By December 13, 2011

Powered Portable Speaker Shootout

We have several portable devices that play music at Castle Gibberish. We have two Android phones, an iPad2, two 7″ tablets, and our dog Porter. Well, Porter just makes “music” with his butt.

Anyway, the problem with almost all of these devices is that their speakers aren’t made for playing music at high volume. I’ve been packing a lot for our upcoming move, and I wanted to take music with me around the house. As long as I’m on the top two floors my stereo can do the trick, but if I was in the bottom floor or the basement I’d have to crank the volume to hear anything.

My friend TheNeal™ had a portable speaker for his iPod Touch. He’d plug it in whenever we’d play cards or Liar’s Dice or whatever. It seems a little frivolous at the time, but now I understood.

I wanted a portable speaker that was powered from rechargeable batteries and was small enough to tote around the house or on a trip. Oh yeah, I wanted it to be $20 or less delivered. This being Gibberish, I figured I’d pit them against each other in a death match, and then do a little write-up for you all.

Here are your gladiators.

Introductions and common features

From left to right: iHome’s iHM60GT, the X-Mini II, and the Kinivo ZX100

The speakers have a few other attributes in common. They are all very small and fit in the palm of my hand. They are all available in a variety of colors, and they seem to be more “fashionable” than the portable speakers I was familiar with previously. They all came with carrying bags and charging cords.

They all had LEDs to denote when they were operating, or charging. The iHome iHM60GT and the Kinivo ZX100 both had LEDs that changed colors when fully charged.

The iHome and Kinivo speakers were fully charged in this picture.

All three speakers are charged via USB cable (included). Due to rotating the speakers around during testing, I was unable to drain any of their batteries completely. The Kinivo got the most use, and it is still going strong after about five hours of airplay.

Every speaker had an expanding “vacuum sound chamber” that supposedly led to better bass.

Each speaker could be connected to other speakers for MOAR AWESOME POWAH. I did this at the end of my testing, and they can be chained together, even though they are different makes and models.

Oh yeah, one last thing they all had in common: they were mostly gimmicky.

The test

I played rapper Soul Khan’s excellent Mr. Governor (which is free and you should buy the whole EP, btw). I measured the loudness of each speaker using a digital sound level meter. I put the meter 15″ from each speaker.

A baseline measurement was made on my Barnes & Noble Nook Color. It had a tinny sound to it, and maxed out at 68.6 dB.

iHome iHM60GT – 67.3 dB

The iHome was my least favorite of the three speakers. It was the tallest at 2 7/16″, which was a drawback given the “portable” part of the comparison. The iHM60GT had a “muddy” sound, especially at the lower tones.

It felt the most fragile; expanding the “vacuum bass chamber” made me cringe every time. I was sure it was going to break.

This is where you can chain multiple speakers together.

The best part of the iHM60GT was its power switch. It was clearly labeled and easy to use. Yes, some of the other speakers managed to screw up how to easily turn them on and off.

Here’s the real killer. The iHM60GT uses the same mini-USB cord to charge itself and to connect to your media device. This is terrible. If you lose the cord, you’re dead in the water, with no way to play music or charge your speaker.

Also, there was no volume adjustment. Any volume adjustment has to be done on the parent music device.

This speaker was actually more quiet than the stock speaker in my Nook. However, the range was a bit better, and resulted in a better sound overall. Still, not recommended.

X-Mini II – 64.4 dB

The X-Mini II had the best “feel” to it, and was a nice blend of size and shape. Mostly spherical, the X-Mini II was about the same size as a racquetball. It measured 2 1/2″ with the bass chamber extended. It had the easiest locking / unlocking mechanism of the three speakers, and I didn’t feel like I was going to break the X-Mini II with my lobster claw hands.

The X-Mini II reminded me of the interrogation droid from Star Wars: Episode IV

The X-Mini II has an integrated audio cable. This is nice — one less thing to lose — but the cord is way too short. It’s less than 3″ long.

The good news about the on/off switch was that it was easy to manipulate. The bad news was that the “off” and “on” positions are very difficult to see, even under bright light.

I forgot to take a picture of it, but the X-Mini II has the best volume adjustment out of all three speakers. It’s an old-school dial, and the volume is the same every time you turn the speaker on and off. You’ll understand what I mean when I get to the Kinivo part of my review.

