Playlist's Plays of the Year: 2006
A year ago, we dubbed 2005 the Year of the iPod —the year when Apple’s line of portable players, and the slew of unique accessories surrounding it, made things abundantly clear that the iPod ruled the roost.
And 2006? Well, this was the year that both the iPod line and attendant accessories matured. All three iPod models saw second-generation updates that improved on the originals’ features and performance. And although we didn’t see as many new types of iPod accessories, we saw significant improvements in the offerings in many add-on categories—better speakers, headphones, cases, transmitters… the list goes on.
Since we get a chance to play with these accessories (or, to put it more professionally, “test and evaluate them”), we’ve got a pretty good idea of which products surpassed expectations to be the best in their class. Our editorial staff has put their collective heads together to select our favorite iPod- and digital-music-related products of the past year. The 23 products we picked for our Plays of the Year stand out for their exceptional quality, innovation, usefulness, design, and value.
Our top product picks are spread out over the next four pages. On this page, you’ll find awards for general categories, such as the top iPod of the year and great iPod software. The next page features our picks for the top headphones and speakers while page three profiles our favorite cases and car accessories. Finally, we wrap up with a look at top digital audio offerings.
Best iPod: Second-generation iPod Nano (2GB, $149 ; 4GB, $199 ; 8GB, $249 ; Apple )
When it comes to the iPod, Apple has followed a consistent plan: keep what works, change what doesn’t, and do it fast. Last year, the newly-introduced iPod nano replaced the best-selling iPod mini and quickly took the crown of Best New iPod; a year later and, as Steve Jobs would say, “boom!”—it’s gone. In is place is a new nano that combines the best of the original nano (small size, flash memory, a color screen) with the best of the mini (a hard-to-scratch, aluminum exterior and robust build) and increases capacity to up to 8GB. As if that weren’t enough, the new nano also tosses in a brighter screen, search functionality, a choice of six colors, and—my favorite subtle touch—an ever-so-slightly concave select button. For music fans who don’t want to waste their time with videos and games it’s—dare we say it—the best iPod yet.—DAN MOREN
Most Innovative iPod Accessory: Nike + iPod Sport Kit ($29 ; Apple )
Nike and music have gone together since at least the 1980s, when baby boomers everywhere lamented the company’s use of The Beatles’ Revolution in advertising. But Nike’s latest musical revolution, the surprisingly inexpensive Nike + iPod Sports Kit , might just win back some good will. The seductively simple Sports Kit consists of a tiny receiver that plugs into the dock-connector port of your iPod nano and a transmitter that attaches to your shoe (directly into the sole of a Nike+ shoe model, or tucked into an attached pocket, such Marware’s $10 Sportsuit Sensor+ ). The transmitter measures your progress and sends your run data to your nano; time, distance, and pace information are displayed on your iPod’s screen as you run. You can also hear your progress through your headphones by clicking your iPod’s Center button, and you also get congratulatory feedback from athletes such as Lance Armstrong when you achieve new milestones (for example, fastest time or longest distance). Once you get home, your data is automatically uploaded to the Nike+ Web site when you sync your iPod with iTunes, so you can track your runs and see how many calories you’ve burned off with the click of a mouse. Since its launch this summer, Sports Kit-using runners have already clocked more than 2.5 million miles. So whether you’re training for a 5K fun run or an ultra-marathon, tune in and hear the burn.—MATHEW HONAN
Best Way to Waste Time with Your iPod: iPod games ($4.99 each; Apple )
The first iPod was a music player; a ground-breaking music player, but a music player nonetheless. Come 2005, our favorite little device sliced, diced, and played back our favorite movies and TV shows. But this year Apple surprised many by adding premium games to the iPod’s repertoire. The iPod’s always had games, of course—all the way back to the hidden version of Breakout in the first generation iPod (appropriate, given that Breakout was originally designed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak). But the new offerings aren’t your father’s—er, well, older brother’s —games. Solitaire and Parachute might have been a good way to kill a minute or two, but compared to the nine titles rolled out this year, those were like listening to music on 8-track when you’ve got a, well, an iPod. All nine games feature slick graphics and control schemes designed to work with the iPod’s Click Wheel. From Texas Hold ’Em to Bejeweled, Tetris to Pac-Man, the new lineup has something for everyone.—DM
Best iPod Video Converter (for the Mac): Visual Hub ($23; Techspansion )
While we welcome the availability of video and movies from the iTunes Store, we’re well aware that there’s a world of video out there that isn’t provided by Apple—home movies, Web clips, and, yes, even DVDs. Regrettably, most of this material is in a form not compatible with the iPod. To make it compatible, Techspansion offers the $23 VisualHub , a universal video converter for Macintosh. While not designed solely for the iPod—it can also convert video to PSP, DV, DVD, TiVo, AVI, MP4, WMV, MPEG, and Flash formats—it provides a load of help to iPod owners. To begin with, it converts video to the higher-resolution H.264 standard now supported by fifth-generation iPods; many other conversion utilities still support only the original lower-resolution standard. It converts video faster than QuickTime Pro. You can batch convert multiple files. And finally, should you have a movie that’s chopped into multiple parts—a multi-part MPEG-4 video you’ve downloaded from the Web, for example—VisualHub can lend a hand by stitching together these files into a single movie. Our one wish: Make a version for Windows; PC users have nothing so powerful or intuitive. (Note: VisualHub can’t “rip” your commercial DVDs for watching on your iPod; you’ll need last year’s Plays-of-the-Year winner, HandBrake, for that.)—CHRISTOPHER BREEN
