Katherine Boehret

A Home Base for iPod Hits

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

Next time you get comfortable on the couch, remember that you’re relaxing in the consumer electronics battleground: the living room. Major tech companies are pouring resources into products they hope you’ll use to remotely receive your computer’s content — namely videos, music and photos — in a more comfortable place.

But while some of these complex solutions are still struggling to catch on, digital music marched steadily into the land of recliners long ago. IPods naturally plug into home stereos, multiplying music collections and bringing playlists to parties. And an industry of devices sprouted up specifically for playing iPods and other music players to a crowd.

This week, I tested a new version of one of these dock systems that specializes in wirelessly distributing music via small, cube-shaped speakers that can be spread throughout your house: the $300 Evolve speaker system from Griffin Technology Inc. (http://evolvespeakers.com). This setup offers a straightforward and stylish solution, delivering what I consider good quality sound.

Griffin Technology's $299.99 Evolve is an affordable wireless speaker system.
Griffin Technology’s $299.99 Evolve is an affordable wireless speaker system.

Griffin’s attempt at claiming valuable real estate in the living room pits it against Sonos Inc., a high-end competitor that is already well-established in the wireless-music arena. Sonos sends digital tunes from your computers to up to 32 rooms using an attractive remote with a full-color screen. But this system starts at $1,000, not including speakers, and its computer-related set-up might intimidate potential buyers.

Closer competitors to Griffin’s Evolve can be found in Brookstone and Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs, where similar wireless speaker systems for the iPod are sold for $150 (on sale) and $400, respectively. Brookstone’s set-up includes small, spherical wireless speakers and Hammacher’s uses bulkier, rectangular-shaped wireless speakers with visible antenna.

I tested the Evolve system using my iPod touch and a first generation iPod nano bought in 2005. Both devices worked with the system, and the Evolve speakers connected wirelessly to the base station from up to 150 feet away on the digital 900MHz spectrum, which doesn’t interfere with Wi-Fi and works through walls and floors. Two speakers come with the system, each carrying a charge of 10 hours according to Griffin, though I got 11 in my tests.

Evolve has some downsides. While it’s great to know that its speakers work 150 feet away from the base station and iPod, they can only be controlled by the base station or by a remote control in view of the base station. So, if you and the speakers are in a room without the base station, you can’t see any information about the song that’s playing, nor can you adjust the volume. Each speaker does have its own power button.

And when I switched from my iPod touch to the iPod nano, the Evolve remote stopped working, and I couldn’t get the remote to work with my iPod touch again. Griffin acknowledged a bug that occurs with speaker systems when an iPod isn’t up to date with the latest firmware, which it wasn’t, and assured me that updating the device, unplugging and re-plugging the Evolve would fix the issue. These fixes didn’t help, nor did repairing the remote, and there wasn’t time for Griffin to send a new remote. I continued to use Evolve without the remote, but hope that other units won’t operate like mine.

Griffin’s Evolve base station seems to hover just inches off the ground and is made of a brushed aluminum. Left to right, it measures about 16 inches, and an iPod dock and three buttons mark the center of the base station. Two squat antenna stand behind this dock, and square wells on the left and right give the speakers a place to rest while charging. These wire-free charging wells are designed with overcharge/undercharge protection, so each speaker’s battery isn’t harmed by resting on the base station for a long period of time.

When the remote was working with my iPod touch, I navigated through songs from across the room, pausing and adjusting volume. I easily carried the speakers into my kitchen using handles built into the back of these cubes, and my roommate enjoyed listening to Amy Winehouse in stereo while she made dinner. But during the actual dinner, when we wanted to turn the volume down, we had to walk back to the living room where the base station was located while calling down the hall to one another to find out if the sound was low enough.

Hidden indicator lights in each speaker tell whether they’re charged or not; orange signifies a charge is needed, while green means you’re in the clear. A switch on the base station changes the speaker sound from mono (useful when listening to audio books) to stereo. Each speaker contains built-in technology that assigns it to automatically know if it’s right or left. To conserve battery, a speaker that’s turned on but isn’t playing music will turn off after 60 minutes.

I kept my speakers on for 11 hours straight before they pooped out, moving them to different floors and as far from the base station as possible — the signal stayed strong. In just two hours, the pair was recharged. I kept the volume pretty low for at least half the time my speakers were on, and Griffin says lower volumes conserve battery, and vice versa. I listened to all sorts of music, including hip-hop, jazz, country, rock and classical. I’m no audiophile, but to my ear, the Evolve handled each genre with aplomb.

All iPods (even the iPhone) work with Griffin’s Evolve, and this gadget will also work when connected to other MP3 players, stereos, TVs, and CD players, which could come in handy. In early March, Griffin will sell add-on speakers for $99 each with separate charging plates for $30 apiece; $200 bundles will include two speakers and two charging plates. There’s no limit to the number of speakers that you can add to a system.

Though Griffin’s Evolve lacks some of the luxuries that high-end systems have, it solves a problem with minimal effort on the user’s part, and looks good while doing it. If you don’t mind returning to the base station to make adjustments, and if your remote doesn’t stop working, you’ll enjoy this sleek and functional device.

Corrections & Amplifications:

Griffin Technology Inc.’s Evolve wireless sound system uses a remote that can control certain functions of the iPod, even when it is out of sight of the base station. This column erroneously implies that the remote must be in view of the system to work.


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