It seems funny to me that Apple, whose computer business encourages abandoning lockstep adherence to Microsoft's overwhelming dominance and embracing a quirkier, less mainstream choice, celebrates its own standard-setting hegemony when it comes to portable audio. The company that urged us all to "Think Different" owns no less than 75 percent of the portable music player market. It has sold more than 100 million iPods, an astonishing tribute to the public's apparent desire to "Think the Same."
And a large part of the iPod's appeal today is the cottage industry of add-on goodies that's sprung up around Steve Jobs's pride and joy. Just as Windows users have a lot more games and gear to choose from than Macintosh enthusiasts, 70 percent of new cars now offer iPod connectivity options and more than 4,000 iPod-specific accessories have hit the market. Sure, music sounds just as good on a player from Archos, Creative, SanDisk or Samsung. But only iPod owners can buy a colorful kid-proof case, an alarm clock that wakes you up to your favorite digital tunes, or a sport coat designed to literally put your music at your fingertips.
The very first purchase the proud parent of a fresh-faced new iPod should make is a way to protect it from the bumps and bruises inflicted by a cold, cruel world. Sadly, iPods are beautiful to behold but woefully fragile when assaulted by car keys, pocket change, ballpoint pens or a stiff breeze.
You don't need me to guide you through the acquisition of a basic iPod case. There are thousands of choices to suit your self-image and preferred price tag, from luxe designer cases by Prada and Marc Jacobs to the equally protective $20 clear plastic number at your local Radio Shack. Personally, I have a soft spot for the leather cases made by Vaja (www.vajacases.com). I've had several, and the workmanship and leather quality have always proved excellent at a reasonable price for what you're getting (cases for full-size iPods run from $50 to $90). The company also makes cases for a host of other electronic devices, including mobile phones, laptops, PDAs and non-iPod MP3 players.
Of course, the downside of any case is that in swaddling the iPod in a protective cover, it obliterates the beautiful slender design. That's why my favorite solution is the Invisible Shield from ShieldZone. According to the company's Web site (www.shieldzone.com), the clear plastic film used in its products was originally designed to protect the leading edge of helicopter blades. Whether that's highfaluting hype or gospel truth, I can testify that this stuff takes a hellacious beating without looking any the worse for wear. Essentially you're using a die-cut plastic sheet to cover and protect the entire body of the iPod (front, back and sides). The company offers a different model for each iPod, so the holes for controls, earphone jack and docking connectors all line up perfectly. The only negative here is the need for manual agility in applying the shield. You have to spray on a thin layer of goop, then align the plastic pieces just right and smooth the surface down with a credit card to eliminate bubbles. I have to admit, I was leery of undertaking the project, afflicted as I am with a dexterity deficit. Once I got going, though, I found it pretty easy, and since the plastic pieces don't stick irrevocably the first time you place them, trial and error, seasoned with some patience, produced nearly flawless results, if I do say so myself. And the reward for my efforts: a year-old video iPod that looks absolutely pristine, even after banging around in my glove compartment and computer bag, without ever seeing the inside of a traditional iPod case. The iPod shields sell from $12 to $25, depending on the model. The company also makes Invisible Shields for a wide range of other products, from cell phones and laptops to computers for bicycles and wristwatches.
The Tadpole from ifrogz (www.ifrogz.com, $25) is another noteworty choice. This colorful, rugged silicone case effectively kid-proofs an iPod so your little one can enjoy music and videos without endangering an expensive piece of equipment. The Tadpole has large handles, comes in six cheerful colors, and even lets you customize the iPod click wheel cover with dozens of designs, from eyeballs and Elvis to sports gear and kittens. The cases sell with and without a plastic screen cover, but why anyone would go without when you're handing the iPod off to a sandbox-savvy small fry is beyond me. The only downside I can see: you have to remove the iPod from the case to dock it and load new music. On the other hand, this does protect the electronic connector from peanut butter and jelly encroachment.
If you're the rugged outdoor type, check out the H2O Audio cases. I'm especially impressed with the company's waterproof cases, which are submersible down to 10 feet when paired with H2O's compatible waterproof headphones (and fine for poolside splashes or rainy-day jogs with standard headphones). Inserting the iPod couldn't be easier, and pressing down on the latch mechanism creates a rugged seal with a single snap. All the iPod functions are available thanks to carefully placed exterior buttons that line up with the standard controls plus a waterproof scroll wheel. The waterproof cases are available for iPods large and small, at prices ranging from $40 to $90, at www.h2oaudio.com.