Top listening devices—headphones and speakers
Best Earbuds: Remix M-Class ($50 ; V-Moda )
We’re generally not big fans of earbuds here at Playlist . Like Apple’s included headphones, most earbuds—thanks to their small size and loose fit in your outer ear—provide poor bass and mediocre overall sound. In fact, the genre has been so bad, relative to other headphone styles, that we’ve been recommending variations on the same Sennheiser earbuds for several years. (Not to mention that, as earbuds go, Apple’s stock models that ship with each iPod aren’t that bad.) But this year we have a new favorite: V-Moda’s Remix M-Class . At $50, they’re more expensive than most earbuds, but well worth it considering their excellent sound quality (good bass response, excellent detail, and a warm overall sound); quality build (each earbud, as well as the headphone plug enclosure and Y-connector on the cables, is made of polished metal alloy); and attractive design (available in metallic blue, metallic pink, or silver). And they’re comfortable to boot.—DAN FRAKES
Best Canalbuds: CX300 ($80 ; Sennheiser )
Halfway between earbuds and in-ear-canal (“canalphone”) headphones sit what we call canalbuds . Instead of sealing firmly inside your ear canals using foam or flanged-rubber eartips, like true canalphones, canalbuds have small rubber eartips that sit at the ends of your ear canals—they don’t fully seal out external noise, but they’re easier to put in and take out and they’re more comfortable for many listeners than full-fledged in-ear-canal models. This category has long been dominated by Sony’s EX series, but Sennheiser’s new CX300 —the company’s first attempt at canalbuds, no less—handily beats Sony’s offerings in the sound department while also being lightweight (just four grams) and comfortable. And with a street price of around $55, the CX300 is priced competitively.—DF
Most Innovative iPod Headphones: ety8 ($199 for headphones only, $299 including iPod transmitter; Etymotic )
Canalphones are one of the most popular genres of iPod accessories. But compact Bluetooth headphones are among the most requested genres. I never really expected the two to cross paths, but Etymotic—a pioneer in in-ear-canal headphones—accomplished just that with the release of the ety8 . The company has taken the technology used in the acclaimed $299 ER-4P and mated it with Bluetooth technology to produce a truly wireless set of canalphones; the only cable is the one connecting the left and right earpieces behind your neck. Instead of bulky earpieces, the ety8 uses small (1.4-by-0.8-by-0.4-inch) enclosures—the right housing the system’s Bluetooth components, the left hosting a 7- to 10-hour rechargeable battery. The earpieces are light enough to be supported by the canalphones themselves; in fact, the cable and both earpieces, taken together, weigh a total of an ounce. A small Bluetooth transmitter connects to your iPod’s dock-connector port, and you can use buttons—Play/Pause, Forward, Back, and Volume Up and Down—on the right-hand earpiece to control playback. The system supports A2DP, AVRCP, and Bluetooth 2.0, and the headphones can also be paired with Bluetooth-enabled computers and mobile phones (for listening only). Best of all, you get near-ER-4P sound quality.—DF
Best High-End iPod Headphones E500PTH ($499 ; Shure )
As more and more audiophiles embrace portable digital audio, the market for high-end in-ear-canal headphones has blossomed. We’re old pros when it comes to canalphones, but even we got excited about Shure’s new flagship model, the E500PTH . Using three separate drivers in each earpiece, the E500PTH offers stunning sound quality—provided you’ve got lossless music and the ears to tell the difference, of course. Even better, these are the lightest and most comfortable “universal fit” canalphones we’ve tested. Finally, the E500PTH package includes an impressive list of accessories: short and long cables, a level attenuator (for use with too-loud audio sources, such as airplane-seat jacks), an adapter for 1/4-inch headphone jacks, a hardshell carrying case, and—one of our favorite audio accessories of the year—Shure’s new Push-To-Hear Control module. The latter accessory sits between your audio source and your canalphones; when you want to hear the outside world, you push a button and a microphone picks up that external audio and feeds it into your headphones. You’ll never again have to deal with removing and reinserting your canalphones every time you need to hear the flight attendant. The E500PTH package is definitely pricey, but if you’ve got golden ears, it’s worth it.—DF
After much deliberation, we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t pick a single desktop/compact speaker system this year. When it came to one-piece desktop speaker systems, JBL’s Radial proved to be in a class of its own, thanks to beautiful design and remarkably good sound quality—easily the best we’ve heard from a one-piece system. The Radial also includes a radio-frequency (RF) remote control with the fairly unique ability to navigate your iPod’s menus from afar.
