I'm too old, grumpy and cynical to believe in fairy tales, but there's something magical about a set of stereo speakers that you can carry comfortably around in one hand. Make no mistake: the iRule ViBR8 Xtremes are as profoundly tiny as the unruly capitalisation in their name is annoying. The two, semi-spherical modules clip together with magnets for mobile use or transport, and in this form the whole shebang is about the same size as a slightly elongated tennis ball. More surprisingly, the speakers actually feel pretty solid. Both units have a tough, thick plastic bass and are encased in a matte, slightly rubberised black plastic. And if you want to sling them in a bag, a rather cheap feeling cloth bag keeps the kit from getting scratched when you're on the move.
The Lithium Ion batteries in each speaker charge via mini-USB sockets, and a special Y-shaped cable is provided to allow you to charge both units simultaneously. A full charge takes a little over two hours and while iRule specifies a battery life of six hours I'd describe this as a conservative estimate. I've had the set here running for around nine, and I've heard reports elsewhere of even longer times. Note that the USB cable provides power only. To get any sound out of the ViBR8 Xtremes - even from a notebook - you have to use the line-in on one module, which then communicates with the other via mini-USB cable. A volume control on the former unit allows you to tailor the output level, while an on/off switch on the second unit powers the system down when not in use.
iRule makes some pretty bold claims about the ViBR8 Xtremes, describing how the ‘patented vacuum technology' will ‘harness the resonance of a subwoofer' and deliver ‘a room-filling 1.7w of sound with impressive bass.' The magic is, apparently, in the design. While you can use the speakers in their joined together state, you're supposed to separate them, then twist the base on each module and place it flat on a hard surface. Twisting makes the dome-like top section spring upwards to reveal a kind of accordion arrangement, and it's this which is supposed to provide the speakers with their extended bass. It's all to do with vibration, as you can tell should you put your hand on the surface where the ViBR8 Xtreme is playing. To put it simply, it'll make your desk rumble like a megaphone being used by Brian Blessed to recite Shakespeare. With his ears blocked up. While sozzled.
Unfortunately, this is where the magice ends. Sure, the tiny, 1.7W per channel ViBR8 Xtremes make a louder, fuller noise than you might expect from such miniscule modules, but it's still rather brash and tinny. As with their XMI rivals, you can improve the sound by experimenting with the speakers on a range of different surfaces, but you'll still be hit by a thin, treble-heavy noise. There is some bass, but it's completely overpowered by a harsh treble and a grating mid-range, and while the output is probably slightly clearer than the X-Mini II, I'd rather have a warmer, more natural sound any day.
With pop music, like Take That's Julia or Dancing Queen from the Mamma Mia soundtrack (blame my young daughter) it's just about on the right side of listenable, but throw on anything heavier and your ears will suffer from the din. I grimaced my way through Once from the 2009 remix of Pearl Jam's Ten, before thinking better about hitting the 'Xtremes' with Audioslave or Mastodon. Ladyhawke's From Dusk ‘til Dawn was an exercise in earache, and the yearning violins in Milonga en Rey from Gidon Kremer's Homage to Astor Piazolla bought to mind phrases like ‘hideous racket' and ‘strangled cat.'
If I wasn't testing the ViBR8 Xtremes against the X-Minis I'd probably shrug my shoulders and talk about how you can't expect miracles from anything so small. I'd probably be a little more forgiving, and try to play up the more positive aspects of their sound. Unfortunately, that's not the case. If you want to splash out on a pair of mini-speakers, these aren't the ones to take away.