Review: CAVS IPS-11G Karaoke Station
Pros: The iPod’s first karaoke system, equipping users with a nice microphone and a powered, remote controllable docking station capable of generating echo-enhanced one- or two-person singalongs, with on-TV displays of lyrics, plus optional vocal accompaniment. Offers tremendous fun potential to dining and entertainment establishments. Dock also can display certain non-iTunes photo and video content stored in special folders on iPod. Includes 200 sample songs, including many that you’re sure to know.
Cons: Price of system is high enough to deter mainstream consumers, and substantially augmented by need to re-purchase your preferred music in karaoke format at prices of up to $1.99 per track. Only works with PC-formatted iPods, doesn’t integrate with iTunes. User interface bugs and kinks make access to karaoke lyrics and files somewhat difficult for average users.
While it’s not the flashiest or most mainstream iPod dock we’ve seen, CAVS’ new IPS-11G Karaoke Station ($229) is definitely amongst the most memorable - using both the new dock and a microphone found in the box, your iPod becomes a full-fledged karaoke device, complete with on-screen menus and in-tempo lyrics. Your iPod - or any friend’s iPod - stores the karaoke music, which is decoded by the IPS-11G dock for your sing-along performance, just like a normal karaoke machine, but now truly with the user’s choice of songs. An included remote control lets you mute the assisting vocals, change the song’s tempo, and select new songs from a distance; the dock itself lets you set the mic’s volume level and an appropriate amount of echo to give your voice extra power.
In short, IPS-11G represents a number of firsts - just a couple are that it’s the first iPod accessory to include a Super CD+G disc, and the first that turns your iPod into a full-fledged karaoke player. Shipped in a box with a 200-song sampler full of sing-along tracks you’ve actually heard of - Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Nickelback, Elvis, Madonna, R.E.M. and Eric Clapton are only a few of the represented artists - the IPS-11G only has three major issues: first, you need to load your iPod with the Super CD+G’s special karaoke tracks before the music will work, because the dock’s singalong feature can’t be used with your existing music library; second, as the price suggests, it’s expensive; and third, it works only with PC-formatted iPods, not Mac-formatted ones. Our extended review below looks at the package, its key features, and drawbacks.
Inside the Box
The IPS-11G box is full of goodies: there’s one dock, five Universal Dock Adapters, a power supply, AV cables, a remote control, plus the aforementioned CD+G disc and microphone - the latter piece surprisingly large and substantial-feeling.
CAVS has squeezed more buttons and ports onto this dock than might be guessed from a glance at its front; in fact, each of its sides has something going on. For instance, the face has a power light and Infrared sensor for the remote control; the left two microphone ports and dials for echo and microphone volume. You can buy a second mic (model M-12) or remote control from the company for $20 a piece.
On the back are SPDIF (optical)-, S-Video-, and AV-Out ports, plus a power port and a power switch. The right side has a USB port for use with an iPod shuffle - the IPS-11G can also interface with USB memory stick readers, USB hard disks and non-iPod MP3 players. CAVS sells an external 60GB hard disk for $125, removing the need to connect an iPod at all, if you intend to keep a non-portable music library attached at all times.
CAVS’ remote has buttons famiiar to karaoke fans - numbers to call up songs, menu navigation features, and features to help tweak the connected TV’s text and audio to your liking. The tempo buttons and a full on-TV menuing system are nice touches.
The big surprise when you try IPS-11G is that it’s actually fun, something we really never find ourselves saying about iPod accessories these days. It’s unfortunately unusual for us to come across anything that makes the iPod do more than Apple has sanctioned it to do: voice recorders, photo transfer add-ons, and almost everything else has required new iPod firmware. The only exceptions we can think of are gimmicky toys - Griffin’s iBeam Flash Light and Laser Pointer for old iPods, and BlueBox’s various not-iPod-specific miJam musical instruments. They’re good for kids or for a quick laugh, then easily forgotten.