Monitor Audio’s i-deck impressed us with its excellent detail, midrange, and—thanks to separate speakers that can be placed up to 6 feet apart—stereo imaging and separation. In fact, we found it to be one of the most balanced and natural-sounding iPod speaker systems on the market, and noted that “few systems… even approach the i-deck in terms of sound quality for the money.” That was in early 2006 when the i-deck sold for $249. Just a few months later, Monitor announced several new iPod speaker systems and promptly dropped the price of the i-deck down to $150. At that price, there’s no excuse not to go out and buy one—or two or three.—DF
Best Portable iPod Speakers: inMotion iM9 ($200 ; Altec Lansing )
Portable speakers usually involve compromises: to get battery power and small size, you have to put up with lower volume levels and less bass. Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM9 is the first truly portable system that doesn’t require you to give up big sound for portability. This 11-by-3-by-7.8-inch, 4-pound system isn’t much bigger than a thick college textbook, but its two 1-inch tweeters and two 2.5-inch midrange speakers pump out enough sound—including resonant bass and surprisingly loud output—to keep the whole dorm up at night; the iM9 sounds just as good as (or better than) many mini-systems. The included AC adapter charges your iPod and a composite-video output lets you hook the system up to your TV for watching iPod-hosted video and photos. And the iM9 is also a capable road warrior: four C-cell batteries provide power, and a rugged, rubber exterior keeps your iM9 safe from bumps and bangs as you travel. Altec Lansing even includes a “sling” backpack for toting the iM9 and your favorite iPod accessories from place to place. Crank it up and hit the road.—MH
Best Home iPod Speaker System: i300 ($400; Jamo )
Last year, Klipsch’s $400, monstrous iFi took the crown of Best Home iPod Speaker System. This year, Jamo—a subsidiary of Klipsch Audio Group—released the similarly-priced i300 , effectively taking the iFi, scaling it down in size, changing its appearance to white- or black-piano-gloss, adding a Universal-compatible dock, improving the dock controls, and offering better detail and upper midrange (although sacrificing a bit of volume and bass extension). As we said in our original review, the result is “a sub-sat system that provides home-stereo-quality sound, while being small enough to hide in most rooms… it’s a compelling combination of sound quality, iPod compatibility, and looks.… Combine an iPod full of music with the i300 and you’ve got a system capable of outperforming many of the stereos you’ll find at the big electronic chain stores, while taking up a fraction of the space in your listening room.”—DF
Top on-the-go accessories: cases and car gear
Best Case for 5G iPod: VideoShield Kit ($35; Agent 18 )
This was a tough category; we could just as easily have tapped Contour Design’s Showcase video for the award. But in the end, Agent 18’s VideoShield Kit won us over by providing the most versatile iPod case we’ve ever seen. The heart of the kit—the case itself—is classic Agent 18: a clear, two-piece polycarbonate shell that protects your iPod without adding a lot of bulk. The bottom edge of your iPod is fully accessible—the case is flush with the bottom edge so you can still use bottom-mounted iPod accessories such as microphones and FM transmitters. But as great as the case is, it’s the other three pieces in the kit that set the VideoShield apart. A removable, stainless-steel belt clip offers a sturdy way to carry the case. Or you can swap the belt clip out for a sturdy, flip-out stand that’s perfect for watching videos and viewing photos. Finally, Agent 18 has provided the answer to the eternal iPod-case dilemma: how to use your iPod in dock-cradle accessories without removing it from the case. The company includes a Universal Dock adapter specifically made for Video Shield-encased iPods; instead of using the dock adapter included with your 5G iPod, you use the one included with the VideoShield Kit. As we asked when we originally reviewed the VideoShield Kit, why hasn’t anyone else thought of this yet?—DF
A good iPod case is all about balance. On the one hand, you want to keep your precious player safe from scratches, dents, and scuffs. On the other hand, it’s a portable music player, not a museum piece—you want to be able to use it for its intended purpose. iSkin’s eVo3 manages to achieve this balance with Zen-like harmony. It’s really a two-piece case: besides the traditional silicone skin, which wraps and cushions the iPod, there’s a hard plastic shield—called the VISOR—made from high-quality, scratch-resistant plastic, that protects the entire front face of the iPod. The Click Wheel remains accessible, and there’s even a removable cover for your iPod’s dock connector, meaning you can put the iPod in a dock cradle without removing it from its cocoon. The eVo3 might be a little pricier than its competition, but when it comes to keeping your iPod safe, can you really pay too much?
