It would be hard to look at the Gear4 HouseParty II and not immediately get what it is -- a mid-sized speaker with a small dock at the front of it. It's a very simple design, and like many simple designs, it works particularly well. The HouseParty is designed specifically to work with dock-connector model iPods -- given the shelf life of iPod batteries, that should be most working iPods today, but if you want to be specific, it's any 3rd generation iPod or better, including the iPod Mini and Nano. While the slot for the HouseParty II is wide enough for older iPods, adaptors are provided to suitably slot in the smaller and thinner recent models.
The HouseParty II's remote sits in stark contrast to the large main body of the unit itself, as it's a wee little thing about half the size of a normal credit card. It'll cover basic playback functions, as well as menu navigation on any compatible iPod. There's a slight catch here, as the line of sight for the remote (at least on our pre-production sample) was pretty small, and in order to see the iPod screen clearly for complex navigation you need to be so close as to make menu navigation pointless. It is good, however, for very simple operations, such as when an embarrassing or unsuitable song comes on in the middle of your listening session.
The speaker that forms the main part of the HouseParty's body encases two 15 watt speakers with two distinct subwoofers and tweeters within. That's not ear-blastingly loud, and certainly many homes may want to consider any of a number of docking solutions that connect directly up to a home theatre solution (such as Gear4's own ProControl).
The HouseParty II's sockets are relatively simple; there's a standard AC adaptor socket, a USB port (which can be used to sync the iPod if your PC is nearby) and a standard audio input jack for connecting up other audio sources. We're not sure how many people will buy such an iPod-specific product and then, say, hook up a Creative Zen player, but it's a nice option to have just in case.
One of the key things that stood out for us testing the HouseParty II was the simplicity of the unit; the dock's quite easy to drop any iPod into, and depending on how fussy you are about things lining up, you can omit the connection adaptors if you're in a hurry. Our test sample, which was a preproduction unit, had the volume buttons transposed; Gear4 representatives tell us this will be fixed in final sale units. As mentioned the remote control is good for basic operation and acceptable for menu operations in a pinch.
Audio output fell into what we'd call the solid-but-not-spectacular category. If you've got a lot of music compressed at lower bitrates (or with lesser codecs) you'll definitely spot the flaws in it with the HouseParty II, but the same is true of any iPod speaker solution. We did intermittently find the 5th generation Video iPod we were testing with would pause (due to having no headphones in it) on first connection, although a quick re-jab of the play button fixed this.
In some ways, the HouseParty II seems slightly misnamed. As a speaker solution for a smallish room -- a teenager's bedroom would be the ideal example -- it's a good fit, as it's easy to use, takes up a small amount of space and offers reasonable audio fidelity. As a pure party machine, we'd still be more tempted towards something more boombox-like, such as the Altec Lansing inMotion iM7.