Portable iPod speakers come in many shapes and sizes, and form factor is the most important aspect for determining just how portable an item is. Sonic Impact obviously has a firm grasp on this concept: Every portable unit the company has put out features a highly totable design. The latest set, dubbed the i-F3, is no different, and fans of rugged portability should take heed. This $170 speaker for the iPod will follow you anywhere and put up with your abuse--just don't try drop-kicking it across a room or anything.
Like other Sonic Impact speakers, the i-F3 features a clamshell design with a zipper closure and textured canvas coating--gray, in this case. When zipped shut, the unit measures a respectably compact 9.5 by 7.5 by 2.8 inches. However, this device is no lightweight. It weighs 3.2 pounds, so you'll definitely notice it in a carry-on. That doesn't mean you should leave the i-F3 behind, though. It's a rugged unit that--when closed--is water-resistant, with a rubber flap protecting the DC-in, auxiliary line-in, and antenna ports located on the outer right edge.
When you open the i-F3, its upper half is supported by two sturdy-feeling canvas straps. This half contains four speaker drivers hidden behind two gray grilles that flank a central LCD. The LCD, which is backlit in red, displays the time, alarm status, battery meter, and various speaker modes. It also conceals one of the handy design features of the i-F3: Press a small button and the LCD panel pops out and reveals a slot for storing your iPod during transport. A nice touch, if you ask us.
The bottom section of the i-F3 contains a central iPod dock as well as another hidden compartment. This one conceals the rechargeable--and user-replaceable--battery and a slot for storing the included remote, which offers basic playback controls and buttons for powering the unit off and switching between modes. The main control panel can be found just in front of the iPod dock. Two raised volume keys sit above a square containing power and playback controls as well as buttons for making selections in the iPod menu, changing the display mode, switching functions, and setting the time, alarm, and sleep timer. Along the bottom of the panel is a long, narrow sleep bar that we can see being difficult to press at times because of the recessed nature of the dock/control section.
As you may have gathered, the i-F3 is not just an iPod speaker but an alarm clock as well (you can set up to two). It also has an integrated FM tuner, and Sonic Impact includes a detachable antenna for this purpose. The company also throws several other useful items into the package. You get an AC power brick with U.S. and European adapters; dock adapters and stands for the Nano, Mini, and full-size iPods; and a wrist strap that attaches to the speaker while it's closed.
Bass addicts take heed: The i-F3 speakers really boom on the low end. If you like things bass heavy, this is the portable system for you. However, listeners accustomed to more balanced sound might be put off by the excessive low end--it can overshadow the highs and mids at times. Aside from these moments when clarity suffered, we thought music sounded pretty good, though somewhat hollow at times. These are not audiophile's speakers, but they'll suit most listeners just fine. Keep in mind, though, that we suffered some interference in an area surrounded by computers (taking the unit into a conference room with just one system seemed to remedy the problem). Also, FM radio reception is pretty bad--even with the antenna plugged in. Still, this little system can really put out a lot of sound, so if you're looking to rock a hotel room party, the i-F3 is just the ticket.