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Speakers madeout of cardboard

Sonic Impact's cardboard speakers are cheap, portable and actually sound pretty good, too. Review by Gary Krakow, MSNBC.

One of the downsides of writing tech reviews is having to store all the boxes you get so you can send the stuff back when you’re finished. “It’s a small price to pay,” you might say, but when you’re testing something like a flat-screen HDTV, you have to do something with the huge container it comes in.

Usually that means littering hallways, my desk, the living room, dining room and every other nook and cranny with big pieces of cardboard. My wife always has something to some say about this. It’s usually: “Get those boxes out of here!”

At no time did either of us ever think of using the boxes as speakers.

But the people at Sonic Impact Technologies have. Using something called NXT flat panel technology the SI people have designed low-cost cardboard speakers that actually sound pretty good.

The SoundpaX speakers come in a very flat package; unfolded, the speakers are tall and pyramid-shaped, 13.5 inches high and 12 inches deep. They weigh next to nothing. Don’t forget, it’s just cardboard.

On the inside of the front surface is the device that makes cardboard into speakers; the Soundpad. It’s a small, white plastic device which vibrates and makes anything attached to it vibrate. The British company NXT explains the material, its shape and the vibrating motor used in their Soundpad are governed by some very complex rules of physics!

If you don’t like the way it looks or you’re allergic to cardboard, SI sells Soundpads separately for $24.95 a pair. You can stick them on anything (posters, thin tables, bookcases, door panels and ceiling tiles) and see how well they do as speakers. Don’t forget you’ll still have to do something with the wires from your new speakers to the amplifier.

The SoundpaX speakers need an amplifier somewhere between 10 and 50 watts per channel.  Sonic Impact just happens to pair these speakers with their own digital, Class-T power amp which provides 10-15 watts per channel. The amp runs on AA batteries (or an optional AC adapter) so it’s very, very portable. Also in the $69 package is speaker wire and a little cable with stereo mini-jacks at either end which allows you to plug a CD/MP3/DVD player or computer directly into the amp.

How they sound
I was very skeptical about what this system would sound like; I wasn’t sure what to expect from buzzing cardboard. I have to tell you, it sounds pretty good.

Don’t compare the speakers to stuff you hear in a hi-fi emporium -- compare them to the crappy speakers you usually get for free with a new computer -- or even some of the inexpensive speakers you pay for.

Yes, they can buzz when played too loud and no, they’ll never be mistaken for $10,000 studio monitors, but plug in your computer or your portable music device and you’ll be amazed at how good it sounds. Everyone who heard them while I was testing them did a double take -- especially when they lifted up a speaker and realized that it really is made from lightweight cardboard. I’m told by others who’ve been experimenting that they sound even better when they’re placed on a carpet or towel. 

The included amplifier is also sold separately. Recently, I told you about another inexpensive amp based on this Class-T, integrated circuit technology from Tripath. That one sells for $99.  Sonic Impact’s Class-T amp, the TA2024, has a volume control, better speaker connections and sells (if you don’t want cardboard speakers) for $39. And that's just the suggested retail price. I’ve seen it sold on some Web sites for less than $25.

There’s an underground cult following growing for Class-T amps and this one is no exception.  Many enthusiasts realize the 10-15 watts of very clean, great sounding sound is perfect for their very high-efficiency loudspeakers. I tried the Sonic Impact amp with my medium-efficiency hi-fi speakers and thought it sounded great even though I could have used a little more power. I like listening loud sometimes.

Back to the SI speakers. I think they’re wonderful. They are the most portable speakers I’ve ever taken along on a trip and they sound good to boot! The speakers/amp combo is also being sold at Target for less than $50. I suggest you give them a listen; you'll be very surprised.

One last thought, since these inexpensive Class-T amps sound so good, what would a cost-no-object Class-T sound like. The people at Bel Canto Designs were nice enough to send me one so I could hear for myself. I'll tell you about that amp in the near future.  But here’s a preview: WOW!