Review: PodGear Shuffle Station
Pros: A workmanlike integration of iPod shuffle with stereo speakers, providing additional input and output ports for other devices, plus the ability to recharge the shuffle with wall power. Includes a wall charger and can run off of AAA batteries. Decent sound for the price.
Cons: Similarly priced competitors deliver better overall sound quality, aesthetic appeal; shuffle-to-speaker connection isn’t as firm as it should be. Awkwardly places shuffle upside down for mounting, though this doesn’t matter as much given the shuffle’s limited controls and colored status lights.
Our expectations for PodGear’s portable Shuffle Station (approx. $58.00, street price $49 and up) weren’t high: a small, two-driver speaker system made primarily for the iPod shuffle? One that places the iPod shuffle upside down with its headphone port sticking spear-like into a plastic base? Even as an alternative to sub-$100 portable systems we’ve tested from JBL and Altec Lansing, it seemed unlikely to impress. But as it turns out, Shuffle Station is a pretty good option - better-sounding than a competing iPod shuffle-specific speaker system called iCheer (iLounge rating: C+) from Ignitek, if not quite the equal of either Altec or JBL’s systems.
PodGear’s package starts with a white glossy plastic brick that unfolds into three pieces: the center is a base with a port labeled “MP3”, a blue LED light, and power and volume buttons on its top, then line-in and line-out ports on its front. You connect your iPod shuffle by turning it upside down and using an included, sturdy metal male-to-male audio-in plug to connect with the MP3 port - the preferred orientation - or the line-in port on the front, which can also take audio input from any other device. Unusually, Shuffle Station’s back has a USB port - not for computer synchronization, but for recharging your shuffle when the Station is connected to a wall power outlet through an adjacent wall power port. The unit’s bottom has a battery compartment to accommodate four AAA cells, which will run the speakers but not recharge a connected iPod.
On the left and right of the base are matching single-driver speakers, each with a white and black bullseye-style design above a small ventilation hole and a PodGear logo. Both speakers can be independently pivoted through around 90 degrees of motion, though you’ll likely keep them together pointing straight forward or on a recline. All told, the unit consumes only a little more space than the average paperback book, and with batteries weighs only a little bit more. It’s quite compact - not pocketable, but certainly not difficult to toss into a medium-sized purse or any backpack.
There are three other items in the box - a small USB cable that can be connected to the iPod shuffle’s bottom and the Station’s back for simultaneous listening and recharging, a wall power adapter, and an inexpensive vinyl carrying bag. Current power adapters are U.K.-only in design, but PodGear intends to offer U.S. and other international versions in the near future.
The critical issue with any speaker system tends to be audio quality, and in this regard Shuffle Station is a bit better than okay. Once the audio connection is made with your upside-down shuffle, the Station delivers sound that’s loud enough for a small room and multiple listeners - uncomfortably loud up close - but not hall-filling. We’d classify the sound as light on treble, moderate on bass, and heavy on mid-range response for a portable system, and direct comparisons demonstrated that it’s a step under Altec’s inMotions, and two steps under JBL’s On Tours. On clarity, it’s not great, with a bit of distortion at average levels and a lot more at higher levels; the sound is also relatively flat by comparison with the dynamic On Tours. But again, it’s better-sounding than Ignitek’s iCheer, which is surprising given iCheer’s higher price and greater number of drivers.
Our single biggest issue with the Shuffle Station was the quality of the audio connection between the iPod shuffle and the Station: while you can generally establish a solid connection with both speakers by jacking in to either of PodGear’s input ports, a little twist on the shuffle can temporarily disable the left speaker. Since the system uses a very rudimentary technique to mount the iPod shuffle, it’s easy to turn the shuffle left and right when you go to access its controls. A better mounting system would have helped - from the rear USB port to the upside-down headphone mounting of the iPod, the Shuffle Station seems like a hastily assembled speaker system. It’s aided in our ratings primarily by the fact that it’s sound is acceptable for the price.
Overall, the Shuffle Station is a good but not great speaker system for the iPod shuffle - a design that isn’t as thoughtful as it could have been given the shuffle’s own design, but also isn’t bad given the price. While alternatives from Altec (such as the inMotion iM4) and JBL surpass it in audio quality, they may not be as affordable depending on where you shop, and they don’t mount the iPod shuffle in quite as conspicuous a way. If you’re a shuffle owner and want a portable speaker system that shows off your iPod, this is the best option available today.