Hercules i-XPS 250
Hercules is a European company known best for its affordable line of PC audio cards and speaker systems. While the i-XPS 250 is its first iPod-specific speaker system, Hercules' experience designing audio hardware is evident. If you're looking for an inexpensive iPod speaker system that's short on frills but big on sound, at $129 the i-XPS 250 is a decent choice. In this same price range, Griffin's Amplifi system offers equally powerful sound, and the Altec Lansing iM600 delivers a more compact design and a better range of features.
The Hercules i-XPS 250 definitely makes a statement, with its two oversized 2.5-inch aluminum dome tweeters that make the whole system look like a menacing robot head. The sculpted bow tie-shaped enclosure measures 13 inches wide by 8 inches high by 7 inches deep. Part of that depth is necessary to fit the 3.5-inch woofer that's built into the top of the system. The iPod dock uses a standard iPod system connection, which can be used on all Click Wheel-style iPods (adapters are included for most iPod models). If you're connecting an iPod Shuffle or non-iPod music player, the i-XPS 250 includes a stereo minijack input on the back of the enclosure near the power supply connection. A standard "wall wart" power adapter is included and is necessary for powering the i-XPS 250.
One design feature we found a little odd was the use of soft metallic foam on the front panel buttons. The four squishy buttons control power, volume, and a sound enhancement feature (explained below), and while the sponge material does not affect performance in any way, the choice does seem out of place. Another design feature we aren't thrilled about is the exposed front speakers. While they look cool, one clumsy tumble off a table could easily damage the fragile aluminum speaker cones.
There are few bells and whistles on the i-XPS 250. There's a fairly standard 3D sound-enhancement function that does an acceptable job of artificially widening the stereo field. You'll also get an IR remote control with Power, Play/Pause, Skip/Scan, Volume and sound enhancement buttons. Your iPod will charge while in the i-XPS 250's dock, but there is no USB pass-through connection allowing you to sync to your computer's iTunes library. For around $20 more, a system like the Altec-Lansing iM600 offers video-out, subwoofer-out, FM radio, and a USB pass-through connection--all in a lighter, more compact design.
The i-XPS 250 cranks out a powerful amount of sound. Its 2.1 speaker array assigns 15 watts of power to its subwoofer and 5 watts each to the two tweeters. That may not seem like a lot of power, but because the i-XPS 250 weighs in at a hefty 4.5 pounds, it does a better job of projecting its sound. The i-XPS 250 does tend to buzz and distort at high volumes, especially in the lower frequency range. With the volume set halfway, the i-XPS 250 does a fine job of filling an average-size room with a clean, balanced sound. The 3.5-inch woofer wasn't quite enough to represent bass-demanding genres like hip-hop and electronic music without sounding overloaded. When we tested it with some rock classics from Hendrix and Pink Floyd, it sounded surprisingly well-rounded.