If there’s any under-served niche in the iPod speaker market today, it would be the “dedicated iPod shuffle speaker,” a type of accessory we haven’t seen much of in the past two years. Due to the size and price constraints companies have felt when creating shuffle-specific products, it’s hard to find any accessories for the second-generation shuffle these days, let alone electronic ones. So Creative’s TravelSound i50 Travel Speaker for iPod shuffle ($60) starts at a real advantage: there’s nothing else quite like it on the market today.
Part of that is due to Creative’s design savvy. Regardless of whether you like the way TravelSound i50 sounds, you have to be impressed with what the company has packed into the half inch-thick, roughly 1.75” by 3.85” enclosure. At the top is an audio connector and miniature white plastic dock for the iPod shuffle. Underneath it is a silver metal grille that protects four tiny speaker drivers against damage, and under them is a white plastic housing with a rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery. On the back is a place to attach an included detachable carabiner hook strap, while the side has a power light, a power switch, and a USB port.
Almost everything about this design is smart. The shuffle gains a little less than four times its normal height and a bit of extra thickness, comparable to the volume of an old iPod mini. i50’s lightweight enough to dangle from your belt—or, as we tested, a dog’s collar—using the carabiner hook, and equally easy to toss into your pocket. Lay it on its side with the power switch facing upwards and you get true, if limited, left- and right-channel stereo separation.
Better yet, there’s no need to fuss with batteries. Creative includes a white wall adapter that plugs into the i50’s USB port and simultaneously recharges i50’s 15-hour battery and the shuffle’s 12-18 hour battery; the same USB port can also be attached to any USB 1.1 or 2.0-ready computer for charging, though you’ll have to self-supply the same, and synchronization isn’t possible through it.
There are a couple of issues, one small, one large. The small one is related to the iPod shuffle dock: Creative has a hard plastic shell that’s supposed to attach to the top of the enclosure, protecting your shuffle when it’s in a bag or pocket. This shell doesn’t have any sort of clasps to permanently latch itself on to the unit, and can easily fall off or be lost. This becomes even more likely given that you’ll take it off often to play with the shuffle’s controls, and disconnect the shuffle for synchronization. Consequently, a hinged redesign would make this better.
The larger issue is the sound quality. In the “small speaker” category, we’ve previously reviewed and really liked Logic3’s i-Station Traveller, an iPod-agnostic speaker that sells for $35 and comes in a number of colors, as well as Pacific Rim Technologies’ Cube (iLounge rating: A), which is similarly iPod-agnostic and sells for around $20. Neither system’s as pocketable as the i50, but they’re both shuffle-compatible, less expensive, and sound a lot better. Though the TravelSound i50 packs four drivers, you wouldn’t know it from the way it sounds: relatively flat, comparatively lacking for bass, and prone to distortion of various types that increases as the volume goes up. Other than the fact that it can be turned up to surprisingly high levels for its physical size, it sounds like a pocket radio—closer to the quality of the iPhone’s built-in speaker than what you’d expect from a separate, dedicated accessory.
None of this is to say that the i50 is a bad product: by combining the rechargeable battery, speaker, and dock into one simple, shuffle-ready enclosure, Creative has done for the second-generation shuffle what Macally did for the first-generation model in IP-S111 (iLounge rating: C+), only at a higher price due to the included battery and wall charger. We’d sooner be inclined to go with an iPod-agnostic solution such as the i-Station Traveller, but Creative has added legitimate value through clean design, smart charging and the removal of the need for disposable batteries; the light weight is a positive, as well. TravelSound i50 is a fine pick if you value small size, convenience, and wearability over sound quality, and are willing to pay a little more for the miniaturization.