Pros: Inexpensive iPod family-matching speaker design that runs off of an included wall power charger, and charges the iPod shuffle.
Cons: Not truly portable in that it cannot run off of batteries; audio quality is not great for a semi-portable speaker option, three visible wire points (top, left, and right) detract a bit from otherwise good looks.
The accessory’s official name is Griffin Technology TuneBox Portable Audio System for iPod shuffle ($39.99, street price: $32 and up), but that’s sort of a misnomer. Truly portable audio systems we’ve reviewed have two primary characteristics: they run off of battery power, and they’re sized to carry in a briefcase or similarly-sized bag. Semi-portable systems have one of those characteristics, but lack the other. Given its 4.3” x 2.2” x 4.4” size, it’s stunning that TuneBox winds up as the smallest and lowest-priced semi-portable iPod speaker system yet, solely because it doesn’t run off of batteries. That means the only place you can use it is near a wall socket.
Even by iPod shuffle speaker system standards, TuneBox looks tiny – it’s sized to fit any little space you may have on a desk or table. With a glossy white plastic enclosure and a set of four chrome and black drivers on its front, it’s a fine visual match for the iPod shuffle. There’s a USB port centered between the left and right speaker piillars, which recharges the shuffle whenever it’s plugged in.
Griffin’s box also includes a matching power supply and short audio input cable. And though it’s notably missing the Made For iPod logo, all of the speaker drivers, the USB recharging, and the unit’s cables worked as expected – just fine. So if you’re looking to get a cheap shuffle speaker system for mom, grandma, or a younger user, and she or he isn’t a big music fanatic, TuneBox will do the trick, and you can stop reading right now.
But fans of Griffin and/or superior audio quality will probably read on, as it’s not hard to guess that this wasn’t one of the company’s typically smart in-house designs – in fact, immediately after it was announced, readers contacted us to point it out, just in case we didn’t know (we did). Griffin wouldn’t design a product that charged the iPod through its USB plug but pulled its audio from its headphone jack. TuneBox does, so you always have two wires hanging off of the speakers – one from its left side to the shuffle’s top, and one from its right side to a power supple. They also wouldn’t create a device two-thirds the width of a competing battery-powered option and forget to include a battery compartment.
It turns out that these are rebadged speakers brought over from Taiwan, and the same product – sort of – is also being sold by a company called Centrios, which also sells iPod shuffle knockoffs. TuneBox likely appears under different names in other countries, as well.
Griffin’s version might be a little better – the company claims to have tuned the speakers a bit – but in truth, even a well-tuned version of this isn’t that great.
We tested TuneBox against three comparable speaker systems with similar size and audio quality limitations, though because of TuneBox’s small size, it was impossible to find another iPod speaker that wasn’t portable. It wasn’t the match of PodGear’s Shuffle Station (iLounge rating: B) in most regards, with very limited treble (high-frequency) audio reproduction, less amplification and no volume controls, a far more limited speaker firing angle (stationary), and no ability to run off of batteries. Its only comparative advantages are price – TuneBox sells for under $40, Shuffle Station for around $50 – and a superior USB charging design. It’s also worth noting for our readers in the United States that Shuffle Station still isn’t widely available here; readers outside (particularly in the U.K.) will find it more easily.
In audio quality, TuneBox was almost a tie with Ignitek’s iCheer (iLounge rating: C+), which doesn’t sound great but has superior dynamic range – again, particularly in the treble – to TuneBox. But iCheer’s drivers don’t appear to have been tuned to the same level of smoothness as TuneBox’s, which while flat and bass-heavy are smoother and less noticeably distorted. They’re both radio-quality options, but one’s a tinny and distorted radio, the other’s not, and we give TuneBox a slight edge. iCheer really stands out from TuneBox on overall aesthetic design, as well as the ability to run off of batteries, but lacks any sort of shuffle recharging capability, and sells for twice the price.
Part of this discussion is academic; in the United States, TuneBox will have easily five hundred times the distribution of either of these other options, and the under-$40 MSRP will make them almost impulse buy-level attractive for people with iPod shuffles and no need for better than so-so audio quality.