Finally, you might be the sad owner of an iPod that has already suffered the scars of battle. Cheer up, my mournful friend—surprisingly effective help is available thanks to RadTech and a product called Ice Creme ($21, www.radtech.us). The Ice Creme kit comes with solutions, polishing cloths and applicators to rub out scratches from the acrylic iPod front surface and the metal back plate. Frankly, I couldn't care less if there are scratches on the back of an iPod, but a gash across the front screen breaks your heart every time you load up a track or watch a video. Ice Creme did an amazing job of removing even substantial scratches from one of my abused iPods. A combination of chemical wizardry and elbow grease will fully restore a moderately scratched and scuffed iPod in 45 to 60 minutes, according to the company.
Get an Earful
Once you've shielded your iPod from the elements, the next step is tossing those little round Frisbee earbuds that came with the device and upgrading to a more comfortable, musically inclined pair.
If you're trying to stick to a budget, Sony's Fontopia earbuds (MDR-EX51LP) sell for $40 in stores or online (www.sonystyle.com), fit nicely, and sound far superior to Apple's standard equipment. For a few twenties, the Creative Zen Aurvana buds (list-priced at $100 but available at Amazon and elsewhere for under $80) are more comfortable and offer more satisfying bass response than similarly priced models from other manufacturers.
Stepping up in both price and audio quality, I appreciate the clean, precise sound of the new Denon AH-C700s ($200). They have a reasonable amount of bass for small, bullet-shaped buds, but what strikes me most is the way female vocalists and stringed instruments are reproduced with lifelike effect, particularly in concert recordings.
Two models compete for my affections in the luxury earbud class. In the November/December 2006 issue of Cigar Aficionado, I wrote about the Shure E500s, tiny earbuds that nonetheless managed to squeeze in three separate audio drivers (one tweeter and two woofers) for extraordinary response, from pizzicato highs to growling bass solos. These have recently been redubbed the SE530s and sell for $500.
The alternative is Ultimate Ears' triple.fi 10 Pro, a $400 set, which also boast triple-driver design and extraordinary musical reproduction. For me, the primary difference between the two concerns comfort and fit more than sound quality. The Shures come with a more extensive "fit kit" of solid and foam sleeves and adapters, and both a long and short modular cable to suit your listening situation. The Ultimate Ears accessories are more limited, but I still found a perfectly comfortable set of flexible earpieces and like the way the thin wire ear loops adjust to fit. In the end, either one will squeeze all the audio quality out of your portable player.
Some earbuds and headphones endear themselves with special tricks and abilities. One of my favorites is the wireless Etymotic ety8. The two rectangular earbuds, tethered together with a fabric-covered cable, are quite tiny (less than half an ounce each), yet inside lurk a rechargeable battery and wireless stereo Bluetooth receiver. The $299 package (www.etymotic.com) also includes a stereo Bluetooth trans-mitter that plugs into the docking connector of your iPod. Turn on the headphones and the iPod and, as if by magic, the music flows flawlessly between them. Leave your iPod in a briefcase, jacket pocket or backpack and stroll or jog to your favorite tunes, and you'll feel the sense of liberation that Pinocchio must have experienced when his strings were cut.
Another interesting new arrival is the Sony NC-22, a set of noise-canceling earbuds. While previous Sony attempts at noise-canceling buds were reasonably effective at blocking background noise, they weren't completely comfortable and required a bulky battery pack. This time, the earpiece has been reshaped to nest comfortably outside your ear canal and the electronics have been slimmed down to a clip-on unit that's barely bigger than the AAA battery inside. What's more, unaltered audio is passed through if the battery dies, a useful feature that too many noise-canceling models fail to provide. The NC-22 sells for just $100—an excellent alternative to carrying bulky full-size, noise-canceling headphones …
… unless you're going to spend hours on a plane and want to soothe your jangled nerves (did they really have to confiscate that expensive bottle of Scotch in your carry-on bag?) with soothing tunes scrubbed free of aircraft drone. In that case, you can go with the tried-and-true Bose QuietComfort 3 Acoustic Noise Canceling headphones ($349, www.bose.com), a reliable favorite that folds up reasonably small and flat for transportation purposes, or try a new premium- quality choice from Sennheiser. The Sennheiser PXC450s are undeniably large, big enough to surround your ears with sound, though they do fold flat enough to make packing possible. The generous size of the ear cups and first-rate audio components deliver a spacious sound, more like listening to a set of stereo speakers than the typical cans-over-your-ears headphones. The noise-canceling electronics, coupled with a comfortably sealed-off fit, proved more than a match for a Boeing 737's engine noise on a recent flight home from Mexico. Best of all, at those moments when you actually do want to hear what's going on around you (is that beautiful stewardess offering you a drink or explaining that an engine just fell off the plane?), you push a single button, the music cuts out, and a built-in microphone pumps the sound of the outside world into your headphones. The Sennheisers look to give Bose a run for its money in the elite noise-canceling category, albeit at about a $100 premium (www.sennheiserusa.com).
