As noted, the MP3 SoundMate is not your typical portable speaker unit. In fact, it looks like a hard, clamshell case and nothing more. This is thanks to NXT flat-panel speaker technology, which allows the actual speaker to be completely concealed beneath the outer casing. (We've seen NXT's work in other speaker sets, notably the Logitech mm28.) The speaker and power unit are contained completely within half of the case and concealed beneath a soft flap, which has a couple of card slots built into its inner side--quite handy for those days at the beach. The battery compartment--which is where the power switch is located--can also be found under the flap. The battery compartment is a little shoddy, and because of this, it can take some fussing to get the unit to turn on.
The weighty half of the MP3 SoundMate also sprouts a single cable that terminates in a standard 3.5mm plug--you won't find an iPod dock here. In this case, that's a good thing, as it allows you to use a variety of MP3 players or other audio devices with the unit. The other half of the case consists of a padded compartment that should fit any modern portable device--the space measures 5 by 3 inches. (The overall dimensions of the unit are plenty portable at 5.5x3.7x1.8.) Once the speaker case is zipped shut, it will protect your player from sand and moisture.
As far as sound quality is concerned, the MP3 SoundMate takes some hits due to its convenient, outdoor-friendly design. Flat-panel speakers tend to not offer the best audio response, and that remains true in this case. There's virtually no distinguishable bass response, and probably because the speaker unit is wrapped in the outer case, music has a slightly muffled quality to it. Still, it's not the worst we've heard, and it doesn't sound as tinny as many ultracompact speakers. Overall, we think it provides passable quality while protecting your player from the elements, which is not something a lot of speakers can claim. For beach or poolside use, it's still a viable option.