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Weekend Update(s): PlayDock MP3 & Isolator Earphones

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Episode 44
August 19th, 2005

Earlier this summer I covered a passel of speaker systems and earphones in this space. For those of you who missed those two columns (shame on you), here's a quick recap replete with links:

  • Rants & Raves # 40 discussed five speaker systems designed primarily for use the iPod: JBL On Tour, DLO iBoom, Altec Lansing inMotion iM3, Bose SoundDock, and Klipsch iFi.
  • Rants & Raves #41 covered five earphones/headphones: Apple's "stock" earphones (the crappy ones that come with iPods), as well as the Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones, Grado SR60, Future Sonics Ears EM3, and Shure E3C Sound Isolating Earphones.

In the ensuing weeks several of you wrote to ask my opinion of two similar products-Cambridge SoundWorks PlayDock MP3 speaker system and Etymotic Research 6i Isolator Earphones. As your obedient servant, I acquired both products and have been testing them ever since.

Here are my findings:

Cambridge SoundWorks PlayDock MP3

The Cambridge SoundWorks PlayDock MP3 speaker system falls somewhere between the $300 Bose SoundDock and the $129 DLO iBoom. Like the Bose system it provides big, rich, stereo sound from a single enclosure; like the iBoom it is portable and can run on batteries or included AC adapter.

It's kind of weird looking, as you can see in Figure 1:


Figure 1: Cambridge SoundWorks PlayDock MP3 speaker system.

The gray matter you see cradling the iPod above is some type of flexible rubber stuff. The unit comes with several other interchangeable rubber pieces-called cushioned liners by Cambridge-which insure a good fit for an iPod or almost any other MP3 player. These interlocking rubber parts look kind of strange, but seem to do the job.

Unlike most of the other systems I've tested, PlayDock doesn't include a remote control or even buttons to control your iPod. It offers but four buttons: Louder, Softer, Wide, and Power. The Wide button "increases the stereo panorama" according to Cambridge SoundWorks. I didn't care for the way it sounded and usually left it turned off). And while the lack of a remote control didn't bother me very much because I usually &Mac250;ad the PlayDock MP3 within arm's reach, it may be a deal-breaker for some users.

On the other hand, PlayDock MP3 was the only system I tested that came with a built-in rechargeable battery, and a respectable one at that, offering up to 10 hours of wireless playing time.

Of course when it comes to speakers (or earphones for that matter), it's all about the sound and the PlayDock MP3 doesn't disappoint. With its powered subwoofer and three-speaker design, it sounds bigger and better than you'd expect. Comparing it to other systems, the Bose SoundDock sounded slightly better though the difference wasn't huge, while the DLO iBoom and Altec Lansing inMotion iM3 didn't even come close to the sound quality of PlayDock MP3.

Moving right along, here are some observations to help you decide which system is right for you:

  • If you want the very best sound and don't care about portability, choose the Klipsch iFi (1st choice) or Bose SoundDock (2nd choice).
  • If you want an integrated FM radio, choose the DLO iBoom.
  • If you can't live without a remote control, choose the Klipsch iFi or Bose SoundDock (non-portable) or Altec Lansing inMotion iM3 (portable).
  • If you want a built-in rechargeable battery, your only choice is the PlayDock MP3.

The PlayDock MP3's price ($199) is significantly lower than the Bose SoundDock ($299), slightly higher than the more portable Altec Lansing inMotion iM3 ($179), and significantly higher than the worse-sounding iBoom ($129).

Bottom line: If you're looking for excellent portable sound for your iPod, and don't need remote control, the Cambridge SoundWorks PlayDock MP3 is the perfect choice.

  • Rating: 7 (out of 10)
  • Street price: $199.
  • Pros: Excellent sound; rechargeable battery.
  • Cons: Not specifically designed for iPod; no remote control; no docking connector or iPod controls.

Etymotic Research 6i Isolator Earphones

The Etymotic Research 6i Isolator Earphones compare favorably to the FutureSonics Ears EM3 and Shure E3C Sound Isolating Earphones (as seen in Rants & Raves Episode 41).

They look like this:


Figure 2: Etymotic Research 6i Isolator Earphones.

Like the Shure E3Cs, the 6i Isolator Earphones come with several types and sizes of ear tips and a well-designed carrying case. Unlike the Shure or FutureSonics offerings, Etymotic's cable and earphones are snow white like the "stock" earphones if you care about such things. (For what it's worth, the Shure earphones are also snow white but the cable is black; the FutureSonics' earphones and cable are an unappealing shade of brown).

All three of these earphones sounded excellent to my ears. I can't recommend one over the other based solely on sound quality- all of them deliver much richer, clearer, and more detailed sound than the "stock" earphones supplied with the iPod.

The only sonic difference I noted was that the Etymotic phones weren't quite as loud as either the Shure or FutureSonics. If you prefer your music really, really loud, the Shure or FutureSonics offerings might be a better choice.

Other than that, all three earphones are outstanding and a huge improvement over "stock" iPod earphones.

  • Rating: 9 (out of 10)
  • Street price: $100.
  • Pros: Great sound; comfortable fit.
  • Cons: Not quite as "loud" as Shure E3C Sound Isolating Earphones or FutureSonics Ears EM3.

And that's all he wrote...

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.

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