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Gadget Review

Olympia Soundbug not a sound investment

By Kailas Narendran

Staff Writer

When is a speaker not a speaker? If you answered “When it’s an orator,” you’re wrong. The answer is “When it’s the Olympia Soundbug.” This new device from Wave Industries uses a high bandwidth, linear actuator straight out of Iowa to convert any hard, smooth surface into a sounding board.

The heart of the technology is a material called Terfenol-D. This material seems to be similar to piezoelectric elements.

When it is placed in an appropriate mechanical housing, electrical signals are transduced to low displacement, high force movement. This actuator is used to replace the voice coil found in a traditional speaker.

The Olympia Soundbug departs from the standard speaker model at this point. This linear motion, rather than driving a speaker cone, is used to vibrate a suction cup attached to it. Rather than listening to the sound out of a single cone source, the device vibrates the surface it is attached to, radiating sound.

Trying out the Soundbug

When I first got my Olympia Soundbug, I immediately hooked up the device to my laptop and tried playing music. I stuck the Soundbug on a window (as pictured in the advertisements). I was impressed with how bad the music sounded.

Using the device on the double pane windows in my apartment resulted in weird artifacts such as echoes and strange resonances. Right off the bat I was very unimpressed with the performance of the device.

Next I tried my metal toolbox. The sound was a little better, but the resonance problem was still really bad. I went around sticking the Soundbug on everything from a lava lamp to a TV (very trippy). In almost all cases, the sound was of poor quality because of the properties of what I stuck the unit on.

Finally, I stuck it onto the kitchen cabinet. Amazingly enough, the sound was somewhat decent. After trying a lot of surfaces, it seems that wood (or probably any other dense surface) works best. The bandwidth of the device (8kHz) seemed to be eclipsed by the acoustical properties of the material it was placed on.

Product not so hot

When I played music through the device, I noticed some fuzz on the higher frequency sections. This generally didn’t make a difference in my musical selections (they have a fair amount of distortion, etc.), but you should definitely take that into account before opening your wallet for this product. The suction cup is good quality and has a locking mechanism, but once it got a bit dirty, listening sessions turned into drop tests (where the device performed pretty well). Those problems could easily be solved with a bit of cleaning. On top everything, the battery life is pretty bad.

The device is about the size of a small flip top cell phone. The majority of the volume seems to be consumed by the batteries. One nice feature is that it automatically powers down if there is no signal coming in, helping to conserve battery life.

When do you use it?

Regardless of these good intentions, spending about 10 percent of the cost of this device every four hours is pretty ridiculous. I understand portability is a desired aspect of the device, but I don’t think the option of external power should have been eliminated entirely. If this device had an AC option, I could see sticking it, say, under a desk and having a totally hidden music source.

That brings me to the next question: when do you use it?

My first thought was to use the device as speakers for my laptop. The quality of sound, however, is slightly better through my laptop speakers, so that doesn’t really work (and why carry around more stuff with a laptop?).

Given an appropriate surface, the Soundbug could be useful in a presentation scenario when you need more volume than the laptop speakers can produce. It could also be used in a similar situation with music from a portable device such as a Walkman, etc.

The bottom line is that what you attach this device to is critical to what you get out (not a surprise), and the battery life is marginal.

Limited compatible surfaces

Unfortunately, I found that only a few surfaces actually produce sound of any reasonable quality. This is not to say that the device wouldn’t be of any use to you, but you should realize that sticking it on a window (as would be everyone’s first thought) doesn’t work as well as you might hope. And while the battery life isn’t horrible, it could definitely use some work or other options from the manufacturer.

I could see this device as definitely having a use for someone that needs to play radio quality music for small to medium sized groups and can’t lug around speakers with enclosures, etc. If you get this device and plan to use it for something other than a paperweight, you should definitely invest in some rechargeable batteries.

This product is still new, and I believe the company still has a bit of fine tuning to do. You can find more information at <http://www.soundbug-us.com>. It’s available for $50 from the aforementioned Web site, or through the merchants listed.