Although there are plenty of portable iPod speaker systems out there, there aren’t many super-compact models — ones that could conceivably fit in the pocket of a jacket or bag — that sound good. And it’s even tougher to find a good-sounding one that specifically fits the iPod shuffle. Creative’s TravelDock 900 fulfills both criteria, even though Creative actually designed the 900 to work with a variety of music players.
At 6 inches wide by 2.5 inches deep by 1.7 inches thick, the TravelDock 900 is shaped like a chunky, clamshell eyeglasses case and weighs about 10 ounces including the necessary four AA batteries. Open it up — again, much like an eyeglasses case — and you’ll find left and right 1-inch drivers set into the top half. On the right-hand side of the bottom half is a power button (which lights up when the system is on) surrounded by larger Volume Up and Volume Down buttons. In the middle of the base is a pop-up 1/8-inch stereo miniplug — a “dock,” if you will — that plugs directly into the headphone jack of smaller music players such as the iPod shuffle and several Creative players. Apart from the fact that most players sit in this “dock” upside down — since their headphone jacks are on the top — the design works well. (Even an iPod nano will work with the TravelDock 900; right-side-up, in fact.)
The TravelDock also includes some thoughtful touches. For example, if you close it, the system automatically powers off. And there’s a nice surprise for owners of first-generation shuffle owners: A USB port on the back of the 900 can be used to charge your 1G shuffle if the optional AC adapter is connected. Also on the back of the 900 are a line-in jack for connecting another audio source, the power jack, and a “Wide Stereo Effect” switch. Included are a mini-to-mini stereo cable for the line-in jack, as well as a special cable for listening to a first-generation shuffle while it’s charging in the USB port. You also get a fabric carrying pouch and three plastic covers — all identical, in case you lose any — that hide the 900’s pop-up dock when you’re using the line-in jack. (These aren’t required; I never used one during my testing.)
Surprisingly, the Wide Stereo Effect is more than just a gimmick; it actually enhances the 900’s output to provide a genuine sense of space and stereo separation, something you don’t get with most small speaker systems. (The left and right speaker drivers on smaller systems are generally too close together to offer much stereo separation.)
“Surprising” is also a good way to describe the TravelDock 900’s overall sound quality. Although you obviously don’t get any real bass, and even upper bass is lacking compared to larger systems, the 900’s overall output is very good for a portable system and only the least bit tinny. Considering that the 900 uses two 1-inch drivers, that’s an impressive feat; most portable iPod speaker systems of this size, and even some quite a bit larger, don’t sound nearly this good. In fact, the only other system of this size that offers similar sound quality is Portable Sound Laboratories’ iMainGo, which is twice as big (in terms of volume) but completely encloses a full-size iPod. The iMainGo gives you a bit more upper bass, so it sounds a bit fuller, and it can play a little bit louder, but the TravelDock 900’s detail and stereo separation are better. And, of course, the 900 is a better fit for the iPod shuffle.
You control volume via a combination of your iPod shuffle and the 900’s own volume buttons; I found the best results by setting the iPod’s own volume just below the maximum and then using the TravelDock’s controls.
Creative advertises a 32-hour battery life at moderate listening levels; although I didn’t test this claim precisely, I used the TravelDock 900 over the course of several weeks and its batteries were still going strong at the end of my testing.
Unfortunately, as noted above, the TravelDock’s AC adapter isn’t included; you have to purchase it separately (no price was available at the time of this review.) Still, at a street price of around $60 to $70, the TravelDock 900 is an impressive — and impressively compact — speaker system for iPod shuffle owners. –Dan Frakes