Creative's CSW PlayDock i Hands On

Cambridge SoundWorks (a division of Creative) has finally bit into the Apple and released its first bona fide Made for iPod speaker — one of the positive results of last year’s settlement between Apple and Creative over a patent dispute. The CSW PlayDock i is an impressive, compact one-piece iPod speaker/dock that leaves virtually nothing to be desired, and its reasonable $199 MSRP (you can find it for around $170 online) doesn’t hurt either.

The PlayDock’s white plastic shell is complemented by a black speaker grille that takes up nearly the entire front face, so your iPod won’t look out of place no matter which color you have. The dock is set a few inches up from the bottom, right in the middle of the speaker’s face, and you get hard rubber inserts for each dock connector-equipped iPod model.

On the back, the speaker has 3.5-mm jacks for headphones, A/V out, and line-in, as well as a port for the two-piece power supply (the brick is in the middle, not at the plug). There’s also a knob for adjusting the bass — crank it up and you can feel the air pumping out of the big bass port in the middle of the speaker’s back. Moving the speaker around is no problem either, thanks to the rubberized handle-grip just above the bass port.

The top sports a jog wheel with tactile feedback that controls volume, and the power and wide stereo buttons are both backlit when active. A battery compartment is on the bottom of the speaker — you’ve got to stuff it full of eight C batteries, which give you around 13 hours of playback if you’re out of reach of an outlet.

The general specs are pretty impressive for something that measures just 13.5 by 5.5 by 6 inches. The two main channels give you 12 watts RMS each, and the built-in subwoofer adds another 24 watts RMS, which means this thing cranks pretty hard. The plastic enclosure suffers from a slight rattle when you push the volume and bass to the limit on bass-heavy songs, but it’s nowhere near as bad as other similarly priced models like the MTX iThunder.

I’m not crazy about the included infrared wireless remote’s blister buttons — they’re not backlit, and they have a cheap feel — but they work well enough. I like that you can use the remote to browse the iPod’s menus and make selections, and I got about 40 feet of range (line of sight only), which is plenty for most apartments.

Oddly, the FM/MP3 and video/photo buttons are extraneous and don’t actually do anything, though you can hook up the PlayDock to your TV and watch iPod videos on a big screen with the supplied cable.

Cambridge SoundWorks is known for exceptional audio quality, and they didn’t skimp on the PlayDock i. Highs are clear, and while midrange detail isn’t what you get with higher-end speaker/docks like the Bose SoundDock or even the Apple iPod Hi-Fi, it’s better than just about anything in its price range.

The adjustable bass is a very handy feature, though I wish it could be controlled by the remote as well as via the knob on back of the speaker. “Wide stereo” is a solid feature too — I always expect it to make music sound processed, but CSW’s implementation is very good and adds significant depth and width to the overall sound (as much as you can with a one-piece stereo system).

The PlayDock has plenty of power for small in-home gatherings, but it can crank out beefy sound outdoors too. Just keep in mind that when it’s running on batteries instead of AC power, there’s a touch less oomph.

This is one of the best iPod speaker/docks I’ve seen in a while (at this price), and I highly recommend it for the affordability, features, and sound quality. If you need something more portable for traveling or backpacking, Altec Lansing makes some excellent Made for iPod speakers. But for small parties, dorms, the backyard, or around the house, this is a great choice.