- Can charge iPod shuffle when AC-powered
- Works with any iPod or audio source
- Decent sound quality for the size/price
- Compact and portable
- IPod shuffle “docking” requires small adapter that’s easy to misplace
- Easy to accidentally turn the unit on during travel
- Speaker drivers are exposed and included travel pouch doesn’t adequately protect them
We’ve reviewed a number of portable speaker systems for the iPod, but until recently, such systems have been designed primarily with full-size or mini iPods in mind. The UK’s PodGear has recently entered the increasingly crowded portable speaker market with two systems aimed squarely at iPod shuffle owners: the £35 (~$60) ShuffleStation and the £21 (~$37) PocketParty Shuffle. Although neither system is currently available in the U.S., the company is working on distribution agreements that should have PodGear products on U.S. store shelves—physical or online—soon. In the meantime, those shopping for PodGear gear should check out one of its UK dealers.
Playlist has been holding off on reviewing PodGear’s speaker systems because of this current lack of U.S. availability, but we’ve decided to go ahead with the reviews based on increasing interest in these products. We cover the ShuffleStation here; we’ll be reviewing the PocketParty Shuffle in the near future.
Because the ShuffleStation is designed specifically for the iPod shuffle, it doesn’t need the iPod dock cradle found in systems intended for use with full-size and mini iPods—thus allowing the ShuffleStation to be significantly smaller than such systems. When folded for travel, the ShuffleStation is only 6.25″ x 4″ x 1″ in size and weighs just 9 ounces (including batteries), making it just over 1/3 the volume of Logic 3’s i-Station, half the volume of Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3, and slightly smaller than JBL’s On Tour. (It’s approximately the same overall volume as Pacific Rim Technologies’ Cube Travel Speakers, although significantly flatter, making it easier to pack.)
The body of the ShuffleStation is divided into three sections. The middle section, just under 2.5” wide, acts as the system’s base and includes the input/output jacks, controls, and battery compartment. On each side is a speaker enclosure hosting a 1.4″ driver. The speaker sections rotate (independently) up to 90 degrees away from the base; you can listen with the speakers positioned at any angle from flush with the base to perpendicular to it. Overall, it’s a nifty design, although I wish the speaker drivers were protected in some way (such as behind a metal or plastic grill); since the system doesn’t have a hard cover or case, it would be easy to accidentally damage the drivers by bumping or poking them.
Although it doesn’t have a standard iPod dock cradle, the ShuffleStation does provide a sort of “docking” feature for your iPod shuffle. On the top of the base is a 1/8″ stereo minijack, and included with the ShuffleStation is a 1/8″ male-to-male miniplug adapter. You plug one end of the adapter into the jack (which is labeled “MP3”) and then you flip your shuffle upside down and stick the other end of the adapter into your shuffle’s headphone jack. The result—visible in the image above—is that your iPod shuffle is mounted upside down and sticking straight up in the air. This arrangement certainly makes for an interesting look, and it works fine for playing your shuffle’s tunes through the ShuffleStation, but it does have a few drawbacks. For one, your shuffle’s controls are upside down. Another is that your shuffle and the ShuffleStation’s input jack are both at risk to damage caused by someone bumping your shuffle and straining the two minijacks. Also, in my testing, the audio adapter didn’t provide the best connection—if I nudged the iPod shuffle, or twisted it, sometimes the audio dropped out or static was produced. (I had better luck with a standard 1/8″-to-1/8″ cable, as described below.) Finally, the adapter itself can’t be left in the ShuffleStation’s input jack during travel, but there’s no place to store it in the body of the ShuffleStation; given how small the adapter is, I suspect a good number of ShuffleStation users will end up misplacing the adapter at some point or losing it altogether. (The ShuffleStation includes a nylon travel pouch, but since there is no separate pocket for the adapter, placing it in the pouch with the main unit risks scratching the ShuffleStation or, even worse, damaging the exposed drivers.)
