Review: The BLOCK ROCKER from ION Audio
(Chris | Posted 2010-09-14)
As I’m sure many of you are aware, there are a plethora of portable powered speaker systems on the market that interface with the iPod family of devices. These devices range from the sub-$100 price point to several hundred dollars for docking speaker systems from companies like Bose. Few, however, are rugged in design or possess the kind of power to really have an impact in an outdoor setting where a unit needs to be able to stand out above the din of the crowd to really be heard. Even fewer have the ability to hold a charge for 6 to 12 hours, drive a microphone or musical instrument, and recharge your iPod, iPhone, or Touch at the same time! Enter BLOCK ROCKER from ION (ionaudio.com).
The BLOCK ROCKER is a self contained amplification and speaker system that most resembles a portable PA system with wheels and a handle. The primary selling points for this unit are its size and portability, rechargeable battery, flexibility with input and decent sound quality. We received our test unit a few weeks ago and have been testing it in a variety of settings to determine what its strengths are, and where improvements might be necessary.
Interestingly, the unit showed up on the day we were attending a concert at a local amphitheater. As tradition has it, tailgating before the show is a necessity, and this show was no different. Fortunately, we received the BLOCK ROCKER in the morning and were able to have it fully charged in approximately 4 hours – well before we had to leave in the caravan for the show. Upon arriving in the parking lot we set up the BLOCK ROCKER with a loaded iPhone 3GS and began to flip through the various tracks testing volume, range, and tone. In a noisy parking lot with lots of tailgaters, the unit required the volume to be set at about 50% to have some background noise, and about 75% to provide a nice strong level when a favorite tune was playing. Most folks at our tailgate were impressed with the quality of the sound, although a few audiophile types noted that the bass the unit provided wasn’t very impressive. It was a nice relief to not have to keep starting vehicle engines to account for battery drain, however, which is the normal scenario when folks have their tailgates open and are using their car stereos for background music. For three solid hours, we kept the BLOCK ROCKER between 50 and 75% of max volume, and were still showing three green lights on the charge indicator before powering down prior to the show. After the show, we rocked the parking lot for another hour while traffic filtered out and still no change in the battery level display. Overall, we rated this scenario a success.
The second scenario we put this unit through was a “deck party.” A little different, perhaps a little less difficult for the BLOCK ROCKER, but no less important to someone who may be using the unit in various environments. At home, we invited about 12 couples over for a party, and used the BLOCK ROCKER as background music. This time, we used a Blackberry and a SanDisk Sansa MP3 player, each loaded with a bunch of favorite soft rock tunes and acoustic jams, and an RCA to mini-plug patch cord to test the RCA inputs on the unit. As may be expected, the unit performed admirably, although we weren’t really pushing it in this scenario. The volume rarely approached 50%, but it didn’t need to. The BLOCK ROCKER played for about 4 hours on the same charge it had the week prior at the concert tailgate – and the three green LEDs were still brightly lit at the end of the night.
The third scenario we tested with was a little acoustic practice session, involving an Ovation Celebrity Acoustic/Electric Guitar, Monster Instrument Cable, and the included dynamic microphone. In this scenario we drove two of the inputs on the front face plate of the unit – the microphone line in and the instrument/mic 2 line in. Playing the acoustic guitar through the BLOCK ROCKER sounded decent and the unit was able to capture some relatively crisp highs and a decent amount of the bass, even when strumming somewhat aggressively. When pushing the unit past 50%, though, the tone started to lose clarity and I could tell the 22 Watt amp was clipping a little. Still, for a quick solution the BLOCK ROCKER performed just fine. If you are a musician, it’s nice to know this unit can double as a small PA if you end up with one of those late night impromptu jams that sometimes occur at friendly get-togethers.
The last scenario we put the BLOCK ROCKER through, was an actual “Block Party”. This past Saturday, about 35 families in our plan got together for what was supposed to be a five hour party, starting at 4pm. What resulted lasted through 2am and was quite a fiesta. We used the BLOCK ROCKER for background music all through the “family” part of the event, which lasted till about 8pm, when a storm moved in and most folks started putting their kids to bed. The BLOCK ROCKER was running at probably 40% volume during this period on a full charge and was still running with a relatively full tank (3 green LED’s). Because it was being used for background noise, the unit really wasn’t being tested from a tone and sound pressure level perspective, so it really sounded great and served its purpose well.
After the storms moved through and the fun parents came back out with their baby monitors, several of us regrouped at a central family’s “garage” for Block Party Phase 2. This was the first time I saw the BLOCK ROCKER really sweat. Several of the neighbor ladies quickly took control of the unit and began pumping everything from the Black Eyed Peas to Madonna to Garth Brooks through the poor box. I kept an eye on the unit through the whole experience and often had to go over and turn the volume down because the amp was clipping and distorting. After all, I didn’t want to send this thing back with a detached woofer.
The BLOCK ROCKER seemed to hold up, though, even though the amp and speaker were struggling. The party raged till about 2am, through various rounds of flip cup and beer pong, bouts of dancing, and group Karaoke. When I powered her down, there was still one green LED on. I can’t speak for the integrity of the speaker, but she was still cranking it out to the very end.
Let me just say that dozens upon dozens of people have been exposed to the BLOCK ROCKER over this tryout period, and 99% of the people that have come into contact with it, absolutely love it. They love the concept, they love the rugged look, and they think it sounds great; they love the iPod functionality and the fact that it recharges your iPod while it’s playing. In fact, most everyone asked where they could find one.
I’m somewhat pickier, though, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t call out a few potential improvements. OK, call it a wish list if you will.
While the unit performed admirably in most of the scenarios noted above, I would recommend slightly more power for the unit and a more efficient ported woofer. In today’s music environment, music should “thump” whether at a tailgate or a deck party and while most folks thought the sound quality was fine, I would like a little more kick in the pants when I turn up the volume.
Because these units will often find themselves amongst a group of party goers, I think the power of the unit should exceed the range of the volume knob - in other words, some type of electronic limiter should be installed to prevent the garage scenario above from doing permanent damage to the speaker and amplifier. With more onboard power, you should be able to do this and still give the unit a wider, cleaner range.
I would also look at opportunities to potentially make the unit waterproof or “splash proof”. Let’s face it, the BLOCK ROCKER will spend the bulk of it’s time outside, and there’s always risk of inclement weather, or an unintentional beer spill. Might be nice to just hose the thing off, sort of like a marine speaker.
Lastly, I would like some EQ capability, either a 3 band or at least treble/bass or tone controls. I know, adding a feature adds cost, but for the features noted above, I personally would pay at least $100 more for the unit.
Aside from those few things, the unit is pretty sweet. Lots of inputs, efficient on the battery utilization, re-chargability, multiple flexible inputs, and a tow handle. What else could a music junkie ask for? Everyone seemed to love it, I guess I did too.
The BLOCK ROCKER has an MSRP of $199, and can be found on the street for around $149. Check your local warehouse retailer and online. Find out more about the unit, including product specifications at http://www.ionaudio.com/blockrocker