What's Up, Dock?
After going to all the trouble of loading up an iPod with your favorite music, your carefully crafted playlists and maybe even some movies or TV shows for the road, it only makes sense to enjoy those digital goodies on your home entertainment system too. That's where docking systems come in. You connect the dock to your TV and/or audio gear, insert the iPod, and control it all with a wireless remote. An iPod dock, either included or as an optional accessory, has become a popular feature for new AV receivers in the past year, but plenty of solutions that work just fine with your existing system are also available.
The latest version of the DLO HomeDock Deluxe ($150, www.dlo.com) effectively re-creates the iPod display, including album art, on your TV screen. It even lets you play iPod video on the big screen, a rarity among iPod docks. The HomeDock Deluxe comes with a well-designed remote control and it's easy to set up. What more could you want?
How about a docking solution that doesn't require a TV set to see your track information as you wander around the house? The Keyspan TuneView system ($179, www.keyspan.com) includes an audio dock that connects to your stereo system and a remote control with a sharp 1.4-inch display that lists all your iPod tracks. And since the controller uses radio frequency signals instead of the infrared used for a typical TV remote, it works right through walls from up to 150 feet away.
Another wireless solution worth considering is the Creative Xdock Wireless Dock and X-Fi Wireless Receiver ($299 and $149, us.creative.com), which turn an iPod into central command for a wireless whole-home audio system. Connect up to four X-Fi receivers to stereo systems or powered speakers around the house (the system boasts a 100-foot range) and the music from an iPod in the Xdock comes through loud and clear. The kicker: Creative developed a powerful music enhancement technology called X-Fi for its line of premium computer audio cards. The same chips are used in the Xdock to re-create some of the quality lost when music is compressed into MP3 format. You don't have to be a golden-eared audiophile to hear the clear difference X-Fi makes in the system's audio output quality.
Listening to your iPod music in the car is another growth industry but, again, you don't have to upgrade your existing gear to make the iPod connection. The simplest way to connect your iPod to a car stereo is wirelessly, via an FM modulator, which transmits the iPod audio to an unused frequency on your radio. Dozens of FM modulators are on the market. The one I've had good luck with is the Belkin TuneBase FM ($80, www.catalog.belkin.com). The iPod dock sits on top of a strong but flexible gooseneck stalk, which plugs into the car cigarette lighter for power. What I particularly like about the Belkin product is the way it solves a common problem with FM modulators: the interference you may encounter as you move from region to region and find that the unused frequency you've chosen suddenly conflicts with a local radio station. The TuneBase has four convenient buttons you set to different FM frequencies, so you can make one-click changes while driving.
Here's one more docking solution that strikes me as a particularly clever addition to the iPod lover's entertainment arsenal. Philips has taken a decent portable DVD player design and made it special by incorporating an iPod dock next to the disc player. Suddenly you have a one-piece portable that can play back DVD movies, music CDs plus digital music, photos and videos, either for an individual, a couple (there are two headphone jacks) or a group. There are two models, the seven-inch-wide DCP750 ($149) and the 8.5-inch DCP850 ($199, usa.philips.com).
Speakers of the House
If you'd like to fill the room with your iPod tunes without connecting to a full-fledged audio system, plenty of speaker systems have built-in iPod docks. Some are utilitarian, others sleek and sexy, but none is more of a conversation starter than the iWoofer from Rain Design ($119, www.raindesigninc.com). This strange, alien-looking contraption incorporates two titanium tweeters (the "eyes") and a down-firing subwoofer beneath, surrounded by a blue light to complete the E.T. effect. The sound quality isn't going to make audiophiles break out in an appreciative sweat, but distortion is low and volume respectable for such a modest-size device (it stands just 6.7 inches without the iPod inserted). The built-in FM radio gets good reception, and the ability to run on AC or AA batteries makes the iWoofer a convenient companion to carry from room to room.
For more formidable audio performance in a portable solution, try the Altec Lansing im600 speakers ($150, www.alteclansing.com). The 2.1-pound package travels as a compact 11-by-6-by-1.7-inch rectangle (without a handle), but press a button and an iPod dock and stabilizing rear foot pop out. You get a surprising amount of audio oomph for a compact device that maintains audio quality even at top volume settings. The im600 will fill a back yard with music, and run for more than seven hours off the rechargeable battery (won't the neighbors be pleased). An FM radio, wireless remote control and auxiliary input jack (for a portable CD or DVD player, for instance) complete an impressive package.