Here, the fun part begins when you actually sit down - or stand up - with the mic and a big television set, pick a song, and start to sing. By nature, karaoke creates smiles and laughter - mostly “at you” rather than “with you” - as you try to mimic or destroy the vocals to familiar background music. As great as it is to listen to your iPod’s music, the experience of actually trying to perform it can make for an entertainment league of its own. Using the included sampler CD+G disc, we tried familar tracks from plenty of genres and artists, and enjoyed them tremendously, though we really wanted to have more songs to play with.
The brilliant part of Karaoke Station is that you can tote your own karaoke songs along, conveniently, on your iPod. A single IPS-11G buyer planning to do karaoke in the privacy or his or her home might not find this feature especially useful, but people who host parties or allow performances at their bars or restaurants might salivate at the possibilities. With IPS-11G, people can show up with their own favorite tunes to sing, rather than relying on the dock’s owner to provide all the music, or carrying around CDs full of songs. The dock also can output other non-karaoke content from the iPod to a television, including JPEG, GIF, and BMP-format photos and certain MPEG, AVI, DAT, or VOB-format (all non-iTunes) videos. Under the right circumstances, a device like this could start the iPod DJ party phenomenon all over again.
But there are some obvious speedbumps along the way to this product’s ultimate success - ones that will significantly limit its appeal to many buyers, and are frankly begging to be done right by a successor or competing product. For one, the unit’s on-screen menuing and music selection features don’t work with Mac-formatted iPods, making the Karaoke Station an accessory that’s really for PC users only. We also experienced a bunch of bugs in the user interface, including one that precluded us from regaining access to the device’s karaoke mode; we were stuck in a more limited, lyricless file browser and couldn’t get out. The IPS-11G really needs a bit of fine-tuning to make the user experience easier for novices to handle.
And besides the price of the Station - again, it sells for the establishment- but not consumer-friendly price of $229, including all of the aforementioned pieces - you need to buy new music for the dock. All-new music; rather than stripping out the vocals from individual tracks in your existing iPod library, CAVS sells karaoke-ready tracks, complete with synchronized lyrics, from its own website at www.ipskaraoke.com. These tracks sell for 99 cents or $1.99 each, and encompass plenty of popular songs of all sorts from different eras. (It’s unclear as to whether people with existing karaoke discs have any way to transfer their contents to an iPod for use with this system.)Besides the fact that you’ll have to buy your favorite songs again - sometimes at crazy prices - you’ll also need to move the tracks over manually, since the CAVS library doesn’t reside inside your iPod’s standard music collection; it gets its own folder on the iPod’s hard disk. For obvious reasons, we’re not sure that typical users will want to deal with a separate karaoke track sync process, or whether they’ll really want to drop movies or photos into special folders for use with just this dock. The latter features are cool ideas for certain, but as currently implemented, their full exploitation demands a certain, niche type of iPod user.
On a final positive note, some of these issues can be fixed. CAVS has included a firmware update feature for the dock, which conceivably could enable bug and interface fixes to be made, and we hope they will be. Similarly, though we doubt it will happen, it would be great to see the company include vocal-stripping and lyric-syncing software so that users could - with only modest inconvenience - create their own karaoke-ready versions of songs they already own. In our view, pricing, user-friendliness and iPod music library compatibility are issues just waiting to be solved, and the company that successfully does so could become a massive international success as a consequence.
As-is, pricing and UI complications are going to limit the Karaoke Station’s mainstream adoption, which is a shame - we freely admit that we had more fun playing with this accessory than virtually any that we can remember in the past few years. It’s hard to properly rate an dock like this because it does a good job when it’s fully working, but the user interface kinks and the constant need to shovel more money into re-purchasing songs make this less cool than it could be. It rates a limited recommendation overall, with our suggestion that it’s best purchased by owners of dining or entertainment establishments looking to create fun new party opportunities, rather than typical consumers. But regardless of its flaws, IPS-11G brings a little much-needed spunk back to the iPod, and should serve as inspiration to other accessory manufacturers to think outside the box with their designs.