Soundbug

soundbug-thumb1.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    5.0 OK

Pros

  • Cool-looking gadget
  • interesting idea.

Cons

  • Fails to actually deliver decent sound quality.

The Soundbug was the surprise hit of the show at CeBIT this year. It had everything -- weird defence technology spin-off, hip music device and a nice curvy silver case. The stuff of movie science fiction. But Hollywood magic isn't enough: in the real world, things have to work. We had one of the first Soundbugs to be let out of the lab, and gave it a thorough workout.

But we'll leave the results for the end of the show: first, let's set the scene. The Soundbug's reason for existence is to make everyday objects into speakers. Plug it into a sound source, then couple it to a wall, desk or window through its rubber sucker, and out comes noise. Within the Soundbug's shapely cover, a block of Terfenol -- a high-tech material that changes shape in a magnetic field -- is surrounded by a coil of wire. As an electrical signal goes through the wire, the Terfenol changes in sympathy, and the vibrations are coupled to whatever's in contact. Play a musical signal through the device, and out comes sound.

In the plastic, the Soundbug looks satisfyingly weird. It feels very solid and well-made; it comes with two metres of lead terminating in a stereo jack -- the bug itself is mono, but you can daisychain two together for stereo -- and has a small switch for power and sound level. There's a very retro red LED to show when it's on, and the unit turns itself off if there's no audio signal. The sucker is on a rotating disc: place this on a flat surface and twist to stick; it's more than strong enough to hold the bug at any angle if the surface is smooth enough.

The batteries last around four hours at medium volume, which for three alkaline AAA cells is a high running cost. There's no option to power it from a mains adapter or any external power source. The bug has a noticeable residual magnetic field that means you can't stick it to a CRT monitor's surface without distorting the picture.

We tried it with a wide variety of sound sources -- CD players, minidiscs, notebooks, handhelds, radios, games consoles -- and with an equally wide variety of audio material from tribal drumming via Bach and Buddy Holly through to Radio 4 and Boards of Canada's ethereal electro-paganism. The bug is sensitive enough to work with low levels of input from battery-powered portables, but also copes well with bigger signals.

In the end, the sound is what matters -- and here the Soundbug disappoints. There is a very high degree of variability, depending on what surface the thing is stuck to, and most of the obvious candidates sound awful. With work and patience it is possible to get a decent noise out of the beast (we got good results in the bathroom, from the bath itself and the medicine cupboard mirror), but nowhere where it would be difficult to have a small speaker instead. Even if you do manage to get the Soundbug to do something that would be hard to replicate any other way ( putting it under the bath so the music floated up from the tub itself is undoubtedly intriguing), you wouldn't want to have to replace the batteries that often.

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By way of an experiment, we produced some comparative spectral white noise response curves for the Soundbug (£30), a high-quality transistor radio (£30) and a home-made speaker/sink plunger combination device we called the 'Plungebug' (£2.50). This was not done under strict scientific conditions and the signal chain was not calibrated: however, as much as possible of the testbed was kept the same between devices. The Soundbug's lack of bass response in the configuration under test -- stuck as hard as possible to a coffee table -- is clear, and the Plungebug gives it a run for its money.

We appreciate any well-funded attempt at silliness, and on this score the Soundbug gets a hearty round of applause. There's a certain potential for practical jokes involving mysterious voices coming from cupboards and so on, and the technology itself has much potential for manufacturing things with built-in audio, but the Soundbug remains the purest gadget: it's relatively expensive, impractical, and does nothing you can't do better and cheaper through other means.

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