For a warmer, richer sound, move up to the larger miDock Studio from Polk Audio ($230, www.polkaudio.com). It's on the largish side of portability, with side handles but without built-in rechargeable batteries (it takes eight C-cell batteries, which bump up the already substantial 7.75-pound weight). I expect the miDock Studio will find its niche in style-conscious dens and offices, and be a very welcome addition there as the audio quality is exceptional, with a nice bass bump on the bottom end and crystal-clear vocals. You even get decent stereo separation from a 17 1/8-inch-wide unit. I do wish they'd incorporated some kind of spacer behind the iPod, though. The dock doesn't keep the iPod rigidly upright when you press on it, so every time you operate the menus you push it backward against the rear wall of the dock. It doesn't feel right, and I can't help but wonder what effect it will have on the connector over time. And while the included remote handles power, volume, play and track forward/back functions, it won't control the iPod menus.
Setting aside portability, the Logitech AudioStation ($300, www.logitech.com) is a full-fledged room audio system, with iPod dock, AM/FM radio, digital clock and auxiliary inputs, with outputs for displaying your iPod photos or videos on a connected TV set. With dual woofers and dual tweeters, the sound is rich and pleasing across the board, from Lily Allen's playfully jazzy arrangements to the Foo Fighters' hard-rocking demand for the "Best of You." The full-size remote is easy to use (though, here again, you have to control music menu choices from the iPod itself, which is clumsy). One feature I wavered over during the testing process was the three-dimensional sound setting, which artificially adds a more spacious quality. Sometimes it effectively enhanced the audio experience, particularly with small jazz group recordings, but I found it sounded artificial for solo vocalists. In the end, I voted to leave the enhancement off and just enjoy the Logitech's natural, well-rounded sound.
If sleek, unique design is near and dear to your heart, the elite Geneva Lab one-piece sound systems could be your ideal audio solution, not just for iPod content but for CD and FM listening as well. There are two substantial units, each a simple, striking rectangular design—the Model L measures 17.6 by 11.1 by 15 inches and weighs 38 pounds, the Model XL a 21.7-by-23.5-by-15.8-inch, 84-pound behemoth (and that's without the optional but desirable floor stands). Their amplification and speaker firepower is substantial, too, with enough power to fill even large rooms with no discernible distortion. What's most notable about the Geneva Lab systems, though, is the elegant design statement, with only an understated LCD display hidden behind the speaker grille and a discreet pop-up iPod dock interrupting the solid-color, rectangular simplicity. The Geneva L model costs $599, the XL runs $1,075, and both are available at www.genevalab.com.
Before putting the iPod speaker issue to bed, we should talk about waking up in the morning. The Luna iPod-enabled clock radio from xtrememac (www.xtrememac.com) is a fine, full-featured clock radio right out of the box, with AM/FM, two alarms and a sleep timer, auxiliary input, battery backup to maintain clock settings in case of power outages, and an easily adjustable backlight control for the clock display. And when you slip an iPod into the top dock, you can wake up to your favorite digital tunes. The system includes a well-designed remote control so you can switch from your Bolero and Johnny Mathis playlist to the Ramones, depending on the boudoir company you keep and the mood of the moment. It's an expensive alarm clock ($150), but the investment nets you a handsome piece of gear with easy-to-use controls, solid construction and quality audio.
With the iPod becoming a constant companion that provides a dramatic movie-style score to accompany every thrilling walk down the block or trip on the bus, it was inevitable that clothing designers would incorporate iPod-specific features into their designs. First came iPod-friendly cold-weather gear (presumably so snowboarders and skiers could distract themselves from imminent destruction with a few carefully chosen heavy-metal tunes). Then a company called Play Underwear came up with the iBoxer, with a built-in pocket to carry your tunes in your unmentionables. (I briefly flirted with the idea of creating an accessory subwoofer to add a little bass vibration where it might do the most good, but quiet good taste prevailed.)
And speaking of quiet good taste, Bagir Ltd. has taken the embedded iPod concept into the world of business clothing with the Play List Jacket, available exclusively at Express ($248, www.expressfashion.com). To the boss watching you stroll into the office, the wool-blend jacket is simply a nicely cut blue blazer. Peek inside, though, and you find a special iPod pocket and a connector leading to sewn-in volume, play/pause, fast-forward and reverse controls. Walking through town with my iPod earbuds carefully threaded through the provided loops and the hidden controls at my fingertips, I felt a definite Secret Service vibe. Wonder if Steve Jobs's security guys have been issued Play List Jackets. "Roger, control. Black Turtleneck has left the building. Switching to Nine Inch Nails. Over."
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.