Audio docks for iPads sometimes have built-in speakers, but designed to be portable they are not. So what makes Belkin’s Thunderstorm Handheld Theater any different? It actually IS portable. Nor is it all that heavy to hold, even though there’s a rechargeable battery inside powering a pair of internal speakers lining the bottom in much the same way as a lot of HDTVs have.
Setting up the Thunderstorm is so simple that the instructions are limited to an insert card. You lay it down horizontal on a table with the speakers closest to you. Then push the Thunderstorm’s connector tab which is on the back at the right side out. Hold the iPad horizontally, with the dock connector to the right and insert its left side into the Thunderstorm’s left side and lay it down flat. Then push the Thunderstorm’s connector tab back in so that it makes contact with the iPad’s dock connector: you know this has been done right because the volume control appears for a second at the center of the screen. The Thunderstorm’s digital circuitry takes the audio directly out of the iPad’s dock connector, so forget about using any other audio device or Bluetooth. Syncing the iPad will require taking it back out too.
The Thunderstorm comes with a flexible “smart cover” that covers the iPad’s screen when it’s not being used as a stand. The cover’s aluminum edge goes into a channel at the Thunderstorm’s bottom. Since the ledge flips back and forth, I first tried to insert it into the channel but discovered this wasn’t working. A few more tries and I finally discovered how it’s done: place the Thunderstorm down horizontally face up with the speakers closest to you. Place the cover onto it so that the ledge is also closest to you and nudge the ledge at the channel and magnets will pop it right in similar to how one of Apple’s “smart covers” stay on an iPad. To stand the Thunderstorm up, I just folded the cover underneath and behind and then rolled it into a block.
Because my wife and I like to watch in bed, the Thunderstorm became the TV. I placed a book on the bed, rolled up the cover to stand it up and that was that. The Thunderstorm is loud. I mean, really loud. We streamed a few episodes of Netflix’s Hemlock Grove and there wasn’t any hissing or “noise” interference either. If the Thunderstorm can handle streaming video, you know that internally stored videos were going to sound good too. And they did.
The free Thunder app lets you “dial in” different sound-fields for the audio for movies or listening to music or playing a game. Although I’m not a fan of psycho-acoustic means to “fool” my ear, I liked using the Gaming setting. Belkin says there’s air channels built into the design to improve bass frequencies, and the bass sounded way better when I played games using this setting and with the volume cranked up all the way. But at lower volumes in non-game situations, the bass wasn’t all that noticeable, for example, while watching the TV show Psych with the Thunderstorm on the kitchen table (I think the Movie setting would be more immersive if the speakers were physically farther apart).
The Thunderstorm’s internal battery kept on chugging for over 5 hours on average: recharging is done through an included AC adapter that plugs into its side. There’s no on/off switch but you know it’s charging because a small glowing LED at the bottom middle between the speakers goes on. The iPad can also be charged at the same time while inside the Thunderstorm, and seemed to charge many times faster than if was connected through USB.
The Thunderstorm Handheld Theater does exactly what the name implies and does it well. While the retail $249 is high, the design is sensible, the construction well-made and the outputted audio both loud and clear to listen to.