As for the iPod nano, you want a case for your shiny, tiny player, but you don’t want to do bulk up its slim profile. AVA’s Smooth E has got you—and your nano—covered. This unique skin case is actually rigid: it’s a two-piece, hardshell case made of ABS plastic coated with a liquid polymer finish that feels unbelievably smooth. Inside, your nano reposes in felt-lined splendor, protected from the bumps and jostles of everyday life. The bottom of the case is open to let you plug in your headphones and sync the iPod, and a hard piece of clear plastic is integrated in the case’s cover to protect your nano’s vulnerable display. But the best innovation of the Smooth E is the case’s built-in Hold switch; it lines up with the nano’s own Hold switch and makes flicking it on and off a breeze. In fact, slipping your nano into the Smooth E might make it hard to tell which is getting more attention: the iPod or its case.—DM
Best iPod Apparel: Power Jacket and Power Hoodie ($150 each; JanSport )
We’ve seen a good number of iPod-enabled jackets and clothing, but JanSport’s Power Jacket and Power Hoodie are the best yet. Made of a water-resistant, soft outer shell with fleece lining, both form-fitting-but-stretchy garments are perfect for active wear; the main difference is that the Power Hoodie adds a lined hood. Your iPod fits in an internal pocket near the jacket’s waist, and your headphones connect to a minijack near the jacket’s neck; a soft-button pad on the chest lets you control playback and volume. The controls are easy to use—you don’t have to reach inside the jacket or fiddle with touch-sensitive buttons—and the jacket is comfortable and attractive, which is more than we can say for many iPod-capable garments.—DF
Best FM Transmitters: TransPod and TransDock micro ($100 and $70 ; DLO )
It’s now fairly common knowledge that if you want the best iPod audio your car can provide, you connect your iPod directly to your car’s stereo head unit. But if you can’t afford it (or spend a lot of time in cars you don’t own—and yes, I mean you Ms. Traveling Salesperson) you need an unwired solution: an FM transmitter. We’ve run nearly all of them through their paces, and two transmitters from DLO come out on top—the $100 TransPod and the $70 TransDock micro . Forget batteries, each charges the iPod through the car’s 12v power receptacle (read “cigarette lighter”), each boasts a bright display, each offers three presets for storing your favorite frequencies, and each of them can broadcast to frequencies from 88.1 to 107.9. But then so do lots of other FM transmitters. The difference here is that DLO’s transmitters tend to take on stations that others can’t—overpowering weaker “standard” radio stations that can produce interference in lesser transmitters. Why choose one over the other? The TransDock micro is $30 cheaper and, thanks to its included USB sync cable, it accommodates all dock-connector iPod models. The TransPod works with other iPods as well, but its cradle more closely hugs a full-sized iPod—and provides a place for your iPod to sit.—CB
If you don’t have an integrated, iPod-compatible audio system in your car, you have to figure out some other way to get your music into your car stereo. But you also have to find a way to keep your iPod from bouncing around your car’s interior. We were big fans of Ten Technology’s flexDock for the iPod mini; for 2006, the company released a new version, the flexibleDock , that works with all dockable iPods. The base plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter jack, which provides both a stable mount point and power for charging your iPod; a sturdy, 6-inch, articulating arm hosts a thick dock-connector cradle which, via one of several included adapters, holds your iPod securely at a visible height. (The flexibleDock even stays in place over rough roads.) A stereo minijack on the base of the flexDock provides audio output for connecting to your car stereo via a standard audio cable or a cassette adapter; dual output levels provide compatibility with most car stereos.
