Review: Eton Soulra Solar-Powered Sound System for iPod and iPhone
One word that's rarely if ever used to describe Apple's devices is "rugged" -- some companies exist to do little more than sell iPod and iPhone protection -- so as a general rule, speakers for these devices are similarly precious and not meant to be tossed around. Eton's Soulra ($200) goes in the opposite direction, a rock solid all-in-one portable that was released into the crowded speaker market several months ago and didn't really register on our radar at the time. After testing it, there's no doubt that it's a distinctive offering for iPod and iPhone owners, ruggedized to a level that competitors haven't attempted in a long while, and solar-powered, too, though there are some significant trade-offs that limit its broader appeal.
Unlike many of the portable speakers we’ve tested, Soulra makes very little attempt to appeal to users with frills: there’s no carrying case, fancy dock adapters, spare cables, or other niceties in its package. Instead, Eton sells what looks like a block of heavy plastic and aluminum with a wall adapter and an eight-button Infrared remote control, both matched to the substantially black system in look and feel. The only accommodations to users of different-sized iPods and iPhones are a spring-loaded rear pad and a clear plastic shell that goes inside the unit’s central dock, passively holding devices in place using a single small foam piece that’s only a little larger than a pencil’s eraser. There’s no dock well and no recessing of the Dock Connector, so if your device has a case that’s too thick to mount inside, you’ll need to take it off for use with Soulra. It’s also worth noting that Soulra’s remote is long and large enough that it can’t be stowed inside the dock, something that we’d have to believe would have been possible with just a little more forethought.
Where Eton really nailed the industrial design is in almost all of the particulars besides that dock, including plenty of little touches that scream “travel anywhere with me.” Rubberized buttons on Soulra’s top left and right offer power, volume, track, aux/mode and bass boost features, all recessed below the surface to avoid accidental presses, with a small battery power light array on the unit’s face. There’s a solar panel protecting the iPod/iPhone dock, flipping open and angling at the top of the unit to catch rays when you’re outside. It and the rest of Soulra feel incredibly durable, with a rubber-coated aluminum frame, and IPX-4 splash-proofing protecting everything—including the iPod or iPhone, so long as the panel is closed.
Using the remote or buttons, you can continue to adjust your music even with the device completely hidden inside. Eton goes way further than Altec Lansing did with the classic, same-priced inMotion IM9, which provided protection for everything save the iPod in the center.
The main problem with Soulra is its sound quality, which thanks to Eton’s use of only two full-range drivers is just about as flat as can be—steps backwards from $150 and even $100 audio systems we’ve tested recently. There’s no treble to speak of, and limited bass, resulting in renditions of music that are radio-like and lifeless—a sharp contrast with systems such as Logitech’s S715i, and even flat B-rated JBL On Stage models we reviewed earlier today. The 11-Watt system’s peak volume level is enough to fill a small room, but not with the sort of audio that will make a party hop; it’s better for use outdoors, as one might expect given the design.
There’s only one additional hitch with Soulra, and that’s the issue of power consumption. Despite the limited drivers and its inclusion of the aforementioned solar panel, Soulra runs for only four hours of play time at medium volume, in part because its battery system is designed to power both itself and the attached iPod or iPhone. It further requires four hours to recharge itself using wall power, or 10 hours in direct sunlight—more if the light level is low. We’ve never quite understood the appeal of solar cells that require an entire day of sunlight to recharge, but eco warriors might feel differently. From our perspective, you can get four or six times the speaker run time by going with most competing non-solar portable units, pay less, and benefit from superior audio quality, besides. On the flip side, if you’re going to be without access to wall power for any length of time, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a competing speaker that can both charge itself and your iPhone or iPod merely by pointing itself towards the heavens.
All of these factors add up to a limited recommendation, which acknowledges the novelty of Soulra’s durable, water-resistant body and fairly rare solar charging capabilities, but also its underwhelming sound quality and battery life. This is a portable iPod and iPhone speaker that you should consider primarily if you’re looking for something that’s as close to travel-safe as such things come, and willing to compromise on performance in order to get it.