I really wanted to like the X-Mini II. I liked the form factor, and the controls were straight-forward and consistent. Unfortunately, it was the quietest of the group at 64.8 dB. The audio output was balanced and sounded nice, but it wasn’t loud enough for me.

Not recommended

Kinivo ZX100 – 69.8 dB

The Kinivo ZX100 has a very unique look. It reminds me of a turret in a tower defense game, or an alien landing unit. The ZX100 comes with a bag and a whimpy USB charger.

The ZX100 stands 2 1/4″ tall with the resonator extended. This is a misleading metric, as the base of the speaker is much larger than the other two. I feel like it’s the “biggest” of the lot, even though it’s the shortest. The X-Mini II has the best overall form factor despite being taller.

I noted that the ZX100 sounded nice overall, and was loud. The sound level meter backed me up on this, and it was 4.6 dB louder than the X-Mini II and 1.2 dB louder than the iHome.

Like the X-Mini II, the Kinivo speaker has a built-in audio cable. Just like the X-Mini II, it’s too damn short.

Part of the Kinivo ZX100’s “coolness” comes from the unusual design. This also means the controls are less obvious than the other units. Here’s a usability study:

In this photo, the ZX100 is on. You want to turn it off. What do you do?

When I first tested the ZX100, I pressed the black power button. Nothing happened. I rotated the unit in my hand, and pressed the Volume + and Volume – buttons. Nothing happened. I had to look at the directions, and I realized that the buttons are actually under the label, on the little red metallic trim:

Operationally, the one thing I dislike about the Kinivo speaker is that the volume controls are digital. Every time you turn the unit on again the volume is set to starting point. Since I want to listen to my music as loudly as possible, I had to pump up the volume every time. I liked the hardware adjustment on the X-Mini II a lot better.

The ZX100 was the loudest unit in my tests, had a cool shape to it, and was built very well. It would be recommended, except ….

All of the speakers were too quiet

Sedagive? listened to George Michael’s “Freedom” on the ZX100 with me. She remarked, “I can hear myself singing. I don’t like that.” I giggled, and she went off to work. Then I started thinking.

If I could “outsing” the speakers, what good were they in louder environments? I took my Nook Color and the ZX100 into the bathroom with my while I showered. I could barely hear Immortal Technique over the sound of the water running.

For a hoot I decided to measure the sound level of my normal singing voice. I sang the chorus from “Mr. Governor” at 15″ from the sound level meter and noted the max volume: 79.9 dB.

Hrm. Looks like I’d hear myself singing with any of the portable speakers on unless I strapped them to my earholes.


So I decided to combine all three speakers together like a Voltron made out of speakers. I ran the same test, and the overall volume was 76.9 dB. It actually sounded pretty good, and I was impressed — until I realized I had sixty dollars worth of substandard speakers on the table. At this price point, you’re probably better off getting something else.

If you’re looking for more oomph from your portable music devices I would say all of these are not recommended. However, even the less-than-awesome iHome speaker was an improvement in sound quality compared to the built-in Nook Color speaker.

If I had to choose a winner, I’d pick the Kinivo ZX100. However, there’s a chance all three of these may be given away to lucky Gibberish readers in the near future.

Not recommended

Posted in: review, technology

4 Comments on "Powered Portable Speaker Shootout"

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  1. Callaway says:

    If I woke up and saw the “X-Mini II” on my side table, I’d probably force push it through the wall.

    Great review!

  2. Andrew Johnson says:

    Very thorough review, thanks! I am curious to know what the output levels are before vs. after opening the “bass enhancement” chambers on each.

  3. Leandro Castro says:

    Great review! I was looking for a 3 way comparison on all these. However, could you tell me how long the battery “really” lasts on these on a single charge? I’ve read that the Kinivo ZX100 is around 6 hours, X-Mini II is about 12 hours, and I couldn’t find anything on the iHome IHM60GT.

    • DrFaulken says:

      Hey there, thanks for the comment! I don’t use the iHome any more, but I have used the other two speakers for at least six hours without recharging. Unfortunately I don’t have any better battery life stats for you.