There's a fine line dividing novel from novelty, and Belkin's new RockStar ($20) is on the right side, offering iPod users a fun new music sharing option that hasn't been done quite the same way before. Made primarily from white and green plastic, the inexpensive audio hub can be used to let up to five users hear one iPod, three users hear mixed music from three iPods, or one user mix up to five iPods, as well as other combinations.
The idea here is relatively straightforward. Belkin ships the six-ported RockStar with one integrated green audio cable and one detachable cable, requiring you to connect at least one audio device to be shared, and leaving five additional ports open for either headphones or additional devices. Plug in an iPod—or iPhone—and the ports will all be able to hear its music, just as if you were using a more common two-port headphone splitter.
But if you connect the spare audio cable to a second iPod and an empty RockStar port, you’ll hear the music from both iPods in the four remaining ports, each one at whatever volume level you select with its controls. With more than one iPod at the same volume level, you’ll hear an overlapping melange of music, but by manually playing with the volume settings of multiple iPods at the same time, you can fade one song in as another’s fading out, bring two songs into each other while a third is abruptly stopped, and so on.
Belkin has kept RockStar extremely simple. All of the ports use standard minijack connectors, just like the female ones found on iPods and the male ones found on any pair of iPod-compatible earphones. There aren’t any volume dials on RockStar’s body, nor are there switches or batteries to be worried about. All you need to do is connect your earphones and iPod(s) with self-supplied cabling, and the audio just works. The design is, as Belkin has suggested, user-friendly enough for even kids to enjoy, and it’s easy to imagine one of these inexpensive audio hubs making for lots of fun at a school lunch table. Two people can act as DJs for a group of earphone-wearing listeners, or—if you’re willing to connect a speaker system to one of the ports—a larger crowd.
Performance-wise, RockStar behaves pretty much as you’d expect from an inexpensive multi-input, multi-output accessory: professionals won’t give up their a powered mixers, but Belkin has done a good job on the sound given RockStar’s most typical usage scenarios. Sound quality-obsessed users will note that the volume level in each existing pair of headphones goes down a little with every additional pair of headphones you connect, and there’s another small hit for every audio player you plug in, too. Simply put, RockStar’s lack of battery power means that there’s no amplification going on here, so every connected pair of headphones is sharing the signal put out by devices. On the flip side, the volume goes up a tick every time you disconnect a device, so keeping the iPods at reasonable levels is a wise idea.
But RockStar doesn’t introduce awful distortion into the audio, either. We’ve seen multi-input audio devices that make an unlistenable sonic mess out of anything that’s pumped through their ports; RockStar makes such a thing solely a matter of your good or bad musical taste. Even when we had five iPods running to the same earphones, we could make out each of the individual songs they were playing, and we could also hear one iPod’s music just fine through each of five earphones, and combinations thereof. There are obvious fidelity considerations, but there isn’t hissing, popping, or other major interruption in the playback. That a six-device audio hub works shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but Belkin could have screwed up here, and it hasn’t. The only arguable miss here is in RockStar’s coloration: we could have done without the bright green, but your tastes may vary.
Overall, RockStar is a fun new iPod accessory with unique features and a reasonable price tag, all of which make it worthy of our strong general recommendation and B+ rating. While it’s not going to appeal to everyone, casual listeners who are intrigued by the idea of sharing or mixing iPod music will be very pleased by its execution and pricing; even DJs may find it to be a fun, low-cost addition to their arsenals.