Review: Apple iPod shuffle (Fourth-Generation)
Pros: A smarter, redesigned sequel to Apple’s entry-level iPod, containing the best features from prior iPod shuffle generations with relatively few and small compromises. Restored five-button control scheme is augmented by new VoiceOver and battery level button, while support for remote controls remains. New polished metal body may appeal to some users; size is nearly as small as one could expect a device with these features to become without compromising the usability of the button-based control system. Available in five different colors, each with a matching rear clip for easy wearing. Affordable.
Cons: Features are not competitive with rival products at the same price. Even slower than unimpressive predecessor for music and file transfers. Initial collection of colors is muted and somewhat dull by comparison with the best past iPod models; some may find the polished texture to be too slippery. Included USB cable is tiny. Only one storage capacity.
The single best piece of news about the fourth-generation iPod shuffle relates to its sound quality, which has—at least under certain circumstances—noticeably improved over the third-generation version. Since the 2005 release of the original iPod shuffle, Apple has played a somewhat unusual game with the iPod shuffle’s sound chips, initially claiming that the first model’s audio had become the gold standard for the entire iPod family, and subsequently making changes that saw later shuffle models fall short of improved and more expensive iPods.
This year’s iPod shuffle is the best-sounding member of its family to date, though the differences aren’t especially noticeable when the device is used with Apple’s packed-in earphones—the ones that most people will wind up using with the shuffle until they break. We currently test all iPods, iPhones, and iPads with extremely high-end Ultimate Ears UE-11 earphones that reveal all of the hiss, clicks, and beeping noises that a device inadvertently puts out, as well as the crispness of treble, smoothness of midrange, and richness of bass heard when music is playing—all of the details that can be heard with earphones that cost $150 and up, plus some that are only audible with the most deluxe gear.
Apple clearly didn’t build some of its iPods to be used with super-premium headphones, but the fourth-generation shuffle is an exception: it’s up there with the best of them. As we noted in our review of the second-generation shuffle, there used to be a very audible level of background hiss during silences that Apple reduced markedly in the third-generation model, but accidentally offset with some signaling beeps at the same time. The fourth-generation model cuts the hiss down to a level that’s basically inaudible with high-end earphones, and removes the beeps, together creating near-silent transitions from song to song, plus cleaner sound when tracks are playing. Voices consequently stand out more from instruments playing in the background, and Apple has made small tweaks to the treble and bass, generally to positive effect. While we noticed an ever-so-slight tendency towards sibilance—a dragging of S sounds—in the treble, it’s offset by more powerful bass that generally makes songs richer and more engrossing than before. Flipping between the third-generation and fourth-generation shuffles, there was no doubt that we’d prefer to listen to songs on the newer model, and that’s exactly the sort of improvement we’re always happy to report.
From an accessory standpoint, the single best feature of the fourth-generation iPod shuffle is that it no longer requires you to buy the $20 remote control accessories—or $20-$30 more expensive custom remote-laden headphones—that were needed just to operate last year’s model. With the exception of specific remote add-ons made by several companies to fit only the third-generation shuffle, the majority of iPod-agnostic remotes and earphones we’ve seen still work with the fourth-generation model, as do the third-generation shuffle charging and synchronization cables Apple and others released last year.
On the other hand, cases designed for prior iPod shuffles will not work with this model. While iPod shuffle cases have been the family’s least popular for years, with very few companies still producing options, H2O Audio’s waterproof designs and the few color shifting shells we’ve seen over the past year will need to be redesigned to accommodate the new model’s dimensions and buttons. Until and unless that happens, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle will be limited to Apple’s primary intended use model, hanging either at shirt or at belt level from its included clip.