Hands-on Review of the Tivoli Audio iPAL
Many people are obsessed with keeping a close eye on the latest gadgets, and often judge if each new doodad has a forward-thinking design. If you place a Tivoli iPAL on a shelf next to the latest gizmos, it fits right in. What's interesting is that some of the fundamental design concepts behind it date back to the 1950 s and 60's. This week I realized that in our web 2.0 world, a portable AM/FM radio is still a wonderfully handy piece of technology to have around.
Tivoli Audio was co-founded by an innovative audio designer named Henry Kloss. In the early 1950's Henry was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he started making small speakers so he and fellow students could crank up their FM radios. He and his cohorts were likely the first college students to blast music in their dorm rooms. This natural desire to rock out paved the way for the first bookshelf speakers to be built. By 1960 Kloss had designed the Model 8 table radio, which looks and operates very much like our friend the iPAL.
iPAL stands for Portable Audio Laboratory, but don't let this confuse you. The iPAL is simply an AM/FM radio with a single built-in speaker, an integrated Nickel Metal Hydride rechargeable battery, and a mini-plug input for your iPod (or any other device that features a headphone output such as a computer, a portable DVD player, etc.). At first glance, the iPAL may not seem like it offers enough capability to command its $219 price tag. However, let's not forget that this world is filled with products that fall into the "cheap piece of junk" category. The iPAL is anything but.
In any situation there's a right way to do something, and a wrong way. Portable radios are no different. Let's start with the iPAL's battery. Instead of using a cheaper and less powerful Nickel-cadmium battery (which are also more harmful to the environment), the iPAL comes with a superior Nickel Metal Hydride battery, which powers the device for a really long time. One of the coolest things about the iPAL is its tuner dial. Why should you care if a radio has a high-quality tuning dial? The dial makes it really easy to find stations that you want to listen to, which is a pretty big deal for a radio. There are rubber gaskets that protect the inputs and outputs from the elements on the rear of the unit. Like an excellent meal, all of the ingredients of the iPAL are of a certain caliber. The sound quality is also impressive for such a small speaker, but considering the expertise behind the design, this isn't a surprise.
After sleeping in on a Saturday morning, I started my usual routine of making eggs and tea. I'll often play an album on my record player in the adjacent room while I cook, or turn on the TV. With the iPAL sitting on the counter next to the stove, I decided to engage my brain the old fashioned way and turn on the radio. As luck would have it, the iPAL was already tuned into NPR, and Car Talk was just getting started. I listened to Click and Clack as I prepared my meal, and when it was time to eat I picked up the battery powered iPAL and set it beside my plate at the table. I continued to listen to the next show on NPR called Wait, Don't Tell Me, which also proved to be entertaining. It was just a reminder of how good radio can be, and how uncomplicated the process of accessing it is.
Some products seem better suited for having built-in rechargeable batteries than others. If you had a digital camera with a built-in battery and it died in the middle of a birthday party, it's a real let down. However, the rechargeable battery in the iPAL seems just right. If you're at the beach and you burn through the battery listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller on repeat several times, you can just relax and take in the sounds of the ocean. Devices with built-in rechargeable batteries seem to go well with recreation. When you use a device with disposable batteries, every time you power it up you're spending money, which is inherently stressful. This makes you use the device more conservatively, and leave it at home more often. The built-in battery in the iPAL actually encourages use. If the battery dies you can just plug it in with the included AC adapter/charger and keep rocking.
Tivoli gets points for mentioning in the manual that you don't have to worry about how much you've charged or depleted the battery. You can use it plugged in for as long as you want to, and use the built-in battery any old time too. I'm the type of person who gets concerned with the power cycling rechargeable batteries for maximum life. It was nice to read that this isn't a concern for the iPAL. If you end up using your iPAL so much that you eventually wear out the battery, it's an easily replaceable part. A mini-plug cable is included so you can attach the headphone output of your iPhone (or any MP3 or CD player) into the AUX input on the iPAL. This sounded great when playing music, and I even indulged myself by playing an iPhone game really loudly. There's a headphone output on the back of the iPAL that turns off the speaker when you use it, so you can listen to the radio without disturbing others.
If there's anything not to like about the iPAL, perhaps it's the metal telescoping antenna. Anytime I encounter an antenna like this, I just feel like I'm going to bend and snap it (even though I only did this once when I was a five year old). But I do like how the antenna folds back and practically disappears. The overall clean design and ease of use of the iPAL makes it difficult to dislike. Whether you need a portable radio and an iPod speaker for the office, your home, or to rock out in your dorm room, the iPAL comes highly recommended. If you're into the design of the iPAL, there are lots of other interesting products from Tivoli Audio such as the Model One, the Model Two, the Model Three, the SSTPR Top-Firing speaker, and the SongBook Ultimate Travel Radio.