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Review: Rugged, solar-powered iPod dock built for the outdoors

Etón Corporation is best known for its shortwave and emergency radios. I've had one of their hand-crank units for years and it's never let me down during power outages. I feel like a clever, better-prepared man for owning it. But there's more to Etón than just crisis audio gear. As demonstrated by the green-themed Soulra, the American manufacturer makes a durable portable speaker system for iPods and iPhones, too.

Tipping the scales at 1.5 kilograms, Soulra is covered in a tough, rubberized exterior that upholds the company's reputation for sturdiness. To provide protection from the elements, Etón has sealed the speakers and play controls and provided a cover for the power and auxiliary audio inputs on the back. It's not submergible - a clear plastic shield placed over your device as it rests inside the system fits snugly but not seamlessly - but it can withstand water sprayed at 10-litres per minute on all sides for up to five minutes with the solar panel shut, according to the manual. I didn't have an opportunity to test this claim, but I did plop it in a small pile of snow for an afternoon and it seemed none the worse for wear.

The rough and tumble case, which features a comfortable indentation on top that serves as a handle, is here for a reason: So you can blast music anywhere you happen to go. The Soulra's built-in lithium-ion battery can store a charge that will deliver around four hours of playback time at moderately loud volume, making it a good option for outdoor events ranging from camping trips to beach parties.

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Alternatively, you can flip up its large solar power panel to let the system suck up some rays. With careful planning, green-minded users could conceivably eschew wall power completely, though they'll need to place the panel in direct sunlight for about 10 hours to fully charge the battery. Also keep in mind that the panel needs an unobstructed view of the sun. You can't set it near the kitchen window, and bright but overcast winter days are of no use. It's sunny and blue or bust.

I'd recommend using a combination of grid and solar power. If you start the day with a full charge and flip open the solar panel it will keep the battery from draining as quickly as it would otherwise, potentially adding an extra hour or two of playback time.

Of course, all of this sturdy green tech is for not if the sound quality disappoints. The Soulra manages to sneak by in this department, but it doesn't blast the audio ball out of the park.

Music played at low to medium volume has a slightly muffled quality, with a lack of definition in the high and mid ranges. I found it acceptable for background listening, but it wouldn't be my first choice if I wanted to sit down and listen to, say, the intricacies of a jazz or acoustic rock album. Increasing volume - the Soulra can be cranked to surprisingly loud levels - results in even muddier sound with significant hiss.

A dedicated bass button - found on both the system and its companion 8-button remote - effectively increases the bottom end, but, given the wimpy treble and mid range, I found little need to use it.

This middling audio is unfortunate, because it makes the Soulra's steep $229.99 price tag hard to swallow. I found it on sale at a major Canadian electronics retailer for $179.99 at the time of this writing, but even that seems a little high. The excellent build quality and solar technology are worth paying extra, but sound to match would have been a nice bonus.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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