Review: Creative TravelSound for iPod nano (i80)
In retrospect, it should have been obvious when Creative released its pocket-sized TravelSound i50 Travel Speaker for iPod shuffle last year that an iPod nano followup might be tricky: would the company stick to the same design, mount an iPod nano on its top or side, and preserve the $60 price, or instead thoroughly redesign the pocket-sized system? We now have an answer: TravelSound for iPod nano ($80), also known as TravelSound i80, was substantially re-engineered for the third-generation nano, and the results are decidedly mixed.
Different though they may be, these two systems have a lot in common. Both are made from matte-finished silver metal with glossy white and clear plastic, housing 15-hour rechargeable batteries, and connecting via mini-USB ports to included white plastic wall chargers. Though TravelSound for iPod nano is a little larger, measuring roughly 2.25” wide and 0.88” thick to i50’s 1.75” wide and half-inch thick body, it’s around the same 3.85” tall, and uses its added thickness primarily for a mini-dock that mounts the nano on its face, rather than on its top as the i50 did with the iPod shuffle. Rather than enclosing the nano fully in plastic or including a carabiner hook strap for carrying and storage, Creative here includes a black carrying case and a white stand to let the system recline on a flat surface. TravelSound for iPod nano can also stand straight up under its own weight, if you prefer not to carry the stand along, which would be understandable—it’s an odd second piece that the carrying case wasn’t designed to accommodate.
The good news about Creative’s new enclosure design is that it continues to look sharp, and function similarly to the i50. You can recharge the nano’s and the speaker’s batteries simultaneously while they’re connected, as you could with the iPod shuffle version, thanks to the mini-USB port on the system’s side. Both systems belt out enough audio to completely eliminate your need to use a pair of earphones for iPod listening, providing enough volume to keep a crowd of several people entertained in a medium-sized room. Volume controls here are handled on the system’s side with a small black knob, unlike the i50, which was adjusted solely by the iPod shuffle’s integrated controls.
What’s off here is the price to audio performance ratio of the TravelSound for iPod nano, which has jumped up by $20, but not been matched by improved sound. Unlike i50, which placed small speaker drivers inside its front-facing metal enclosure—a common design for pocket speakers, alternating only with side-firing tubes we’ve previously tested—the new TravelSound for iPod nano instead has its speakers fire from the enclosure’s rear.
While the sonic hit from that design decision isn’t as profound as we would have expected, the system has no apparent stereo separation, and the audio quality continues to be comparable to a pocket radio—similar to the $30-50 miniature speaker tubes we’ve tested. This isn’t a good thing, and suggests that a big part of the $80 asking price is attributable to Creative’s use of an iPod Dock Connector to pull audio from the iPod nano rather than just using a headphone port plug like the earlier i50 did for the shuffle.
Though there are many sound comparison examples we could cite, the easiest way to place TravelSound for iPod nano in the miniature speaker spectrum is to say that it’s comparable—minus the stereo separation—to the Macally IP-A111, and not quite as rich as the Logic3 i-Station Traveller, each retailing for half or less of Creative’s price. Established portable systems such as JBL’s On Tour are in a different audio league despite similar pricing to the TravelSound for iPod nano, as well, but TravelSound’s benefits are in form factor—it’s the thinnest of the group—and in the included battery and charger, which most alternatives lack. That said, whereas those items were arguably worthy of a $25 premium over comparable-sounding speakers in the case of i50, they don’t feel worthy of a $45 premium here.
Ultimately, had Creative not included the Dock Connector in TravelSound for iPod nano, it could have shaved $20 off the price, and lost only one trivial feature—pass-through USB charging—in the process. This probably would have been a wiser decision, as flat-sounding speakers don’t become more attractive as their prices go up, regardless of the connectors they use, their enclosures, or token features they include. As-is, TravelSound for iPod nano strikes us as a better than decent but not fully recommendable audio system, worthy of our limited recommendation to users who are looking for something small and rechargeable, and willing to invest $80 in a speaker made solely for Apple’s most shape-shifting iPod model. Less expensive options offer equal or better audio quality, but with battery and form factor differences that may or may not appeal to your needs.