If you’ve got a first-generation iPod nano and a car with a cassette deck, you’ll want Belkin’s TuneDeck for iPod nano . This unique accessory combines a cassette adapter with a car mount: you insert the TuneDeck into your stereo’s cassette slot, and a sturdy nano-docking cradle protrudes from the stereo, keeping your car free from cable clutter and placing your nano in a safe and convenient location. And because the TuneDeck grabs the higher-quality dock-connector audio signal, rather than the headphone-jack output used by most cassette adapters, it sounds great. (If your iPod’s battery is getting low, you can use the included car charger to supply juice, although you lose the cable-free simplicity.) The TuneDeck is a truly unique product that shows the folks at Belkin have been thinking outside the box when it comes to iPod accessories. (Versions of the TuneDeck compatible with second-generation nanos and cassette decks that load cassettes lengthwise are currently in the works.)—DF
Top products for the home: audio systems
Best High-End Audio iPod Integration: Solo and rLead ($1,599 and $85; Arcam )
I’ve often lamented the fact that the high-end-audio industry has largely ignored the iPod. After all, Apple’s player supports both uncompressed and lossless music formats, and the iPod’s line-level audio output is as good as that of many CD players—in other words, the iPod can be a high-quality source that stores hundreds of full-quality albums. So it was a significant event when upscale U.K. audio vendor ARCAM released its rLead iPod connector . Designed for use with the company’s acclaimed Solo all-in-one stereo system, the rLead is, basically, a cable that connects your iPod to the Solo for playback. But the Solo is smarter than your typical stereo: once your iPod is connected, you can control it from the Solo’s remote as if the iPod were an integral part of the system—playlists, artists, albums, and genres are all browseable via the Solo’s own screen, as if the iPod’s contents were on a hard drive inside the stereo itself. (If you have a USB power adapter handy, the rLead can charge your iPod, as well, via the attached USB plug.)
Of course, to use the rLead, you need a Solo, but that’s a good thing, as the Solo is an Apple-like hybrid of functionality and simplicity—in a single, small, attractive enclosure, you get a CD player, a 75-Watt amplifier, and an AM/FM radio, all of audiophile pedigree. As one reviewer put it, “If Apple made amps and CD players, this is what they’d look like. This is what they’d feel like, too.” For discerning music fans, iPod listening doesn’t get much better than this. (Arcam gear is distributed in the U.S. by Audiophile Systems.)—DF
Best Home-Entertainment System Connection: HomeDock Deluxe ($150 ; DLO )
If you need one dock that does it all, stick a HomeDock Deluxe in your system. S-Video and RCA outputs connect to your TV and stereo, while a USB port lets you connect to your computer. The end result is a dock that will charge your iPod, sync it with iTunes, and play its music and videos over your home entertainment system. In fact, DLO’s HomeDock Deluxe is the easiest way I’ve seen to view movies and television shows purchased from iTunes on a TV (at least until Apple ships its own iTV ). To sweeten the pot, DLO throws in a comprehensive remote to control all the action—you can even browse music and playlists (but, alas, not video) on your TV screen, all from the comfort of your Fatboy. Don’t have a 5G iPod (with video)? The Home Dock Deluxe works with any dockable iPod for music playback and, if you’ve got an iPod nano or a photo-capable model, will still let you view photos and slideshows on your TV. This is one dock that really rocks.—MH
Best Way to Get Your Audio Around Your Home: Digital Music System (ZP100, $499 ; ZP80, $349 ; Controller, $399; Sonos )
We were duly impressed by the original Digital Music System when it was released in 2005: You could get your music to any room in your house via $499 Zone Player ZP100 units; by hooking up a set of speakers to each ZP100, the wireless Controller’s large, bright screen and iPod-like scroll wheel let you send whatever music you wanted to hear, in nearly any format (a notable exception: protected iTunes Store tracks), wherever you wanted to hear it. In 2006, the company rounded out the system by releasing the $349 ZonePlayer ZP80 —a much smaller unit that adds the ZP100’s capabilities to existing stereos—as well as the Sonos 2.0 software, which offers instant, don’t-need-a-computer access to any music available on the Rhapsody Online Music Service. Although not cheap, an under-$2,000 Sonos system can do the job of a five-figure, custom-installed, multi-room home audio system—and then some, thanks to more functionality and easier operation. My original review comments are even more true today: “I simply haven’t seen a system that so effectively combines digital music, high-quality audio, wireless convenience, ease of use, and, well, fun.”—DF