There's really no way around the fact the built-in speakers of the Apple iPad are tiny and anemic. Movies, games, and music require plugging in a pair of headphones for clear dialogue and an immersive experience. Belkin's aptly named Thunderstorm was designed to eliminate the need for headphones or Airplaying to an external source by augmenting output with a miniature sound bar design. Using my iPad 3, I took this hybrid case/speaker for a high-fidelity test drive.
Assembly: Fitting the iPad into the Thunderstorm speaker was simple enough. I merely slipped it into the case and secured the slide out 30-pin Apple dock connector to the iPad. A cover, similar to the original Apple iPad cover, magnetically affixes to a cut-away insert on the case. Buttons on the side of the Belkin speaker case provide full access to the iPad's volume, vibrate, and power buttons.
Inside the case is an additional battery rated for up to 10 hours battery life with use of the Thunderstorm.
Features : In order to customize your audio experience Belkin worked with an audio design firm, Audifi, to incorporate an enhanced DSP tuned output, and also help design an accompanying app called Thunder. The free downloadable app grants users the choice of three different engineered soundscapes: Normal, Wide and Super Wide. Specific presets for movies, music, and gaming provides optimized sound processing for dialogue, SFX, and music. And in order to provide more individual control, the speaker width setting can be changed to create an experience with more or less virtual surround sound.
Listening: With the iPad 3 fully connected to the Thunderstorm, I decided to cue up some favorite TV series for an initial test. The sounds of slashing swords and fire breathing dragons in Game of Thrones certainly came through with a fuller sound. Additionally, music tracks also improved, sounding satisfyingly fuller, reminding me of a boombox rather than a tinny sounding tablet.
At moderate to loud settings, the audio output from the Thunderstorm was clean and loud enough to fill a small room. While the fullest bass and treble extensions are not all reproduced by the Belkin speaker case, this was to be expected considering the size. Nevertheless, the Thunderstorm gives users an obvious improvement over the iPad's dinky built-in speaker while still retaining the tablet's portability.
Gaming: Moving onto iPad games was interesting, if not physically taxing. While games only required finger gestures were easy to play, holding the entire iPad with the Thunderstorm attached proved tiring on the arms. The extra bulk adds approximately 1.4 pounds. Holding the extra added weight was helped by the soft, matte, and grippy plastic black back. Holding the entire iPad (e.g. for racing games) in the Belkin speaker case was a bit more tiresome, but I discovered after a few time I didn't actually didn't mind the extra pound or so.
Similar to my experience while watching movies and television shows, the Belkin Thunderstorm delivered a more expansive gaming sound, with all layers of sound effects and music available to ears more discretely. The Belkin Thunderstorm app also provides a gaming mode for a virtual surround experience, with games like Touch Hockey and Fruit Ninja becoming surprisingly more engaging thanks to improved audio.
As noted above the Thunderstorm also can be converted and positioned into a modern day version of a boombox. An included screen cover allows users to prop up the iPad into a couple different viewing/listening angles, allowing for adjustment of speaker direction forward or further upward.
With this portability in mind, I took the Thunderstorm speaker case out for a mobility test. In outdoor settings like a park, the dialogue was much easier to understand. Obviously the sound was fuller, but the volume boost alone allowed me to hear everything, whether music, games, or shows, without straining (of course, nearby park patrons may not have welcomed the extra loud volume during my test).
With so many portable and wireless speaker solutions currently available, it can be difficult to decide on the best option for additional sound amplification for the iPad. If improved immersive sound with portability is at the top of your list, the Belkin Thunderstorm should at least get an audition. Although the added weight and bulk may bother some, the self-contained iPad case and speaker dock proved a surprising boost to our listening enjoyment, whether it was from the comfort of our bed, out in the living room, or even outdoors.
Pros: Full immersive sound with clear dialogue without distortion at normal volumes, portable, clean tactile grip, built-in stand makes for easy positioning.
Cons: Screen cover does not wake and sleep the iPad display like the Apple screen cover, additional weight can be tiring in certain positions/use.
(Images: Belkin, Vahan Baladouni)
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.