We've had a veritable feast of iPod speaker systems through the doors this year, so when another one arrived there was race to see who could get out of the office first to avoid having to take the iBall home. That lucky winner was me and now I have the Oregon Scientific iBall perched on my desk sat next to the PC. But it's not all that bad as the iBall does at least have a new take on the iPod dock / speaker combo, it's wireless.
Using the 2.4Ghz frequency range the iBall comes in 2 bits, first the obligatory iPod dock, which in the Oregon's case is also a transmitter and then the ball which is the speaker. The two talk to each other over a purported 30 meters, although we'll test that later. The frequency used is a common one for consumer electronics kit and is also used by Bluetooth, DECT and home RF such as the iBall, it's a crowded area but with adaptive frequency hopping the iBall should be able to maintain a clear channel to work on.
The iBall ships with 6 different dock connectors allowing any form of iPod to work, the Nano dock was supplied separately but should join the main package, the iPod shuffle and non Apple players can also connect via the 3.5mm mini jack on the transmitter unit. The transmitter dock comes with an AC power adaptor and is always run from the mains supply, this also has the added benefit of charging your iPod while its connected to the dock. iBall also supports the Apple 30 pin connection allowing your iPod to be hooked to a host PC or Mac and synchronising while sitting connected to the system.
Having connected out 3G iPod into the dock we could then start to control it from the iBall, this is a nice feature and means that the iPod can sit next to your PC on charge while the iBall is free to roam and yet control, playback play / pause only, volume, input selection. Its a shame that the Oregon's backlit blue screen is only used for basic controls like bass / treble and play / pause, we'd have loved to get actual track selection on the iBall front panel but you can only start and stop playback, you'll still need to go back to the iPod to choose new tracks or play lists.
The LCD panel while nice looking is a bit tricky to read using a weird set of dot matrix symbols to show if there is an iPod in range and basics like playback status and volume, not sure why they went with this, it caused us to read the manual! We did suffer a few disconnects or reluctance to find the iPod, this forced us to re pair the dock and iBall using the pairing procedure, power up holding the forwards and backwards buttons then when the symbol appears on the LCD screen push the recessed pairing button.
Audio quality is a tough area in the higher end iPod speaker systems, we always demand a lot of these small speakers and the 3 speaker system with bass port of the iBall does its best to met our challenge. Basic playback sounds good with a clear audio reproduction and surprisingly plentiful bass for a wireless system. We have often found that a wireless link somehow removes the stuffing from audio replay, however the Oregon Scientific system is very good at low to mid levels.
Crank up the volume a bit more and the cracks do start to show with a bit of resonance from the case and we just hit the maximum volume level far too early, don't get any ideas about running a back garden disco from one of these. There is a little RF noise which becomes more pronounced as you reach the extent of the radio coverage, its more apparent on very quiet tracks and can be annoying. However move closer to the TX dock and the interference goes away.
To be fair the iBall has a good all round sound and where it falls down we can forgive it as it is one of the few wireless systems on the market, we just wish it was a bit louder! Now onto a distance test, Oregon claim 30 meters (100ft) we managed around 25 meters in free air and around 15 meters indoors through a few walls. This is plenty for the average house but if you are buying an iBall for your luxury pad to sit in the west wing, think again. The iBall part of the system can run off mains (charger supplied) but also runs from a set of 6 rechargeable batteries which give about 5 and half hours replay from a charge.
For those with 5G iPod's or iPod Photos there is an S-Video output on the rear of the dock that allows the slideshows and other images to be seen during replay, although you'll need a long lead to get the screen to where the iBall is as the Video is not transmitted wirelessly.
Priced at just under £170 at launch the Oregon Scientific iBall is not quite at the top end of the iPod speaker system tree but its close, for this kind of money we'd expect the sound and volume to be better than they actually were, however we wouldn't have expected a working and fairly robust wireless system. So in the rounding the iBall is actually good value for money and as long as you don't want to run a mobile disco, you can certainly enjoy wire free iPod listening in your garden or potting shed.