But these criticisms are mainly of the ShuffleStation’s “iPod shuffle docking” feature, not of the ShuffleStation as a portable speaker system in general. What does that mean? The ShuffleStation also provides a 1/8” stereo line-in jack on the front for connecting another audio source (such as an iPod, a computer, a portable DVD player, or a PSP), making it useful as a more general travel speaker sytem. Because of the ShuffleStation’s small size, during my testing I ended up taking it on trips along with my full-size iPod (which I connected via a 1/8″-to-1/8″ stereo cable, available for a few dollars at any electronics store). In fact, because of the awkwardness of the ShuffleStation’s iPod shuffle adapter, I ended up using such a cable even with an iPod shuffle. (You can actually plug the cable into either the front jack or the one on top—the ShuffleStation’s top-mounted input jack takes precedence over the front-mounted jack and mutes the latter when you plug something into the top.) In this respect, the ShuffleStation works as well as other small speaker systems, such as Pacific Rim’s Cube Travel Speakers, that connect to any portable player’s headphone jack.
As mentioned above, the center section of the ShuffleStation hosts the system’s controls, which include a power button and up and down volume buttons. (If you connect your iPod via its headphone jack, you should set your iPod to approximately 2/3 its maximum volume level and then use the ShuffleStation’s controls to adjust the volume.) Turning the unit off resets the system’s volume to a default level, useful if you were listening at very high (or very low) levels. In addition to the aforementioned line-in minijack, the front of the system provides a line-out minijack; however, I’m not sure when you would use this, considering that if you’re going to be connecting your iPod’s output to another audio device, there doesn’t seem to be any advantage to using the ShuffleStation’s output jack over your iPod’s headphone jack.
The ShuffleStation is powered either by 4 AAA cells—which in my testing sustained the system for over 10 hours—or an AC adapter. The rear of the system hosts a USB port that provides power to any device connected to it while the system is running off AC power; in fact, PodGear includes a short USB extension cable that connects your shuffle to the USB port while it’s “docked” on top of the ShuffleStation. Unfortunately, the AC adapter included with the current ShuffleStation is a UK model, so it won’t fit in U.S. electrical outlets. I assume that the upcoming U.S. version of the ShuffleStation will include a U.S. AC adapter.
So how does the ShuffleStation sound? Given its small size and relatively low price (as far as portable speaker systems go), it won’t knock your socks. As you might suspect, bass and lower midrange are lacking, but so are the highest treble frequencies—overall, the ShuffleStation’s sound is somewhat tinny, with an emphasis in the midrange and lower treble. It’s certainly good enough for listening to your tunes in your hotel room or other on-the-go environments, but not something you’ll want as your primary speaker system.
But that’s more of an absolute evaluation of the ShuffleStation’s audio quality. It’s just as important to put the ShuffleStation in the context of other portable speaker systems. When you step back and take a look at this market, the ShuffleStation’s audio is just about where you would expect given the other options. It doesn’t sound nearly as good as Altec Lansing’s $180 inMotion iM3 or Logic 3’s $100 i-Station, but it’s also significantly less expensive and less than half the size. JBL’s $100 ($65 street price) On Tour provides better sound quality than the ShuffleStation in a slightly bigger package, but has fewer features. On the other hand, the ShuffleStation sounds better—and provides more features and a more “packable” design—than Pacific Rim Technologies’ $35 Cube Travel Speakers, which we like a lot for its value. So in this context, the ShuffleStation is a viable option at its price point for those looking for a portable speaker system.
As a speaker system designed specifically for the iPod shuffle, the ShuffleStation is a clever concept that ends up being a bit awkward in practice. (I look forward to PodGear’s PocketParty Shuffle, which looks like a perfect ultra-portable system for the shuffle.) But as a portable speaker system for iPods in general, the ShuffleStation is compact and packable, provides acceptable sound quality for its size, and has more features than its nearest competitors. My main complaints about the ShuffleStation as a general portable speaker system are that the speaker drivers are unprotected and the power button can be pressed accidentally during travel, resulting in battery drain. But if you’re in the market for travel speakers for your iPod or laptop, and sound quality is not your main concern, the ShuffleStation is worth checking out (or, for U.S. readers, will be once a version with a U.S. AC adapter is available). Just be sure to pick up a mini-to-mini audio cable.
For more on speakers, visit the Speakers section of the Playlist Product Guide.