You may not have heard much about Eton, but you might have seen some of its portable radio products in a Sharper Image catalog. According to its Web site, Eton is the sole licensee of Grundig for all of North America, but now the company is moving into a new phase, creating and marketing a full line of its own branded audio products, including the Eton Sound 50, the iPod speaker reviewed here.
While the Eton Sound 50 is one-third the price of the Bose SoundDock, it invites some comparisons to that heavily marketed iPod speaker system. The two are shaped similarly, though the Eton is slightly smaller (6 inches by 10 by 5.75) and weighs a good deal less (2.3 pounds vs. 7.7 for the Bose). The speaker, which comes in white or black, has what the company describes as "dual twin full-range drivers and microtweeters" that are supposed to "provide balanced sound across the entire frequency range." They're spaced rather close to each other, so stereo separation is minimal, but that's par for the course for most iPod speakers.
Whether you buy the Eton Sound 50 in white or black, you'll get a glossy finish--the black tends to show fingerprints--and set of blue LED lights across the front of the built-in iPod dock that indicate volume levels. As with any other iPod-ready device, the built-in dock works with all recent iPods with a dock connector, including the video-enabled iPod, the Nano, and the older iPod Mini. But if you have a Shuffle or an older predock iPod--or any other device with a headphone jack, for that matter--you can use the auxiliary line input. It's also worth noting that, unlike some portable iPod speakers, the Sound 50 is an AC-only affair; don't expect to take it on the road.
Though the Sound 50 has a plastic look, it's an attractively designed speaker. We appreciated that Eton chose to include four key controls--power, volume up and down, and the source toggle (iPod or line-in)--on the dock itself rather than only on the remote. That way, if you lose the remote, you can still operate the system. That said, it would be a shame to lose the little clicker; it's more functional than most iPod-speaker remotes we've encountered. You can navigate through your iPod's menus, select songs and playlists, skip forward and back through tracks, and naturally, control the volume. Of course, to see the menus on your iPod, you'll have to stand near the Sound 50, but using the remote at close range is still more convenient than having to put your finger on the scrollwheel while your iPod is docked.
The Sound 50 sounds pretty good at lower volumes, with respectable treble and midrange. Singers' voices, guitars, and acoustic music sounded particularly nice, but as one might expect from a compact speaker system, bass is in short supply. Crank the volume past the midway point and the little guy shows its weakness, distorting the low end, sometimes painfully. For example, the Sound 50 really can't handle tunes such as Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" with any sort of conviction.
So, no, the Eton Sound 50 doesn't sound as good as the Bose SoundDock or Apple's own iPod Hi-Fi. But again, it costs only $100--compared to the respective $300 and $350 price tags of the Bose and Apple products--and plays bigger than its size and offers richer sound than the JBL On Stage II, which sounds small by comparison. All things considered, the Sound 50 is a solid value and makes for an acceptable sound system for smaller rooms.