time for an 8 o'clock breakfast. So you just suffer through another dreary trip, music-free. With the new Foxl compact powered speaker system, Soundmatters attempts to make traveling easier on the audiophile. The Foxl is a tiny stereo sound system powered by an on-board rechargeable battery, an AC adapter, or a computer's USB port. It has a 3.5mm input jack that connects easily to an iPod, any other portable music player, any cell phone with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, or any laptop computer. The Foxl costs $199, but Soundmatters is offering it for $179 from now until October 1. It's also available in a $249 version with Bluetooth, which lets it connect wirelessly to any Bluetooth-equipped cell phone or laptop. The Bluetooth version includes a microphone that hides behind the front speaker grille and lets you use the Foxl as a speakerphone. The Foxl looks like something you'd attach to bicycle handlebars, but it's built like something that came out of the engineering labs of a high-end audio manufacturer such as B&W or Krell. Pick it up and you know right away this is the result of a serious engineering effort. The metal chassis conceals two Twoofers, 1-inch combination woofer/tweeters with powerful neodymium magnets. The Twoofer has more in common with the custom-designed, high-output tweeters in audiophile speakers than it does with the generic 1-inch cone drivers found in most speaker systems of this size.
The Short Form
$199 ($179 until October 1, 2008; Bluetooth version $249) / soundmatters.com / 800-698-SOMA
Snapshot
An extremely compact, amazingly good-sounding powered speaker system for iPods, cell phones, and computers
Plus
• No system so small ever sounded so good • Tiny enough to slip into Paris Hilton's clutch • Bluetooth version for use with cell phones and laptops
Minus
• Sometimes complains when asked to fill a room with sound • No fan of Led Zeppelin
Key Features
• Two 1-in woofer/tweeters • 3 1/4 by 1 1/4-in woofer • Subwoofer output • Internal amp with 4 watts/channel on AC, 2 watts per channel on battery • 5.6 in long, 9 1/2 oz

These days, traveling sucks for everyone, but it's always been hard on the audiophile. Those $10 hotel clock radios tune in about three stations - literally - and they sound so bad they couldn't beat an Edison wax-cylinder phonograph in a double-blind test. You could tote along a portable audio system, but the ones that sound decent take up half a carry-on bag. You could pack headphones, but they get in your way when you're putting yourself together in time for an 8 o'clock breakfast. So you just suffer through another dreary trip, music-free.

With the new Foxl compact powered speaker system, Soundmatters attempts to make traveling easier on the audiophile. The Foxl is a tiny stereo sound system powered by an on-board rechargeable battery, an AC adapter, or a computer's USB port. It has a 3.5mm input jack that connects easily to an iPod, any other portable music player, any cell phone with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, or any laptop computer. The Foxl costs $199, but Soundmatters is offering it for $179 from now until October 1.

It's also available in a $249 version with Bluetooth, which lets it connect wirelessly to any Bluetooth-equipped cell phone or laptop. The Bluetooth version includes a microphone that hides behind the front speaker grille and lets you use the Foxl as a speakerphone.

The Foxl looks like something you'd attach to bicycle handlebars, but it's built like something that came out of the engineering labs of a high-end audio manufacturer such as B&W or Krell. Pick it up and you know right away this is the result of a serious engineering effort. The metal chassis conceals two Twoofers, 1-inch combination woofer/tweeters with powerful neodymium magnets. The Twoofer has more in common with the custom-designed, high-output tweeters in audiophile speakers than it does with the generic 1-inch cone drivers found in most speaker systems of this size.

On the back of the unit, there's a rectangular, flat-diaphragm woofer that's about half the size of a playing card. To wrest deeper bass response from the woofer, Soundmatters added mass to the diaphragm by attaching the lithium-ion rechargeable battery directly to it. There's even a cute name for this contraption: the BassBattery.

Tiny internal digital amplifiers power the system. The company rates their output at 4 watts per channel when powered by the AC adapter, and 2 watts per channel when powered by the battery.

A vented metal "kickstand" in the back lets the unit rest securely atop a table. The package includes a lanyard, a carrying pouch, a 3.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable, and the AC adapter.

The Foxl was created by Soundmatters founder Dr. Godehard Guenther, an ex-NASA engineer who enjoys a reputation among audio manufacturers as a sort of mysterious wizard of sound. Honest-to-goodness, I've actually heard his name mentioned by speaker-company presidents in hushed, awed tones.

SETUP

With the standard (non-Bluetooth) Foxl I tested, there's almost no setup involved. Plug in your audio source, plug in the AC adapter if you need to, and flip the power switch on the back. Two tiny pushbuttons on the back let you adjust the volume.

If you play bass-heavy material through the Foxl at top volume, the BassBattery can move back and forth violently enough to make the unit scoot around on a smooth tabletop. Soundmatters supplies a little rubber foot that attaches to the metal kickstand to keep the unit in place, but the kickstand won't fold flat when the foot is attached. The scooting wasn't enough of a problem to offset this ergonomic disadvantage, so I jettisoned it. And truth be told, the scooting has emotional benefits for the lonely traveler-it almost makes you feel like you have a little pet with you in your hotel room.

While I was running acoustical measurements on the Foxl, deep bass test tones caused it to scoot right off the top of my 6-foot measuring stand. It fell smack dab onto the stand's 3/4-inch plywood base, but appeared undamaged. I couldn't even find a chip in the paint. I doubt any iPod could survive such a test.

I expect most people will use the Foxl with an iPod or a laptop, but my playmate of choice for the Foxl was my Samsung YP-U3JQG, a portable music player that's about the size of a five-stick pack of Juicy Fruit gum. Like many flash-based MP3 players, the YP-U3JQG incorporates an FM tuner that is vastly superior to the ones built into hotel clock radios. Combine the Foxl with one of these players, and you have a real audio entertainment system you can carry in a pants pocket.

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