Rock-It, the latest device from a little American outfit called OrigAudio that created modest waves last year with its Fold 'n' Play speakers composed of recycled cardboard boxes, reminds me of one of those glass balls filled with little lightning bolts that reach for your fingers when touched. It's a cool science experiment that will set your mind to wondering just how it works, but it doesn't seem to have much in the way of useful real-world applications.
Of course, it isn't being marketed that way.
The $50 Rock-It uses vibrations to transform random objects into makeshift speakers. Vibration speakers have been around for a while and normally require a flat, broad surface. What makes this one different is that it works on pretty much any object-though with varying results.
An Oreo-sized vibration mechanism is stored in a square white box roughly the size of a Klondike Bar. The box houses a pair of triple-A batteries and acts as a place to wrap the vibrator's one-metre tether when not in use. When you're ready for action, just plug in an MP3 player, pop out the vibrator, and use its reusable sticky pad to attach it to anything you like.
To test it I hooked the Rock-It up to an iPod Touch and went wandering about my home looking for interesting surfaces.
I tried a thick wooden kitchen table first. I immediately noticed that the sound was both louder and deeper than what the iPod's built-in speaker was capable of generating. However, it was also quite a bit dirtier with lots of little crackles. Attaching it to a hard, concrete floor garnered similar results. It was bearable, but, given a choice, I'd stick with the iPod's tinny little speaker.
Next up: A hollow wooden door. This turns out to be a great object for a vibration speaker. The sound was loud, crisp, and free of vibration-induced noise. Hollow walls performed about as well. Definitely an improvement over the iPod speaker.
I then moved on to some really unlikely speaker materials, like a pillow. I attached the vibrator to a cotton case covering a soft Obus Forme. The sound wasn't spectacular, but I was surprised by how well it worked. Cleaner than the hard, thick table, but quieter and less bass-y than the hollow door. Slightly more pleasant than the iPod's speaker.
I tried my arm next, and experienced the worst results of all. The high-pitched screechy sounds emitted by the vibrator when it isn't attached to anything received only a modest gain in body when pressed up against my skin. What's more, the vibrations moving through my radius and ulna were a bit unsettling.
I didn't get much better performance attaching the mechanism to a bottle of water, the sole of a loafer, or a DVD case.
I finished up my tests by attaching it to the grill on the front of my home theatre soundbar, and was rewarded with the best audio yet. It was loud, full-bodied, and quite crisp. I'd hazard a guess that the vibrations travelled through to and were amplified by the soundbar's speaker cones. (Of course, this test was simply a lark; using the Rock-It on a speaker makes no sense when you can simply use the speaker on its own.)
The upshot is that, placed on proper objects, the Rock-It delivers surprisingly decent sound. Still, many traditional portable speakers offer superior audio, and they don't require the user to hunt for a proper surface.
Like that glass ball filled with electricity, it's basically just a science trick-which perhaps shouldn't be entirely unexpected since the words "Amaze your friends and family" appear in bold letters on the back of the box.