Creative Labs bought Cambridge SoundWorks back in 1998 (ancient times in tech years) and has continued to produce speakers under the brand. The latest product to come out of the company is the iPod-ready PlayDock i, a $200 tabletop speaker unit with a fantastic remote and decent sound quality. Though the system suffers a bit from its plastic housing, it beats out competitors with desirable features and a semi-portable design.
You probably aren't going to choose the Playdock i based on style. It looks like pretty much every other iPod-ready speaker set on the market: not ugly, but not striking. It has the white, piano-gloss finish, black fabric speaker grille, and semi-rectangular shape, though the PlayDock does have some nice curvature to its backside. The iPod dock protrudes from the front of the speaker a touch, making it less streamlined than speakers like the headphone out., but more secure than where the iPod juts out from the top. The top of the PlayDock houses the power and stereo separation buttons and a volume knob that clicks satisfyingly when you turn it. On the back, you'll find a built-in handle, a bass adjustment knob, and various ports: power in, auxiliary line-in, A/V out, and
The PlayDock i even accepts eight C batteries via a compartment on the bottom, though at roughly 13.5x5.5x6-inches, I wouldn't consider the unit terribly portable. However, it would fit nicely on a counter, shelf, desktop, or nightstand, and it's not a stretch for picnics and camping. Creative doesn't include the batteries, but you do get a line-in cable for connecting non-iPod MP3 players, six iPod dock adapters, and an A/V cable for porting videos and photos from the iPod to your TV while the player's docked in the speaker unit. The PlayDock also charges the iPod while it's plugged in.
As with any decent tabletop speaker system for the iPod, the Playdock i also comes with a wireless remote. It operates via IR--rather than RF--so you'll need direct line-of-site with the speaker to use it. The remote worked fine up to about 20 feet or so away, which is plenty for most applications. Along with playback, power, and volume controls, the remote includes some handy extra buttons I haven't seen on many others. There's a back key for stepping up through the menus, up/down keys for navigating the menus, and an OK button for making menu selections. This is great, because it means you never have to get up and use the iPod itself for navigating.
There are also two extra buttons on the remote that are "not used" according to the manual. One is marked FM/MP3, presumably for switching between FM and MP3 modes. As neither the iPod nor the PlayDock have FM tuners, you can immediately see why this is useless. Another slightly more interesting key has tiny icons representing video and photo on it. My guess is that this would be used for toggling into TV out mode for viewing photos and videos on a connected TV. There's probably something in the iPod's firmware that prevents this from working at this point (or maybe Creative just couldn't figure it out), but it's compelling in that maybe it's a preview of things to come.
When put to the test, the PlayDock i proved to be an adequate performer. The stereo separation function worked well, opening up the sound noticeably, and I preferred to listen with this feature turned on. Overall sound quality was very good in some cases, and not so great in others. Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Scar Tissue" was rich and encompassing, the detail and understated bass in Les Brown's "Sentimental Journey" shined, and the vocals in Olive's "Safer Hands" were open and haunting. However, DJ Cam's mellow hip-hop track "Voodoo Chile" suffered from an unpleasant vibration for every snare hit, and The Mars Volta's "Televators" offered the same irksome hum during the crescendo of the chorus. This seems to be awith plastic-housed speaker units, so you may be willing to live with it if you must have an iPod-specific speaker (rather than connecting the unit directly to a higher-end home system).