It wasn’t long ago that Creative was one of Apple’s biggest competitors in the portable-media-player market; as a result, although many of Creative’s speaker systems could be used with iPods via a simple audio cable, none of them were designed to be iPod accessories. That all changed in late 2006 when the two companies called a truce and Creative became an official Made For iPod vendor. The first fruits of that relationship were announced earlier this year, and the TravelSound i is the first portable, iPod-docking speaker system in Creative’s accessory line. In many ways, it’s an impressive debut, although it also has some puzzling flaws.
At 9.2 inches wide by 5.3 inches high by 2.2 inches deep, and weighing approximately 1.5 pounds (without batteries), the Travelsound i is fairly typical in size for a portable iPod speaker system. The body of the system is made of black plastic with silver trim. On the front is an iPod docking cradle, but, unlike most current iPod speaker systems, one that doesn’t use Apple’s Universal dock design. To accommodate various iPod sizes, Creative includes five rubber adapters of different thickness; you place the appropriate one for your iPod model — a key for which adapter to use with each iPod is in the manual — in a “socket” on the back of the dock area. Despite the non-standard design, the dock works well and holds your iPod as securely as the Universal design. Your iPod is charged when the TravelSound i is connected to AC power, and when you turn the system off, it automatically pauses and sleeps your iPod.
On each side of the iPod dock are two 1.4-inch speakers (for a total of four). Unfortunately for a portable system, the entire front of the system, save the dock area, is covered by a fabric-mesh grill that offers little actual protection for the speaker drivers and is easily snagged. The included thin, fabric carrying case offers little additional protection. In other words, despite being portable, you’ll want to be careful where you take the TravelSound i — as well as how you carry it.
On the top edge of the system are several useful controls. Volume Up, Volume Down, and Mute buttons on the right let you quickly adjust the audio output. On the left is a toggle for Creative’s Wide Stereo Effect mode, as well as an On/Off switch. The latter is a true sliding switch, a nice touch that means the system is less likely to be switched on accidentally than systems using a simple toggle button. On the other hand, since this is a hardware power switch, you can’t use the included wireless remote to turn on the system if the switch is in the Off position. I liked the feel of the buttons, which are sturdy and offer good tactile response. A blue LED on the left lights up when the system is powered on, and the Wide Stereo Effect button itself has an orange backlight to indicate when the feature is enabled. Unfortunately, because the light is dim, and because the system leans back when in use, it’s difficult to see this light, especially when controlling the system using the remote.
The back of the TravelSound i hosts the system’s AC power jack; a mini-USB port for syncing your iPod, through the system, with your computer; and 1/8-inch minijacks for line-in (for connecting an additional audio source; cable included), subwoofer-out, and AV-out (for connecting the system to your TV when using a video-capable iPod; composite-video cable included). Also on the back is a flip-out stand for keeping the TravelSound i upright — actually, at a slight back-tilting angle — during use. Unlike similar stands on other systems I’ve seen, the TravelSound i’s stand feels sturdy.
The system’s thin, credit-card shape, infrared wireless remote uses inexpensive “bubble” buttons. However, it offers a good deal of functionality: in addition to the standard buttons — play/pause, back, forward, volume up and down, and mute — you also get Menu, OK (Select), Up, and Down buttons for navigating the iPod’s menus, as well as a button for toggling Wide Stereo Effect Mode. The navigation buttons worked well in my testing; you can even rate songs on non-touchscreen iPods. (Of course, as with other remotes that offer this functionality, you need to be close enough to see the iPod’s screen.) I also liked the layout of the remote’s buttons, which was logical and allowed me to quickly learn to use all of the remote’s functions by touch. Unfortunately, there’s no place on the TravelSound i, or in its carrying pouch, for storing the remote.
The included AC adapter supports multiple voltages and includes two plug types for international use, but is quite bulky for a portable system. The TravelSound i can also be powered by 4 AA batteries. Creative estimates up to 25 hours of playback time on one set of batteries.
Although the TravelSound i doesn’t produce any real bass, thanks to the small speaker drivers, a ported speaker design does give you some upper-bass punch, and the system provides decent detail. And although it’s difficult to get true stereo separation from a system with left and right speaker drivers so close together, Creative’s Wide Stereo Effect does open up the sound somewhat — enough so that I found myself using it with almost all music. (Unfortunately, Wide Stereo Mode is disabled whenever you turn off the TravelSound i; you have to remember to manually enable it each time you turn on the system.)
On the other hand, the overall sound of the TravelSound i tends to favor the midrange, and at similar street prices, Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM600 and Logitech’s mm50 and Pure-Fi Anywhere provide better overall sound quality, including improved treble detail and more impact on the low end. To be fair, both are larger than the TravelSound i.
The only other issue I experienced with the TravelSound i is that it was quite susceptible to GSM phone interference (the blips and static you often hear when you place a mobile phone next to a speaker, or just before your phone rings). Most iPod speakers experience this issue to some degree, but the TravelSound i is worse than many others — so much so that it’s basically unusable with an iPhone unless you put the iPhone in Airplane Mode. Many other systems work fine without this requirement, exhibiting interference only when the phone rings or when text or email messages are being received.
In terms of features, sound quality, and accessories, the TravelSound i is a solid iPod speaker system for its price and especially its size. However, the TravelSound i’s fabric face and speaker covers, its bulky AC adapter, and its flimsy carrying pouch make it less than ideal for travel. And thanks to an increasingly-competitive iPod speaker market, there are portable systems at similar street prices that offer comparable features and similar — or better — sound quality, although in larger packages.