Review: Apple iPod shuffle (Third-Generation)
Pros: Apple’s smallest, lightest iPod yet, and first iPod shuffle with remote control functionality. Offers modestly better transfer speeds and audio quality than prior shuffle, replaces prior dock with simpler USB sync and charge cable. Adds VoiceOver feature to let you switch playlists, identify certain tracks, determine battery levels. Fall 2009: Now available in six total colors, and either 2GB or 4GB capacities.
Cons: Needlessly and seriously complicates controls by switching to a buttonless body, which cannot be controlled without Apple headphones or not-yet-manufactured third-party proprietary remote control solutions; presently next to useless with car or home stereos. Confusing interface will be hard for many users to totally grasp and use. Poor value as either a 4GB media player or 4GB flash drive. Very slow at file transfers by current iPod standards. Battery power diminished considerably from prior model. Boring design.
For all of the bad news regarding the third-generation iPod shuffle: there’s one piece of qualified good news: this new model sounds a bit better than its predecessor. We noted back in 2006 that the second-generation iPod shuffle was a step below the first-generation model, as well as the then-shipping fifth-generation iPod and second-generation iPod nano, due to a staticy audio chip that revealed its imperfections when headphones better than Apple’s pack-ins were attached. The gulf only increased over time, as two successively better generations of iPods and iPhones continued to improve in audio quality, and the shuffle remained stagnant and comparatively very noisy.
While it hasn’t completely fixed the noise issues, Apple’s third-generation iPod shuffle has improved. It starts with a sound signature that’s very similar to the other current-generation iPods, offering a neutral balance of treble, midrange, and bass frequencies, and way more detail than the included earphones can discern. Apart from Apple’s continued lack of graphic equalization, the only issues some users have had with the family in recent years are in the bass department, where all of the iPods can be driven to distortion. In this regard alone, the fact that the shuffle isn’t more powerful than its current-generation siblings may come as a disappointment to users familiar with the first-generation shuffle, which used a different audio chip from the rest of the family and exhibited less bass distortion when pushed. In our view, however, the third-generation shuffle is a very solid sounding little audio player, all things considered.
But it’s not perfect. Though we were initially optimistic when doing early tests with the shuffle using ultra-high-end Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro earphones, it turns out that the shuffle still has a little background hiss—not as much as before—and that there are also situations in which you can occasionally trigger a series of high-pitched signaling beeps that appear to be the shuffle body attempting to communicate with the chip in the remote control. We heard the beeps when we tried the UE-11s in a quiet room: they lack the remote control and make the beeps a bit more obvious. Most users won’t notice or care about these sorts of things, but they’re worth mentioning.
There is, however, something that many users will care about: the new shuffle doesn’t fully work with any headphones except Apple’s. Because of what Apple has done here—something sneaky and arguably terrible for consumers, especially if it continues with other iPod and iPhone products in 2009—if you plug your old third-party headphones of any sort into the new shuffle, you’ll find that you can’t do anything with the device other than have it continuously play music, without volume controls or interruption, unless of course of you turn it off. Surprise: the only third-party headphones that will work are ones that haven’t even entered manufacturing yet, because they’ll need to contain yet another new Apple authentication chip, which will add to their price. Your only alternatives will be third-party remote control adapters—also not yet available, as Apple’s not even making one—and using Apple’s earphones. The prices for the third-party adapters will be no less than $19, and quite possibly more like $29; compatible headphones announced thus far start at $49.
For the time being, what this means is that one or more pairs of earphones that you’d like to use for other purposes—running, indoor workouts, or just casual listening—will be generally useless with the shuffle. All you can do is turn on the shuffle and hope that the volume and song that play through the headphone port are acceptable to you.
This is, in short, a nightmare scenario for long-time iPod fans: are we entering a world in which Apple controls and taxes literally every piece of the iPod purchase from headphones to chargers, jacking up their prices, forcing customers to re-purchase things they already own, while making only marginal improvements in their functionality? It’s a shame, and one that consumers should feel empowered to fight.
The same issues impact the shuffle’s utility as an in-car or home stereo playback device: other than pressing play, you can’t do anything to control its playback. If your car or home speakers have their own volume control—they should—you can adjust the volume, but bear in mind that the quality might not be so hot, since the car will be amplifying an audio signal turned down low enough for headphones, rather than one that’s optimized at a louder level for a car stereo.
One final accessory note is that Apple has announced a $19 cable accessory pack for the new shuffle: it combines one 1.8-inch cable like the one that’s included with each shuffle, and one nearly 40-inch but otherwise identical cable. Apple has not announced replacement earphones for the shuffle, for whatever reason; it can be controlled by the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic and In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, but aggravatingly, not by Apple’s iPhone Stereo Headphones or other one-button headphones that were previously released. This just appears to be another Apple trick to randomly break compatibility with pre-existing accessories that might have been semi-useful, but didn’t contain its chips.
[Updated March 17, 2009: Based on inquiries from a number of other publications regarding the proprietary chip in the iPod shuffle’s earphones, we have posted both an editorial and a Backstage article discussing the business and electronic details of the chip.]